Sludge is the name given to the act of using nudge theory to achieve dubious objectives.

Summary by The World of Work Project


Nudging is often used to help people achieve better outcomes, e.g. eating more healthily, it can just as easily be used for self-serving ends. When it is used this way it is sludge. It is unpleasant an the world would be better without it.

Sludge has two main components to it, friction and bad intentions.

Sludgy ground, all around
Sludge, sludge, everywhere… yuk

Where nudges are often used to make it easier for people to take beneficial actions, sludge often introduces friction which makes it harder for people to take beneficial actions. For example, hiding healthy food at the back of a supermarket, beyond snacks, comfort-food and candy, can be thought of as sludge. As can websites hiding their “unsubscribe” buttons.

Sludge exists all around the world. Every time you find yourself frustrated with a decision tree or process you need to go through, you might be facing it.

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The World of Work Project View

Sludge is nefarious. Is gets all over the place and makes our lives worse. It’s simply a means of influencing people through attrition or a lighter form of deception. By making it hard for people to do what they know is best for them, you wear them down and eventually they’ll do what benefits you. They only do this, though, because they have no resistance left.

But they won’t be pleased about it. They’ll remember, feel used and feel resentful.

While organizations can use nudge theory in the workplace, they should avoid sludge. It leads to negative customer and employee experiences. It can be a race to the bottom as well. Let’s just get rid of it and create a better world where people can do what they know is best for themselves without being messed with.

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The phrase Sludge, and lots of great work on Nudge, comes from Richard Thaler. You can learn more by reading his works.

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