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:
My 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.
As 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.
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.
We’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.
Although 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. is Lithium'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+.
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