The perception of free choice plays an important role in public support for campaigns designed to ‘nudge’ people into making healthy or sustainable food choices, new research has found.

‘Nudges’ have been used for years by policy-makers and businesses to encourage the public to opt for different behaviours or choices. One example is displaying calorie information on menus.

Researchers from the Universities of Göttingen and Bonn in Germany set out to evaluate public support for such nudges and whether the design of such interventions affect how well they are supported, and their effectiveness.

They found two things were important when it comes to improving support for nudged options – the transparency of the nudge and reducing the effort needed to opt out of the nudged option.

This means, for instance, having the vegetarian options displayed on the first page of a menu followed by meat choices, rather than just providing a vegetarian menu with customers having to request a menu containing the meat options.

Making the ‘nudged’ choice the default option is one way of subtly encouraging people to change their behaviour, such as making butter available on request at restaurants rather than automatically putting it on the table. This latest research set out to test the effectiveness of this type of nudge strategy.

First author Simone Wahnschafft said: “Understanding public support – and its drivers – is important for designing politically viable, ethical, and effective nudges.

“We were surprised to find that the personal circumstances of our participants and whether their own behaviour would be affected by the nudge had little effect on their support.

“We found that the perception of upholding free choice and of effectiveness were key to public support.”

The team of researchers carried out an online survey of just over 450 adults who were provided with five different nudge situations and were asked to rate how much they supported each one.

The participants were asked to share what their normal behaviour or choice would be (e.g. whether they would normally eat butter at a restaurant); how much they perceived their freedom of choice to be affected by a nudge; and how effective they thought the nudge was.

The design of the nudge situation was then tweaked slightly, with the participants then asked the same questions, enabling the research team to hone in on the design variants that appear to affect how much people support nudge campaigns.

One key finding was that there was more support for nudge scenarios were there was clear transparency – for instance when people were asked first if they would like a pre-filled environmentally-friendly online food basket, rather than this happening by default.

If people thought their freedom of choice was being encroached on, the nudge was less likely to be accepted. Perception of the effectiveness of the nudge was the most significant driver of participants accepting the nudge, the research showed.

The findings pave the way for future studies into identifying the default nudge ‘sweet spot’ that is both well supported and effective.

Read the study in BMC Public Health.

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