Neither nudging nor framing leads us to leave our cars at home

Do you think gamification, nudging and framing are ground-breaking tools to change people's behaviour? Well, think again. New research from Aarhus BSS shows that all three methods are equally inefficient in achieving major changes in behaviour.


The world would be a healthier place if we chose public transport rather than each of us driving our own car. Air pollution, accidents, traffic noise and climate change could be mitigated. However, changing deep-rooted habits takes a lot of effort. Therefore, it is not easy to leave the car at home and take the bus to work instead.

In a unique experiment, researchers from Aarhus BSS and Arts, and from the University of Southern Denmark, have investigated the effect of gamification, nudging and framing on the use of bus services in Odense. By conducting all three interventions in parallel in one single experiment, the researchers were the first ever to actually compare which intervention was most effective. 282 participants were divided into four different groups: gamification, nudging, framing, and a control group. To make the interventions comparable, all four groups were given a travel card (‘rejsekort’) allowing them to travel by bus for one month.

How the three interventions turned out

The gamification group could earn coins and badges, depending on how much they travelled by bus. Through a personal website, they could check how many kilometres they had saved the environment, how long their streaks were, and how many coins and badges they had earned. Some days were announced as bonus days and participants could earn twice as many coins as normal.

The nudging group had to note the bus departures they would take in the coming week, and they had to write a personal letter about a penalty they came up with themselves for not taking the bus, for example washing the dishes or washing clothes. To nudge further, they were asked to hang their bus times and letter up in a suitable place at home. Participants were also invited to Facebook groups where they discussed their bus experiences.

The framing-group received text messages on the health benefits of walking/cycling instead of going by car. They also received text messages about involving their family for additional support.

Bad news for the advertising industry

The result of the experiment in Odense yielded disappointing results. Getting participants to choose the bus rather than their car was a great challenge. None of the interventions stood out as more effective than the other. In fact, they all seemed equally good or bad, depending on how you look at it. On average participants took the bus 17 times over the course of the experiment.

This is not particularly good news for marketing professionals. Nudging and gamification are popular ways of getting consumers to buy specific goods, be loyal to a specific brand, etc. And many have intuitively believed that they have an effect. However, there is little evidence that they have an effect on behaviour. People enjoy a good experience, but long-term change in behaviour is difficult.

"What people say is often something entirely different than what they actually do. Even though people have the best intentions, they very often don’t leave their car in the garage when it comes down to it"

Andreas Lieberoth - assistant professor, Department of Psychology and Behavioural Science, Aarhus BSS

Simple behavioural change possible with gamification

However, it should be noted that the researchers also tested the methods for simpler behavioural changes, and not only on the difficult behaviour to switch from car to bus.

For simpler behavioural changes, like logging in to a personal website to keep up with personal progress, there were clear advantages with gamification.

"What drives behaviour is personal progress - how much have I improved since last week? Gamification is very effective for this type of simple behavioural change. Rewarding with coins and badges strengthens users' motivation," says Andreas Lieberoth, assistant professor in psychology at Aarhus BSS and the Danish School of Education, who is behind the experiment in Odense.

Researchers see a much greater degree of self-reported good intentions to renew the travel card after the experiment in the gamification group. Therefore, it is clear that gamification gives a much greater desire to join in than traditional persuasion campaigns.

"Of course we must be very aware that what people say is often something entirely different than what they actually do. Even though people have the best intentions, they very often don’t leave their car in the garage when it comes down to it," says Andreas Lieberoth.

Perhaps we need financial incentives, threats or fines to really change people's behaviour in the transport area. This entails more expensive solutions such as higher parking fees, tolls to drive into city centres, and lower ticket prices for public transport.


The research results have been published in Transport Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour.

Read the full research article here


Gamification is adding game elements to things and activities that are not games - for example websites or forms of work - for example by rewarding a desired user behaviour. There are many techniques, for example points, performance, high score lists and virtual money. (Source: Wikipedia)


The original definition of nudging was developed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. It is used in Wikipedia as a definition of nudging: A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not. (Source: Original sources: Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness )


Framing means to frame and the concept comes from communication theory. A classic definition of the concept is by Entman (1993), who writes: "To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described." In other words, framing is about the associations that are linked to a particular phenomenon, and there is a distinction between two different parts of the framing process; frame-building and frame-setting. (Source: Wikipedia)