Building the Behavior Change Toolkit: Designing and Testing a Nudge and a Boost

Blog by Henrico van Roekel, Joanne Reinhard, and Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen: “Changing behavior is challenging, so behavioral scientists and designers better have a large toolkit. Nudges—subtle changes to the choice environment that don’t remove options or offer a financial incentive—are perhaps the most widely used tool. But they’re not the only tool.

More recently, researchers have advocated a different type of behavioral intervention: boosting. In contrast to nudges, which aim to change behavior through changing the environment, boosts aim to empower individuals to better exert their own agency.

Underpinning each approach are different perspectives on how humans deal with bounded rationality—the idea that we don’t always behave in a way that aligns with our intentions because our decision-making is subject to biases and flaws.

A nudge approach generally assumes that bounded rationality is a constant, a fact of life. Therefore, to change behavior we best change the decision environment (the so-called choice architecture) to gently guide people into the desired direction. Boosting holds that bounded rationality is malleable and people can learn how to overcome their cognitive pitfalls. Therefore, to change behavior we must focus on the decision maker and increasing their agency.

In practice, a nudge and a boost can look quite similar, as we describe below. But their theoretical distinctions are important and useful for behavioral scientists and designers working on behavior change interventions, as each approach has pros and cons. For instance, one criticism of nudging is the paternalism part of Thaler and Sunstein’s “libertarian paternalism,” as some worry nudges remove autonomy of decision makers (though the extent to which nudges are paternalistic, and the extent to which this is solvable, are debated). Additionally, if the goal of an intervention isn’t just to change behavior but to change the cognitive process of the individual, then nudges aren’t likely to be the best tool. Boosts, in contrast, require some motivation and teachability on the part of the boostee, so there may well be contexts unfit for boosting interventions where nudges come in handy….(More)”.