A Closer Look

The concept of nudging, popularized by Thaler and Sunstein (2008) in their book “Nudge”, has sparked debates on its ethical implications. Critics argue that nudging, rooted in libertarian paternalism, manipulates individuals by exploiting their cognitive biases to guide them towards decisions the nudgers think are rational. In simpler terms, it’s like steering people towards choices they might not realize are best for them. But is this nudging always unethical, especially when it comes to digital teaching tools in Higher Education?

Understanding Nudging:

Libertarian paternalism, or nudging, aims to overcome people’s cognitive biases by utilizing them to direct decisions towards what individuals would choose if they were rational. Critics (Gigerenzer, 2015) argue that this definition implies exploiting people’s weaknesses (“biases”) to influence their choices.

Behavioral Decisions and External Influences:

Are people making decisions against their preferences due to irrational behavior, or are external factors at play? In the context of digital teaching tools in Higher Education (HE), various external and contextual factors seem to affect decision-making of HE teachers when opting for digital tools or not. These include a lack of appropriate guidelines and resources, both at the infrastructure of HE (training, flexible support services, financial and technical resources) and at personal level (lack of knowledge, motivation, time, uncertainty, financial constraints).

Understanding Rational Decision-Making:

Despite external barriers, it is rational for some HE teachers to resist engaging with digital teaching tools. Nudges may seem unnecessary when considering the genuine challenges faced by educators in adopting new tools.

The need for ethical implementation of Nudges:

While skepticism surrounds nudging, it can be both effective and ethical if certain principles are followed:

  • Follow a top- down and bottom-up systemic approach and include the participation of all stakeholders (supervisor level, administrative level, teacher, and students)
  • Understand Barriers: It’s crucial to comprehend the barriers at all levels that restrict nudging possibilities and the current decision-making of HE teachers.
  • Overcome Barriers: Coordinated efforts at the infrastructural level should be made to overcome barriers, providing guidelines, financial and time-related resources, and incentives for the adoption of digital teaching tools.
  • Know Preferences: Identify the preferential choice set of HE teachers within existing barriers. Ask the HE Teachers themselves as well as the students. Understand which digital teaching tools they want to engage with and whether these match student preferences.
  • Predict Impact: Assess the potential impact of nudges to ensure they align with intended goals.
  • Accessibility: Confirm that avoiding the nudge is easy and doesn’t incur costs for individual HE teachers.


Nudging, when applied ethically and with a clear understanding of external barriers, can be a valuable tool in promoting positive behavioral changes, also in HE. By addressing challenges and respecting the preferences and rational decision-making of educators, nudges can contribute to the successful adoption of digital teaching tools.



Contributed by the University of Barcelona