Are people getting wise to the nudge?

Dunoon in February. Not the most glamorous of work trips. 

I ate breakfast alone in an empty hotel with just 2 of its 24 rooms occupied. The only other guests were a Spanish couple touring Scotland. It was more “dead season” than low season.  

A rearranged interview meant I had to extend my stay. I picked up my phone to book and the hotel booking website showed me nine scarcity and social proof messages on the way to checkout. I was told there were just 2 rooms left, the price was poised to go up and at that very moment people were booking. The picture they painted – a hot property, selling out fast – was very different to the reality I saw in front of me. 

It’s 10 years since behavioural science became mainstream in marketing. It is a wonderful gift, proven to unlock value at little cost. But are marketers missing the wood for the trees? Behavioural interventions influence customer perceptions of brands beyond individual transactions.  

In February 2019 Trinity McQueen examined whether the British public are becoming wise to the nudge. We took a nationally representative sample of 2000 UK adults and undertook test and control cell evaluation of different behavioural tactics. We also got our sample to reflect on different examples of nudge, shove and sludge. It’s the first study of its kind that we’re aware of.

The results are surprising, and more conclusive that we expected.

Two thirds of the British public (66%) interpreted examples of scarcity and social proof claims used by hotel booking websites as sales pressure. Many raised questions about the truth of the claims. 

The scarcity and social proof messages tested inspired a negative emotional reaction in a third (35%). 

People see scarcity and social proofing claims frequently, especially online: verbatim feedback from participants show that travel, retail and fashion are common locations. 


What about sludge?

There was also negativity towards “sludge” (encouraging self-defeating behaviour). Around half (48%) viewed a de-branded example of an airline defaulting users into buying flight insurance as sales pressure. 

We expected negativity towards sludge to be greater, given that the example defaulted people into a choice which offered poor value in a heavy-handed way. The example we used involved insurance, weighing up risk around a relatively large amount of money. It is possible this context overrode the behavioural tactics in this example.      


What are the implications?

Heuristics are rules of thumb: they are subject to learning effects. Repeated exposure to any tactic over time educates people about its likely veracity in that context. Certain tactics (e.g. scarcity claims) in certain situations (e.g. in travel websites) have been over-used. Their power is now diminished in these contexts. 

The upshot? Behavioural tactics effective in one context may be ineffective in another. As Todd and Gigerenzer put it: “It is the interaction between a heuristic and its social, institutional, or physical environment that explains behavior… in a coadapting loop between mind and world.” 

Marketers should be aware of this learning feedback loop. Tactics successful at a transaction level (increasing conversion rate) may be a failure at brand level (being interpreted as sales pressure, affecting trust). The scope and timeframe of evaluation should allow for this. 

More broadly, marketers should expect – and accept – what Rory Sutherland calls context-sensitive contradictions in human behaviour. Deploying a given tactic is unlikely to result in a simple, linear behavioural effect. The category, its norms, the decision type and the context all interact to create subtle nuances in behaviour which are not easily predicted. For this reason marketers using behavioural tactics should be experimental organisations, testing, learning and collecting data. 


Future research 

Questions for future research include: a) the degree to which heuristics are dynamic rather than static b) the relationship between heuristics (rules of thumb) and biases (patterns of error in decision making).  


This is an extract from a larger study. Interested in hearing more? Please drop me a line at