The effect of nudges on autonomy in hypothetical and real life settings

J. Wachneri*, M.A. Adriaanse, D.T.D. De Ridder

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Nudges have repeatedly been found to be effective, however they are claimed to harm autonomy, and it has been found that laypeople expect this too. To test whether these expectations translate to actual harm to experienced autonomy, three online studies were conducted. The paradigm used in all studies was that participants were asked to voluntarily participate in a longer version of the questionnaire. This was either done in a hypothetical setting, where participants imagined they were asked this question, but did not answer it, and reported their expectations for autonomy; Or in an actual choice setting where participants answered the question and then reported their actual autonomy. The first study utilized the hypothetical setting and tried to replicate that laypeople expect nudges to harm autonomy with the current paradigm. A total of 451 participants were randomly assigned to either a control, a default nudge, or a social norm nudge condition. In the default nudge condition, the affirmative answer was pre-selected, and in the social norm nudge condition it was stated that most people answered affirmative. The results showed a trend for lower expected autonomy in nudge conditions, but did not find significant evidence. In Study 2, with a sample size of 454, the same design was used in an actual choice setting. Only the default nudge was found to be effective, and no difference in autonomy was found. In Study 3, Studies 1 and 2 were replicated. Explanation of the nudge was added as an independent variable and the social norm nudge condition was dropped, resulting in six conditions and 1322 participants. The results showed that participants indeed expected default nudges to harm their autonomy, but only if the nudge was explained. When actually nudged, no effect on autonomy was found, independent of the presence of an explanation.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0256124
Pages (from-to)1-16
JournalPLoS One
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021


Dive into the research topics of 'The effect of nudges on autonomy in hypothetical and real life settings'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this