Nudges: be careful what you wish for

June 2019—Nudges are intestinal social cues to “do the right thing.” When your minister/rabbi/imam preaches compassion, you’re more likely to help someone in need. When your utility bill shows you’re using far more water or electricity than your neighbors, you cut back. When restaurants put a StrawFree card on the table, you’re encouraged not to use one unless you really, really need one. From a sustainability perspective, one would hope that taking these little steps would lead people to take bigger steps. Eliminating plastic straws could lead to questioning other uses of plastic.

But do these nudges for little things undermine our willingness to do the big things. The answer may be yes.

Over the course of six experiments in the last couple of years, researchers at Carnegie Mellon tried to find an answer. They asked participants to imagine themselves as “policymakers” (like members of Congress; one experiment was conducted on graduates of a public policy school). When a carbon tax was the only option presented, 70 percent of participants were in favor of it. But when they were also given the option of approving the clean-energy nudge, boom, support for the tax dropped to 55 percent.


So what’s a change agent to do? We know from brain research that our self discipline is limited. So make the more sustainable option the default: plan a plant-based meal at the conference and make people ask for a rubber chicken instead. Only serve fish that is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or rates high in the Monterrey Bay Aquarium List. Make funding your 401-k or green power the default so people have to opt out, not opt in.

If you do use nudges, give people feedback about how much benefit their action created, along with what else they can do and the benefits in comparison. Report performance against the ultimate sustainable target—zero waste, climate neutrality/stability—so we can’t kid ourselves, assuming that our actions are adequate. This is why all the sustainability assessments I’ve created (S-CORE, Sustainable Business Certification) have the highest level of performance a description of a sustainable state and why the sustainability plans I’ve helped organizations create likewise define fully sustainable and track progress toward it. We don’t want to be less bad; we need to be fully sustainable (paraphrasing William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle.)