Student Success Insights Blog

It won a Nobel Prize—but what does nudging mean for your students?

by Annie Yi

In October, behavioral economist Richard Thaler received the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on nudging.

Since then, it's been impossible not to notice just how pervasive nudging is in daily life.

Last month, as I was canvassing for a get-out-the-vote effort in Virginia, the field office handed me a script to prep. At a glance, the impact of Thaler’s work was clear. Asking voters if they have made a plan to vote; letting them know that most of their neighbors will be voting—embedded in each was a nudging intervention, scientifically proven to increase a person’s likelihood to act.

From political campaigns and retirement savings to organ donations and healthy cafeteria choices, the concept of nudging has changed how many organizations provide their services and design their policies.

But what exactly is nudging and what implications does it have for higher education?

What is nudging? And how does it work?

According to Thaler, a nudge is a small change in an environment that can make it easier for people to act and to make decisions that support their goals, without taking away choice.

How does nudging work? To answer this, we have to first understand why our decision making can be so fallible in the first place. From behavioral economics, we understand there are many unconscious but "irrational" impulses that prevent people from making optimal choices. These cognitive biases, as they're called, can lead us to put off difficult tasks for the future or be overconfident in our ability to accomplish something. How often do we resolve to save more money or eat healthier, only to fail to make good choices at the cash register or the restaurant?

Unlike the typical carrot-or-stick approach, nudges don't use incentives or punishment to resolve these choice dilemmas. Instead, nudges use subtle interventions to leverage people's unconscious habits. Often, they're operating at a level people don't even notice. When I was canvassing, most potential voters weren't consciously aware of the implicit psychological tactics embedded in my script. But beyond stealth, nudges work because they are designed to operate with the way people naturally think.

Perhaps most importantly, nudges can be translated to improve the student experience and impact student success.

Increase follow through by setting intentions

Researchers have found we're far more likely to accomplish a task when we state how we plan to do it. When I went door-to-door to talk with voters, I asked at what time they planned to vote and how they planned to get to the polling station. Research has found when participants are asked to name the specific steps they intend to take, there is an increase in the likelihood of follow-through. These planning prompts help us overcome multiple obstacles, including forgetfulness and our tendency to procrastinate, and allow us to think through the logistical barriers that might get the way, like traffic or childcare obligations.

As college students balance the competing areas of their lives, even their best-intentioned goals may fall to the wayside. Researchers suggest implementation prompts could accompany financial aid application forms—after all, $2.3 billion of federal financial aid went unclaimed in 2017. The potential here is enormous: Arizona State University discovered email messages that encouraged students to set aside time to prepare for the FAFSA could increase refiling rates.

Social norming for student success

As part of my canvassing efforts, I notified potential voters that most of their neighbors would be voting too. This sort of message appeals to people's desire to conform to our peers, which is much more influential than we realize. Political scientists conducting get-out-the-vote field experiments found messages anticipating low turnout motivate voters less than messages anticipating high turnout.

In the context of higher education, you may be familiar with social norming as part of anti-binge drinking campaigns. College students tend to misperceive the drinking habits of their peers as heavier than they are in reality, and they adjust their behavior to match the perceived norm. Messages that correct those misperceptions actually leads students to drink less: after a social norms campaign, the number of University of Arizona students who consume five or more drinks in a sitting fell by 28%.

Aside from alcohol consumption, social norming messages could be applied to everything from setting academic expectations to a sense of social belonging. When EAB conducted a survey of 4,000 first-year students, one of the most common responses was that students felt lonely on campus and found it difficult to make friends. What would happen if we let first-year students know they are not alone in feeling isolated? What if their upperclassmen peers told them most students find their place by their second year? Perhaps that could reduce the number of students who disengage or withdraw due to feeling they don't belong there.

Interested in learning more?

While Thaler's work on nudging has made waves across numerous policy fields, its impact in higher education is nascent but growing. If these behavioral economics topics interest you, I encourage you to check out the excellent survey text Decision Making for Student Success, edited by Ben Castleman, ideas42's compendium of field studies, titled Nudging for Success, and of course, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's seminal Nudge. You just might start to spot some opportunities to nudge your students towards better behavior.

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