TBGP #3 | Nudges: Irrational decisions for living sustainably

For better decisions towards sustainability, we need to be better informed. To be better informed, we need narratives with depth that present facts with context. This is lacking today.

The Big Green Picture is a punt towards this. It looks to offer a better understanding of shifts towards sustainable development, a reality that requires more than a newsletter, through deep-dives explaining current trends, cases, and models, dedications to good and bad policy, and bite-sized interesting pieces I’ve come across.

Nudges: Irrational decisions for living sustainably

We want to practice living more sustainably but we often don’t. Approaches to behaviour assume that humans are logical and rational when making decisions. We aren’t. Nudges offer a way for influencing behaviour that assumes we are irrational and take decisions on biases, which we often do. Don’t be offended though. Nudges give us a non-obtrusive, more accessible way for us to live more sustainably. It helps to be labelled as irrational.

Sustainability: Where what I intend to do is not how I act

(The title is definitely not a gripe that a lot of engagement with clients in my 10+ years in sustainability can be captured through this statement.)

If you glance at the charts below, you would think France just barely one-ups its old enemy in driving consumer adoption of sustainability. And the world trumps them both.

These charts depict the intent and the action of consumers in these respective geographies to purchase eco-friendly products, ethical products or products from sustainability-inclined companies - also called purpose-driven companies - respectively

Among consumers in France:

Among consumers in the UK:

Among consumers across 21 countries meant to reflect a global perspective:

Sorry French consumers. The differences in methodology, time, and focus area in each of the 3 studies, makes comparison unadvisable. You are not necessarily more action-oriented towards sustainability than the UK.

But the main story is beyond the actual percentages.

It is the wide gap and disparity repeatedly shown in each study between people saying they would like to purchase sustainable products over them actually doing so. 

Sustainability is about taking action and change across economic, environmental and social aspects of our world. Human behaviour influences this: how we consume, how we work, how we live, and so on. If we want to create more outlooks towards this we need to influence norms towards changes in behaviour.

This is easier said than done. The gaps highlight the issue related to this behaviour change.

This disparity between a person’s value or belief and translating this to action is called the intention-action gap. When it comes to sustainability, that gap is extensive and informs a lot of why we are failing to achieve the progress and action needed towards a more sustainable world.

FYI about 50% of mentions of the word sustainability and its variants in this article occur in these first 401 words. The vocabulary does become more diverse.

You apparently make 35,000 decisions a day

(Source: StackExchange)

The source for this gets referred to as “some sources say”, so there is doubt whether the number is true. But when you count “what to wear”, “which side of the bed to get out from”, “should I click that link”, it adds up to others that fill your day. We make a lot of decisions each day.

The issue we are up against goes towards how we as humans process information, think, and make decisions. These supposed 35,000 decisions are at the crux of it, and it is no simple fix.

The intention-action gap: It is all in your mind

(Source: Pixabay)

I have never really been fascinated with how my brain works, beyond the fact that it works - do not go by the reactions of my family. I never would have imagined reading psychology for pleasure, even less for work.

Yet I’ve repeatedly thumbed through the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, that chronicled the work he and Amos Tversky did in discovering how people think and take decisions, which I think and take the liberty of summarizing:

People often assume their default state of making a decision and action is through rational thought by consciously weighing the costs and benefits of different options at their disposal: thinking slow - also called System 2 by Kahneman and Tversky. 

This is wrong. 

People prefer using unconscious mental shortcuts and cues to easily determine choices and make decisions: thinking fast - System 1. You take thousands of decisions every day. Mental shortcuts help us manage the dynamic and bustling happenings around us, but they can also lead to results that are not in our best interest — including harmful or unsustainable outcomes.

How does this play with sustainability and the lack of action on it?

These mental shortcuts lead to biases and heuristics based on the context of things around us that inform our behaviour. Heuristics relate to quick decisions we take, primarily around complex data. 

Like a villainous duo from a 90s Saturday morning cartoon, their powers combine to create behaviour barriers in the adoption of sustainability practices by people.

For an idea on how this plays out, the infographic below outlines these 5 barriers with an example of how a person acts to reflect it, and the relevant heuristic or bias demonstrated in the example.

All these create resistance to change.

We know we need to adapt our behaviours to combat the severe environmental issues around us, but we may still not take the actions needed in our daily lives to be impactful.

Knowledge and education are not enough. If it was, the people who knew about the issues would take action, but the intention-action gap says otherwise. It is also just not a case of having more sustainability solutions either.

So how do we overcome the behavioural barriers to get individuals to act on sustainability?

Well, with a nudge.

A nudge in the right direction

Nudge theory builds on the work of Kahneman and Tversky.

