Nudging yourself to Success!

Do you think being aware of all your biases and heuristics is enough? Do you think awareness of them will change your inability to stick to a healthier diet, or your inability to cut down on the number of after-work beers? Despite good intentions, being aware of biases and heuristics is not enough to not be influenced by them. Let Sarah Bowen, a PhD student in behavioural economics at Nottingham University, tell you how to take control of your life, by designing your own personal nudge strategies to target and overcome these biases. Sarah has designed a simple three-step strategy that will allow you to harness the power of the behavioural insights behind nudge to help reach your own personal behaviour change goals.

Step 1: Identify the action-intention gaps in your life that need some attention

Nudge is a fickle beast. What I mean to say, is that more often than not, nudges tend to be highly context dependent. Evidence suggests that nudges working for one group of individuals should not be expected to work for another group or in another context (Hausman & Welch, 2010; Michie & West, 2013; Willis, 2013). As a result, we can expect that the effectiveness of a nudge will depend on the intervention being designed with a specific behavior and decision environment in mind.

Step 1 is all about identifying an intention-action gap: a behaviour, action, or choice that intend to make, but when it comes down to it, don’t. To demonstrate this, I have compiled a list of relatable examples:

1. You know that saving for retirement is important and your company offers a good scheme to get you started, but for some reason you just haven’t enrolled in the program yet.

2. The doctor has prescribed you instructions for a course of medication, that you know you should follow, but you keep forgetting your doses.

3. You bought that expensive gym membership because you want to start exercising more, but it’s been two months and you still haven’t been.

If we assume that these intention-action gaps are being perpetuated by cognitive biases and heuristics, then the nudge can be seen as a welfare-improving intervention that either uses behavioural biases instrumentally, or is designed to reduce the negative welfare effects of these biases (Mongin & Cozic, 2018).

In our example (1), the intention-action gap could be a result of inertia or status quo bias, a tendency to not take action and stick to the current state of affairs. A well-designed nudge will take this into account by either taking advantage of this behavioural bias (i.e. the company decides to switch the retirement saving scheme from out in to opt out), or to design an intervention to overcome the bias by reducing the cost/increasing the ease of taking action.

Step 2: Before you can nudge yourself, you must understand yourself

Once you have identified a behaviour you want to change, the next step is to begin to consciously acknowledge your internal and external decision environment. In other words, Step 2 is all about recognising your cognitive strengths and weaknesses and how the context of your decision making environment affects behaviour.

To pin down the individual “truths about yourself”, I recommend asking yourself honestly what’s stopping me, what is motivating me, and what is it about my environment that makes action difficult/easy? Once you have done this bit of introspection, then you can begin the informed design your own “nudges” and boost your own competencies.

What’s stopping you from achieving your goals?

Ø Your decision environment

One way that your environment can affect your behaviour choices, is by changing the cognitive and physical cost of taking an action. Making an “active decision” is costly – it requires retrieving information about all choice alternatives and deciding on a strategy for how to weigh and compare them. Facing increased barriers to an action can increase the cost required to act on your intentions.

To this end, begin by asking yourself, is there anything about your environment that is making “desirable” behaviours inconvenient, and “undesirable” behaviours too convenient?

We can apply this line of thinking to example (3). If your goal is to use the gym more frequently, the location of the gym could have a significant effect on how often you attend. Minimising the distance of your gym from the locations you frequent in your daily routine (i.e. home, work) might reduce the cost of working-out. You will probably go to the gym more often if it is located on the way home from work, than if it were a 10 minute drive in the opposite direction.

Ø Forgetfulness

Sometimes the reason we fail to act on our intentions is simply due to forgetfulness. Retrieval failure is one theory of incidental forgetting that can explain why we forget information. The theory posits that failure to retrieve a memory can occur when we experience a change in context or retrieval cues. We remember that we need milk when we open the fridge in the morning, but forget to buy it when we are shopping at the supermarket the next day.

Ø Present bias and self-control failure

If you’re a human being you’ve probably experienced the lure of procrastination when it comes to starting “unpleasant” behaviours (e.g. writing an essay for a deadline), and stopping yourself from engaging in “pleasant behaviours” (eating the entire bag of family sized crisps by yourself). This is known as present bias, where individuals discount the utility they would get from a payoff in the future and give stronger weights to payoffs in the present even if the future payoff is objectively higher than the present.

Present bias is closely linked with the concept of self-control. The more self-control you have, the less susceptible you will be to the temptation of immediate gratification in favour for a greater delayed reward. What type of self-control you possess will affect what interventions will more effective at encouraging behaviour change.

If you are less practiced at self-control, it may be pertinent to ban yourself from engaging in a behaviour entirely, remove recall cues, and increase the barriers to practicing a behaviour. In this way, the aim would be to reduce your chances of having to exert self-control, and being “tempted” in the first place.

However, it should be noted that if you are the type of person for whom suffering a lapse in your new behaviour is enough for you to give up entirely, then trying to go cold-turkey will probably not be the best approach. It may be better instead to cut down on a behaviour rather than out. In that way, the loss of a lapse is relatively not as large.

What motivates you to take action?

Ø Social influences

Peer pressure, following the crowd, and caring about how others perceive you are all powerful examples of how social influences can motivate behaviour. One thing worth considering is who the people are whose opinions you care most about. We know that people are much better at making and keeping commitments to others than to ourselves. Therefore, it stands that making commitments to the people whose opinions we hold in high regard would be more motivating.

Step 3: Build your own nudge-type intervention

When it comes to designing your own behavioural interventions, I tend to follow the philosophy of “boosts” first introduced by Hertwig and Grüne-Yanoff (2016, 2017). Where the objective of a boost is to foster an individual’s own competencies for them to exercise their own agency and make self-defined better choices. When it comes to boosting agency in practice, there are three possible strategies you can adopt:

Strategy 1: Change your environment

Make things you want to do more of easier and things you want to avoid more difficult and reduce instances of temptation by removing prompts from eyesight (memory cues).

Strategy 2: Expand your repertoire of decision making strategies

Use social influences to your advantage, build them into commitments you make to help motivate you to keep them. Examples of these are:

Reminder devices

The reminder might be different if what you need to remember is a short-term/one-off behaviour (finishing a course of antibiotics) or a long-term habit you want to keep (taking regular medication for a chronic illness). Technology can be helpful in this regard: set up alerts, text messages, alarms, apps – ask what is going to prompt you, when and where? If it’s a case of having to remember to do something regularly, try to reduce the amount of times you “need” to remember, and you will reduce the number of times you “could” forget!

Commitment devices

With commitments it is important to be specific and clear. What exactly are you committing to, and how are you going to achieve it? Stating your intentions can be a powerful nudge. It also helps if you make your commitment in the presence or directly to someone whose opinion you hold in high regard, because you will try not to fail in front of their eyes. You can always put your money where your mouth is. Put down real stakes, so that breaking a commitment becomes more costly. Simplest of all: physically write out your commitment and make sure it’s visible when it matters – your commitment could also become a reminder device.

Strategy 3: Do both!

If you only take one thing away from this post, it should be that nudges are not a tool exclusive to policy makers. When it comes down to it, the behavioural insights that inform the design of all successful nudges can be applied by anyone. So don’t wait for your local government, hospital, or educator to nudge you to make better choices. Take agency over your behaviour, and start experimenting with your own nudge interventions!