Small nudge, major effect


Dr Alexandra Hildebrandt, blogger and writer for the Huffington Post, a well-known online news and comment platform, discusses energy efficiency and the willingness to take sustainable action.

The energy transition is one of the greatest and most challenging infrastructural projects since the first industrial revolution. In addition to changing over to renewable energies, the energy efficiency of each individual plays a particularly important part in the success of the energy transition. The only problem is that saving energy is often more difficult than you think. After all, in everyday life you have other things on your mind than constantly keeping an eye on your own consumption behaviour.


However, sometimes just a small “nudge” is enough to steer a decision in the right direction. This strategy is called “nudging” and is intended to produce changes in behaviour without pressure being exerted. It became known from the book of the same name, “Nudge” (2008), by the economist, Richard Thaler, from the University of Chicago and the Harvard lawyer, Cass Sunstein. The book examines the question of how you can help people to act to their own advantage but, at the same time, to the benefit of society and the environment. For as studies show, contrary to previous scientific opinion, people definitely do not act rationally. They constantly take irrational decisions.

Sustainability topics in particular need in many cases translation work and nudges to sell them as there is frequently a lack of emotional access. Above all the advertising industry, which likes to use good stories to influence the purchasing behaviour of potential customers, relies on gently influencing people’s minds. However, you need two things to reach people in a credible way: nudges and convincing arguments as to why a certain behaviour is correct and desirable.

Sometimes just a small ‘nudge’ is enough to steer a decision in the right direction.

One example of this is the current memolife catalogue (for private customers) of the eco mail-order company, memo AG, which not only contains products which contribute to responsible consumption but also practical tips on a sustainable lifestyle. These include information on how to avoid wasting food, fair recycling, advice on shopping and cooking, health and well-being, eco-travelling, on lifestyle and outdoor subjects – but above all on saving energy. At the back of the catalogue, the company presents the most important environmental signs and labels, which are an important help to consumers to recognize sustainably good products.


Technologies, however, can also have a similarly positive effect. At this point, submetering is indeed a good example: transparency of heat consumption is a “nudge” as it has been proved to help consumers to optimize their energy consumption behavior and, as a result, cut costs and CO2 emissions as well. After all, people who know how much energy they consume use it more responsibly. As studies show, small changes in consumption behaviour already have a major effect. In the end, a gentle nudge is always associated with three messages: that there is no need to wag a finger to change things, that what is doable is always ahead of us and that we can only progress on the road to greater sustainability and energy efficiency in small steps.

Picture credits: grasundsterne, thinkstockphotos