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Giving People The Tools To Nudge Themselves

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Aug 28, 2020


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:

Behavioral Science, Democratized

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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.

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The AI Governance Challenge

Nathan: How do you think this is relevant to an applied setting?

Samuli: Our main aim in the article was to introduce a new approach to behaviorally informed policy — self-nudging. Although the evidence collected in various areas (e.g., nudging, boosting, behavior change, behavioral therapy) gives us reasons for optimism about the potential of self-nudges, it is, of course, early days for self-nudging, and in order to count as evidence-based interventions, we need more data about the efficacy of self-nudges. 

We don’t suggest that self-nudges should replace more traditional policy tools like nudges, financial incentives or regulation. Instead, we consider self-nudges as an addition to the policy maker’s toolkit. 

Nathan: What do you think some exciting directions are for research stemming from your study? 

Samuli: In addition to providing new policy tools, we think self-nudging can also be a way of improving our ‘psychological literacy’, i.e. understanding of how our minds function. In particular, I think many of us have an overly intellectualized view of self-control. We often feel bad about our weak willpower and inability to resist temptation. We are embodied beings, often undecided and torn between different desires and urges. That we should accept. But research does not suggest that people’s willpower would have recently declined, perhaps to the contrary. Instead, we spend more and more time in highly designed environments where we are constantly nudged by, for example, advertisements and smartphone apps that compete for our attention. 

Samuli: We see self-nudging as an important means for helping people understand how the often apparently insignificant aspects of our environments steer our behavior, and how learning to design our own decision environments helps us to take some of that power back.

About the Authors

Samuli Reijula

Samuli Reijula

University of Helsinki

Samuli Reijula is a lecturer in theoretical philosophy at the University of Helsinki. There, he is affiliated with TINT, which is the Centre for Philosophy of Social Science. He is currently working on projects related to institutional epistemology and evidence-based policy. Institutional epistemology refers to the conditions which give rise to successful scientific research. His work in evidence-based policy investigates the bridge between behavioral science and policy; specifically, how our scientifically determined insights make their way into implemented systems.

Nathan Collett portrait

Nathan Collett

Senior Editor

Nathan Collett studies decision-making and philosophy at McGill University. Experiences that inform his interdisciplinary mindset include a fellowship in the Research Group on Constitutional Studies, research at the Montreal Neurological Institute, a Harvard University architecture program, a fascination with modern physics, and several years as a technical director, program coordinator, and counselor at a youth-run summer camp on Gabriola Island. An upcoming academic project will focus on the political and philosophical consequences of emerging findings in behavioral science. He grew up in British Columbia, spending roughly equal time reading and exploring the outdoors, which ensured a lasting appreciation for nature. He prioritizes creativity, inclusion, sustainability, and integrity in all of his work.

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