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The Power of a Nudge—Part 1: A Stronger Behavior Driver than Gamification

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

If you’ve been following my recent posts on gamification, you may recall that here are really only 3 paths in which people develop long-lasting habits:

  1. intrinsically motivated through an epiphany
  2. change of context
  3. baby steps

nudging elephant.pngMy last 2 posts focused on the 3rd path—baby steps. We discussed the power of baby steps in habit formation and its role in habit replacement. Today we will focus on the 2nd path—how to design the choice architecture by changing the context (e.g. environment) to drive behaviors.


The reason that gamification is such a powerful tool is because of its ability to drive behaviors. However, there is another equally, if not more powerful tool for driving behaviors—a nudge. In this post we will try to understand why it’s so powerful through a familiar behavior model—the Fogg’s Behavior Model (FBM).


Nudge vs Gamification

Nudge and gamification are similar in the sense that both are tools that drives behaviors. But nudge and gamification have unique differences because of their approach in driving behaviors.


Today, most of the gamification tools in the market focus on motivating their audience to do something through the use of rewards. The rewards may be virtual—points, badges, or the glory of being on the leaderboard, or something more tangible—perks, special access, or the privilege and power to do something that others cannot. Although there are a few consultancies that focus on human behavior and take a more balanced design approach, the majority of the gamification industry focuses on motivation—creating that “want” to drive behaviors. Some practitioners even proposed renaming “gamification” to “motivational design,” because the G-word isn’t well-received by senior management in more traditional businesses.


However, we know from the FBM that motivation is only part of the equation for driving behaviors. We need a temporal convergence of 3 factors—motivation, ability, and trigger—in order to drive behaviors reliably. Unlike gamification—which focuses on the motivation factor, nudge focuses on the ability factor.


The first time I heard the theory of nudge was from Prof. Dilip Soman—a behavior economist at the Rotman School of Management of Univ. of Toronto—when we taught an executive CRM program together. Although I’ve subsequently looked into this interesting topic, a lot of research already exists on this subject, and I can’t possibly cover everything here. If you are interested to dig deeper, I recommend checking out the original text—Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness—by Prof. Richard Thaler and Prof. Cass Sunstein.


picnic table red cloth+mouse+cheese g vs nudge.pngAs defined by the authors, nudge involves the design and construction of choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. In practice, it means changing the presentation of choices, so that the path of least resistance leads to the desired behavior. Keep in mind that nudge is a very subtle intervention that can be easily avoided should the audience want to choose a different path—that’s why it’s called a “nudge” and not a “shove.”   🙂


To make the difference between gamification and nudge more obvious, I will use an example I heard from Prof. Soman. He asked, “what can we do to make a mouse run across a table?" The gamification approach would be to place some cheese on the other end of the table, so the mouse is motivated to run across. The nudge approach would be gently lift one end of the table, so it’s easier to run across because that’s the path of least resistance.


Designing Simplicity

If we try to understand nudge through the FBM, we will see that nudge is actually a complementary approach to gamification. While gamification focuses on motivating the audience to act, nudge focuses on making the choice to act the simplest path, so there is a natural tendency is for people to act.


2side coin ability simplicity.pngWe’ve already learned that simplicity and ability are 2 sides of the same coin. Simplicity is merely the behavior side of the coin, while ability is the user side. By making a behavior simpler, we are empowering the user with greater ability (or at least the perception of greater ability). Conversely, by giving the user more ability, he will perceive the behavior as simpler. In this view, nudge is really an approach that focuses on giving people disproportionately more ability to take the action we want to encourage—like tilting the table for the mouse.


Because a nudge is about making the choice to act the simplest path, in order to design a nudge to drive a behavior, we need to know how to design simpler choices. If you recall, a person’s ability to perform a behavior is a measure of his or her access to the required resources at the moment when he needs to execute that behavior (see the ability factor of the FBM). The design problem boils down to decreasing the needed resources (i.e. cognitive load, mental processing, attention, etc.) for the audience to choose the behavior we want to encourage. The surprise coming from the study of nudge is that this can usually be achieved non-obtrusively by changing the context only slightly—whether it’s the environment, the people around, or merely the presentation.


