Intentional and Unintentional Sludge

Essay by Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker: “…Both of these stories are illustrations of what many mums and gymgoers may have experienced across the United Kingdom and United States as they tried to cope with the pandemic. We, along with other behavioral scientists, would label both as sludge—when users face high levels of friction obstructing their efforts to achieve something that is in their best interest, or are misled or encouraged to take action that is not in their best interest.

We can think of what the English mum goes through as unintentional sludge—friction due to factors like rushed design, poor infrastructure, and inadequate oversight. The mother is trying to access a benefit that will help her and which she has a right to claim, and which the government genuinely wants her to access. Yet multiple barriers prevented her from accessing the voucher that would help feed her children. Millions of parents found themselves in this situation as schools closed in England earlier this year. All over the country schools ended up paying for food parcels and gift vouchers out of their own budgets to help families who were going hungry.

What the New York gym-goer faces is different. It is intentional sludge—friction put in place knowingly to benefit an organization at the expense of the user. The gym doesn’t want him to cancel the membership, which would mean lost revenue. Even absent the pandemic, the policy would be considered unnecessarily difficult to cancel. The gym’s hope is that people forget, give up, or don’t bother canceling in person or over the phone, or that it takes them longer to do so. This translates into revenue for them, without any of the costs of providing a service. Stories like this have resulted in class-action lawsuits against companies that make it overly difficult or impossible to cancel gym memberships. One lawsuit alleged that one large gym company was stealing over $30 million per month from customers….(More)”.