Big Brother is nudging you: Consumer acceptance of nudge interventions in food

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

The study looked at consumers' attitudes towards nudge interventions. Image Source: Getty Images/vgajic
The study looked at consumers' attitudes towards nudge interventions. Image Source: Getty Images/vgajic

Related tags Nudge

Nudge interventions have been a favourite of public policy for years, making small changes to food environments to persuade consumers to eat more healthily and sustainably without impacting choice. But which nudge interventions do consumers respond to best?

Nudge interventions – when the ‘choice architecture’, or environment, of a consumer is shaped in an effort to persuade them to make a certain choice – have since the introduction of widespread use shown varying success​ depending on context, environment and participants.

They have been used for a long time in an attempt to move consumers towards healthier​ and more sustainable​ eating whilst following liberal principles of free choice. However, interventions haven’t always worked perfectly, seeing far more success in people who are better socioeconomically positioned to change behaviours. Particularly, they have a low level of success compared to more prohibitive measures, such as bans.

Do consumers know they’re being nudged? And are they happy about it? A new study, led by the Universities of Göttingen and Bonn, explores consumer attitudes towards nudge interventions.

Testing attitudes to nudging

Consumers were presented with five nudge scenarios, and were asked what their reaction would be to each kind of nudge. Each nudge was selected because it had shown promising signs that it could be effective.

Nuffield ladder of intervention

The Nuffield ladder of intervention​, proposed by the charity Nuffield Council on Bioethics, measures how much a behavioural intervention impacts personal freedom. Nudge interventions, such as the ones examined in the study, are low on the Nuffield ladder, while bans and prohibitions are high.

Participants were also asked for their general attitudes to provide important context (for example, for a nudge where a restaurant made butter available only on request, participants were asked if they normally eat butter).

Following this, they answered the same questions after the same nudge scenarios had been introduced with variations.

With these changes, researchers discovered what increased consumer support and what didn’t.

For example, one nudge initially involved giving consumers the vegetarian menu by default, with the meat menu available on request. After adjustment, they simply included the vegetarian options on the first page. This increased consumer support as the ‘perceived intrusiveness’ had been lowered. Removing the effort of opting out, and the intrusiveness of the nudge intervention, was by far the most effective way of increasing acceptance.

Nudge units

The German government has a small research team, or ‘nudge unit’, tasked with carrying out nudge interventions, according to the study.

Another thing that increased support was providing full transparency on the nudge, providing consumers with all the information they needed to know about it. For example, a shopping basket was pre-filled by default in one intervention, but an alteration labelling it as ‘climate-friendly’ gained more support from participants.

However, not all changes increased consumer acceptance. One, for example, initially required consumers to actively object to making a donation for regionally produced milk products. The donation was made through a donation sticker placed on the product which consumers had to actively object to. This was altered to a requirement for consumers to be simply asked if they wanted to make a donation. This brought no increase in consumer acceptance.

Sourced From: BMC Public Health
'Public acceptance of default nudges to promote healthy and sustainable food choices'
Published on: 22 November 2023
Authors: D. Lemken, S. Wahnschafft & C. Eggers

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