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Wild boost chase?

wild goose chase
wild goose chase at farm

By Lawrence Brown – Columbia University


The behavioral persuasion has introduced into policy debates several striking verb/ nouns—nudges, shoves, and budges, for example—and now Ralph Hertwig extols a new “behaviorally informed” contender, namely, “boosts”. This strategy seeks to improve “decision-making competences” by means of  “interventions that make it easier for people to exercise their own agency,” for instance, by “acquiring the ability to understand statistical health information” and by adopting “simple strategies” enabling [people] to make the family meal environment conducive to nutritional health. Boosting is said to be distinct both from the mere presentation of information and from “schooling,” and is sometimes preferable to nudges. Nudges have their limits to be sure (though his insistence on the difficulties of reversing default decisions strikes me as overstated), but boosts raise as many questions as they answer, and one would need considerable elaboration of the approach to justify its grandiose enthronement as a foundation for “rules” for policymakers.

First, in Hertwig’s account boosts seem to be more a modestly modified version of standard economic theory (aka rational choice) than an innovative variation on behavioral themes that call the standard theory into question.  Actors have goals, canvass options, sort out the benefits and costs of those options, and reach a decision that makes them better off. Boosts come into play by simultaneously enriching and simplifying the matching of means to ends, thus improving the actors’ competence. He says little, however, about the wide range of encumbrances—status quo bias, anchoring, overconfidence bias, confirmation bias, framing effects, preference reversals, loss aversion, and others  (See Oliver, 2017  that behavioral policy analysts identify as crucial factors in decision-making, or about how those encumbrances might yield to the power of boosts. Nor is it clear how boosting differs from “think policies”” as discussed by John ,2011 (whom he cites).

Second, issues arise on the “demand” side of the picture. Hertwig concedes that boosting is not for everyone:  subjects must meet some threshold of motivation and competence before boosts can be expected to work. Estimating the size of the basket of unboostables is not easy, and concerns about health and financial (not to mention basic) literacy are not negligible. As a matter of practice, it may be hard to extrapolate the findings of small research demonstrations of what works into policy interventions for “general” populations of varying (and often uncertain) levels of motivation and competence. And as a matter of principle, perhaps policymakers should aim more to “reduce disparities and inequalities” by working to bring those lacking in motivation and competence up to speed than to boost the capacities of the more capable by training them in decision heuristics that, precisely because these aids are supposed to be “simple,” they might readily access or concoct for themselves.

Moreover, insofar as the boosts are easily mastered ,they risk making a little knowledge into a potentially doubtful thing. Boosts are supposed to be based on evidence, but in fields such as health care and financial investment evidence is often lacking, ambiguous, and/or in flux. Consumers run little risk from boosting the amount of fresh fruits and vegetable in their diets. (Most people have heard endlessly about the virtues of such healthy eating, and it may well be that if they do not do so it is not because they lack a proper boost from “simple, memorable rules for eating wisely” but because they do not want to.) People may be befuddled, however, by shifts in the evidence about (for example) whether they should always finish their full prescribed regimen of antibiotics; take nightly vitamin supplements or low-dose aspirin; consume wine, chocolate, coffee, and tea “for their health”; or—to cite an example Hertwig explores in some detail—get tested for PSA, a marker of prostate cancer. Experts disagree about the value of the test and about who should have it when. Boiling down the statistical procedures that disclose the vulnerability of the PSA test to false positives might indeed dissuade some patients from undergoing it (or from proceeding to a biopsy), but many patients, informed of a 1 in 5 chance that their elevated PSA score is truly indicative of prostate cancer, will still interpret that datum in the light of psychological biases that behavioral economics elucidate, such as a strong aversion to a 20 percent risk of losing one’s life. (If the prospect of planes leaving and arriving safety were one in five who would get on an airplane?)  In short, before boosting is readied for policy prime time it should offer more “diagnostic” detail about whose capacities are be enhanced, and in which policy arenas.

A third question arises on the “supply” side, namely, what sector of society and what actors will be responsible for designing and implementing the boosts. The public sector has its limitations: boosts can be costly, public trust in government institutions is shaky, and deciding which types of consumers (the clueless versus the capable) and what sets of skills to boost may be controversial. The not for profit sector has it appeals: for example, my employer  (Columbia University) recently announced a one and a half hour seminar on Active Shooter Awareness. How such capacity-building might be generalized to other audiences and other “skills” is not obvious, however. The for profit sector might appropriate the boosting enterprise, but that prospect triggers, at least in my mind, two ominous words—“Trump University.” (Yes, Hertwig cautions that boosting “does not equal more schooling,” but neither, apparently, does Trump University.) Any given newspaper on any given day serves up examples of how projects ostensibly aimed at helping consumers cope with toxic choice environments may risk creating new choice environments of questionable merit— for example, the “services” that “lawyers, lenders and would-be advisors” are pitching (for a share of the take) to brain-injured National Football League players who seek the financial benefits promised to them under a legal settlement (Belson,2017); or  the “brain wave center” that urges consumers to “call today for a private consultation and a Neurofeedback session for $50.” Ensuring that boosters are honest brokers with neutral competence implies a need for well-crafted credentialing and regulatory measures, which puts the ball back in government’s’ court and entails complexities of design and implementation that nudges, by and large, circumvent.

It is hard to be “against” the promulgation of tools that help people to make assessments and decisions that get them closer to their goals, and boosts may indeed prove to be a valuable addition to the portfolio of behavioral public policy, especially given that nudges and nudge-like interventions are ( as Hertwig points out) neither an all-purpose solution nor invulnerable to misuse. All the same,  persuasive answers to practical questions of who, what, and how need refining before the boost approach can plausibly generate “rules” for policymakers.,



Benson, K. 2017. After N.F.L. Concussion Settlement, Feeding Frenzy of Lawyers and Lenders. New York Times, July 16.

John, P. et. al. 2011. Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think: Experimenting with Ways to Change Civic Behaviour  (London: Bloomsbury Academic)

Oliver, A. The Origins of Behavioural Public Policy ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Read the full article by Ralph Hertwig “When to consider boosting: Some rules for policy-makers” in the second issue of Behavioural Public Policy here


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