As we’ve learned from our discussions of baby steps, simplicity is usually a stronger behavior driver than motivation. This is because when a behavior is simple enough, it becomes decoupled and independent of motivation. When a behavior is simple enough, people will execute that behavior when triggered, regardless of whether they are motivated or not. Conversely, triggering a motivated person is often insufficient to drive a behavior that is not simple (i.e. he doesn’t have the ability to act).


In the next blog post, I will detail examples of little nudges (not focused on rodents) and their huge impact on people’s behavior.



nudge vs baby steps vs gamification px300.pngAlthough the industry has fixated on gamification as the tool for driving behaviors, there are other equally powerful (albeit less well-known) techniques from cognitive psychology and behavior economics that can achieve similar or even better results. The baby step strategy is one of them, another is a nudge. A nudge changes the context (i.e. the environment, the presentation) to drives certain choices or behaviors.


Similar to the design of baby steps, nudge is another complementary approach to gamification. As most gamification tools focus on the motivation factor to drive behaviors, nudge and baby-steps focus on the ability factor of the FBM. Nudge is also different from baby steps because baby steps focus on simplifying the behavior itself while nudge focuses on changing the context (e.g. the physical environment or the social environment, etc.) in which the behavior is carried out.


Stay tuned for examples of powerful nudges in use today!



Michael Wu, Ph.D.mwu_whiteKangolHat_blog.jpg is CRM2010MKTAWRD_influentials.pngLithium's Chief Scientist. His research includes: deriving insights from big data, understanding the behavioral economics of gamification, engaging + finding true social media influencers, developing predictive + actionable social analytics algorithms, social CRM, and using cyber anthropology + social network analysis to unravel the collective dynamics of communities + social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics + its application to Social CRM. He's a blogger on Lithosphere, and you can follow him @mich8elwu or Google+.

About the Author
Dr. Michael Wu was the Chief Scientist at Lithium Technologies from 2008 until 2018, where he applied data-driven methodologies to investigate and understand the social web. Michael developed many predictive social analytics with actionable insights. His R&D work won him the recognition as a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine. His insights are made accessible through “The Science of Social,” and “The Science of Social 2”—two easy-reading e-books for business audience. Prior to industry, Michael received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley’s Biophysics program, where he also received his triple major undergraduate degree in Applied Math, Physics, and Molecular & Cell Biology.
Occasional Commentator RomanRackwitz
Occasional Commentator

Hey Michael,


great. This is exactly how I see the behavior model from B.J. Fogg related to Gamification, too. 🙂
The interesting point here is also that as motivation increases the dependency of an external trigger could decrease as the trigger is partly integrated into the motivation, right?

Within a business context, what do you say about this:

Blue collar work: the focus is more on nudge 

White collar work: the focus is more on Gamification


or to say it in other words:

mechanical work: the focus is more on nudge

kognitive work: the focus is more on Gamification


Cheers, and thanks again for this post!


New Commentator

Thanks for the post Michael. I study the path of least resistance quite a bit (often tied to Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment in my framework....and sometimes inertia from Status Quo Sloth from Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance) and it is a good way to seemlessly push users towards the Desired Action. In game design, you see a lot of Nudges too 😉


Look forward to the next one! 

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @RomanRackwitz,


Thank you for the comment again. I'm glad we are in-sync.


Concerning the dependency on an external trigger... that has been a subject of some debates. But experimental data have shown that it is actually necessary to drive behavior even if you are motivated and have the ability, at least it is needed to drive behavior reliably. You can follow the extensive discussions on this topic in an earlier post. At the very least, trigger serves as a tool that aligns people's motivation and ability at the specific time. Otherwise, people tend to be oblivious about when they should act and carry out the behavior. Even though trigger maybe integrated into the motivation, it is a separate component of the equation.


For business applications of this concept, I'm going to make a claim without much data to back it up. But we can discuss if you find it disagreeable.


