· 1 min read · Features

The ethical question of nudging


Might the use of behavioural economics risk straying into manipulation?

Iain McMath, CEO of Sodexo Engage, says:

“Whenever the discussion of actively trying to change behaviour enters into conversation there will naturally be an ethical aspect to consider. All businesses should have clear ethical guidelines in place and any new process – including nudging – will need to adhere to those rules.

“It’s important to note that nudging is not hypnosis. The decision to change one’s behaviour is always up to the individual. Nudging’s aim is to steer people into making better choices. However, if it begins to stray into reducing freedom of choice or exploiting people’s decisions that is when it becomes manipulative. In other words: you need to recognise when you’re nudging and when you’re pushing.”

Kelly Peters, CEO and co-founder of BEworks, says:

“There are three main points to consider in the domain of ethics. These are: be honest, think about who the beneficiary of the nudge is, and recognise the benefit of an approach that considers human motivations and tendencies. We have an obligation to be honest when nudging. For example, we should be framing true information (e.g. 70% of your colleagues are saving for retirement vs. 30% of your colleagues are not saving for retirement), but we should not be creating false information (e.g. 99% of your colleagues are saving for retirement). By creating false information we are deceiving the people we aim to benefit, we can lose their trust, and we can’t control the spread of that misinformation.

“When developing nudges we must consider who the beneficiary of the nudge is. If the sole beneficiary of the nudge is the company, with no added benefit to the employee, companies risk using that individual for their own gain while potentially harming them (or at least wasting their time). If the company and the employee benefit, or the employee mainly benefits and the company receives some indirect benefit, this is a more ethical approach.”

Read our December magazine cover story on nudge theory and HR here