This post is the third in a series exploring the use of behavioral science and nudging in a student affairs context.
From slicing apples to sending texts, education professionals have drawn from a growing suite of behavioral insights to design interventions that positively influence student behavior. Nudging can take on a variety of forms that range in strength and scale, but with such an adaptable concept comes the need to prevent confusion or unintentional misuse in practice. While behavioral interventions are rightfully discussed for their potential to achieve large-scale change at low costs, it’s also worth underscoring the importance of implementing nudges with fidelity. Ethical nudges should be designed with the intention of benefitting those being nudged, and they should never be misleading, coercive, or restrictive. As illustrated in a satirical cartoon from the Behavioral Scientist magazine, a “gentle tap of good sense” falls neatly in the center of the nudge continuum, whereas “feather of statistical insignificance” and “bat of paternalistic overreach” lie on opposite ends.
(Source: Lazarovic, S. (2018, February 5). The Nudge Continuum. [Cartoon] Behavioral Scientist. Retrieved from http://behavioralscientist.org/cartoons/the-nudge-continuum/; used with permission.)
Here are a few suggestions for ways student affairs professionals can strike the right balance on the nudging scale.
Use data to inform the solution. Campuses should design nudging interventions with a clear understanding of the behavior they want to change and its underlying causes. Arizona State University, for example, looked at student data to understand why just 11 percent of students eligible for a specific employment program decided to apply. To investigate possible behavioral barriers or triggers of the situation, ASU partnered with ideas42 to conduct focus groups and interviews with both students and financial aid staff. Qualitative data revealed that many students were initially interested in the program but were overwhelmed by the complicated application process. Data should be used to ensure that the desired behavior being encouraged by a nudge is rooted in evidence. In this case, the financial and academic benefits of on-campus student employment are documented in existing research, thus giving good reason to nudge students to apply.
Utilize auto opt-in but allow for easy opt-out. Defaults are inherently present in almost all choice structures. One classic default strategy is how several countries in Europe presume that people are automatically organ donors unless they make the active decision to opt-out in registration. Automatic opt-in strategies are considered powerful nudges and should be implemented carefully and ethically.
Other examples can range from restaurants only giving you plastic straws if you ask for them, to customers receiving electronic billing receipts unless they ask for paper copies. At the SUNY College at Brockport, all students are automatically eligible for gender inclusive housing and the request process is embedded into the existing student housing application process. If students do not want to live in gender inclusive housing, they simply do not answer the set of questions in the housing application. Student affairs professionals should avoid turning their nudge into a shove, which occurs when opting out of defaults is complex or seems overly burdensome.
Be transparent. The purpose of the nudge should be communicated early on to students and other stakeholders on campus. Involving students in the process of nudge development can help develop feelings of trust and may lead them to think more positively about the desired change. In light of recent privacy concerns around consumer data on social media, campuses should opt for a transparent approach and disclose the purpose of any data collection or nudging intervention. According to research published in the Journal of Marketing Research, disclosing default strategies does not make the defaults any less influential. A covert nudging strategy that isn’t communicated to students may unintentionally backfire and lead to active resistance to the intervention’s goal.
Learn from the nudging community. The last few years have brought a number of colleges, universities, and other organizations with interests in student success into the nudging space. This blog series serves as a jumping off point for student affairs professionals looking to learn more about the underlying theories, merits, and limitations of nudging applied in higher education and other contexts. Examples of a few additional resources of interest include: