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Nudge or Boost: What’s Best For Changing Behavior?

Choice interventions can steer or empower. Which is better?

Key points

  • Nudging is a popular approach to behavior change that involves adapting the choice environment to steer people in the right direction.
  • Boosting is an alternative approach that focuses on empowering people by improving their competences to make better choices.
  • Nudges may be better suited for low-cost, quick wins, while boosts promise more lasting behavior change across different contexts.
  • The context determines the overall suitability of nudges and boosts for behavior change—often a combined approach may be most promising.
Andres Ayrton/Pexels
Andres Ayrton/Pexels

As we pack up the tinsel and throw out the tree, most people’s minds turn to the challenge of making a fresh start in 2023. How can we finally lose weight, stop smoking, or save more money for the future? Decision scientists have long puzzled over the vexing problem of effective behaviour change. One approach that saw a recent rise in popularity and global policy support is the so-called strategy of nudging.


Coined by Nobel laureate Richard Thaler and his long-standing colleague Cass Sunstein, nudges describe strategic changes to the choice environment, which—in turn—elicit a change in people’s behaviour. A standard example involves changing the placement of an item in a cafeteria or supermarket. Those items placed at eye level have a greater chance of being noticed and therefore picked by customers. Importantly, nudging never involves choice restriction or coercion and has therefore been dubbed as "libertarian paternalism"—a gentle way of steering people’s choices in a better direction. Indeed, the potential of nudging has been demonstrated across many research studies, which suggested that people’s food choices, financial planning, health decisions and many other behaviours can successfully be changed with simple adjustments to the decision context.

Boosting: A different approach

Despite its widespread support, nudging has also drawn some criticism. A key point pertains to the underlying assumption that human decision makers need steering towards better choices. Rather than belittling people’s decision capacities and trying to manipulate their behaviour, shouldn’t we focus on improving existing skills and empower them to make more informed choices? This reasoning led to the proposal of an alternative strategy for behaviour change: “boosting.” With the aim of improving people’s judgement and helping them “exercise their own agency,” boosting refers to a set of strategies including training, education, and transparent communication. Instead of trying to change the choice environment and steer people towards better choices, its key concern is with changing people’s competences and enabling them to make better choices themselves.

Nudging vs Boosting: Which Approach is Better?

The comparison of nudging and boosting has caused much debate amongst behavioural scientists. Here are a number of key considerations.

  • Cost efficiency: With limited public budgets, the cost of behavioural interventions is often a major concern. Generally speaking, nudges fare better on this criterion. Changing the choice environment is often surprisingly simple and may be implemented with minimal costs. A famous example includes painting little targets inside men’s urinals. First trialled at an Amsterdam airport, it was found that this simple, low-cost strategy helped to increase hygiene levels in public bathrooms without the need of additional cleaning staff. By contrast, a public information campaign on the importance of bathroom cleanliness would have involved a lot more effort and cost.
  • Generalisability of behaviour: When judging value for money, it’s important to consider the wider consequences of an intervention. One criticism of nudges pertains to the fact that their impact is typically limited to the specific decision context in which a nudge was introduced. Boosts, on the other hand, have the potential to create more generalizable skills, which translate across a range of different decision contexts. For example, an education campaign improving people’s numeracy skills would boost their choices across a large range of fields, including financial decision making and health choices based on statistical data.
  • Speed of implementation: Often, behaviour change is urgently required and policy makers are out for a quick fix. In those cases, a simple nudge intervention may be more promising than a lengthy educational approach. Think back to the COVID-19 pandemic, when a fast reaction to the virus threat was paramount. One nudge involved simple signs to remind people to keep their distance from others or to wash their hands. These visual cues resulted in almost immediate behaviour change without requiring lengthy training on the mechanisms of viral spread.
  • Sustainability of behaviour change: Finally, a key concern for anybody trying to change behaviour is the long-term outcome of their efforts. Here, boosts appear to have a clear advantage over nudges. Thinking back to the example of hand hygiene from the pandemic, nudge reminders to wash your hands are only likely to work while the respective reminder signs are in place. If they were to be removed, people would likely to revert back to old habits. In contrast, a more comprehensive educational boost informing about optimal handwashing practice and its benefits is likely to have much more lasting effects.

Context Matters

It seems like there is no clear winner in the stand-off between nudges and boosts. Indeed, their respective suitability may be closely dependent on the context. Nudges are typically more suited for targeting emotional, habitual or intuitive choices driven by quick and non-analytical thinking (also referred to as System 1 thinking). Often, nudge interventions have the benefits of being relatively low in cost and offering quick fixes for undesirable behaviours.

Boosts, on the other hand, may be more appropriate when trying to change more conscious decision processes (also referred to as System 2 thinking). Often, they hold the potential for achieving more sustainable behaviour change that translate across different contexts.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that nudging and boosting aren’t mutually exclusive. Often, a combined approach may be most effective. To fight the constant rise in obesity, for example, a holistic intervention strategy might combine behavioural supermarket nudges that discourage emotional food-shopping with more widespread education campaigns including information about nutrition and health.

Nudge or boost—do you have a personal preference? And how are you going to apply this knowledge to your own New Year’s resolutions?

More from Eva M. Krockow Ph.D.
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