Postulated by another Nobel Laureate and collaborator pair, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, it focuses on changing the behaviour of people towards a preferred course of action by applying “nudges” that assume people are thinking and deciding instinctively and rather irrationally, rather than logically and rationally.

The latter is how leaders and authorities view people in their attempts to create change. Awareness, punitive fines, penalties, ill-designed incentives, they all assume that people think logically and rationally most of the time.

And yet this is an unfortunately familiar sight.

East meets West. Bangalore, India (left) and Oakland, USA (right). (Source: Bangalore Mirror and East Bay Times)

Nudges are small, indirect, tactical, generally inexpensive and less confrontational by nature. Nudges affect people’s choice architecture, which is the context in which people make decisions, by encouraging them to make a choice that is perceived as beneficial by the person who implements the nudge.

A fly on the wall… of a urinal

(Source: Nudging for Kids)

This is a great example to understand a nudge. Not the urinal, but the fly painted on it.

A bad aim has messy effects, especially in an airport. Schipol Airport in Amsterdam came up with this novel idea to reduce urinal spillage in gents toilets. And the fly worked. Urinal spillages dropped an astonishing 80%. This had a tangible effect: 8% reduction in bathroom cleaning costs in the airport. 

Here’s what is happening.

The number of things we can give attention to at a time is limited. We prioritize and focus on what we think is most important, and end up missing things that are significant. At a urinal, thoughts in one’s mind are likely to become more important than accurate aim. A fly painted on a urinal changes things. It is out of place enough to create focus where normally you would not, giving a man the accuracy of an ace fighter pilot.

To address sustainability’s intention-action gap, easy to influence behaviour changes like a fly painted on a urinal are needed, which is what nudges offer. 

Nudges to live more sustainably

Drawing from the above-mentioned behavioural barriers and their heuristics, here are two examples of how nudges have been used to address them.

A lottery to beat Bangalore’s rush hour

A Bangalore traffic jam. (Source: Scroll.in)

Bangalore is synonymous with traffic jams. People leaving after 7:30 AM take 1.5 to 2 times longer than those who leave earlier, leading to decreased fuel economy, and more carbon dioxide and air pollution emissions. 

Employees travelling on Infosys’ company buses were offered an incentive of raffle credits based on their arrival time to work, with less congested arrival times receiving more credits. The raffle credits could only be used in a lottery giving cash rewards. In the 6-month pilot, involving 14,000 commuters, the average peak commute time reduced from 71 to 54 minutes. Employees travelling before the peak shifted from 21% to 34%.

This nudge played on the behaviour of people to be overconfident about the small probability of winning a lottery will fall in their favour. Such improbable rewards are as effective as individual incentive schemes, which are more expensive.

Green Footprints for a Trash-free Copenhagen

Those footprints are actually lime green not white (Source: Entrapped Spaces)

The Green Footprints program in Copenhagen, Denmark demonstrates the effect of physical cues to minimize the hassle factor of searching for trash bins. It’s pilot led to a 46% reduction in littering (people counted), which led to a city-wide adoption of the solution, and replicated across cities in the UK. The physical cues of the green footprints also have a role in addressing the habitual behaviour of littering.

Nudge theory in sustainability is relatively nascent, but its potential shows through its adoption to influence behaviour across wide areas of environmental action:

Individually nudge interventions may be small, but successful nudges have the capacity to be replicated and scaled quickly. Whether it is how you live, how you travel, how you work, how you consume, or how you purchase, nudges have an important role in closing the disparate intention-action gap of sustainability adoption. Non-obtrusive, sometimes unconscious, ways that influence the choices people would otherwise not take, are a benefit.

Nudges have an important role in influencing an individual to be more sustainable.

Influencing Organizations

Edition #2 of The Big Green Picture covered how individual action is essential and important but is not enough to address all the shifts we need. We need institutional action from organizations and businesses. (I assure you I will not keep repeating this point in all posts like a broken record. It is relevant here, I promise.)

Nudges have only been focused on influencing a person. Even as a group, they are targeted at a collective of individual people with some common characteristics tying them together.

A route not much explored, but certainly worth exploring and touched upon by the OECD and the UK Government is the use of nudges and similar behaviour change approaches to get organizations towards more sustainable paths.

Think about it:

  • An organization is a collective of individuals. Its decision making is determined by human behaviour (AI is not going to take over the world. It does reflect human biases, but I doubt they’ll be the same we can leverage for nudges).

  • Today, we try to get companies to act more sustainably through awareness, punitive fines, penalties, and ill-designed incentives.

  • The net result is that the there is a big gap in the intention of most organizations to “Go Green” and their actual action.

Sounds familiar?


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