Most Read Articles of 2021

It’s “déjà vu all over again,” Yogi Berra allegedly said and John Fogerty definitely sang.

The close of 2021 feels eerily similar to the close of 2020. There’s the spike in coronavirus cases, the worry about holiday gatherings, and the uncertainty about what the year ahead has in store.

Despite feeling like we’re back where we started, we’d be remiss if we didn’t stop to look back at all we learned. Our 12 most read articles of 2021 provide a chance to do so. 

This was the year we learned from Steven Pinker why wrapping our heads around the Monty Hall problem is so tough. Hint: we tend to mix up probability and propensity. Leidy Klotz explained why we need more “subtraction” in our lives. “In our striving to improve our lives, our work, and our society, we overwhelmingly add,” he writes. “We overlook the option to subtract from what is already there.”

Conversations with Daniel Kahneman and Adam Grant offered fresh ways to think about decision-making and how to change our minds, respectively. And the two combined for a memorable lesson. “Kahneman said something to the effect of, No one enjoys being wrong, but I do enjoy having been wrong, because it means I am now less wrong than I was before,” Grant recalled.

Those looking for love added game theory to their toolkit via Christina Gravert’s “How to Date Like a Game Theorist.” Ethan Kross helped us cool our inner voice’s chatter—“the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing”—advice that proved useful throughout the unpredictable year. 

There were new developments to nudging. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein used the pandemic summer to update Nudge with the experience and wisdom gained over the decade Nudge has been in the wild. “The future of nudging will be personal,” predicted Stuart Mills as he described why and how nudgers could take individual differences into account. And a trio of Dutch researchers, Henrico van Roekel, Joanne Reinhard, and Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen, tested the effectiveness of nudging versus boosting in an attempt to expand the applied behavioral science toolkit. 

Philipe Bujold and Madhuri Karak offered their take on how behavioral scientists could leverage social proof and social pressure to cascade change across a population, through their account of their work with farmers in Colombia. 

Sofia Deleniv, Dan Ariely, and Kelly Peters shed light on why so many of us equate “natural” with better, a fallacy with dark implications during COVID, as people resisted “unnatural” vaccines. And Jon Roozenbeek, Melisa Basol, and Sander van der Linden offered a creative way to combat misinformation—by inoculating people against it. “Just as weakened exposure to a pathogen triggers antibody production,” they write, “inoculation theory posits that pre-emptively exposing people to a weakened persuasive argument builds people’s resistance against future manipulation.”

So despite the Groundhog Day feel as the year comes to a close, we’ve learned quite a bit. And, hopefully, we’re now better equipped for what comes next.

— The Editorial Board

Why You Should Always Switch: The Monty Hall Problem (Finally) Explained

By Steven Pinker

The infamous problem even professors and mathematicians got wrong comes down to one unintuitive inference—in the Monty Hall problem, Monty Hall is God.

A Conversation with Daniel Kahneman About “Noise”

By Evan Nesterak

Ten years on from Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman is back with a new book, Noise, that will again have you questioning what you thought you knew about making decisions.

lego model of subtraction experiment

Subtract: Why Getting to Less Can Mean Thinking More

By Leidy Klotz

In striving to improve our lives, our work, and our society, we overwhelmingly add, overlooking another powerful option—subtraction.

How to Date Like a Game Theorist

By Christina Gravert

What does online dating look like through the eyes of a game theorist? And could knowing a bit of game theory help you find “the one”?

“Your Ideas Are Not Your Identity”: Adam Grant on How to Get Better at Changing Your Mind

By Evan Nesterak

In his latest book, Think Again, Adam Grant investigates why we struggle to update our ideas and opinions and how we can get better at it.

Nudge: Preface to the Final Edition

By Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein recently decided to update Nudge. Why now and what’s new? They explain in their preface to the “final edition.”

chattering teeth represent our mind's inner voice

How to Channel Your Mind’s Inner Chatter

By Ethan Kross

Our inner voice functions well much of the time, but it can also lead to chatter—the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn introspection into a curse. Here are strategies for breaking that cycle, both in yourself and when supporting others.

The Future of Nudging Will Be Personal

By Stuart Mills

While a nudge might appear effective because a population benefited on average, at the individual level the story could be different. It’s time nudges got personal.

Lush Colombian landscape. In Colombia, groups are working to create behavior change around sustainable farming.

To Scale Behavior Change: Target Early Adopters, Then Leverage Social Proof and Social Pressure

By Philipe Bujold and Madhuri Karak

How do you change behavior when the stakes are high and rewards uncertain? For a group fostering sustainable farming in Colombia, the key was understanding who was resistant and why, then tapping into social proof and social pressure at the right times.

“Natural Is Better”: How the Appeal To Nature Fallacy Derails Public Health

By Sofia Deleniv, Dan Ariely, and Kelly Peters

People tend to see “natural” as a cue for “safe.” This fallacy is a component of vaccine resistance—but we may be able to flip this inclination to encourage uptake.

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

By Henrico van Roekel, Joanne Reinhard, and Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen

While nudges and boosts can look similar in practice, their theoretical distinctions are important and useful for those building interventions.

A New Way to Inoculate People Against Misinformation

By Jon Roozenbeek, Melisa Basol, and Sander van der Linden

A new set of online games holds promise for helping identify and prevent harmful misinformation from going viral.

Honorable Mentions:

Designing Transport for Humans, Not Econs
By Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland

How Netflix’s Choice Engine Drives Its Business
By Eric Johnson

Speaking with Katy Milkman about “How to Change”
By Elizabeth Weingarten

Cooperators, Crusaders, and the Complicit: The Trinity of Religious Moral Character
By Samantha Abrams

What Is the Future of Design and Behavioral Science? A Conversation with Cliff Kuang
By Piyush Tantia

Four Roles for a Behavioral Scientist within Your Organization
By Bing Feng and Dilip Soman

Disclosure: Philipe Bujold, Madhuri Karak, Leidy Klotz, Katy Milkman, Dilip Soman, and Piyush Tantia are members of organizations which provided financial support to Behavioral Scientist in 2021. Richard Thaler and Piyush Tantia are members of the Behavioral Scientist’s advisory board. Advisory board members and organizational donors do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine. Evan Nesterak of Behavioral Scientist served as an editorial consultant on the books Chatter and Subtract. All of the articles and books covered on our site are independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team.