Understanding the Impact of Nudges on Social Norms through Script Activation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Economics


Sometimes nudges have unintended consequences for the policy maker. One example is the introduction of financial penalties for behaviours that counter policymaker objectives. This intervention sometimes produces behaviour that is consistent with the intended effect (e.g. Fellner et al 2015). However, sometimes the effect is the opposite of what the policy maker intends (e.g. Gneezy et al., 2000) Another example is a nudge that shows individuals how their behaviour compares to their peers in an effort to make people conform (e.g. Schultz et al., 2007).

Within this framework we can understand the impact of nudges on norms through the lens of script activation. The theory of script activation proposes that norms are embedded into scripts. A script
describes the way a situation is perceived to an individual; this can be achieved through framing devices and altering environmental cues. The theory of script activation states that the way a situation is interpreted can result in different consequences for norm compliance. As how a situation is understood will activate different beliefs, preferences, and behavioural rules.

One possible solution to the crowding out effect is combining monetary incentives with normative messages as seen in (Schultz et al., 2007). We would test how the combination of normative messages and lotteries changes the script that the lottery alone introduces under the theory of script activation. One hypothesis is that without a normative message, a script is activated which implies that registering to vote is an "optional" action. However, if we combine the incentive with a message that reminds individuals of their civic duty, this changes the script and the lottery instead represents a "prize" for exemplary behaviour.

Another solution is to offer a lottery whereby, if individuals register to vote, they are eligible to win a donation for a charity. I hypothesise that by changing the recipient of the positive financial incentive
such that entering the lottery is equivalent to a pro-social action, the underlying norm of civic responsibility is strengthened. By reframing the lottery as an act of charitable giving, we could activate the altruism norm and thus make the act of not registering socially irresponsible.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000711/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
1928497 Studentship ES/P000711/1 01/10/2017 31/03/2021 Sarah Bowen