Over the past decade, policymakers and leaders have started to take a different perspective on how they approach changing behaviour. Whereas policies and processes used to be based on the premises that people act rationally, more and more attention is being given to the irrationality of behaviour. The awareness that “behavioural insights” (subconscious and conscious factors that explain human behaviour) are necessary to explain and predict behaviour is increasing all around the world. Logically, this awareness was quicky followed by the question of how we can use this increased understanding of behaviour to actually change it.
At &samhoud we help organisations gain a deep understanding of root causes of desired and undesired behaviours. Based on this understanding we develop a tailored approach to achieve the behavioural change that helps solve strategic challenges of the organisation. Two evidence-based interventions which can help realize sustainable behavioural change are Nudging and Boosting. In this article we will be taking a look at what these interventions are as well as when and how to use them effectively.
The power of Nudging
Nudges are subtle changes to an individual’s decision environment – without limiting their freedom of choice – that help individuals make better decisions. Nudging has been receiving considerable attention and with good reason: if applied well and ethically, it can be a powerful behavioural change intervention. After Richard Thaler won a Nobel prize on his research about Nudging in 2017, popularity for the implementation of such behavioural change interventions skyrocketed. Nudging is here to stay and has become a default tool in the behavioural scientist’s toolkit.
The new kid on the block: Boosting
Recently, a similar type of behavioural change intervention called “Boosting” has roared its head and is proving to be a promising addition to Nudging. Boosting aims to change behaviour not by changing the choice environment, but by empowering individuals and strengthening their competence. Whereas an effective Nudge leads to more reflexive decision-making and behaviour, an effective Boost leads to more reflective decision-making and behaviour.
Since Boosting is a relatively new intervention, there is an ongoing debate about its precise definition and criteria. Yet as practitioners in the field of behavioural science, we are mostly interested in the potential impact that can be made through a intervention such as Boosting. Therefore our key question is: how can we apply these behavioural change interventions in a workplace context? To answer this question, we’ll discuss two cases in which Nudging and Boosting interventions were tested.
A case of Nudging: using moral symbols to decrease unethical behaviour
We know from behavioural science that being exposed to certain input causes related concepts to become more accessible to us. In line with this idea, Desai and Kouchaki (2016) conducted 6 studies researching if Nudging people with a concept of morality could decrease unethical behaviour. In one of these studies, certain participants were given the role of team leader “Drew”, who had to answer some e-mails. In the experimental condition, participants encountered a Nudge in one of these e-mails in the form of a moral quote (“Better to fail with honor than succeed by fraud”). This nudge aimed to trigger concepts of “morality” in order to reduce unethical behaviour. In the control condition, a neutral quote was used instead (“Success and luck go hand in hand.”).
Following some filler e-mails, “Drew” was then presented with an opportunity to fraudulently report the company’s finances. Doing so would show a profit which would ensure bonuses for all employees and increase Drew’s chances of becoming president of the company. The participant that played “Drew” then had to decide whether he would report the fraudulent finances or not.
In the control condition (neutral quote), 67.6% of participants chose to engage in fraudulent reporting of finances, while only 29.4% of participants did so in the experimental condition (moral quote).
The finding that Nudging morality impacts unethical decision-making was supported by a field study conducted by the same researchers. This study found that the amount of unethical requests of managers was lower when employees displayed a moral symbol in their working environment (such as pictures of Buddha or Jesus) compared to when employees didn’t display any moral symbol.
A Case of Boosting: using Boosting to improve hand hygiene compliance
A recent study, co-authored by one of us, tested the effectiveness of a Boosting intervention to improve hand hygiene in a hospital setting (Van Roekel et al., 2021).
The Boosting intervention aimed to increase the understanding of risks involved in not following the hand hygiene protocol. To help nurses better understand the risk of lacking hand hygiene, a poster was designed with the tagline ‘prevent infections’, accompanied by multiple facts about infection risks such as ‘One in every twenty patients receive a hospital-induced infection’.
The effect of the Boost was compared against the effect of a Nudge. The Nudge aimed to address any implicit negative perceptions nurses had of the hand hygiene protocol. A poster was developed that reframed the hand hygiene protocol from an extra burden (a negative frame) to a moment of care for the patient (a positive frame) by using the tagline ‘in good hands: good care for your patient starts with clean hands’ accompanied by an image of hands that were being cleaned. This implicitly related caring for patients to having clean hands. The intervention classifies as a Nudge since no new skill or knowledge was developed or given to the nurses.
Both the Nudging and the Boosting intervention led to significantly higher hand hygiene. Interestingly, when the posters were removed, the participants exposed to the Boosting intervention remained on a similarly high level of hand hygiene while this effect faded in the Nudge condition. This finding is in line with previous researchers stating that Boosting has a longer lasting effect than nudging (Grüne-Yanoff et al., 2018), though it is important to note that this notion needs further research in order to be confirmed.
When to use what?
As illustrated by these two cases, Boosting and Nudging are both promising interventions. This raises the question which intervention is effective under what circumstances. To decide on what type of intervention to use, the following guidelines may help (adapted from Hertwig, 2017):
If the behaviour you are trying to change is rather more subconscious, reflexive and context-specific, Nudging is likely to be the more effective intervention.
If the behaviour you are trying to change is rather more conscious, reflective and more general, Boosting is likely to be the more effective intervention.
If individuals lack the cognitive ability or motivation to acquire new skills or competences, then Nudging is likely to be the more effective intervention.
If individuals are expected to have an above average need for autonomy (e.g. due to the being notably resistant to change or influence), then Boosting is likely the more effective intervention (as individuals are more actively involved in this process).
Want to know more about Nudging and Boosting? Or want to find out if these interventions can work for you? Please contact &samhoud through Merijn Duchatteau (email@example.com) or Joanne Reinhard (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Desai, S. & Kouchaki, M. (2016). Moral Symbols: A necklace of garlic against unethical requests. Academy of Management Journal, 60(1), 7-28. doi: 10.5465/amj.2015.0008.
Grüne-Yanoff, T., Marchionii, C., & Feufel, M. (2018). Toward a framework for selection behavioural policies: How to choose between boosts and nudges. Economics and Philosophy, 34(2), 1-24. doi:10.1017/S0266267118000032.
Hertwig, R. (2017). When to consider boosting: some rules for policy-makers. Behavioural Public Policy, 1(2), 143-161. doi:10.1017/bpp.2016.14.
Van Roekel, H., Reinhard, J., & Grimmelikhuijsen, S. (2021). Improving hand hygiene in hospitals: comparing the effect of a nudge and a boost on protocol compliance. Behavioural Public Policy, 1-23. doi:10.1017/bpp.2021.15.