For my first year of graduate school I lived by myself – a supposed “rite of passage” I needed to endure. Not a bad experience by any means, but for fiscal reasons I decided to move and take on a fellow grad student as a new roommate. We are very different people, he competes in body building competitions and I tinker on Photoshop. Friends warned that it might not work out, but we started living together this past August. Our differences could easily have sparked the newest hit dramedy on CBS. Despite the hilarity that ensued, I noticed my habits slowly changing. I found myself going outside to play basketball or football, or even jumping on the P90X train and rocking some Kenpo X in my living room.

What the naysayers didn’t understand was that my decision was part fiscal , part
tactical. I wanted to change my eating habits and lack of physical activity for some time, and I knew that by living with this health-conscious individual, my habits had a much higher chance of changing as well. My understanding of this notion came from reading Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein during my summer internship. It’s a book about the “nudges” our surroundings can give us towards a certain outcome.

According to Thaler and Sunstein, humans have inherent biases and heuristics
that lead towards specific decisions. Unless we consciously make ourselves aware
of them, we don’t even notice. When we don’t feel it necessary to exert much
thought, our brain has the ability to shutdown or enter an autopilot and allow
these biases and heuristics to make the decision for us. This autopilot is on more then we think. If you learn to become an effective “choice architect,” you can harness power over others’ autopilot.

Most student affairs practitioners would agree that it would be advantageous
for us to act as choice architects for our students. Universities have a great
opportunity to make a few minor changes to their operations and help many of our
students’ live healthier lives.

What might some of these nudges look like?

1) Some new residence halls are turning to the Elkay EZH20 water fountain to nudge their students towards refilling water bottles rather than buying new
ones. The fountain has a digital screen that informs students of the number
of water bottles saved from becoming potential waste every time you refill a
bottle from the fountain.

2) The Mere-Measurement Effect is the idea that simply asking questions changes behavior. In the case of student clubs or activities, surveys could be utilized asking positive questions, such as “Are you likely to attend another ____ event.” Such questioning can have a positive effect by implying that previous patrons will become return patrons.

3) Visual cues effectively relay messages that anyone can comprehend. If a certain dorm room goes over their allotted energy use for the month, their RM could put a sad face magnet on their door. Using public accountability with the residents to correct their habits can prove effective because “it turns out that if certain objects are made visible and salient, people’s behavior can be affected.”

4) Housing security is a constant concern, and regardless of the campus, there’s almost always a concern about doors being propped open, creating massive gaps in protecting students from larceny. If asking students to be mindful isn’t doing the job, many campuses are providing a nudge, or rather a complete shove, by adding buzzers to their doors. If the doors stay open for too long a very obnoxious noise sounds and alerts everyone that a door is still open and needs to be shut. A less subtle nudge, but it does push individuals into action to correct the issue.

5) If you make it harder to make a poor decision, you can increase the likelihood students will make a positive, and easier, one. Case in point: I work across from a food service area that highlights multiple fast food restaurants. Every day from 11:30-2 I witness students choosing high-calorie meals rich with processed food. It can be extremely difficult to convince students to pass on these delicious, but awful, food choices, but it can be done if we’re strategic about how we serve it. School’s can reduce salt consumption simply by removing the salt from dining hall tables. They can also give prime real estate to the healthy foods and move the unhealthy options to an area that takes a bit more effort to get to or reach.

I intentionally lived with someone whose traits I found to be positive. I became
a choice architect and nudged myself towards living a healthier life. Universities know their students, and by acting as choice architects they can change their students for the better – and for good. All it takes is a nudge.

What is your campus doing to nudge students towards improved behavior and decision making?

About the Author
Steven Harowitz is a graduate student at the University of South Carolina studying Higher Education and Student Affairs.
For more information, follow him on Twitter @StevenHarowitz or visit his website


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