When a Nudge isn’t Enough…


Table of Contents

People need to know why inclusion matters now, what the impact of inclusion is (when they are not directly impacted), and the role of structures in systemic oppression for nudges to be truly effective.

Sorry, but when building equity in your organization — nudges, on their own, just won’t work.

Since the early 2000s, there’s been huge interest in ‘nudges’ as cheap, easy ways of creating behavior change in our personal lives, workplaces, and even wider society. Nudges act as a quick, direct, non-forceful prompt to promote behavior change. From the way they’re increasingly used — the whole point seems to be that they’re not lengthy, involved, and complex. For example, a nudge could look like a text to your phone reminding you to work out or could appear as a poster in a public space advising you what to avoid. It’s understandable why they’re so popular and the thinking behind them is not entirely unconvincing. And while we at FF see huge value in nudges as a part of any inclusion endeavor — we don’t believe, alone, they’re enough — here are 3 reasons why:

[Image description: A large blue drawn hand pokes at a person in a suit, looking back at it. Photo by MARK AIRS/GETTY IMAGES, ADAPTED BY M. ATAROD/SCIENCE]

1. We can’t be what we can’t see…

Nudges rely, to some extent, on us being motivated by the positive outcomes of our behavior — imagined and real. For example, if you have a fitness nudge that reminds you every day to take a walk or jog, you’ll be motivated by both the imagined and realized positive outcomes of this behavior, over time. The same can be imagined for, say, a wellness nudge that reminds you to take a break or meditate — you’re inspired to respond to that nudge because you can imagine the positive outcomes of this and over time, are likely to see them too.

With inclusion nudges, this is a bit trickier. The positive outcomes may be more difficult to imagine and we may not see them, personally — in fact, they may not directly impact us at all.

Firstly, let’s engage with being able to imagine the positive outcome of responding to a nudge. The issue with an inclusion nudge is really — do we all have a clear understanding of the positive outcomes of acting upon the nudge; of what the outcomes of inclusion look like? For example, if I ‘nudged’ someone to request from every person they speak with today their pronouns — could we count on them understanding clearly what this would produce and why it matters? In a world where some people have probably not asked others their pronouns before and been okay (individually) with this — it seems unlikely people can meaningfully understand why this nudge matters, without engaging with the lived realities of trans and nonbinary folk — on a micro level. Without taking the time to truly visibilise and understand what cissexism is and does, the harm it creates, is often (by design, I’d wager) easily ignored and unseen by cis folks. Such understanding and engagement — seem likely to be outside of what is possible with a pithy nudge, alone.

Secondly, as this example also raises, what if the positive outcome of an inclusion nudge is not for us — so we have no strong tangible or visible indicator of progress over time? If I am a white, middle-class, cisgender man — engaging in inclusive behaviors may have positive outcomes for my colleagues from marginalized communities in terms of intangible feelings of belonging, legitimacy, or dignity, but I may not feel and see this impact directly myself. I therefore may not notice the change over time. Can I still feel committed to the utility of these nudges, if they are administered alone?

2. The status quo suits some!

Here’s the hard part with a nudge — I believe: there’s an assumption with a nudge that we will act upon it because we want to avoid the alternative. Nudges rely, to some extent, on wanting to avoid the world where we don’t take action. We will respond to the nudge poster reminding us to not drop litter because on some level — we don’t want a world full of litter. That’s a world we can imagine (as seen above, this is harder with inclusion thinking) and that’s a world we want to avoid.

With inclusion thinking it’s hard to make this assumption.

People may articulate a commitment to a world without exclusion and inequity but inequity and exclusion, by definition, benefit certain groups and strata of people. They allow some to gain greater access to resources, status, opportunity, and safety — amongst other things — by their identity being positioned as superior and more valuable. We live in a world of scarcity and competition — this is real.

If we engage in ‘nudging’ without any preliminary work on why inclusion matters and why change is desperately needed — will people, who benefit from the status quo, be committed to acting for change? I’m not necessarily saying people are rubbing their hands together, cackling with malice, in their deep commitment to living out inequity and exclusion every day, but more that if you benefit from the current system (how our world currently operates), without any depth of understanding regarding what this system means for others — why would you see change as urgent and requiring your action now?

3. What about structures?

Nudges operate at the micro, interpersonal level — yet inequity is also systemic! Again, this is an argument not against nudges entirely — but certainly against their sole usage as an attempt to create deeply inclusive cultures. As any social theorist worth their salt will tell you — inequity is produced and reproduced both at the interpersonal level and at the structural level, through institutions, laws, prevailing narratives, and established processes. Together interpersonal interactions and structures make up systems of oppression with shared logic and interactive mechanisms.

A nudge may well have some potential for changing the way people may interact (though, as points 1 and 2 show, this potential is constrained) — the question remains: how can a nudge disrupt the inequity built into existing systems? I don’t think it can. For example, if we look at a recruitment process, to disrupt inequity at the systemic level we’d need to analyze and redesign all the points from job description creation to application sifting to interviewing that perpetuate inequities and oppression. This is beyond the potential of a nudge (unless it’s a very detailed one!). Yet, without this interrogation and redesign of structures — inequity and exclusion could continue to abound, even if individuals are behaving more in line with individual acts of equity and inclusion.

So what does all of this mean?

  • People need to spend time visualizing and exploring the lived realities and dynamics of inequity to truly understand the why of inclusion and therefore better understand what inclusive practices are creating and doing — even when these are both invisible to us.
  • We need to understand that the status quo works for some folks — urgency for change cannot be assumed, so we can’t put responsibility solely on the individual and hope for change to happen.
  • Inclusion has to be a structural as well as interpersonal endeavor for deep change.

The picture here looks negative — but it’s not! What we’re not saying is that nudges have no place in any inclusive culture or endeavor. Moreover, without preceding them with deep education and running them in tandem with structural analysis and redesign — they cannot be successful. People need to know why inclusion matters now, what the impact of inclusion is (when they are not directly impacted), and the role of structures in systemic oppression for nudges to be truly effective. Then — nudge away!

Share this article with a friend

Create an account to access this functionality.
Discover the advantages