The Real Opportunities for Empowering People through Behavioral Science

Essay by Michael Hallsworth: “…There’s much to be gained by broadening out from designing choice architecture with little input from those who use it. But I think we need to change the way we talk about the options available.

Let’s start by noting that attention has focused on three opportunities in particular: nudge plus, self-nudges, and boosts.

Nudge plus is where a prompt to encourage reflection is built into the design and delivery of a nudge (or occurs close to it). People cannot avoid being made aware of the nudge and its purpose, enabling them to decide whether they approve of it or not. While some standard nudges, like commitment devices, already contain an element of self-reflection, a nudge plus must include an “active trigger.”

self-nudge is where someone designs a nudge to influence their own behavior. In other words, they “structure their own decision environments” to make an outcome they desire more likely. An example might be creating a reminder to store snacks in less obvious and accessible places after they are bought.

Boosts emerge from the perspective that many of the heuristics we use to navigate our lives are useful and can be taught. A boost is when someone is helped to develop a skill, based on behavioral science, that will allow them to exercise their own agency and achieve their goals. Boosts aim at building people’s competences to influence their own behavior, whereas nudges try to alter the surrounding context and leave such competences unchanged.

When these ideas are discussed, there is often an underlying sense of “we need to move away from nudging and towards these approaches.” But to frame things this way neglects the crucial question of how empowerment actually happens.   

Right now, there is often a simplistic division between disempowering nudges on one side and enabling nudge plus/self-nudges/boosts on the other. In fact, these labels disguise two real drivers of empowerment that cut across the categories. They are:

  1. How far a person performing the behavior is involved in shaping the initiative itself. They could not be involved at all, involved in co-designing the intervention, or initiating and driving the intervention itself.
  2. The level and nature of any capacity created by the intervention. It may create none (i.e., have no cognitive or motivational effects), it may create awareness (i.e., the ability to reflect on what is happening), or it may build the ability to carry out an action (e.g., a skill).

The figure below shows how the different proposals map against these two drivers.

Source: Hallsworth, M. (2023). A Manifesto for Applying Behavioral Science.

A major point this figure calls attention to is co-design, which uses creative methods “to engage citizens, stakeholders and officials in an iterative process to respond to shared problems.” In other words, the people affected by an issue or change are involved as participants, rather than subjects. This involvement is intended to create more effective, tailored, and appropriate interventions that respond to a broader range of evidence…(More)”.