Can a Nudge Change Behavior Patterns?

"GMA" conducts a behavior lab to see how subtle changes affect our decisions.

March 19, 2009, 9:35 PM

March 20, 2009 — -- A simple, sometimes unknowing suggestion can alter human behavior dramatically. That's the theory in Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein's recent book, "Nudge."

"A nudge is any small feature of the environment that captures our attention and alters our behavior," he said.

The tiny and painless cues can influence people, like they did in the Amsterdam airport. There, an artist painted flies on the urinals near the drain. The idea was that the nudge would make men take better aim.

"[The result was that] spillage was decreased by 80 percent," Thaler said.

If a fly could make such a large impact, "Good Morning America" wondered what else a nudge could do.

"GMA" conducted a hidden camera experiment at Manhattan Mortgage, which has 50 employees.

The camera was set up in the break room and for two days it recorded employees eating from a catered breakfast on a flat table.

On average, the workers were big doughnut eaters and only ate about a quarter of a bowl of fruit each day.

But when "GMA" gave the healthier food a little nudge by elevating it and putting the danishes and doughnuts of to the side, more people opted for the healthier fare.

When "GMA" elevated the fruit on cake plates, in fact, it was wiped out in less than 30 minutes, which was less than a third of the time it normally took.

When granola was elevated, consumption doubled.

As for doughnuts, consumption dropped by 10 percent when they were sidelined.

The "Nudge" authors said people want to be average. They want to consume less or the same amount as their neighbors.

When "GMA" posted signs on tabletops that cited a study saying bagels are part of an average American's breakfast, and danishes and doughnuts aren't, employees were nudged to eat more bagels. Bagel consumption went up noticeably and doughnut consumption dropped by a third.

The authors added that when mirrors are placed in a cafeteria, people tend to eat less.

So "GMA" put a mirror in the breakroom and ended up with more doughnuts left than ever.

People seemed tempted by the doughnuts, but with the mirror watching, they went for the fruit. Employees consumed more fruit on the mirror day than any other day.

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