Nudging in the time of corona

6 min readJun 17, 2020


Here at BreadCrumbs Linguistics, we spend our days thinking about — and researching — the elements involved in behavioural change which looks at the human factors that go into making a decision. Things like how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, past experiences, what other people are doing, and so on.

We know that when making our decisions, we can often be quite irrational because of various factors that influence us. We can all relate to this — think about going for a run. Rationally we should run a couple of times a week to keep fit and healthy. But we prefer the easy option. Making the decision to go for a run is not purely based on it being good for our future selves. We also take into account other factors like the weather, how we feel, whether our friends are also running that day. All of this determines if we go for a run or if we stay home and watch Netflix.

The good news? Even though we are irrational when it comes to decision-making, we tend to be predictably so (hence the title of Dan Ariely’s most well-known book). The goal of Behavioural Science is therefore to identify these irrational patterns and then use them to create opportunities to “nudge” people to do the right thing. If we think back to our running example, we can identify common friction points and “excuses” we are likely to make, and try counteract them by using nudges. For example, we can leverage the commitment bias and schedule the run in our diaries or make a set plan to meet up with friends to run.

A nudge or a gentle push

A nudge is a great way to help with behaviour change. It refers to any part of the environment which changes a person’s behaviour the way you want it to. What’s really important with a nudge is that it never takes away our freedom of choice and it is often quite simple and cheap to implement. For example, placing fruit at eye level to sell more healthy food is a nudge, but banning junk food is not.

COVID-conscious behavioural change

An effective vaccine is thought to be quite a few months away and so, for now, prevention rests on ‘non-pharmaceutical’ interventions. These include staying home, handwashing, social distancing, mask wearing. All potentially new and foreign concepts to us that require changes in behaviour.

The Nudge Family

Remember our Nudge Family: Dutiful, Dark, Deliberate and Dreadful Sludge? They’ve been hard at work during the global pandemic, and for the most part, helpful in their approach to getting us to adopt safer behaviours.

Deliberate Nudge

Deliberate Nudges have helped us to stay at home.

‘Making things easy’ is a really powerful tool for behaviour change. It’s one of the reasons why it’s much nudgier to get us to choose something to eat from a 1-page menu as opposed to a 12-page menu. We don’t like things to be too confusing or too hard, and if they are, we often give up or make the wrong choice. We can use this principle when getting people to stay at home. But instead of making things easy so people do it, we can make things hard so that they don’t do it.

Example: In Sweden the public parks remain open, but to discourage people from going there and meeting up with friends and family, they dumped large amounts of fresh manure on the grass. The smell meant that people no longer wanted to go to the park and they certainly didn’t want to put down a picnic blanket and hang around.

Deliberate Nudges are also helping us to wash our hands. Properly.

We know that handwashing is a great way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The bad news is that people find it quite hard to wash their hands properly and consistently. We may have the intention to wash our hands, but for some reason we may not follow through (something that is called the intention-action gap). Maybe we don’t feel like we have enough time, or the water is too cold, or we simply don’t remember to. This is where nudges can be really handy and we’ve seen that through our Behavioural Linguistics-tested handwashing posters.

Example: Research has shown that the most effective handwashing posters have the following elements in common:

  1. Language is short, simple and action-oriented
  2. Icons and images are intuitive so you know straight away what they are showing
  3. Colours are bright and eye-catching (stay away from muted tones)
  4. Posters are prominently displayed in the right places
Dutiful Nudge

Dutiful Nudges to help us to social distance.

We know that we need to practise social distancing, but remembering to do it (and also getting the distance right) at all times can be tricky. Nudges have proven really helpful with making distancing more tangible and salient.

Example: In almost every supermarket there are stickers on the floor to depict the proper distance we should queue from one another. Some grocery stores also insist that shoppers use trolleys to ensure a self-imposed distance without the shopper needing to do much themselves.

Dutiful Nudges help us to wear a mask too.

At the beginning stages of the pandemic, only one or two people walked around with a mask on. At the time, you may have looked at them funny or thought they were overreacting. Fast forward to now and we are all wearing masks.

Example: People want to fit in (we don’t like to be the odd one out!) and this often means doing what the majority of people are doing. It’s called social proofing. If everyone is wearing a mask, you are more likely to as well.

Dark Nudge and Dreadful Sludge

And what about Dark Nudge and Dreadful Sludge?

Evil cousins to Dutiful and Deliberate, you may have come across Dark Nudge and Dreadful Sludge in too-good-to-be-true business loans or payment holidays from various financial institutions during COVID-19. Far from being in our best interests, they either offer temptingly easy access to high-interest loans or, conversely, block our access to relief funds that we were entitled to through paperwork, queuing or other onerous sludge burdens.

Nudges, corona and the future

Using behavioural principles through nudges can be really effective in encouraging the correct behaviours. These approaches are often cheap and easy to implement which makes them so appealing in a time like this. Once you start changing behaviour in a habitual way, you can achieve a sustainable state which is what we need for the foreseeable future.

Tegan Crymble is Head of Strategy at BreadCrumbs Linguistics: a firm that specialises in Behavioural Linguistics — a multi-disciplinary approach to communication that combines sociolinguistics, psychology and behavioural science to nudge behavioural change.




Head of Behavioural Insights at BreadCrumbs Linguistics | Background in exercise is medicine, behavioural science and statistics.