Nudgespotting: Everyday Life in NYC


It’s impossible to live in New York City without experiencing the push and pull of influence. After all, one of NYC’s most famous destinations plants you in the center of an arena of advertisements. While some of these influences are merely annoyances or eyesores, others are more impactful. In this edition of Nudgespotting, I share four behavioral science insights in action from a typical day in the Big Apple.

Morning Workout: Water Bottle Nudge

Over 60 million plastic bottles are dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators every day. But what is salient to consumers isn’t the detrimental environmental costs, it’s the convenience of a handy disposable plastic bottle. How can we nudge people to switch to reusable bottles? At New York Sports Clubs, water fountains provide positive and salient feedback on the amount of plastic bottles saved (while also allowing for easy refilling). Communicating the positive effects of using a reusable bottle allows thirsty gym-goers to sense the immediate impact of their actions.

Not only is refilling your bottle easy...

...but you also get salient feedback on the number of disposable plastic bottles saved.

At Lunch: Social Proof Nudge

If you’ve ever had to cater a luncheon, you know the stress of trying to deliver a high quality meal to tens or hundreds of people. In these situations – where successes are the status quo but failures might be talked about for months – it’s natural to be risk averse and make a safe choice. How do you let customers know you’re a safe catering choice? Dos Toros, a relatively new burrito chain, leverages social proof: if Facebook, Spotify, and The New York Times trust Dos Toros, you should, too.

Dos Toros leverages social proof to reassure new customers.

Getting Dinner: The Power of Defaults

Dig Inn, a “farm to table” lunch and dinner chain in NYC, is so popular that lines often extend out the door and onto the sidewalk. Until recently, when you finally made your way to the checkout, your order was hastily shoved into an oversized paper bag and handed to you before you even had a chance to object. Due to the power of defaults (and the awkwardness of delaying the line to return the bag), I’ve often left Dig Inn carrying my meal in a bag I didn’t need, and that would soon end up in the recycling bin.

But recently, Dig Inn switched their default: bags must now be requested. Changing defaults has a powerful record of effectiveness (see here) and from my brief observations, the no-bag default seems to be working. In a long line of customers during a dinner rush, I only noticed one request a bag.

Dig Inn switched their default to bagless, a move that is sure to reduce bag usage.

In the Evening: A New Yorker Nudge?

Readers of the Misbehaving Blog are likely familiar with Dan Ariely’s analysis of The Economist’s curious subscription pricing. While The Economist leveraged asymmetric dominance (a.k.a. the decoy effect) to make the choice between subscription options easier, it’s less clear what The New Yorker is intending to do with their curious subscription pricing.

Like their cartoons, The New Yorker's subscription pricing leaves room for interpretation.

Why do they include two clearly inferior choices ($12 for print-only and digital-only) alongside the clearly better choice ($12 for print + digital)? It might be because these two inferior options actually make the superiority of the print + digital option more obvious. Combine this with the fact all options cost $12 – so there’s no need to calculate how much the print or digital option is really worth to you – and the choice becomes simple (no mental math needed!).

But even so, it’s not clear this is a smart strategy to get people to subscribe, or to minimize the cost of subscriptions for The New Yorker. Readers: do you have any alternative explanations?