DUO’s tick box: how the government uses behavioural principles

12 September 2023

The government uses insights from behavioural science to guide its communication with citizens. This sometimes involves trial and error. DUO's 'tick box' is a well-known example. 

But first, let’s start with a bit of theory: the 'paradox of choice' briefly implies that we like choice, but don't like to choose. (Viewing tip: watch this TEDTalk by psychologist Barry Schwartz who coined this term). 

The more choices our brain has to process, the harder it becomes to choose. Sometimes it even leads to us making no choice at all. Anyone who has ever stood in front of the dessert shelf in a French Hypermarché can relate to this. There is even a scientific term for this phenomenon: choice paralysis. 


 So to avoid stress, our brains prefer not to make a choice. In this case it’s not life-threatening, but fun is different (and also, you miss out on a delicious dessert opportunity). 

One solution to this problem is to set the choice architecture in a certain way. 

Our brains prefer to choose the easiest path. The path of least resistance. This principle applies even when we are faced with only a limited number of choices. 

In these circumstances we often help ourselves by choosing the default option; the thing that happens when you don’t choose. ‘You don’t have to do anything when you agree to this’: the trap of the default option. Many subscription services owe their survival to this principle. Often, the default is (wrongly) regarded as being the sender’s recommendation. And if the sender is a government agency (as in the case of DUO), harm is easily done. 

Government and behavioural science

Established in 2014, the Behavioural Insights Network Netherlands (BIN NL) is an alliance of all Dutch government departments and ministries, and aims to exchange knowledge and experience in the field of behavioural change. Behavioural experts from all ministries were involved in its establishment. 

Applying behavioural insights can help the government encourage or nudge their citizens towards adopting certain behaviours. This can include promoting healthy lifestyles, healthcare use, achieving sustainability goals or saving for pensions. So the fact that the government uses behavioural insights in policy development, implementation and communication is still a relatively new practice and it’s certainly not universally applied. In the case of DUO, fortunately, they are.

DUO’s tick box

The Education Executive Agency (DUO) is the institution that’s know for providing access to funding for education. Students can apply to DUO for a loan, for example to supplement their basic grant. 

The application screen on DUO’s site for such a loan was set up as follows: 

There were two answer options to answer the question ‘how much do you want to borrow’: ‘Maximum’ or ‘Less, namely <fill in amount> per month’. This choice architecture was unfortunate to say the least, if you bear in mind the default effect we talked about above. 

As it turned out, a large majority of the applicants ticked the first option: just do the maximum loan amount. It was simply the easier option of the two. But also the one with the most far-reaching consequences, as many students were left with substantial debts after their studies. And that, of course, was not what DUO had in mind. 

A small tick box caused a lot of unintentional misery. Based party on behavioural insights, the application screen was changed and the default option was removed. The result? Students were significantly less likely to take maximum loans (more than halving), and if they borrowed, the amount was also less, on average, than before. 

Student loan

Tips for designing (better) choice architectures

Our brains have a hard time dealing with choice overload. It stresses us out and we fear making the wrong choice. Fortunately, there are several methods to combat this choice stress. I will take you through five of the most commonly used methods.  

1. Limit (or eliminate) the number of choices 
One of the most effective ways to combat choice overload is by limiting the number of choices. You can do this, for instance, by reducing the number of options, or by presenting only the most relevant options. Limiting the number of choices makes it easier for people to make a decision. The downside, of course, is: who decides what is ‘most relevant’?  

 2. Create categories 
Grouping available options into categories can make it easier for people to make a decision. For example, when choosing health insurance, the available options can be grouped into categories such as basic insurance, supplementary insurance and dental insurance. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of framing the options better. Parents with small children are familiar with this principle: ‘will you eat your beans or your potatoes first?’. Which skillfully nips any discussion about not eating vegetables in the bud. 

3. Add filter options
By adding filter options, such as price, coverage, and location, people can narrow their options down further and search more specifically for what they need. If you have ever been to Zalando (or any fashion retailer’s sit) you will be familiar with this very handy principle. 

4. Give advice  
Giving advice can help people make a decision. By giving recommendations based on people’s personal preferences, they can decide quickly and easily without feeling overwhelmed by too many options. Your GP is a good example of this. They usually (if all goes well) rule out options for you, and help you find the right specialist for your question or ailment.  

5. Visualisation 
Using visual aids, such as images, graphs and tables, makes it easier to compare options and simplify the decision-making process. For example, a comparison tool on a website or app that displays the different options to simplify the comparison. 

By applying these methods, governments and organisations can help people to make better decisions without being overwhelmed by too many options.  

It is reasonable to hope that this will also lead to greater satisfaction and more effective decision-making. But we can never completely rule out the possibility that our behaviour will be less rational than we think and expect. After all, our brain has a fascinating and almost infinite capacity for fickleness.  

I am continuously researching the relevance and application of behavioural insights in designing and developing digital experiences for customers. Want to know more? Get in touch. Dozens of satisfied customers have gone before you (trust building social proof statement).  

Daan Goote
Daan Goote
Client Lead & Consultant behaviour and psychology

Daan Goote is a psychologist and consultant in the field of (public) communication and marketing. He applies knowledge and learnings from behavioural science. 'People are not as rational as they think' is by far the most important insight.

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