Nudge nudge, think think – competing strategies for changing civic behaviour

Governments can no longer rely on the traditional behaviour change tools of regulatory and economic instruments to shape civic actions. But should they turn to choice architecture or deliberative participation as an alternative? Both are very in vogue, but can real shifts be achieved by appealing to perceptions of cost-benefit or by changing values?

In their fantastic discussion paper Nudge nudge, think think, Peter John, Graham Smith and Gerry Stoker walk us through the emergence of ‘Nudging’ and of ‘Deliberation’ as competing strategies available to policy makers seeking to change the behaviour of citizens. The authors discuss the strengths and weaknesses of both strategies and provide a handy comparative analysis, which is neatly summarised in this table:

Nudge Think
View of preferences Fixed Malleable


View of subjects Cognitive misers, users of shortcuts, prone to flawed sometimes befuddled thinking Reasonable, knowledge hungry and capable of collective reflection


Costs to the individual Low but repeated High but only intermittently


Unit of analysis Individual-focussed Group-focussed


Change process Cost-benefit led shift in choice environment Value led outline of new shared policy platform


Civic conception Increasing the attractiveness of positive-sum action


Addressing the general interest
Role of the state Customise messages, expert and teacher Create new institutional spaces to support citizen-led investigation, respond to citizens


In the coda, the authors explore how the two strategies can learn from each other and be brought together in a coherent manner. Although they accept that coherence is very difficult in practice because both strategies hold different understandings of human behaviour and theories of change, they both share a fundamental driving principle:

Governments accept they cannot rely on issuing commands or creating incentives: they must deal directly and engage with the citizen, whose participation helps to co-produce public outcomes.

Ultimately, as the authors conclude, to be a successful practitioner of nudge it you need to understand what makes deliberation work and to be an effective practitioner of think you need to understand the dynamics of nudge.

The paper discusses at length the design of Nudging and Deliberative processes, but does not spend enough time – to my mind – considering how they are communicated to the public, even though both strategies are highly reliant on effective marketing of intriguingly differing styles.

Room for improvement aside, this is a very accessible article containing learning and challenges for functions across government.

Another paper from the same ESRC-funded research programme that is also worth a read is Can the internet overcome the logic of collective action? which takes an experimental approach to investigating the impact of social pressure on political participation. This paper tests the hypothesis that social information provided by the internet makes it possible in large groups to exert social pressure that was previously only considered viable for smaller groups.

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