A romantic relationship goes through various stages from early dating to marriage and, in about half of all cases, divorce. It begins with flirting and continues with that essential first date. If that goes well, it is followed by more dates. If things go OK and the chemistry is good, the relationship will go to the next level: one partner offering the other a shelf in their closet. Sooner than many realize, this leads to the natural question of Why pay two rents? followed by a de-facto living together. After a while, one of the partners pops the BIG question: Will you marry me?
The relationship between academic or theoretical behavioral science (let’s call him THEORY) and applied behavioral science (let’s call her PRACTICE) is not much different from a romantic relationship.
It was quite hard for THEORY to get that first date with PRACTICE, but luckily it happened.
In hindsight, the seminal papers of Kahneman and Tversky on heuristics and biases and on prospect theory published in mid and late 1970s were not enough, at the time, to get PRACTICE to accept the first date.
Fortunately, after about 20 years of flirtation, that first date happened. It was in mid and late 1990s, when Thaler and Benartzi developed and analyzed early implementations of the Save More Tomorrow program which helped (American) employees to save more for retirement by bridging the intention-action gap. In very brief, at every pay raise a person’s savings rate automatically increased (e.g. from 3% to 4%). The automated escalation of savings rates helped most people keep their commitment to save more, while the coupling with pay raises eluded the miserable feeling of losing money out of one’s current paycheck (i.e. loss aversion identified by Tversky and Kahneman).
It is time to go from nudging to behavioral design.