Ever wondered why it’s harder to make a choice when you’re given lots of vast options? But when you’re not even given options at all it seems unfair? We’re complicated, right?

Richard Thaler, one of the founding fathers of ‘nudge theory’ – a way to influence people to alter their behaviour – won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2017. He was celebrated for helping shape the way we think about human behaviour. You only need to read the book he penned with Cass R Sunstein, Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, to see why.

Our brains quickly construct meaning from fragments of information to avoid drowning in information. This is known as the availability heuristic. For example, what’s worth worrying about; death by shark attack or falling aeroplane parts? Thanks to Hollywood films, you’re more likely to worry about killer Jaws. Yet, in the US, you’re 30 times more likely to be hit by a part of a plane than lose a limb to a shark.

Context matters. We assess the likelihood of risks by asking how readily examples come to mind. Something scarily familiar, like terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, will get more attention than, say, a hurricane if you live in the UK.

Being able to focus on useful information saves us time and energy. There are, however, downsides.

  • Our brains work fast and we don’t see everything. We miss out on important and useful information every day
  • Our assumptions fill in the blanks. We give meaning to stories that are at best illusions
  • Our first instinct can be flawed. We often succumb to counter-productive biases when we go with our first and fast gut reaction
  • Our memory can embed layers of errors. We can remember the right things in the wrong way, which reinforces skewed thinking.

So that’s the bad news, and even though we know about human biases, we can’t change the way we operate. The good news? When you understand that quirks of the brain exist, you can work out how to compensate for them. That’s nudge theory.

Another study finds that people are more likely to reject goals thanks to dilution. Take exercise. Would you be more convinced to do exercise if it was to protect yourself against heart disease or maintain healthy bones? Choosing the combination of heart and bones seems, rationally speaking, like a pretty strong motivator. Yet, results show that having two reasons to do something feels a bit like overstating the benefits. People who set one goal are more likely to choose to work towards just that.

The authors of Nudge share a mininudge example – a prompter to influence people to make the right choice – called stickK. It’s a commitment platform to help people achieve their goals. There are two ways to make pledges depending on what makes you tick: financial or non-financial.

A variation of this post first appeared on HITuni, the e-learning provider that specializes in delivering courses on High Intensity Training (HIT) and Evidence Based Fitness.

Read it here from HITuni.

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