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Boosts: Empowering your team with behavioral science
Nudges and Boosts are tools that can complement each other. While Nudges are supposed to be transparent, Boosts seem to add a layer of autonomy that helps people develop and retain skills
Previously, we looked into Nudges, interventions designed to steer people in a specific direction while keeping their freedom of choice. Nudges are great and have gathered a fair amount of attention, but they are not the only tool available for behavioral change. Today, we’ll look into another tool: Boosts.
The authors of the 2017 paper “Nudging and Boosting: Steering or Empowering Good Decisions” define Boosts as interventions that “target competencies rather than immediate behavior. […] ideally, these permanently change the cognitive and behavioral repertoire by adding a new competence or enhancing an existing one, creating a ‘capital stock.’”
We can see the immediate behavior focus of Nudges when we look at a Nudge known as SMT (Save More Tomorrow). This Nudge helps people increase their retirement savings by leveraging present bias and inertia. It ties savings increases to future raises, which leverages present bias by having people decide between spending in the future vs. the far future - meaning that they don’t need to give up any spending right now. It leverages inertia by trusting that “nothing is what many people do,” meaning that few people will opt out of the future increases. While the choice architecture is redesigned to help people make better decisions, in the end, they are no more competent than before in their capacity for saving.
Let’s imagine we want to implement a Boost based on the insights from the 2001 paper Teaching Bayesian Reasoning in Less Than Two Hours. The researchers found that probabilistic reasoning improved significantly when physicians and laypeople were presented with information in natural frequencies instead of probabilities. Physicians got the right answer 10% of the time when presented with probabilities and 46% of the time when presented with natural frequencies.
The question presented with probabilities was:
The probability that a woman who undergoes a mammography will have breast cancer is 1%.
If a woman undergoing a mammography has breast cancer, the probability that she will test positive is 80%.
If a woman undergoing a mammography does not have cancer, the probability that she will test positive is 10%.
What is the probability that a woman who has undergone a mammography actually has breast cancer if she tests positive?
The question presented with natural frequencies was:
Ten of every 1,000 women who undergo a mammography have breast cancer.
Eight of every 10 women with breast cancer who undergo a mammography will test positive.
Ninety-nine of every 990 women without breast cancer who undergo a mammography will test positive.
Imagine a new representative sample of women who have had a positive mammogram. How many of these women would you expect to actually have breast cancer?
If we were implementing a Nudge, we would change all of the percentages presented to people into natural frequencies. This would work but would only impact the settings in which we have influence - people would be no smarter when facing a probabilistic reasoning problem in the real world.
The authors describe the Boost version of this intervention as:
“[It] could foster people’s competence to actively translate any probabilities they encounter into frequencies and thereby simplify the Bayesian computations. Using a computerized tutorial program Sedlmeier and Gigerenzer (2001) taught people to actively construct frequency form probability representations, and found this newly developed competence to be robust after 15 weeks, with no drop in performance.”
Sedlmeier and Gigerenzer taught people that they would perform better when dealing with natural frequencies and, because of that, when faced with a problem presented in probabilities, they should first translate any probabilities to natural frequencies.
I’m not sure the authors of the paper would agree with me, but I’m thinking of Boosts as interventions that educate people on simple rules they can apply themselves to improve the quality of their choices. Sort of teaching people to Nudge themselves. Definitely a less paternalistic approach to improve decision-making.
This made me think of the book Turn This Ship Around. David Marquet, a submarine commander, started working on a new submarine and noticed that people under his command would follow his orders even when they made little sense. He turned the situation around (!) by starting to announce his intention instead of giving orders. This created space for people to collaborate and share more of their expertise, often alerting the commander about information he was not considering.
Nudges and Boosts are tools that can complement each other. While Nudges are supposed to be transparent, Boosts seem to add an important layer of autonomy that helps people develop and retain skills.
Next time you are tweaking something to help your team make better decisions, consider adding a Boost-inspired intervention to your action items. Teach them how to fish, but if you can, also provide filleted fish displayed at eye level.