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Are Nudges Really Working?

May 28, 20244 min read

New research is calling into question the widespread use of nudges to drive and sustain employee behavior change. On May 26th, Evan Polman and Sam J. Maglio wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "The benefits of steering people toward making better decisions has become conventional wisdom. But the evidence suggests it doesn’t work quite as well as we hoped."

The challenge for behavioral nudges
It's been common to put wellness program posters in common workplace areas; maybe someone is nudged and thinks, "Oh, yeah, I've been meaning to enroll." Even using apps to send periodic reminders to do certain actions have tended to me somewhat perfunctory, and transactional.

So, many have wondered whether all these nudges are effecting longer-term, actual behavior change. And is it sustainable? The Stages of Change model is, of course, quite amenable to nudging people from pre-contemplation to contemplation to preparation to action to maintenance. The sixth stage (relapse), though, hasn't gotten as much attention.

Short-term vs. long-term effectiveness
The article cites research from Cornell University showing that, while more people chose healthy snacks placed at eye level, they ultimately consumed the same amount as those not nudged, often discarding the extra food. This suggests that nudges might work better for one-time decisions, such as for open enrollment, or signing up for a challenge program. But for maintaining healthy habits or adhering to treatment protocols, more levers are likely to be needed.

ee health

Nudging may be correlated to reduced commitment
When decisions feel automatic, it can mean that a behavior has become embedded - but it can also mean that the sense of commitment could be waning; "Does this really even matter anymore?"

Sustaining a sense of ownership that links someone's choices to their felt sense of achievement, well-being, or identity is more complex than just sending another text message. Consider this dynamic: in a study where participants were nudged to choose a particular website, those who were nudged visited the site 42% less often than those who chose without nudging. Similarly, nudged participants who selected a “compromise” plant allowed it to die sooner than those who chose without being nudged. While that might seem counterintuitive, it sheds light on the complexity of, say, staying quit, not gaining back lost weight, or even using lifestyle or clinical trackers.

A better approach
To improve the effectiveness of nudges in benefit plans, it’s important to complement them with strategies that promote sustained engagement. One approach has been to gamify tasks, like allowing employees to share their achievements on leaderboards, similar popular games like Wordle. This can help employees feel more motivated and engaged. Ultimately, while nudges can be a valuable first step, they need to be supported by additional measures to ensure long-term behavior change and engagement.


Delivering messages in the voice of their values
An even better approach is to consistently deliver messages - and nudges - in such a way that employees get "
what's in it for them" - from a values-based standpoint. How does this suggested action help a person who likes to be in charge achieve "more control?" Or how does a given ask fit for someone whose orientation is "family and duty first, them second?"

About a third of the general population doesn't believe in investing time and effort and money today in order to have a "better tomorrow;" so they're less likely to even "hear" an appeal to long-term achievement. And about 20% of the general population simply does not want to be told what to do - but if you can give them context, and the pros and cons of a given ask, they're far more likely to "get" how to incorporate it into their routines - and why they would want to.

The last word
What if you could know each employee's type, so you could communicate with them in a far more personalized, motivational, and effective way? For that matter,
what's YOUR BenefitPersona?

As I've said before, there's a widespread sense of "If we could just do a better job of educating our employees, they'd make better decisions." And, yes, education is important - but it's focused on "explaining what something is and how it works."

A more effective strategy is to ask, "Who's my audience and what do they really care about?"

~ Mark Head
© 2024. All Rights Reserved.


"First, you jump off the cliff; you build your wings on the way down."
~ Ray Bradbury


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Mark Head


With 4 decades of combined experience in employee benefits consulting, wellness and health management, Head brings a unique combination of dynamic perspectives into a clear vision of where the future of health care is moving - and it's moving towards deeper human connection, awareness, and engagement...

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