For blue collar workers who are doing mostly mechanical works, I would said that gamification (that focuses on using extrinsic motivators: points, badges, leaderboards, etc.) is probably more effective. I'm saying this because from some of the experiments that Dan Pink referrenced, he found that extrinsic motivators works better for routine works, and might actually hinders creative works. So a business should focus on using gamification to drive behaviors in the blue collar workers. 



In contrary, for white collar workers who are doing more cognitive and creative works, I would said that nudge is probably more effective. Because the workers need more autonomy there and it's not just doing some routine work more efficiently. Of course, if you have a gamification strategy that focus on intrinsic motivation, that would work quite well for the white collar workers, too. So business would need to focus on both nudge and gamification (that tap into people's intrinsic motivation) to drive behaviors in the white collar workers.


So it's not one or the other. They all have their uses. And the best result is usually a combination of all the approaches--an ensemble method. Wouldn't you agree? I'm certainly open to continuing this discussion here if you feel otherwise.


Thanks again for posting provocative questions.


Occasional Commentator RomanRackwitz
Occasional Commentator

Hey @MikeW ,


thanks for your answer.

I totally agree that blue collar work needs rather extrinsic motivators than white collar work. My first post also relied partly on Dan Pinks research but I wouldn't connect Gamification to extrinsic rewards but intrinisc.


The problem with the motivation and engagement of white collar workers is less their inability to do something than their demotivation. This is why I think that nudges are more important for blue collar work because it is mechanical work, routine work and so, it is difficult to make it more engaging by using to provide purpose & mastery, right? This means that blue collar work should be as easy as possible to be performed and nudges are perfect for this.

But Gamification is really not using extrinisc rewards (even if most people and platform provider think so) but uses its elements, mechanics & dynamics to create a challenging and meaningful environment. Remembering your book 'the science of social' I know that you think similar, so I don't understand why you connect Gamification with extriniscally motivation rather than the intrinsic one.


But we are definitely on the same page when you say that "business would need to focus on both nudge and gamification (that tap into people's intrinsic motivation) to drive behaviors in the white collar workers."

🙂 Cheers, Roman

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @yukaichou


What are the odds that we have 2 gamification gurus (from the same consultancy, too) commenting on my blog? Thx for taking the time to comment.


It is great to see a convergence of the theories and models, which is great, because that means we are probably hitting on some principles that are fundamentally correct. If there is convergence, that means that the different models are describing the same truth and they are at least consistent. Having 1 truth is definitely better than having 2 different truth about human behavior, because I like to think that human are predictable to some extent (although we are not always rational).


I'd love to see more people learn to see the world more from a game designer's perspective. Your work certainly gave them an excellent framework that covers much of the basics.


Thx again for the comment, and hope to see you again next time.


Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @RomanRackwitz


Thx you for continuing the conversation.


I see the confusion now... When I talk about gamification in this post, I am referring specifically to the gamification strategies that is commonly used in the industry and provided by vendors today. In my reply to your question, I even put parenthesis to emphasize that I'm talking about those gamification tools "that focuses on using extrinsic motivators: points, badges, leaderboards, etc." which are all extrinsic motivators. Although the ideal state of gamification should focus on shifting from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation, the industry and most vendors are not quite there yet.


When you are talking about gamification, you are thinking of the more advance gamification that you are teaching your clients about, focusing on intrinsic motivator (e.g. mastery and purpose). This is the proper way, the right way, and the more sustainable way to do gamificatioin. But most vendors are not there yet. And most of the practitioner are ont there yet. That is why they need you. I believe that is where we disconnect. But let me assure you that I'm not trying to discredit gamification in anyway. Remember the very first thing I said in this post that there are 3 paths to sustain behavior change:

  1. intrinsically motivated through an epiphany
  2. change of context
  3. baby steps

We've started with baby steps, and now moving into nudges (change of context), there is a 3rd path that involves intrinsic motivation. That is what sustainable gamification should be doing, to help people shift from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic. And I will talk about that after I finish with nudges.


