Digital Nudges: Technologies that Help Us to Make Improved Decisions and Build Better Habits

Imagine you run a cafeteria and would like diners there to eat more healthy food. You try an experiment: you don’t change what’s available; you just move the healthy food closer to the front of the line and put it at eye level, putting less healthy food further away. Surprisingly, this simple reorganization changes the way people act, even though their options haven’t changed at all.

Actually, cafeterias all over the world have run tests like this one with a pretty good success rate. Why? Because humans aren’t rational calculating machines, and, as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein argue in their book “Nudge,” our decisions are heavily based on a lot of things we don’t control, like our environment and built-in cognitive biases. If that’s true, though, and we can figure out that we’re acting irrationally, can we set up our own system of nudges to help us improve?

There is a growing subset of apps that are intentionally implementing positive nudges in everything from exercising to saving money, and while they can’t do all the work for you, they can make it easier to get started.

Commitment devices: goals and incentives


Commitment devices predate the idea of nudges by quite a bit, but mobile commitment devices are fairly new. Basically, humans need specific goals, and they need a reason to complete them. Doing something as simple as pressing a button that says, “I will go for a run after work” can be enough to get you going via intrinsic motivation, but if that’s not enough for you, you can create extrinsic rewards or consequences for yourself. Some apps let you put up money, then donate it to a charity or send it to someone else if you don’t keep your commitment. Other apps make it more social, letting you share your progress with friends and family who will notice if you’re slacking off.

A few apps that give you commitment nudges include:

  • StickK (Android/iOS/Web): Designed by behavioral economists at Yale, it requires you to create a contract with yourself and includes both financial and social incentives to uphold it.
  • Fabulous (Android/iOS): An app developed by the Duke University Behavioral Economics Lab that asks you to make an ever-increasing number of commitments to help improve your overall well-being and build healthy rituals.
  • BeeMinder (Android/iOS/Web): It tracks your progress, sends you reminders, and it’s free … as long as you stay on track. If you don’t keep your commitment, the app will start charging you.
  • Forest (Android/iOS/Firefox/Chrome): A creative app that grows you a small forest the longer you stay away from your smartphone or certain time-sucking websites. Break your focus before your tree is finished growing. and it will die. Bonus: if you stick with it, you can earn in-app currency that you can spend to plant real trees somewhere on earth!

Building habits through nudges


Commitment devices are only half the story, though: they’re most often used as tools to help you build good habits. Most behavioral change apps out there today are geared towards nudging you into healthier life patterns, which they generally do by letting you set goals and rewarding you for reaching them. Some online learning platforms use “streaks,” which count each consecutive day you’ve reached your learning goals and reset to zero if you miss a day. These simple numbers can be quite effective, as they tap into both the human desire to achieve a goal and our intense aversion to losing something, even if it’s just a number on a website. Others use measures of progress and social comparison devices to encourage you to stay on track.

It’s also very important that the nudges you get are achievable: no amount of encouragement will get you to run a half marathon on your first day of working out. When humans are confronted with large, difficult tasks, they’re much more likely to give up. Effective behavioral change comes from incremental progress, ideally punctuated with feelings of achievement.

Apps centered on building good habits include:

  • Momentum (Android/iOS/Chrome/Firefox): This app, along with Chains (iOS), HabitBull (Android/iOS), and many others, help you build habits by giving you a “chain,” which is essentially just a counter that resets if you skip doing the thing you’re trying to do, breaking the chain.
  • Headspace (Android/iOS)/Couch to 5k (Android/iOS): Headspace not only reminds you to do something but teaches you to do it as well, breaking meditation down into manageable chunks that don’t seem intimidating. Couch to 5k is a whole category of similarly-themed exercise apps that does the same thing for exercise, helping you build habits slowly rather than jumping in headfirst and failing, as many people tend to do.
  • Space (Android/iOS/Chrome): An app that tracks your smartphone screen time and sets goals for reducing it. It shows you your data and lets you share it with friends as a motivation device: if you see you were doing well in the past, and your friends are doing well now, you’re a lot more likely to continue doing well in the future.
  • Carrot (iOS): It’s not so much a habit-building app as it is a robot overlord that issues commands to help you behave. Good habits may develop if you are a suitable test subject.

Set it and forget it: nudges that don’t let you choose


If you ask someone their opinion about the importance of saving money, you’ll probably get a lot of positive responses. Ask them about their own saving habits, though, and the answers will likely be a lot more varied. Humans tend to heavily discount the future, meaning things that we have now are more valuable to us than things we’ll have in a few years. We’re also bad at remembering to do things, so even if we’ve decided we will save, it might take a while for us to figure out exactly how we’ll do it, and even then we might forget to send the money every month.

That’s why a lot of the best savings apps out there right now only ask you to decide once – after that, they’ll automatically save for you. If we’ve opted in to something, we’re fairly unlikely to go to all the trouble of opting out (ever forget to cancel a free trial?), and we like the idea of saving tomorrow more than we like the idea of not having money today.

Apps that implement this concept include:

  • Acorns (Android/iOS/Web): An app that connects to your credit card and rounds every transaction you make up to the nearest dollar. It then invests the money for you.
  • Digit (Android/iOS/Web): This app checks your spending habits and income, calculates how much you can save, and moves it to a separate account for you.
  • Qapital (iOS/Android) Similar to Digit, but you can set a lot more detailed rules for when money is deposited – you can even link it up to Twitter!
  • Freedom (iOS/Android/Mac/Windows/Chrome/Firefox/Opera): This is just one of a whole genre of apps/extensions that helps you block the sites and apps that are your habitual time-sucks. Do your fingers just automatically move towards Facebook when you’re a little bored? Freedom will block them for you, because you can’t be trusted.

Not a magic bullet, but a good start

Humans have problems, and they can’t all be fixed by well-timed notifications and point systems. Introducing a few positive nudges into your life only really works if you already have a goal and you’re looking for a way to make it a little easier. Your smartphone won’t go off and build a nice life for you all on its own. If you have big goals for a new year, setting up some nudges to help you achieve them will probably help you a lot. If you’re not actively trying to improve at anything, though, nudging may start to feel more like nagging.

Image credits: JavaScript UI widgets library

Andrew Braun
Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun is a lifelong tech enthusiast with a wide range of interests, including travel, economics, math, data analysis, fitness, and more. He is an advocate of cryptocurrencies and other decentralized technologies, and hopes to see new generations of innovation continue to outdo each other.

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