Story by Jack Croft
Image by Shutterstock/Artiom Photo
Like Fight Club, nudging has certain inviolable rules.
The first rule of nudging is that you do not talk about nudging. Just kidding. Rule #1 is that the nudge has to be voluntary, not compulsory. And Rule #2 is that offering incentives to change behavior doesn’t count. “It’s not really a nudge when you are paying someone to change behavior,” says Saif Mir, assistant professor of decision and technology analytics, whose research focuses on behavioral supply chain management.
“When we talk about nudging in the academic context, it basically means an initiative or a push to persuade an individual to change behavior, hopefully in our particular preferred direction,” Mir says. (Like when hotels try to get you to reuse your towels by telling you how it helps the environment.)
Mir worked with colleagues Stephanie Eckerd of the University of Tennessee, John Aloysius of the University of Arkansas, and Alex Scott of the University of Tennessee to test whether trucking companies can use message-based nudges to motivate their drivers to voluntarily reduce truck idling.
“By studying nudges in an organizational setting, my hope was to see if these small messages employed by an organization or management could be powerful enough to change employee behavior,” Mir says.
The trucking industry is a critical part of the supply chain and the economy in the United States. In 2022, the American Trucking Associations reported 72.6 percent of the nation’s freight was moved by trucks, and the industry employed more than 3.5 million truck drivers.
Truck idling is currently a necessity for the well-being of most long-haul drivers, who sleep in their trucks, Mir says. That requires the trucks to be running—and burning fuel—for air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. Idling takes a social, environmental and economic toll, known as the Triple Bottom Line. (See impacts below.)
There are alternative ways to provide heating and cooling, including auxiliary power units (APUs) and battery-powered heating and air conditioning. But each of those alternatives cost up to $8,000 per truck.
The researchers found a public company with more than 1,200 trucks that agreed to work with them. The 26-week study included 600 trucks: 100 served as the control group in which drivers did not receive any messages. The other 500 trucks were split into five groups of 100 each—each group receiving a different message.
For the first 13 weeks, no messages were sent as data regarding truck idling was collected from each truck. For the next 13 weeks, drivers received messages aimed at different social and personal norms encouraging them to reduce idling for their benefit and the benefit to society. Data was collected weekly to see what kind of effect, if any, the messaging had on truck idling.
At first glance, the messaging didn’t seem to have any impact. But when diving into the data, researchers found that messaging that targeted social norms relating to the environment, which Mir describes as “general beliefs about how somebody should behave in a group or society,” did have an effect for the first four weeks. But it didn’t last.
“The truck drivers receiving the messaging about environmental benefits reduced idling compared to the control group, but then gradually they reverted back to their old behavior as they received the same message over and over again,” Mir says.
“After the first few times, efficiency was lost. We learned organizations have to leverage messaging for short duration projects.”
In those industries that employ temporary workers, like agriculture or warehousing, where it’s not necessarily the same workers seeing the messages repeatedly, “it’s more likely that nudging can be effective,” Mir says.
Why it Matters
“People are concerned about how they are perceived in a society,” Mir says. If you want to nudge your employees to change behavior, try tapping into that with your messaging by drawing on notions of what most people approve of or what most people actually do.
Idling Impacts Triple Bottom Line*
Gasses harmful to human health - including sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and carbon monoxide are released into the air.
Fuel from idling trucks costs $1.8 billion annually.
11 million tons of carbon dioxide - the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities - is released into the atmosphere from truck idling each year.
*Elkington 1998, 2014 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report