It isn’t nice to be nudged. I’m talking about the physical kind here, the unmistakable human shove of body on body, shoulder on shoulder, accompanied by that indignant, self-righteous sigh, to let you know you have transgressed some kind of social norm in a queue or on a crowded train. Even pre-Covid, it would hit your defences like a low-level assault, arousing an awkward emotional cocktail of surprise, guilt and affront: ‘What have I done?’
It could be effective though, cutting through more viscerally than words to prompt you to move or adjust, perhaps with a meek smile or apology. It could also go wrong. Any sense that the assault was unjustified would be met by standing your ground, digging in, or even nudging right back: a high-risk human strategy lending some drama to low-stakes human interactions.
Nudges of the other kind aren’t anything like that though. I am talking now about the ones espoused by the proponents of behavioural nudge theory – or ‘choice architecture’, as it is sometimes known. Here, there is nothing so obvious or crude as a felt gesture – in fact, nothing sensate at all. The ‘nudge’ is mediated imperceptibly through the order of options in a list, or the way a question is framed, or the default setting for a standard decision.