Gentle Nudges vs. Hard Shoves: Solving the Sticky Norms Problem

University of Chicago Law Review, 2000

Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 240

40 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2000 Last revised: 5 Oct 2014

See all articles by Dan M. Kahan

Dan M. Kahan

Yale University - Law School

Date Written: 2000


The resistance of law enforcers sometimes confounds the efforts of law makers to change social norms. Thus, as legislators expand liability for date rape, domestic violence, and drunk driving, police become less likely to arrest, prosecutors to charge, jurors to convict, and judges to sentence severely. The conspicuous resistance of these decisionmakers in turn reinforces the norms that law makers intended to change. Can this ?sticky norms? pathology be effectively treated? It can be, this article argues, if law makers apply ?gentle nudges? rather than ?hard shoves.? When the law embodies a relatively mild degree of condemnation, the desire of most decisionmakers to discharge their civic duties will override their reluctance to enforce a law that attacks a widespread social norm. The willingness of most decisionmakers to enforce can initiate a self-reinforcing wave of condemnation, thereby allowing lawmakers to increase the severity of the law in the future without prompting resistance from most decisionmakers. The article presents a formal model of this strategy for norm reform, illustrates it with real world examples, and identifies its normative and prescriptive implications.

Suggested Citation

Kahan, Dan M., Gentle Nudges vs. Hard Shoves: Solving the Sticky Norms Problem (2000). Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 240. Available at SSRN:

Dan M. Kahan (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States


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