Are Repeat Nudges Effective? For Tardy Tax Filers, It Seems So

Paper by Nicole Robitaille, Nina Mažar, and Julian House: “While behavioral scientists sometimes aim to nudge one-time actions, such as registering as an organ donor or signing up for a 401K, there are many other behaviors—making healthy food choices, paying bills, filing taxes, getting a flu shot—that are repeated on a daily, monthly, or annual basis. If you want to target these recurrent behaviors, can introducing a nudge once lead to consistent changes in behavior? What if you presented the same nudge several times—would seeing it over and over make its effects stronger, or just the opposite?

Decades of research from behavioral science has taught us a lot about nudges, but the field as a whole still doesn’t have a great understanding of the temporal dimensions of most interventions, including how long nudge effects last and whether or not they remain effective when repeated.

If you want an intervention to lead to lasting behavior change, prior research argues that it should target people’s beliefs, habits or the future costs of engaging in the behavior. Many nudges, however, focus instead on manipulating relatively small factors in the immediate choice environment to influence behavior, such as changing the order in which options are presented. In addition, relatively few field experiments have been able to administer and measure an intervention’s effects more than once, making it hard to know how long the effects of nudges are likely to persist.

While there is some research on what to expect when repeating nudges, the results are mixed. On the one hand, there is an extensive body of research in psychology on habituation, finding that, over time, people show decreased responses to the same stimuli. It wouldn’t be a giant leap to presume that seeing the same nudge again might decrease how much attention we pay to it, and thus hinder its ability to change our behavior. On the other hand, being exposed to the same nudge multiple times might help strengthen desired associations. Research on the mere exposure effect, for example, illustrates how the more times we see something, the more easily it is processed and the more we like it. It is also possible that being nudged multiple times could help foster enduring change, such as through new habit formation. Behavioral nudges aren’t going away, and their use will likely grow among policymakers and practitioners. It is critical to understand the temporal dimensions of these interventions, including how long one-off effects will last and if they will continue to be effective when seen multiple times….(More)”