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Nudging with care: the risks and benefits of social information

Abstract

Nudges are popular types of interventions. Recent years have seen the rise of ‘norm-nudges’—nudges whose mechanism of action relies on social norms, eliciting or changing social expectations. Norm-nudges can be powerful interventions, but they can easily fail to be effective and can even backfire unless they are designed with care. We highlight important considerations when designing norm-nudges and discuss a general model of social behavior based on social expectations and conditional preferences. We present the results of several experiments wherein norm-nudging can backfire, and ways to avoid those negative outcomes.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Normative expectations are second-order beliefs about the normative beliefs of other people (Bicchieri 2006, p. 14). Both empirical and normative expectations are social, in that they refer to others’ behavior or beliefs. 

  2. 2.

    The statement does not mean that what is a moral or religious norm to some may not be a social norm to others. Wearing a veil or chador is a case in point. For many Muslim women, it is a valued sign of identity that they wear proudly, while others living in a strict Muslim country may wear it only because sanctions could be severe if they do not.

  3. 3.

    By ‘mechanisms’ we mean what motivates people to choose particular behaviors, and descriptive and social norms rely on different motives. Arguably, individuals are not always aware or consciously processing the information available to them and may obey norms as default rules, without much thinking. Whether norm-nudging involves system 1 or system 2 is an open discussion (Bicchieri 2006; Löfgren and Nordblom 2019).

  4. 4.

    That is not the case with descriptive norms: if a descriptive norm is not followed, it ceases to exist (think of September 3, 1967, when the traffic in Sweden switched from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right. A coordinated change in expectations immediately induced different behavior).

  5. 5.

    For brevity, we present only shortened versions of the experiments and their key results.

  6. 6.

    For comprehensive analysis of cases in which normative information can be manipulated, see Bicchieri and Chavez (2013).

  7. 7.

    In both conditions, on average, participants think that “majority” means 71.44% and 71.84%, respectively.

  8. 8.

    A case of inferring the normative from the empirical would be a situation where we believe that “most people misbehave”. Here, we may have an interest in inferring that they also approve of the bad behavior.

  9. 9.

    Note that compared to a setting in which behavior cannot be observed by a third party, anonymous observation without economic consequences leads to an inferior aggregate outcome and a significant reduction in the charity’s account. These results are discussed in more detail in the original Bolton et al. (2019) paper.

  10. 10.

    The finding is in line with Allcott (2011), who reports that norm-messaging primarily affects the most deviant individuals with the highest energy use (also see Ferraro and Price 2013).

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Syon Bhanot, Jon Jachimowicz, Arjun Khandelwal and two anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Cristina Bicchieri.

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Bicchieri, C., Dimant, E. Nudging with care: the risks and benefits of social information. Public Choice (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-019-00684-6

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Keywords

  • Norm-nudges
  • Nudge
  • Social information
  • Social norms

JEL Classification

  • B41
  • D01
  • D9