On boosts and thinks: Nudgers take note

little girl thinking with  question mark over her head

By Peter John, – University College London (KCL from January 2018)


It’s great to read a paper that makes a similar argument to ones own. I get cited early on too, so that’s even better! But it is difficult to respond when I am in so much agreement with the author. What is there to say? It’s so much easier to disagree. To get going in this blog, I am going to have an attempt at disagreement; but I realize I am probably going to fail and end up agreeing anyway.

Ralph Hertwig makes an argument for more boosting and offers a guide for policy-makers. By boosting he means interventions designed to increase citizen capacity to make decisions: “interventions that make it easier for people to exercise their own agency”. Boosts are different to the classic nudges, which are designed to elicit automatic responses even though they have some similarities in being low cost and non-intrusive. Boosts are also backed by behavioural science.

My interest in boosts arises because I co-wrote a book called Nudge Nudge Think Think: Experimenting with Ways to Change Civic Behaviour (2011), which made the argument that there are two sorts of interventions that can change civic behaviour: nudge and think. The former needs no introduction to readers of this journal. The latter draws on ideas from the study of deliberative democracy, which are about the desirability of involving citizens to debate public problems and to effect policy change as a result. In the research for that book, we found that thinks were harder to implement than nudges and do not always produce the expected changes. In the case of organ donation, outcomes even became worse when we encouraged people to think about the issue.

Since that time Gerry Stoker and myself have reflected again on the concepts of nudge and think. While we recognise the constraints of a reliance on a full-on think, we want to move nudge closer to think as a way of broadening out behavioural public policy. By reducing cognitive demands on the citizen, nudge suffers from the problem of lack of consent and too much reliance on the state to consider what is best. What we call nudge plus liberates nudge a bit while being practical too. I have returned to this debate in my forthcoming book for Edward Elgar, How Far to Nudge: Assessing Behavioural Public Policy, by arguing that a lot of nudges are not really so automatic as they first appear, but have a lot of thinks embedded in them. Policy-makers should consider how to enhance the think aspect of the nudges they commission.

I believe that nudge plus, and by implication boost, is a good route for behavioural public policy; but it does have a number of limitations that need to be worked through. Boosts can address the problem of inequality, which affects all kinds of citizen involvement and can improve on nudges in many ways on that dimension. Citizens vary in their capacity to make decisions for themselves and assess risks, so if nudges are dependent on capacity only some will benefit is a crude way of putting this argument. Boosts then can get round some of the non-egalitarian features of nudge by seeking to raise the capacity of all or many citizens (though of course people will vary in their responsiveness to boosts, just like in their readiness to engage in deliberation).

I am with Hertwig in thinking that more boosts (or nudge pluses) should be encouraged by governments. He could go further. Are all boosts the same? Some are about education. Other interventions have both a nudge and a boost in them, such as a reflection on wider policy considerations (e.g. green nudges often requite consumers to understand the global environment and the choices policy-makers face). Many involve collective action, citizens acting jointly without the secure knowledge that all will benefit. Does each equally benefit from boosts or are some problems better addressed by classic nudges?

Can citizens choose a boost or nudge or is each one just chosen by experts? Like me, Hertwig is on the side of decentralists in his liking for self-nudges where people choose their nudges. This strategy gets the best of both nudge and think/boost so they are both part of the same process. There is a radical agenda behind what Hertwig says. We are probably in agreement, which is just what I thought when I started writing this blog!


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