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A better way to Nudge your team in the right direction
An introduction to the Choice Architecture of Nudges and a look into the benefits of s-frame interventions.
A Nudge is an intervention designed to steer people in a specific direction while keeping their freedom of choice. The concept became popular after the release of Richard Thaler’s and Cass Sustein’s book Nudge, based on their 2008 research paper “Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.”
The classic example of a successful Nudge is to change a default option. The UK Government has increased the percentage of workers enrolled in a pension scheme from 61 to 83 percent by simply making the process opt-out instead of an opt-in. Workers can stay out of the pension scheme, but if they do nothing, they are enrolled by default.
The Choice Architecture of Nudges goes beyond defaults, including decisions about the number of choices available and how each choice is described. For example, you can keep the healthier food at eye level or remove it from the shelf altogether. These interventions make it easier for people to do the “right thing,” but someone needs to define what is good or preferable — a form of libertarian paternalism.
Are you excited about designing Nudges to change your team culture or behavior? You might want first to take a look at Nick Chater’s and George Loewenstein’s 2022 paper “The i-frame and the s-frame: How focusing on individual-level solutions has led behavioral public policy astray.”
The authors argue that Nudges, a type of i-frame (or individual-frame) intervention, try to fix problems with individual behavior instead of improving the system where these individuals work.
“I-frame interventions don’t fundamentally change the rules of the game, but make subtle adjustments to help fallible individuals play the game better.”
You can see the limitations of the i-frame in the data. While the average impact reported in academic journals is 8.7%, their analysis found a mean impact of just 1.4%. They conclude that selective publication in academic journals explains about 70% of the difference.
Should you give up the idea of using Nudges or the i-frame? The authors don’t think so:
“These considerations do not imply that i-frame research should be abandoned. […] But it does imply [the] need to be aware of, and actively counter, any tendency to view i-frame interventions as alternatives to system change. Moreover, the relative impacts of i- and s-frame interventions strongly suggests that behavioral scientists should prioritize applying behavioral insights to s-frame reform.”
In my experience, I’ve seen two main issues with an excessive focus on i-frame interventions, such as Nudges:
You can get a false sense that the job is done, you’ve done something about it, and move on to the next challenge.
It can bias you towards fixing symptoms instead of causes.
The example below is a bit contrived, but please humor me as I try to illustrate the differences.
Imagine that you have a weekly remote meeting at 4:30 p.m., and two people are often late.
If you look at the problem primarily from the individual, or i-frame, perspective, you would be encouraged to frame the problem as “some people on my team are often late to meetings.” You could create a small Nudge in the form of a reminder 10 minutes before the meeting, followed by an @here in the team chat when the meeting starts. You could even mention something about how it is important to respect our colleagues’ time. You are reminding people about the rules of the game and expecting them to comply.
If you look at the problem from the systems, or s-frame, perspective, you would be encouraged to think about the purpose of the meeting and ask yourself, “Does this really need to be at 4:30?” Maybe this leads you on a path to learn that people in your team need to pick their kids up from school at 4:00, and sometimes there is traffic. You simply find a better time for the meeting. Congrats! You just changed the system in a way that helps the team be on time.
In the next newsletter, we’ll explore s-frame changes in more detail, for now, I’ll leave you with some advice from the paper:
‘[Focus on] s-frame changes that improve i-frame decision making: helping individuals make better choices. Improving individual decision making has been the focus of i-frame behavioral insights. But often the most powerful way to help people make better decision is not merely to modify their ‘choice architecture,’ but to fundamentally change the “rules of the game.”’