At TDL, our role is to translate science. This article is part of a series on cutting edge research that has the potential to create positive social impact. While the research is inherently specific, we believe that the insights gleaned from each piece in this series are relevant to behavioral science practitioners in many different fields. At TDL, we are always looking for ways to translate science into impact. If you would like to chat with us about a potential collaboration, feel free to contact us.
The Decision Lab is a socially conscious applied research firm that aims to democratize behavioral science. We aspire to share this essential knowledge with a wide audience, with the hope of reaching the ears of critical decision-makers. With this goal in mind, we reached out to Samuli to connect his important work with a broader audience. Too often, research does not naturally reach the people that need its insight the most. This piece is part of a series that aims to bridge that gap.
Since Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler introduced the idea of “Nudging” citizens towards decisions in their own best interests, the concept has been a contentious one. Is it ethical to decide how people will think? Is anyone in a position to make these choices for someone else? Samuli Reijula recognizes these concerns. Samuli and his colleague, Ralph Hertwig, Director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality and Max Planck Institute for Human Development, have proposed novel ideas to overcome some of these challenges. Putting choices back in the hands of individual decision-makers is indeed an admirable goal.
A full version to some of Samuli’s work is available here:
- Argumentative landscapes: the functions of models in social epistemology
- Nudge, Boost or Design? Limitations of behavioral policy under social interaction.
- Social information can undermine individual performance in exploration-exploitation tasks.
Nathan: How would you describe the focus of your research?
Samuli: We study how findings from behavioral science research can be used to help people to deal with self-control problems. The core idea is to turn so-called nudging interventions into tools that people themselves can use to help them reach their goals: instead of fighting temptations with sheer willpower, self-nudges rely on strategic manipulations of decision situations (i.e. choice architecture) so as to avoid the temptation altogether.
Nathan: How would you explain your research question to the general public?
Samuli: We think that psychologists and other behavioral scientists have a lot to offer in the policy field, previously often left to economists. The nudge program has been central in transferring behavioral policy findings into concrete policy contexts. That said, nudging has also met with resistance, and concerns have been voiced both about the efficacy and ethics of nudging. In our research, we ask whether self-nudging can help with such ethical concerns, as well as extend the scope and persistence of behavioral-science informed interventions.
Nathan: How did you go about tackling these problems?
Samuli: Ralph Hertwig, together with his colleagues, has developed a policy program called boosting. Boosting interventions aim to give people the knowledge needed to build competencies that help them make better choices in various domains of their lives (e.g., risk literacy, financial planning, healthy food choices). We realized that many nudges can also be turned into boosting interventions: by informing people about self-control challenges and nudging-based solutions to such challenges, we could help people become ‘citizen choice architects.’ Whereas original nudges are top-down interventions where a public policy-maker implements changes in people’s decision environments, self-nudges can strengthen agency and self-control by making people themselves aware of the links between properties of their environments (e.g., positioning of food items in a cafeteria or kitchen) and behavior (sticking to your diet or eating that chocolate bar) as well as providing them with efficient ways of changing those environments for the better.