Beyond nudging: behavioural intervention techniques.

On this site, we have specifically covered nudging examples that are related to gender. However, there are many examples in which behavioural insights that are not nudges have led to effective policy. Here are some other ways behavioural science has helped to inform effective policy.

How could the behavioral change ideas below be used in other kinds of policy?

Conveying the right message in reminders

Behavioural scientists have identified attention scarcity as a driver of irrational behaviour — people can only focus on so many things at once, which means less pressing concerns can fall by the wayside. With simple reminders, which can take a variety of forms, we can combat this problem. However by paying attention to the content of the message you want to convey, you can create an even bigger impact than with a simple reminder alone. Using social norms and personalizing the message has proven to be very effective in motivating certain behaviours and behavioural changes.

  • Opower link-out for example uses the power of social comparison to encourage its customers to lower their energy use.  Social norms are used by providing a personalized home energy report that shows the households’ use of energy compared to the 100 nearest houses of similar size. Opower also provides its customers with targeted recommendations to help them reduce their energy consumption. The method has been very successful at encouraging people to use less energy.
  • Social norms also help encourage people to pay their taxes on time link-out. The UK government’s Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) started a trial in which they tested different content in tax reminder letters, to find the one that was most effective in making delinquent taxpayers pay their tax bills. Although all letters were effective, the message that was most impactful was: “Nine out of ten people in the UK pay their taxes on time. You are currently in the very small minority of people who have not paid us yet.”
  • Another example link-out of a trial of the BIT Team within this area was an experiment with different text messages to see how they could encourage low-income and uninsured people in New-Orleans to schedule a free check-up at a doctor.
  • In an example from the UK-government link-out, they experimented with different wording to find the most effective content for a text message that reminds patients of their hospital appointment in order to reduce missed hospital appointments.

“Rewarding” desirable behaviour

Financial incentives can have an impact on behavioural change and they do not necessarily have to be very expensive. For example, giving students a trophy for meeting performance targets, at a cost of about $3 per student, had roughly the same impact on test scores as a direct financial incentive of either $10 or $20, and in some cases was even more effective. Financial incentives work best at motivating behaviour change if they are simple, tied to controllable outcomes, the outcome matters, and the incentives reinforce what individuals already want to do. The way an incentive is framed can also have a substantial impact upon how individuals respond to it.

The question remains to what extent incentives promote lasting behavioral change, and this could be an interesting avenue for further research on this technique.

Simplifying processes

Studies in psychology have shown that people can process, absorb, and recall only a limited amount of information at one time. Complex tasks can lead to procrastination in the execution of personally and socially desirable behaviours. Thus, a central insight from behavioural science is that making things as easy as possible can increase the likelihood that people will act. Simplification has, for example, been successfully applied to increase savings plan participation and contribution rates in the US.

  • The book “Simpler: The Future of Government” by Cass Sunstein (2013), articulates many ways that the US federal government used behavioral insights to streamline and simplify government regulation.
  • In EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights link-out (2014), you can find a full chapter (starting on pp. 9)  with work by the UK BIT team on “Making it easy’, plus an explanation of why simplifying processes leads to more action. The document also provides information about other ways behavioural insights can be applied to policy design.
Another interesting resource from the Australian government:, December 2015, the Australian Public Service Commission.