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Nudging can be a child’s play…but it’s not!


A (funny) reflection on the nature of nudging

By Francesco Amighetti and Beatrice Del Frate


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Nudge interventions take several forms. Sometimes they can be very sophisticated and relying on long and complex empirical studies, sometimes they can be very nice, funny, and easy to implement. Among the nudges of this second kind, it is often possible to find nudges that ultimately look like little games to play. In fact, one example comes from one of the first and most famous nudge interventions to be known: ever heard of the so-called “urinal fly”?

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The urinal fly, as can be easily guessed, is a fly-resembling sticker that was introduced into men’s urinal bathrooms in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in the early 1990s as an incentive for users to aim at it. Looks like a game, right? A very simple game that was actually very effective in reducing spillage on the bathroom’s floor by as far as 80%! The effectiveness and simplicity of the intervention opened the door for the imitation and multiplication of similar interventions that actually looked like games that made it funny and engaging to do boring actions.

Among these, we can find more sophisticated versions of the urinal fly, such as the “urinal football goal” or the “bin basketball hoop”.unnamed (3)

Moreover, an object that was extremely subject to redesigns is the alarm clock, that began to become “smart”. What smart clocks do is easy: they play with cognitive biases to force you out of the bed. The first smart clock to be released was “Clocky”, the clock that runs away until you catch it and turn it off, soon followed by clocks designed to look like sport balls, that need to be thrown away to be turned off. In these cases, the clock works as a nudge because it gives an external environmental help to lazy people for battling with their weak self-control (of which people are aware, but cannot help to improve, especially in the morning). Many other clocks, however, go even further, doing the most annoying things to force you to wake up: even burning a dollar or donating to your least favorite charity if you don’t turn it off in time, therefore playing with the human loss aversion bias in a very exquisite way!


Given the examples of funny nudges just cited (and the list could go on even more), it is almost too easy to think about another trend that is very popular nowadays: gamification

In fact, when in need of a vast and fast behaviour change, nudging is not the only strategy available on the market: on the contrary, gamification is another intriguing strategy that is mostly used in marketing and business companies to interact with consumers and, possibly, make them feel engaged with the products or services offered by the brand. But what exactly is gamification? The gamification phenomenon can be defined as “the use of game mechanics and game design techniques in non-gaming context” and, as such, gamification is – exactly as nudging – a powerful tool to drive and direct behaviour change.


However, even if funny nudges seem to have so much in common with the gamification phenomenon, a consistent difference does exist between nudging and gamification. To disentangle them, it can be useful to remember one of the most commonly accepted definitions of nudge, as told by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein in their book “Nudge. Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness” (2008): “A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” On the other hand, gamification relies, as said, on gaming mechanisms, which inherently consist in positive incentives such as rewarding the player with additional points, in-game rewards, the pleasure of reaching defined goals and the amusement of playing itself (let’s not forget that dopamine is the greatest reward for our brain!). In this way, gamification works by associating a positive behaviour with a positive reward – as a classical conditioning mechanism – and results in a motivation of the consumer driven by the promise of an external reward. From here, it is clear that the main difference between gamification and nudging relies in the concept of incentive or reward: gamification does exclusively revolve around the principle of the reward (even if it is not a purely economical one), whereas what nudging does, instead, is rearranging the environment around us exploiting human cognitive bases, to simplify decisions in a way to induce towards them without external incentives. To make this difference even clearer, here are some examples of gamification interventions that are essentially different from the funny nudges described before.

Recyclebankunnamed-1.png: a website app that uses gamification techniques (e.g. point, challenges, rewards, leader boards) to encourage sustainable behaviour like recycling, choosing greener products, pledging to take shorter showers, etc. The result of this campaign was a 16% increase of recycling in Philadelphia.

unnamed-8.jpgMobike: a Chinese company and the biggest Bike sharing platform available in the market that has developed a gamification system to ensure the respect of civil rules by all the users, in order to tackle the issue of thefts and vandalism – which is unfortunatelyvery common in Italy. Every account is linked with a score that can increase or decrease according to the behaviour of the cyclist (parking in appropriate areas, vandalism, signaling damaged bikes…), and that in the future will be linked with the tariff of the single user. To ensure appropriate parking behaviour, the app provides a map suggesting where to park your bike and hence helping you get additional points.

unnamedFitbit: a company that produces a series of wearable smartwatches designed to change lifestyle behaviours. These smartwatches can be considered the result of what can be summed up as “the gamification of healthcare”, an increasing trend especially in countries where obesity and the risk to develop diabetes are high. The system is aimed at making people feeling more engaged in their attempts to feel better and healthier. The software, designed to be attractive, motivates you through daily health goals that, when achieved, unlock points that can be used to get shopping discounts or even money!

In conclusion, we cannot deny that in few years both nudge and gamification applications have spread across any aspect of life going in similar directions. However, while certainly hoping that they can continue working in parallel or in synergy (with potentially interesting outcomes!), it is also equally important to always keep in mind that, however similar, they are two different strategies that work with very different cognitive mechanisms.



R. H. Thaler, C. R. Sunstein (2008), Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, Penguin Books.


By bbiasblog

The official blog of B.BIAS - Bocconi Behavioural Insights Associations of Students

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