That said, If you are talking about the gamification that tap into pepole's intrinsic motivation, then I think that we can use it to drive behaviors in both blue and white collar workers. The intrinsic motivation for these 2 groups of people may be different, but that is where we come in to help them identify the right intrinsic motivation for the right audience. In this respect, gamification (done right) would work for both.


Finally, I think there is one more point where we misunderstood each other. I'm saying that nudges are more effective at driving behaviors for white collar workers (I'm talking about the audience). But it seem to me that you are saying that nudges are more effective at driving simple routine works that are typically performed by the blue collar workers (you are talking about the behavior). And certainly, if you want to drive a simple routined behavior sustainably, you can do that pretty effectively through nudges.


So clarifying these disconnects, I think we would pretty much agreed.

Alright, I hope this clarify the miscommunication.

Thanks agian for the interesting discussion. Looking forward for more next time.  😉


Occasional Commentator RomanRackwitz
Occasional Commentator

Hello @MikeW,


thanks for your answer. It made my day! 🙂 

Yeah, this is what my confusion was all about. Now it is clear. 

Looking forward to our next disussion.

Have a nice day, cheers, Roman 

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Mike,


Thanks for all the interesting discussions here.


One topic you didn't discuss and that could potentially be a problem is the 'moral aspect' of nudging.


Can't it sometimes sound like an 'external authority' knows what is best for us in the end?

But who this external authority be?


Maybe it becomes a bit too much philosophical now ...





Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @DavidW


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Apologize I couldn’t respond sooner. I’m on the road now. Just arrive DC last night.


You posed an excellent question. One that probably many are wondering about. Unfortunately it will get a bit philosophical, but that shouldn’t stop us from discussing it. So let me try to present my point of view.


As with any design and technology that influence behavior, there is always moral implication, because it’s often very difficult to distinguish the difference between influence and manipulation. There is a very fine line between influencing people’s behavior and manipulating people behavior. According to the Robin Dreeke—FBI’s behavior analysis unit—the difference between influence and manipulation is the intent. But intent is unobservable and multifaceted. Not only that we can never be sure of people’s true intent, people may well have multiple intents, and use some to cover the others.


So can nudge be used for manipulation? Yes. It definitely can sound like “some external authority knows what’s best.” But the counter argument is that nudge is so subtle that it’s easy for people to overcome its effect. It’s even more subtle than marketing and advertising. If marketing and advertising is morally OK, then nudge is more than OK in the moral scale. Because in nudge, the user always have a choice and he can always choose the non-desired action. And the alternative choice cannot be way much more difficult either. The user must have the ability to take the alternative action, and do so easily.


Using the example of the mouse in the post: Tilting the table for 5 degrees would be nudging, because the mouse can easily run to the left (the uphill direction), opposite of the direction we want it to run. But tilting the table 30 degree is NOT nudging, b/c it’s much more difficult for the mouse to run in the uphill direction in this case. Recall from Prof. Thaler, that nudge “must not forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” So in this respect, nudge is very mild, even milder than the gamification, marketing, propaganda, and advertising in term of is moral implication. At least the users will always have a choice.


Since this is a topic that I will discussed in greater depth in the next post, I hope you will come back again next time to chime in your thoughts.


So stay tuned.


I’d love to hear your thoughts after seeing some examples of nudges (which I will post next time) and seeing how subtle it is.


See you next time…


Occasional Commentator LakshmananP
Occasional Commentator

Hello  @MikeW

Great blog post and really thought provoking comments. This is just excellent and I find myself enjoying reading it and trying to relate to it at the same time.

I was also a bit worried as Roman initially, that you are relating Gamification to extrinsic motivation. But you later comments clarified that.

Looking forward eagerly to the next post!!





Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @LakshmananP


Thank you for the comment.


Glad to hear that you think it's thought provoking and that you can relate to it. That is the most important aspect during learning. It means you've really learn it in your heart and gut, not just your brain. 


If you have any question, like Roman, please feel free to ask it here. I welcome all questions, and you will be doing a great service to the other readers by asking it as Roman did for you. Although I might be on the road, as I am now in NYC, I will usually try to get time to respond to it whenever I can. So please don't hesitate if you anything is unclear.


I'll see you next time.