How effective are nudges in enforcing Covid-19 restrictions around the world?


As popularised by Nobel Laureates Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in 2017, nudging a form of intervention in which the government tries to alter people’s behaviour, without forbidding options or changing their economic incentive. Opposed to regulations, nudges are cheap and easy to implement and if done correctly, they have proven to have significant outcomes in several situations. In their book ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness’, nudging is a form of liberal paternalism, where it is possible for private firms and public institutions to affect people’s behaviour whilst respecting both, freedom of choice and implementation of the desired idea.

In February and early March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic’s response plan frantically began, the Behavioural Insights Team started using the concept of nudging to instil messages in people’s minds which would stop the spread of the virus. Adverts on radios and television urging people to wash their hands for 20 seconds (with the happy birthday song!), observe social distancing, wear masks and stay indoors were all forms of nudging to encourage new behaviour in society.

Keen to prevent a nationwide lockdown, the government continued to use nudging and developed the idea of ‘behavioural fatigue’ which suggested that people would become less and less compliant towards restrictions such as lockdowns if they were set over a large period of time, which is why such behaviour of social distancing and sanitising should be engrained in our minds. Protracted lockdowns could lead to optimism bias where people believe they themselves are unlikely to be affected (severely) by the virus. Another important psychological argument which was seen when reoccurring lockdowns have been announced in the UK, is that people have the appetite for doing the opposite of what they have been told to, as they believe their freedom of choice has been limited. This was seen when many people hurried to flee Tier 4 areas, hours before restrictions were placed.

 Although ‘behavioural fatigue’ was heavily debated and criticised as cases began to rise, there were several benefits of using nudging rather than a strict lockdown at the start of the pandemic, the most important being that it encouraged Covid safe behaviour. Firstly, methods such as sending personal texts to people who may be vulnerable, warning them to stay at home meant that responses could be targeted at specific groups, where it may be harder to enforce regulations. In terms of retail and hospitality industries, nudging was less disruptive to their economies as they were not forced to shut. At first, using nudging to allow herd immunity in the UK was suggested, where 80% of the population who were at low health risk were allowed to be exposed to the virus whilst nudging measures would be used to protect the vulnerable and high-risk citizens.

However, eventually lockdown in the UK was inevitable as the previous interventions of nudging were criticised as being ineffective which may show a limitation of indirect regulations as cases kept escalating. This was partly due to the fact that many vulnerable people were misidentified, leading to hospitals being overwhelmed with patients and many more losing their lives. Although nudging encouraged many to stay indoors and avoid mixing, a regulation was necessary due to medical reasons to ensure everybody followed the guidelines for a limited amount of time. In addition, the UK government’s response to the pandemic is continually evolving with advice and guidance changing from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’ and sudden changes in tier systems. An excessive use of nudging may actually be less effective as people may experience an informational overload, making regulations a better response.

Although a lockdown was eventually needed, nudges have continued to help alter people’s behaviour to prevent further infection. Subtle interventions have encouraged people to volunteer for the NHS, continue to exercise and continue with social interactions virtually. This is extremely beneficial in the long term as it not only helps to fight the virus, but also reduces health issues such as mental health in the future. This has been done through slogans such as ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’, Joe Wicks’s online fitness sessions and important messages on social media platforms.

Looking at other countries around the world, many have adopted such nudging strategies to aid lockdowns. It should be noted that nudging can be seen as mainly a top-down approach released by the government which it does by using the power of technology such as media. Given this, it may not be a viable approach in developing countries where not all the citizens are connected though technology and messages are therefore difficult to spread nationally. However, India, an emerging country severely affected by the pandemic has used nudges as a prominent part of their response. This was especially vital in India, where the population density is extremely high in certain places and has the second largest population. Another reason why behavioural science approaches are important in India is due to it having a more vulnerable healthcare system is some areas of the country, so it is essential to warn and educate people of the harmful effects of the virus.

Approaches used in India such as paying respect to frontline workers by lighting diyas and launching social media campaigns such as #YOGAathone are similar to those in the UK but on a much larger scale due to the difference in populations. In addition, India used behavioural science to launch PM CARES fund where people were urged to make donations to encourage public participation as well as nudging manufacturing firms to temporarily switch to making PPE. Elder and more vulnerable people were encouraged to stay at home by broadcasting limited edition nostalgic TV shows from the 80s and 90s which had a ‘much larger effect that expected in keeping people home during the summer’, sources explain.  Furthermore, the Ministry of Human Resource development also nudged start-ups and new businesses which gave rise to programs such as ‘Fight Corona IDEAthon’ as well as encouraging people to download ArogyaSetu, India’s track and trace app which reached more than 100 million downloads in just 40 days.

Although nudging on its own has a limited effectiveness in preventing infections, as seen in the United Kingdom and Netherlands in February and early March who promoted the use of behavioural science, in compliment with regulations, it has helped to adopt a new behaviour among individuals where acts like wearing a mask and washing hands has now become second nature. Effectiveness of nudging varies due to people’s demographic backgrounds which may be why it was more effective in India than other countries but generally has successfully altered human behaviour. As the pandemic has lasted longer than expected, nudging is becoming increasingly vital in ensuring people continue to act safely. Reoccurring lockdowns are not a sustainable long-term solution for the economy and citizens and although they are currently vital to prevent the spread of infections, nudging can help to ensure people stay safe once lockdowns are lifted.


‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness’ by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein


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