This summary is presented by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center

Key Findings

  • Simplification nudges that reduce the complexity of information in a message can increase compliance in public administration, such as tax payment.
  • Slight differences in how nudges are constructed can greatly change the effect, even if they are the same type of nudge. Nudges need to be carefully tested before wide scale implementation.
  • Different audiences may respond to nudges differently due to demographic differences. Characteristics of the target audience should be considered when designing nudges.

Implications for Public Relations

Public relations professionals should test nudges before implementing them to ensure that they lead to the desired outcomes. Testing should be done with representative samples of the target audience to account for a group’s characteristics and their potential interactions with the nudge. Behavioural scientists are valuable assets to communication teams as they can help with development, testing, and evaluation of nudge interventions.

Communicators can use nudges to influence behaviours by leveraging the cognitive principles that underpin the decision-making process. More and more public administrators are beginning to adopt nudges into their communication strategies to increase compliance. One effective approach is to make information easier to understand and act on by using simpler language or bullets. More research and a deeper understanding of human behaviour will allow practitioners to use nudges more successfully.

The findings of this study highlight the importance of rigorous testing and an iterative design process when developing nudge-based strategies. Nudges can be effective and cost-efficient for increasing compliance, but even slight differences in how they are designed can have a drastic impact on their effect. Testing will also determine if proposed nudges are appropriate for target populations. For example, descriptive social norms can be less effective or even have an opposite effect if a population is highly diverse and lacks social cohesion. Since social norms work based on people’s desire to fit in, the lack of a community identity can render norm nudges ineffective.


The application of behavioural science research in practice and policy has been growing rapidly in recent years. More and more governments and corporations have begun to implement “nudges”, interventions for influencing behaviour that are based on cognitive and psychological principles.

A popular nudge is the social norm nudge, which conveys information about other’s behaviours or expectations to leverage human desire to conform within social groups. A descriptive norm is the prevalence of a particular behaviour within a group and communicating it can influence people to align their own behaviour with that of the group’s.

Researchers John and Blume examined how nudges can be used to increase tax payment compliance in London, UK, using a large-scale field study. They implemented nudges on a London borough’s tax bill reminders for the 2014-2015 fiscal year to compare the effects of descriptive norm and simplification nudges. A simplification nudge reduces the complexity of a message to the bare essentials, so that less processing is required to understand it. For example, by using simplified language and bullet points, the key messages are more obvious and easier to remember and act on.

On their bill reminder, people saw either a simplification nudge that condensed the key information like when to pay and the benefit of paying in full time, a social norm nudge that described how the majority of residents (95%) in their borough pay their council tax, both nudges together, or no nudges. The results showed that the addition of a simplification nudge led to a 4% increase in the percentage of people paying in full, compared to the control version with no nudges and the version with the norm nudge. The increase observed when both nudges were used was the same as when a simplification nudge was used alone. This suggests that the norm nudge did not contribute to the effect, but also did not distract from it.

In the following year, the simplification nudge was implemented across the entire region to make use of the learning from the previous study. A study trial was conducted to test social norm nudging again, this time with the simplification as the new control. The same norm nudge from the previous year was used and the results showed that it performed poorer, with 2% fewer people paying in full, compared to the control (simplification nudge). The findings from both studies suggest that descriptive norm nudges may not be appropriate for encouraging local tax payment in this circumstance.

However, another study of social norm nudging for tax payments reminders in the UK found success, demonstrating that small differences in how the nudges are designed and the target audience can lead differing results. In that study, their social norm included a statement to emphasize that the bill recipient was in the small minority who haven’t paid yet. The target audience was also a small rural community, which was much more homogenous and tight knit. The diversity and transitory nature of the London population in the present study might not be conducive for social norm nudges.


John, P., & Blume, T. (2018). How best to nudge taxpayers? The impact of message simplification and descriptive social norms on payment rates in a central London local authority. Journal of Behavioral Public Administration, 1(1).

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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