Organisations have a responsibility to ensure that the ethics with which they engage clients applies not just to what is seen and overt but equally to the unconscious and subtle use of nudging.


Previously, we have emphasised the importance of organisations having a policy on the ethics that guide their marketing. What are the ethical guidelines around nudging, particularly if it is for a client's benefit? Is manipulation permissible?

A nudge makes it more likely a client will make a particular choice or behave in a specific way. Businesses, companies, or government departments use nudges to alter the environment to favour the desired outcome. A current example is social distancing in supermarkets and other shops. When we socially distance ourselves, we are responding to cues to alter our behaviour for the common good. 

However, not all nudges are for the common good or the benefit of the client. For example, the algorithms of Facebook and YouTube often accentuate hate speech and negative comments and nudge people into holding extreme views or becoming involved in a social media pile-on. 


Given our exposure to all types of nudges throughout the day, does it really matter if we manipulate the nudge, we provide to potential clients to purchase our services or products? After all, everyone is doing it.

There is increasing emphasis on corporate citizenship primarily driven by Generation Z and their dissatisfaction with businesses and leaders. Being a corporate citizen has implications for the brand desirability of a company with consumers and the wider community.

Being a good corporate citizen has two aspects or principles. The first is the principle of no harm to society or community; the second principle is a proactive benefit for the community. These principles also apply in the area of nudging.


How do we use these two principles of being a good corporate citizen in nudging while at the same time ethically influencing people's behaviour and choices?


Client-centric organisations have an emphasis on respect that acknowledges their client’s autonomy and choices. In recognising the autonomy and choice of clients, companies ensure they are transparent when they use nudges.

This transparency and respect influences our business practices to ensure we seek the client's permission to be nudged, and we provide the opportunity for the client to opt-out. An example of an organisation that does this is Headspace with their guided meditation app.  This app asks clients during the sign-up process if they consent to receiving nudges

It is easy for organisations to fall into the trap of thinking, "we know what is best for our clients". Clients do not necessarily make rational decisions about services or products purchased. There is often a range of unconscious factors and emotions influencing the final decision. This is why nudges are used to try and counteract unconscious influences in the customer's decision-making process. 

The principle of respect means we guard against the presumption we know what is best and respect the person's decision to make a different choice. The principle of transparency means we do not assume that because a person agrees to one thing, they have agreed to being nudged. Headspace does not assume, because a person has signed up to their guided mediation, they want to be nudged with reminders. 


If respect for the individual means we do them no harm, and are transparent, seek consent and provide opt-out measures. Altruism means we actively seek the benefit of the client. Nil Eyal, the author of the book "Hooked", states that we need to ask two questions in developing nudges.

Firstly, will I use the product myself? Secondly, will the product materially help clients improve their lives? If the nudge does not answer these affirmative questions, it needs to be redesigned.

The other aspect of altruism is that any potential downsides of a nudge are assessed and accounted for. Knowing there is a downside to a nudge, but hoping no one will discover it, is not altruism. It is deceit.


When using nudges or algorithms, we must ensure they are not biased to favour one group of people over another. 

Being good corporate citizens ensures our businesses are striving for equity, diversity, and inclusion. All of us have unconscious biases that impact our decision-making. When staff within organisations are predominantly drawn from the same social, economic, or cultural background, it is easy for these unconscious biases to become embedded in organisational practices. The consequence of these unconscious biases is people can be excluded or disadvantaged without the organisation being aware.

If we are to use nudges in ethical ways, we must consider the fairness and equity of how we use them and ensure groups of people in society are not disadvantaged.

Nudges can be used to manipulate. Algorithms can be biased towards hate speech and negativity, creating more traffic and engagement. However, organisations have a responsibility to ensure that the ethics with which they engage clients applies not just to what is seen and overt but equally to the unconscious and subtle use of nudging.