Does the end affect the means? Purpose-dependent effects of behavioral interventions in online grocery shopping
Abstract: Behavioral interventions that make small, seemingly irrelevant changes to the choice architecture (also called “nudges”) have been applied in various domains, including financial, occupational, health- and sustainability-related decisions. Although the behavioral response to some nudges is substantial, the magnitude of the effects differs widely. Various studies have investigated the impact of individual and situational variables. Yet, one key variable that has not yet been systematically examined for its behavioral impact is the purpose pursued by the nudge (e.g., promoting healthy eating). To date, a direct, systematic analysis that exogenously and exclusively manipulates the nudge’s purpose, while holding all other factors constant, is missing. In this study, we analyze the results of a randomized controlled trial in the online grocery shopping context (n = 790). We investigate the effects of two different nudging interventions (food labels and salience reduction) and systematically manipulate the pursued purpose (health vs. sustainability vs. pro-profit vs. none communicated). While the effect of the food labels largely depends on the communicated purpose, the effect of the salience reduction unfolds independently of its purpose. These findings have serious implications: They provide empirical evidence that “strong” nudges that bypass individuals’ active information processing and reasoning can steer behavior in the intended direction of the nudge, irrespective of peoples’ preferences. Our findings call for careful consideration of the welfare effects of nudges implemented as instruments of public policy and underscore the need for regulation of nudges in the consumer domain.
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