Skip to content
  • Blog
  • 10th Nov 2022

Moving behavioral science beyond the nudge (and into the private sector)

Do nudges work?” This question has recently sparked a great deal of discussion and angst in the behavioral science community. 

The controversy was ignited by a meta-analysis suggesting that intervention effects were limited after corrections for publication bias were taken into account. While we can disagree about the implications of this analysis, it’s certainly worth having these discussions. They force us – as behavioral scientists – to question our assumptions and to think more deeply about our work. 

Ultimately, however, I join my BIT colleague, Michael Hallsworth, in calling for a far more nuanced conversation rather than a binary debate. After all, it’s quite obvious that behaviorally-informed interventions – such as timely reminders – can be effective in the right circumstances. Thus, the types of questions that we should be asking (and further studying) are more contextual. For example:

  • Are there fundamental differences between nudges that will impact employee behavior versus customer behavior?  
  • Are there certain types of interventions that are more effective in influencing financial decisions, as opposed to health-related behaviors? 
  • Which nudges are best for prompting one-time behaviors and which can help people form consistent habits? 

“Nudging” as a double-edged sword 

While considering these more complex questions, I can’t help but reflect on the broader impact that “nudging” has had on the adoption of behavioral science. In my experience working with private sector companies, I’ve found that using nudging as an entry point has been somewhat of a double-edged sword. 

On one hand, the term – first popularized by Thaler and Sunstein’s book, Nudge – has clearly helped establish the field. It’s drawn attention beyond academia, aided in translating academic research into public consciousness – and ultimately paved the way for applied behavioral science in the public and private sectors. Certainly, it’s no coincidence that The Behavioral Insights Team is also well known as the original Nudge Unit.

However, emphasizing nudging may have also undersold behavioral science and limited its take up in the business world. Specifically, overuse of the term has led some to view behavioral science as little more than a new form of marketing that teams can quickly learn and apply themselves.

In fact, I’ve met many marketers who have read Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and applied its principles indiscriminately. In these situations, the rigorous science behind behavioral science – the need to understand context, measure, test, and learn – often gets left behind. What’s more, the haphazard application of behavioral science concepts can lead quickly to uneven or unmeasurable results – and to organizations abandoning efforts when they are unable to discern a clear outcome or ROI.

Moving beyond the nudge

How can we broaden perceptions beyond nudging and help behavioral science reach its full potential in the private sector? I’d argue that it begins with changing how we present it. 

Reframe behavioral science as a “lens” rather than a tool

Today, the dominant metaphor of behavioral science is that of a tool (clever, low-cost nudges), which can be applied to influence people’s decisions and behavior. Yet, for the field to reach its fuller potential, we need to reframe it as a way of thinking: A new “lens” through which organizations can view and address their opportunities and challenges.  

Personally, I’ve found this “lens” framing more constructive, as it has helped facilitate some of my most productive conversations with business leaders. When they share their objectives (and challenges), we can use a “behavioral science lens” to uncover specific behavior change components – and identify how behavioral insights and methods can complement (and enhance) existing approaches. Inevitably, the solutions we discuss go far beyond nudging, as they often involve “deeper dives” into systems, processes, and incentives. 

Within this broader framing, I’ve also found it valuable to: 

Showcase a range of tools and approaches
In introductory presentations, I make a consistent effort to illustrate the broader scope of applied behavioral science. While nudges may be memorable, it’s also important to show how behavioral insights can help design or enhance better products, services, communications, and processes. In fact, I’ve found that many of BIT’s most impactful projects have involved reviewing and redesigning organizational systems, to promote equity, efficiency and/or sustainability. 

Highlight the process
Of course, business leaders are ultimately focused on outcomes and impact. But we should also show them how behavioral interventions are developed and tested. Understanding this process helps reinforce that behavioral science is indeed a rigorous and methodological science – and far more than a marketing fad. At BIT, we use the TESTS methodology to illustrate this journey, from Targeting behaviors and Exploring context to designing Solutions, Testing, and Scaling. 

Share null or negative results
When introducing a new concept, it’s logical to gravitate toward success stories that will help build enthusiasm and support – and we’re fortunate to have no shortage of positive examples. Yet, it can also be valuable to share when interventions have failed to produce desired effects or created unintended consequences.

Referencing null results not only conveys intellectual humility, it also underscores the need to continually test and learn. In some cases, it may help business leaders see the risks of applying behavioral science haphazardly as well. For these reasons, BIT makes a practice of publicizing null results, as they represent important learning opportunities.

Moving into the private sector

I firmly believe that behavioral science can have an enormous positive impact in the private sector. However, to reach its full potential – and accelerate its adoption – we need to resist the temptation to overemphasize nudging and find better ways to convey the full scope of our field to business leaders. We need to start having in-depth conversations with Heads of Human Resources, Sustainability, and Operations, which lead with their opportunities and challenges (rather than examples from Nudge or Thinking, Fast and Slow). Only then can we properly position behavioral science as a fresh and powerful lens to help businesses achieve their goals.