Libertarian paternalism or ‘nudging’ has received global support and popularity from countries including Australia, America and England. This has led to the development of various nudge units that use nudge interventions to overcome complex problems such as obesity, climate change and tax compliance. However, critics have questioned the ethical nature of nudge interventions and their effectiveness at bringing about behaviour change. In particular, many have expressed their concern for the unintended consequences and reactance backlash that may occur when people become aware of the nudge.
The aim of the current research was to evaluate the effectiveness of nudging, by exploring the conditions under which a nudge is likely to backfire and cause psychological reactance. We predicted that a nudge would be more likely to backfire when it was made nontransparent and hidden from participants. Perceptions of non-transparency were also predicted to vary as a function of whether the nudgee identifies with the nudger. Two studies were conducted to examine the role of shared identification in the acceptance of non-transparency. In Study 1 (N = 195), participants were nudged towards an expensive lunch option with the use of a default. Study 2 (N = 256) used a similar method, however, participants were nudged towards an expensive health insurance plan with the use of a default.
Nudge tactics when used in non-transparent ways were found to backfire when there was a shared sense of identification, and when there was not. This suggests that people inherently want to maintain their autonomy and make their own decisions. Nudging may therefore not be an effective behaviour change tool because there may be unintended consequences. Practical implications and possible future research is discussed.