22 Behavioral Nudges to Optimize Client Outcomes

Daniel Crosby, Ph.D., is the chief behavioral officer at Brinker Capital. In this role, he brings  behavioral tools, training, and technology to financial advisers to allow for the practical application of behavioral science. He is a psychologist and behavioral finance expert with more than 10 years of experience in the financial services industry.

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As the head of Brinker Capital Behavioral Innovation Lab, my role is to pluck learning from the ivory tower of academia and put it on the desks of financial advisers everywhere (the lab was founded in response to a very specific problem we saw in the market—the enthusiasm advisers had for behavioral finance was not being matched by the number of practical solutions).

As part of that effort, I recently came across a fairly comprehensive list of behavioral interventions curated by University College London (see “Nudge Psychology” at digitalwellbeing.org). Of course, not all of the 93 techniques listed on the page applied to the world of financial advice, but many did.  

Below are some of the practical nudges from the UCL list with a few words on how they can be applied. I hope that you can find a handful of new ideas here that will assist you in your efforts to optimize client outcomes.

Take a Long-Term View

We tend to have a weak understanding of our “future selves.” Sure, we understand that we will be older one day, but that “older me” doesn’t tend to elicit the same sort of emotion as the “right-now me.” Long-term thinking occurs when the future is made more salient by talking about future goals, getting detailed about specific future plans, and having the client put themselves in the place of a loved one who is in the same sort of situation they will someday find themselves in (e.g., nearing retirement, having health problems).

Name Your Dollars

Money is, of course, fungible, but we tend not to treat it as such. Instead, we create mental buckets for our money and spend them accordingly. While this is irrational in the strictest sense, it can certainly be used to a client’s advantage. Something as simple as labeling an account relative to its desired purpose can go a long way toward
ensuring appropriate behavior.

Client-Directed Problem Solving

Clients themselves are the best source of insight into their personal behavior, and nothing engages a client quite like involving them in the process. Humankind has a natural pushback to being commanded to act in a certain way, but we tend to be much more easily persuaded when the ideas for self-improvement originate with us. When seeking insights into client behavior, start at the source and see what ideas they have for how to improve their own decision-making.

Discrepancy Between Behaviors and Goals

When current behaviors are discrepant with stated goals (e.g., a stated desire to retire early paired with excessive spending), you can enquire about this discrepancy in a gentle and disarming way. Using the “Columbo method” of asking, “You say you want X, but it seems like you’re doing Y. Can you help me understand?” is a great place to start.

Behavioral Contract

Create a written document specifying what behavior is to be performed and over what time frame. Research suggests that this is even more powerful when both parties sign it.

Self-Monitoring

With your guidance, clients can monitor their own decisions and behaviors at pre-specified intervals and report back at client meetings (e.g., monitor progress to keep expenses under X, or to save monthly).

Education

Client meetings and even client events can be opportunities to educate clients around best behavioral practices. Of specific importance is “metaknowledge,” or knowing what you don’t know. You don’t have to have the knowledge of how to fix your car, but you should at least know when to call a professional and what to look for in a competent auto technician.

Anticipated Regret

We are all intimately acquainted with FOMO by now, and it is often used as a justification for financial excesses. But anticipated regret can shape behavior for good just as surely as it can for ill. Help your client imagine the regret of not being able to achieve various financial goals as an integral part of making those goals more salient.

Systematization

If I could use just one tool from this behavioral toolkit, this would be my choice. We systematically overestimate our willpower and discipline, both of which are rendered unnecessary in the face of automation. Automation takes the human tendency to be lazy and status quo prone, and makes it work to our advantage.

Goal Setting

Arrive at a goal together, focusing in particular on the specific, daily behaviors necessary to reach that goal. Frame all future planning conversations around this goal to maximize engagement. Be sure to start and end every conversation with a focus on goals.

Look for Emotional Triggers

We all have triggers that put us in a suboptimal place when it comes to making financial decisions. For some it may be comparative greed that creeps in after spending time with financially successful friends and family. For others it may be a tendency to fall prey to “retail therapy.” Work with your clients to enumerate and understand the variety of situations that lead to emotional financial decision-making, and then take pains to avoid or at least manage such situations.

Reduce Negative Prompts

Willpower is weak and quickly used up, meaning that we are far better to avoid temptation than to try and white knuckle our way to the next right decision. Whether the negative prompt we are avoiding is a shopping mall or a fear-mongering cable news channel, work with your clients to understand the contexts that negatively impact them.

Behavior Substitution

It has been said that nature abhors a vacuum and the same can be said of behavior—it’s hard to replace something with nothing. Rather than trying to “cold turkey” a bad financial behavior, work to replace it with something more adaptive. Instead of shopping on the internet when under stress, replace that with a healthier behavior like going for a walk.

Habit Formation and Shaping

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when trying to change client behavior is “swinging for the fences.” Large behavioral changes happen incrementally and are most effectively shaped over a period of time. Take whatever your large goal is and subdivide it into five or six steps along the way. Get your client started on that first, tiniest step, and move from there, being sure to offer encouragement along the way.

Behavioral Rehearsal 

While not applicable to all behaviors, certain types of behaviors (e.g., having a hard conversation about money with a loved one) lend themselves nicely to rehearsal. Role-playing can help reduce nerves, increase proficiency, and anticipate problems before they arise.

Consider Past Outcomes

Mark Twain is rumored to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” and a client’s past financial decisions may hold invaluable clues as to how they will act in the future. Understand how they have reacted to past market downturns. Have them explain familial money scripts. Any historical antecedents you can gather will go a long way toward understanding what their financial future may look like.

Pros and Cons

Don’t let the simplicity of the humble T-chart obscure its usefulness. A client at a decisional impasse may benefit greatly from a simple elicitation of the pros and cons of a tough choice. There is power in getting things out of the head and onto paper, and this is a great place to start.

Comparative Imagining of Future Outcomes

You’ve heard the word “salience” a few times now, because nothing moves the behavioral needle like making something feel more real. Help your clients distinguish between possible future paths by having them imagine what the future looks like down Road A and Road B.

Stress Management

As I cited in The Laws of Wealth (2016), we lose 13 percent of our cognitive capacity when we are under stress, meaning that our clients have the least access to the lessons of financial literacy just as they need them most. Make stress management—including lessons on physical well-being, diet, and exercise—a part of your practice.

Framing

In their 2010 book, Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them, Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich shared that framing matters a great deal in whether or not people think that they can reach a financial goal. When asked if they could save 20 percent of their wealth, most respondents said no. When asked if they could live on 80 percent of their income, most said yes. Ensure that you are framing your requests of your clients in a matter that is empowering, positive, and suggestive of power and capability.

Identification of Self as a Role Model

It’s a strange tendency of humankind to act recklessly toward ourselves but far more generously toward others. For instance, an individual may not feel compelled to straighten up their financial act for their own sake but may get serious when they learn that their children are watching and imitating their choices.

Pre-Mortem

We are all familiar with the concept of a post-mortem, or examining what went wrong after the fact, but we may be less familiar with a pre-mortem. In essence, the pre-mortem asks, “If something were to go wrong one day, what would it be?” This is a great way to get clients to diagnose their own deficits, effectively putting you on the same side of the table from the outset. I have seen clients self-diagnose a lack of insurance, insufficient diversification, and the dangers of a concentrated holding, to name just a few. 

This article is adapted from the author’s blog post at blog.brinkercapital.com.