The Real Opportunities for Empowering People through Behavioral Science

This article is part of a series based on “A Manifesto for Applying Behavioral Science” from the Behavioural Insights Team. In each article, Michael Hallsworth draws from the manifesto’s agenda for the future of behavioral science and offers a new angle on current thinking. This week, he asks if current debates about “nudges versus boosts” fail to capture the most meaningful choices facing behavioral scientists. View the series here

Critics of behavioral science have claimed that it is often quite “top-down,” with a choice architect designing certain outcomes for others. These critics argue that such a setup is problematic because it is manipulative; identifies people’s preferences poorly; and limits transparency, learning, and autonomy.

I do not explore those questions here. I just note that many in our field have always supported and practiced a wider range of empowering approaches. From the start, the field has promoted techniques such as using natural frequencies to improve understanding of risk, an idea that is often placed in opposition to nudging. (Natural frequencies are a way of presenting risk by using whole numbers—saying that 8 of every 1,000 women has breast cancer, rather than the probability that the population as breast cancer is 0.8 percent.)

More can and should be done to broaden ownership of behavioral science approaches. In other words, the goal would be to ensure more people understand behavioral science approaches and get involved in applying them, either directly or by providing active input to the work of others. 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.”

There’s much to be gained by broadening out from designing choice architecture with little input from those who use it. But we need to change the way we talk about the options.

A 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.

Consider that people may be heavily engaged in developing a nudge intervention that doesn’t trigger reflection or build skills (the main focus of nudge pluses and boosts). People may choose, with careful thought and full information, that they do not want those things to happen.

This choice is similar to the idea of self-nudging, in the top right-hand corner. People are enabled to create their own nudges that they may then forget about, even as they continue to work. They have exercised agency, even though they may not experience autonomy later, while the nudge operates.

In contrast, in the bottom left, a policymaker has decided that the best option is for someone to be taught a “boost” (e.g., simple rules of thumb for managing finances). In the absence of greater engagement, there is a risk that this becomes “paternalistic boosting,” where a policymaker has assumed that people will want this approach. While proponents of boosts say that “individuals choose to engage or not to engage with a boost,” they also say, “Sometimes, lack of motivation may even be addressed with specific boosts (or nudges).” These two things seem to be in tension.

“Paternalistic boosting” is in contrast with the bottom right corner of the figure, “self-boosting,” where people learn about heuristics and then proactively apply them to their own challenges, absent any prompting from a policymaker.

These distinctions about different ways to enable are absent from current debates about “nudging versus boosting.” Identifying these two drivers of involvement and capacity show how the way in which these approaches are applied matters.

A final element missing from the current debate is how far enabling people can lead to a major decentering of the use of behavioral science. The approaches just discussed tend to assume either that a central actor is creating the intervention or, if the person concerned is also the creator, then the intervention is focused on themselves.

But if more people are enabled to use behavioral science, they may decide to introduce interventions that influence others. Rather than just creating self-nudges through altering their immediate environments, they may decide that wider system changes are needed instead. In other words, a range of people could be boosted to create nudges that generate positive societal change (with no “central” actors involved).

If there is an increasing need to shift away from top-down control toward enabling … then this changes the role of policy designers. Rather than being (choice) architects, they may need to be more like facilitators, brokers, and partnership builders.

These are not new ideas. In 1969, George Miller encouraged psychologists to find how best to “give psychology away.” The creators of nudge plus do suggest that it could “provide a link between citizen action on public policy issues and bottom-up movements for social and political action.”

These ideas point toward a new dynamic for public and private sectors. Proponents of co-design argue that more traditional, top-down approaches are inadequate for addressing wicked problems, whose multidimensional nature requires input from both experts and the public. If there is an increasing need to shift away from top-down control toward enabling conditions for behavior, then this changes the role of policy designers. Rather than being (choice) architects, they may need to be more like facilitators, brokers, and partnership builders.

I explore these new roles in more depth in the full report. The roles show how behavioral science can strengthen democratic engagement rather than weaken it, as some have claimed. There’s a real opportunity here, if we can take it—but the first step is to see the real choices clearly.

Disclosure: Michael Hallsworth is a member of the BIT, which provides financial support to Behavioral Scientist as an organizational partner. Organizational partners do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine.