Encouraging behaviour change: with a nudge or a boost?

Published by Elaine Gallagher on

Encouraging behaviour change: with a nudge or a boost?

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Understanding and implementing behaviour change strategies has become a core focus for many businesses in their drive to optimise performance. If you have any interest in behavioural science, you’ll almost certainly be familiar with ‘nudge theory’ due to its immense surge in popularity in recent years as a result of its success in the domain of behaviour change. You might not, however, be so familiar with nudge’s lesser-known cousin, ‘boost’. We’ll explore both concepts, how they work, and when and how to use them.

abstract behaviour change digital image of head on dark background

What is nudging?

Nudge Theory was developed in the early 90s, with the term ‘nudge’ first coined by James Wilk. It wasn’t until around 2008 that this behaviour change method was more widely popularised by Thaler and Sunstein in their influential book.

Nudging emerged as a popular behaviour change mechanism when it became evident that part of human nature is to make sub-optimal behavioural decisions due to an unintentional lack of rationality. This comes about due to the sheer amount of information we are bombarded with, as a result we use ‘heuristics’ or mental shortcuts to help make our decisions. Unfortunately, when we take shortcuts, this can lead to errors.

Nudges, while an excellent and effective behaviour change tool – as evidenced by their popularity, are limited in terms of long-term learning. They are typically not designed to be educative, but rather simply steer our behaviour towards that which is desired. Nudges will change behaviour but are unlikely to change the reason behind the behaviour for the individual. For nudges the environment acts as a trigger, with the behaviour coming about as a reflexive response to that trigger.

Nudges achieve the desired outcome by limiting the choice architecture. This means that the environment will push us towards what is wanted from us, and all other options are more difficult to engage in. For example, if the goal is to encourage healthy eating for our employees, putting the healthy options at eye level in the cafeteria means more effort is required to seek out unhealthy options.

Setting a default option also functions as a nudge. If you think about organ donation, for example, there has been an increasing trend towards ‘presumed consent’ policy over the last 15 years. This means that the automatic choice is that citizens are organ donors and if they wish not to be, they must ‘opt-out’. The traditional approach required ‘explicit consent’, with citizens having to ‘opt-in’ to the scheme. This removal of the choice architecture, as well as the greater effort required to opt-out, has resulted in a substantial increase in organ donation worldwide.  

When we think about changing behaviour, it can be considered a massive undertaking, as we need to motivate people to want to engage in the new behaviour. This can be off-putting from a practitioner perspective, as workplace behaviour change attempts can often be met with resistance. However, when it comes to nudges, interestingly, they don’t require explicit transparency, i.e., the target individual does not need to understand the aims for a nudge to be effective. This does raise questions around morality as, while removing autonomy can make behaviour change seamless, it also removes the ability to make an informed choice and may function more in line with manipulation. Therefore, steps should be taken to ensure that transparency around attempts to nudge people is provided, as well as clear information on the purpose of the behaviour change and its beneficiaries. It’s also important to ensure that when we implement a nudge, we are not preventing the target individuals from engaging in alternative behaviours.

abstract behaviour change digital image of head on dark background

What is boosting?

While nudges target behaviours, boosts, on the other hand, target people’s cognitive and motivational competences. Behavioural boosts have been developed by Prof. Ralf Hertwig in recent years (see more).  Boosts allow individuals the autonomy to make their own decisions, as they equip us with the tools to do so by ourselves, and on our own terms. Boosts differ from nudges; in that they are designed to allow individuals to build on learning in the long term. Boosts empower individuals to change or engage in behaviour by improving their decision-making capabilities. Typically, the environment acts as an information source, promoting a reflective approach to decision making.

Identifying boosts in the real world can be tricky. One way to approach the distinction is to think about what happens when the intervention is removed. When a nudge intervention is removed, the behaviour typically reverts to pre-intervention status. When a boost is removed, the individual is likely to have already learned how to apply the teaching of the boost and will continue to apply it after the fact, as their competences have expanded to include this new learning.

During the pandemic, health practitioners struggled to communicate the importance of diligent behaviours to protect public health. In response to this, an effective boost was developed. The ‘hands, face, space’ campaign offered a simple and memorable rule of thumb for people to apply that reminded them to wash their hands, wear a mask, and keep a distance from others. This approach didn’t enforce behaviour change but gave people enough information to know what to do in a range of scenarios, promoting autonomous decision making.  

Boosts can also function by improving knowledge and understanding. Staying on the topic of health, there is a world of statistical information which is often presented in very abstract terms, making the true messaging inaccessible to the average individual. For example, a study on the effectiveness of the medication Lipitor demonstrated that showing this in relative terms ‘Lipitor reduces the chance of stroke by 48%’, is not very informative. Boosting this information by way of showing absolute risk is far more informative and gives the reader better tools to inform their decision about the drug ‘Lipitor reduces the chance of stroke from 28 in 1,000 to 15 in 1,000, i.e., by 13 in 1000 people.’

When should I use them?

While at a surface level, technically, boosts and nudges can lead to the same behavioural outcome, how this is achieved by both approaches differs greatly. When we have very strong preferences, nudges may not have the power to override these. For example, trying to reduce smoking by increasing the distance to the smoking area is an example of a nudge, but this is unlikely to be a deterrent. However, providing information around health implications to help smokers understand the harm reduction of quitting, or reducing smoking, in absolute terms, acts as a boost that allows them to apply this information to inform their smoking behaviours.

Boosting requires at least some level of motivation towards the desired behaviour whereas nudging does not. So, if you’ve already tried to drum up motivation and support for a new way of doing things and this has failed, nudges may be the better option. Nudges require little cognitive or motivational effort, and therefore work well where there is no motivation or desire to change. Where there is an appetite for change, and individuals may simply just not know how to do it, boosts will tap into that motivation and give people the necessary tools  to engage in the new behaviour, when they choose to do so.

Which is best?

We can’t necessarily say that one is better than the other, as both methods are effective and have the ability to change behaviour in a variety of settings. However, we can say that the more long-term outcomes do differ. So which method is preferable really depends on whether your aims are simply to change a particular behaviour, or whether you want to give your colleagues the tools and autonomy to make the right behavioural decisions. Nudges target behaviours directly. Boosts target our competences that lead to behaviour change. If you have struggled with motivating behaviour change, then nudging could offer a short-term solution for fast behaviour change. Over time boosts trump nudges in that the behaviours are lasting, and the individuals are learning and developing skills. At BestAtDigital, our aim is always to give our learners what they need to build on good habits and apply their competencies widely, therefore, beyond specific scenarios, we tend to favour boosts.

If you’d like to learn more about boosts and how they can help you change behaviour in your organisation check out the excellent recent LPI Webinar led by our own behavioural scientist Charlotte Hills and Professor Ralf Hertwig here.

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