The ‘Internet of Things’ Will Take Nudge Theory Too Far

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My mother turned sharply, red-faced, yelling at me to “stop being a noodge!” Shopping with my mother as a young boy I can remember begging her to buy the cereal box that contained the prize that I was sure would change my life, to give me the plastic toy hanging from the store shelf like a baited hook, or pestering her for candy strategically placed at my six-year-old eye level at the checkout counter. Today whining six year olds are not the only noodges (an annoyance or a pest) out there. Today we are now being ‘nudged’ to do something by nearly everyone and now every thing. So when will all this nudging become a noodge?

We all want to make good decisions. Our doctors, financial advisors, employers, transportation planners and even the janitor would like us to make the ‘right’ choice. The places and spaces where we make those decisions form what decision researchers refer to as our ‘choice architecture’. The idea of nudge or nudging people to make the ‘optimal’ decision has been a mainstay in political science, economics and psychology for decades.

Perhaps the best known theorists on nudging may be Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. They define ‘nudge’ in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness as a gentle, not mandated, cue, push or other means to encourage a desired behavior.

Nudge theory suggests that gentle nudges to an individual can lead to decisions and behaviors that may benefit both the individual and community. Rather that prohibiting a behavior, desired actions are encouraged almost by stealth, such as identifying one product online as the ‘most popular’ to prompt a click or providing the calorie count next to the name of your favorite chocolate-covered cream-filled delight to rethink your breakfast options. Perhaps the most colorful example is the image of a fly painted on men’s urinals to encourage optimal point and shoot behavior to maintain a clean restroom.

Now enter the Internet-of-Things (IoT) – millions of ‘smart’ devices connected and communicating with each other. IoT now provides 24/7 access to consumers. Coupled with insights drawn from big data, IoT can deliver messages to nudge you based upon your location, past preferences, demographics, health and almost any other characteristic you can imagine.

These ubiquitous and connected sensor-rich devices monitor, manage, and motivate behaviors with nudges in the form of a buzz, a blink, or a beat. A pill app buzzes to remind you to take your medications. The car dashboard now blinks a coffee cup icon suggesting that you should consider taking a rest to manage fatigue. And, your favorite wearable gently beats a tapping rhythm on your wrist suggesting that it is time to stand up and take a short walk.

As our environments become more intelligent and our wearables connect us to nearly everyone and everything we can expect to be nudged more often. Retailers are perfecting location-based services to buzz your phone with a sale just for you as you casually walk through the mall.

A restaurant you went to a year ago somehow knows you’re driving by and offers a free dessert if you come in for lunch – right now. And, of course, the promise of a quantified life to improve your health will soon mean your wearables (and the coming generation of implantables) will be nudging you to exercise, eat right, take your meds, meditate, breathe deeply and more often.

Even if you dare to shut off your smartphone and take off your helpful nudgers for a quiet evening at home, there will be plenty of devices to get you through the night. Your robotic home assistant (Google Home, Amazon Echo, etc.) will remind you of a new ‘opportunity’ as you were simply ordering a new book online. Once-quiet appliances that waited for you to push their buttons are now pushing yours. Your coffee machine beeps to remind you that you may want to prefill it to reduce the morning rush. The thermostat glows indicating that your energy use may be greater than that of your neighbors. The washer beckons that it is done with the day’s load and the dryer cries out that it needs to be emptied. Even your oven utters tones suggesting it may be time to clean it. Tired? No worries, your home robot will someday gently nudge you that it is now time to sleep.

So when will these nudges become noodges?

In fact, we may be rapidly approaching the limits of what consumers can take from well-meaning nudges. The always-on economy once referred to work life that had no boundaries between where we work, where we live, or what time it was. Today the 24/7 nudge economy is emerging. The intense desire of nearly every organization to engage us as a client, patient, consumer, member or simple user, along with the technology to do so, may soon lead to nudge fatigue.

We have seen what happens when there is too much of anything. Too many choices on the grocery shelf, along with too much information, often forces consumers to default to purchasing the familiar sprinting to the check-out counter (or digital shopping cart) as fast as possible.

For many people their email runneth over. To cope with the volume and the velocity of incoming messages many sacrifice their work productivity or sleep time to answer an unending torrent of emails. As the inbox stacks up we may divert selected people to other channels such as text…and then the texts begin to stack up filling even that channel.

Nudge fatigue even happens to professionals. Commercial pilots and hospital nurses call it alarm fatigue when they either turn off or no longer hear the ‘bells.’ Similar to pilots and nurses our ‘warning’ nudges in our cars can become background noise. The chimes to fasten our seat belts, the blinks detecting something in our blind spot, and yes, even the helpful (and somewhat passive aggressive) coffee cup glowing on our dashboard reminding us of our fatigue, are becoming blurs not necessarily crisp motivators. In the 24/7 nudge economy, shutting down and off the grid may soon become the new luxury rather than sporting the next-generation shiny connected wearable.

Nudge remains a powerful and valuable tool in the behavioral toolbox. However, nudgers must now consider the nudge noise the consumer is managing hourly. Digital strategists, in particular, can no longer solely focus on channel, behavior, location and content to identify the optimal opportunity to present a message or make a pitch. Big data and IoT should also be used to better understand the real-time mood of the person, how much digital noise they are willing to tolerate or how much nudge noise they are being subjected to at that very moment. Otherwise the gentle well-meaning nudge becomes just another six year old pleading for candy before breakfast.

Now, please excuse me, my watch is telling me it is time to stand up and breathe deeply.