(featured image: Alan Geraghty/Flickr — CC BY ND 2.0)

A nudger’s paradox

Trying to influence people’s behaviour ethically can get complicated — but it doesn’t have to

Koen Smets
6 min readMar 4, 2022


When Richard Thaler, one of the most famous behavioural scientists, was once asked how he would summarize the essence of nudging in three words, he answered “Make it easy”. Often, that is indeed exactly what nudging is about: figuring out what the obstacles might be that prevent someone from doing what they would want to do, and rearranging things — the choice architecture — so the barrier is removed, and it becomes easier.

Not just easier

Charities are eager users of behavioural science insights. Clearly, it is in their interest to make it as easy as possible for people to donate. This is one reason why we sometimes receive an envelope from a charity which, along the request for a donation, contains a (cheap) pen. Not having access to a suitable writing implement is then no longer a possible obstacle, and it is indeed easier to complete the form with an amount and our credit card number if the pen is right there. (A further reason why a free pen might lead to more, and/or larger, donations is the principle of reciprocity — if you receive a gift from someone, you are more likely to act more generously towards them in return.)

Mismatched slippers
A preference for matching (photo: Andrew Sorensen/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0)

Another tactic that charities sometimes use is the ‘matching donation’ from a large donor. If we give, say, £25, then some philanthropist will match such gifts (usually up to a certain ceiling — you never know that the campaign is too successful!), thus in effect doubling our contribution to the charity. This is not, strictly speaking, a nudge that makes anything easier. However, whether we will, or won’t, do something is not only about how easy or difficult it is. For example, a reason why we might be reluctant to donate is that we are uneasy with the fact that part of our £25 goes to covering the charity’s costs. Somehow, we would prefer it if every penny of our donation ended up with the beneficiaries.

This is an intriguing viewpoint: a few seconds’ reflection will make us realize that even a charity has expenses that need to be…



Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius