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Nudging societally relevant behavior by promoting cognitive inferences

Pieter Van Dessel, Yannick Boddez & Sean Hughes


Effective behavioral interventions are essential to address urgent societal challenges. Over the past decade, nudging interventions (i.e., arranging the environment to promote adaptive behavioral choices) have surged in popularity. Importantly, effective application of the nudging approach requires clear guiding principles with a firm basis in behavioral science. We present a framework for nudging interventions that builds on evidence about the goal-directed inferential processes underlying behavior (i.e., processes that involve context-dependent inferences about goals and the actions available to achieve these goals). We used this framework to develop nudging interventions that target context-relevant cognitive inferences. We examined the effectiveness of these inference nudging interventions for promoting two important types of societal behavior: pro-environmental actions and adherence to COVID-19 guidelines. As predicted, two online studies revealed that inference nudging interventions successfully increased energy conservation (Study 1) as well as social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis (Study 2). A field experiment found that inference nudging interventions increased hand disinfection in a real-life store during the COVID-19 crisis (Study 3). Our findings highlight the importance of applying state-of-the-art insights about the (inferential) determinants of behavior in behavior change interventions.

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