Nudging: what ethical issues should charities be aware of?

The Chartered Institute of Marketing’s charity and social marketing vice-chair, Liz Barnes talks about nudging within marketing and any associated ethical issues.


A nudge is defined as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates".

Choice architecture is about organising the contexts that influence decision-making. Nudges can, therefore, be a useful tool to trigger mental short-cuts (heuristic) and “influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off as judged by themselves”.

As more is understood about our human frailties for rational decision-making and how much behaviour is governed by automatic, intuitive, reflexive reactions, policy makers and marketers have discovered how to capitalise on, or even exploit, these biases and heuristics. And as nudging is popularised in public policy and the third sector, the ethical debate about its use heightens.

Useful frameworks such as FORGOOD and BVA Nudge remind us to take a clear stance on the means versus ends (and vice versa) ethics arguments. To ensure we avoid ‘dark nudging’, they also recommend considering under ‘whose authority’ the nudge is decided, and to be open to public scrutiny through the publication of aims, outcomes and methods.

However, the most pertinent ethical questions raised at the CIM’s webinar ‘The Darker Side of Nudging’ related to transparency, violation of autonomy, freedom of choice, privacy and respect. Of most concern were digital marketing and automated processes, which are frequently only transparent to the user-experience (UX) designer.

According to UX specialist Harry Brignall, some sectors of UX design have fostered a culture which embraces so called ‘dark patterns’. These coerce, steer or deceive users into making harmful decisions, partly because in digital landscapes consumers may lack full attention, skim read and make assumptions.

So which techniques sit too close to the line and how do we persuade with integrity? Transparency about tactics, processes, aims and outcomes may be considered an ethical pre-requisite, and while consumers don’t expect to have such rationale spelt out, a lack of transparency can be problematic both when we are appealing to the intuitive and the reflective brain which makes decisions subconsciously and speedily.

When non-transparent nudges manipulate behaviour, using choice asymmetry (e.g. over-emphasising an option) or deploying messages which appeal to impulsivity (e.g. scarcity), or inattention (e.g. pre-filling donation amount), we need to be sure the outcomes will be in the donor, beneficiary or volunteers best interests ‘as judged by themselves’.

The effects of anchoring in charitable donations has been found to be unconscious; you can actually get people to double donations by showing them that other people donate more. Perhaps more controversial is when nudges manipulate conscious decisions. If used with bad intent or deceptive methods, this may result in behaviours that deviate from a person’s best interests. For example, forced registration for a one-time donation.

Remember that the way you frame a message can have a big impact on perception. Using a ‘social norm’ frame such as “Many of our customers like to leave money to charity in their will. Are there any causes you’re passionate about?” versus “Would you like to leave any money to charity in your will?” means donations increase. Whilst there is no suggestion this is a dark nudge, you must use truthful data to craft your messages, which are tested by users for interpretation.

Harry Brignull is not aware of any dark nudges applying to charities – but as we learn more about how unconscious thought processes can help charities achieve ‘better’ results, there will be a temptation to use practices which cross the line. These include:

• Asymmetry – applying unequal weights to options whether visual, written or oral to direct people in a direction they may regret.
• Covert – being steered without nudgee’s knowledge
• Hidden/delayed information/costs – from earlier point in journey
• Restrictive – limiting choice sets unnecessarily
• Autogenerated random numbers – e.g., countdown times
• ‘Sneak into basket’ – e.g., adding a donation to the basket
• ‘Roach Motel’ – easy entry into a subscription or scheme that is hard to exit
• ‘Confirmshaming’– messages worded to shame a user into doing something

Whilst you may not have succumbed to dark nudging, it’s important to consider how contexts change and our understanding of cognitive biases evolves. Heuristics are not stable; we get ‘savvy’ to certain techniques, becoming immune to methods deployed.

To stay on the light side of nudging:
1. Undertake a nudge audit across your organisation, looking at your communications, processes, forms and caller scripts.
2. Examine a comprehensive list of biases, heuristics and fallacies you might be exploiting either intentionally or inadvertently.
3. Test your nudges, perhaps experimentally before in a live setting. Be willing to hold yourself accountable and publish your findings, even if your nudges backfire! Ensure you get both qualitative and quantitative data and use an analyst to interpret the findings.
4. Make use of ethical frameworks such as FORGOOD or BVA Nudge Unit. Discuss and share your conclusions internally and externally – not just amongst the senior management team, but amongst those on the frontline who deliver the messages.
5. Assess findings from academic published papers which share findings from trials and experiments on nudges.

Thanks to its effectiveness, nudging is here to stay, and it’s a strategy which charities will embrace. But they will be held to the highest standards, and donors will not expect to be coerced, hoodwinked or even steered in unwanted directions. Nudging was always intended to be a force for good. Let’s ensure it continues to be so.

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