The majority of behaviour change projects at Prime Decision include at least one digital context, so at this year’s Behavioural Insights Conference, we were keen to hear others’ experences of applying behavioural insights to digital decision-making.

Our big burning question: How do behavioural principles and heuristics apply to the online context?

Hedonic adaptation: Same story, different context

In some cases, offline psychological tendencies translate beautifully. Take Hedonic adaptation, which observes that despite experiencing major positive events or life changes, humans have a deeply ingrained tendency to return to a stable base-level of happiness. No matter how good the experience, there is little permanent prospect of elation. We also become desensitized to positive feelings if we have too much excitement – just as we habituate to jogging on a treadmill.

Happy And Sad Face.

This ‘Hedonic Treadmill’ mirrors the rapid, popularity lifecycle of many digital experiences, including apps like Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga. After the initial discovery and rewards, the novelty inevitably fades and happiness-feedback degenerates. Shiny new sequels, such as Angry Birds Space or Candy Crush Soda Saga, can attempt to maintain players’ interest by boosting excitement, but this tends to be short-lived. As in the offline world, we need to account for this behavioural tendency when designing digital experiences – and consider utility and habit formation if we’re in it for the long haul.

Defaults: Where digital differs

Not all traditional expectations of behaviour hold up in digital environments, says Professor Shlomo Benartzi, one of the behavioural economists behind the Save More Tomorrow program. For example, in the offline world, default choices are a powerful method of ‘nudging’ positive behaviour: Famously, we can increase rates of organ donation by making ‘opt-in’ the default selection instead of ‘opt-out’. However, these methods appear to be much less effective when used online.

Professor Benartzi’s experiments found that people are far more likely to opt-out of defaults online, even where the default is the ‘better’ option. Whereas if offered two equally prominent choices, people chose the ‘better’ option, using their own common sense. These findings, Benartzi suggests, reveal a human tendency to be suspicious of default selections online, and may reveal an inherent mistrust of digital environments and their underlying purpose.

Information disclosure: Honesty and anonymity

Interestingly, this mistrust of digital doesn’t necessarily extend to information disclosure. In some cases, we are far more likely to be honest when engaging digitally. For example, participants were more likely to openly report unhealthy behaviours online than offline, suggesting the potential benefits of using digital questionnaires prior to attendance at doctor appointments.


However, our perception of anonymity may be a double-edged sword; we are also more likely to indulge in unhealthy behaviours online, and have a greater propensity to order junk food when free from the judgement of waiting staff, employees and other customers. It reminds us to guard against sweeping assumptions as to how people will behave in digital environments.


These examples demonstrate why engaging in rigorous testing is essential – fortunately, the joy of applying behavioural science to digital optimisation is the relative ease of experimentation, compared with physical environments. It’s great to see the behavioural insight dialogue moving away from ‘universal’ biases and simplistic nudges, recognising the richness and complexity of different contexts. It’s why Prime Decision methodologies are based on an holistic approach to customer and employee behaviour change. Roll on BX2016!

See how we apply behavioural insights

Authors: Poppy Mulvaney & Joe Minas