This summary is presented by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center

Key Findings

  • Nudges, interventions that rely on leveraging mental shortcuts, can be more effective for encouraging behaviours than educational interventions that rely on increasing knowledge.
  • Nudges are not a one-size-fits-all solution and need to be tailored with specific contexts and target audiences in mind to be effective. People can respond differently to nudges depending on their pre-existing attitudes, backgrounds, and experiences.

Implications for Public Relations

Nudges are a useful tool for communicators to use in a wide variety of domains including health, finance, and environmental communication. Public relations professionals should work with behavioural scientists to determine how to best implement nudges.

Behavioural sciences research demonstrates that people often act on intuition instead of logic. Public relations professionals can use insights on how unconscious mental shortcuts drive behaviour to inform their work. Communication strategies that incorporate nudges, which target mental shortcuts, may be more effective than traditional educational interventions, which rely on people processing and using the information they are given. One example of a nudge is using social norms. Highlighting others’ behaviours encourages people to do the same by appealing to a desire to conform to social norms and expectations.

Although nudges can be shown to be effective in a wide and growing range of domains, care needs to be taken when developing the intervention because different audiences respond to nudges differently. Public relations professionals should work with behavioural scientists to design, test, implement, and refine nudge interventions.


Nudging allows organizations to shift behaviours without implementing strict rules and violating autonomy by changing the context of the decisions or appealing to social norms. These changes are designed to make intended behaviours easier and more automatic. Communications often focus on presenting information to persuade people to change their attitude or belief, which targets what commonly referred to as their central or systematic processing. This processing is the careful and rational evaluation of information and the costs and benefits of action. However, people don’t always think rationally. Instead, they use mental shortcuts called heuristics to make decisions, which saves them energy and time. Nudges focus on appealing to these heuristics to encourage particular behaviours. Prior research has shown that nudges are effective for improving personal health and finance.

Byerly and colleagues reviewed 160 studies to examine how nudges can be used to promote pro-environmental behaviours. Their review focused on interventions addressing six key environmental issues – family planning, land management, meat consumption, transportation, waste production, and water use – using a variety of different nudges.

A commitment or intention nudge encourages people to make commitments, which motivate them follow through with their intentions. An example would be a public pledge to reduce water usage or a written goal to reduce meat consumption. A default nudge changes the presentation of choices to make an intended behaviour the status quo, such as setting printer to print double sided by default. People often follow defaults because it reduces the need for effortful evaluations or changes in behaviour. A messenger nudge relies on the credibility of the messenger, similar identity, or other positive evaluations, which are used as heuristics for judging the quality message, instead of the actual message content. Having the gender of an agricultural extension agent match that of the farmer they were communicating with resulted in greater adoption of sustainable agriculture. Social norm nudges highlight the behaviour and expectations of others, like communicating how much water neighbours have saved. Salience nudges are interventions that draw attention to particular behaviours or interpretations of information, such as reminders to turn off lights.

The review found that nudge-based interventions were generally more effective at changing environmentally relevant behaviours than educational ones. However, some nudges worked better than others for different issues. Even interventions that employed the same type of nudge within the same issue varied in impact. These findings demonstrate that nudges can be a powerful tool, but they need to be designed with specific contexts and audiences in mind to be effective.


Byerly, H., Balmford, A., Ferraro, P. J., Hammond Wagner, C., Palchak, E., Polasky, S., … & Fisher, B. (2018). Nudging pro‐environmental behavior: evidence and opportunities. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 16(3), 159-168.



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

Leave a Reply