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Article Article September 22nd, 2015

Behavioural science lessons from around the world

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Richard Thaler: So far, nudge units have used a tiny amount of psychology

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Matt Hancock: We have to try out new things and iterate by observation, not prediction

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Jang Ping Thia: In Singapore, we using new data and taken design-thinking into the process

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Richard Thaler, University of Chicago Booth School of Business

In our early meetings with UK ministers, I would repeat two mantras, both of which sound blatantly obvious. The first was if you want to encourage people to do something then make it easy; if you want someone to do something then you've got to remove the barriers that prevent people from doing it. The second was that we can't do evidence-based policy without evidence. Everyone we would speak to was in favour of evidence-based policy but was sceptical of actually running trials.

Looking back, there are several factors that account for the success of the UK's Behavioural Insights Team. We've been lucky to have the support of people in 10 Downing Street not only the prime minister but the cabinet secretaries Sir Gus O'Donnell and his successor, Sir Jeremy Heywood, which was very important.

Another is that the team did not force themselves on anybody. If a minister wasn"t interested that was fine, we just didn"t have a meeting. When we did meet, we did not preach, we just listened. We asked people to identify their problems and then tried to help them. If you start preaching then you might as well leave the room right away.

When starting a new nudge unit there are certain core competencies that are required. You need to have people who understand how government does, and doesn"t work. It can't just be made up of behavioural scientists. They need to be pragmatic and have common sense, which if often more important than the number of scientific journals they have read.

What's next? There is a world of social science that we haven"t used yet. So far, nudge units have used a tiny amount of psychology and virtually no economics. There is so much to be incorporated but hasn"t let's make a start.

Matt Hancock, Cabinet Office Minister, UK Government

The progress over the last five years in the UK has been truly impressive.

The insights from behavioural economics have gone from the seminar table to the cabinet table. And this is because the work that behavioural scientists do, whether in the academic space or in governments around the world, matters, and it matters because it improves the lives of our citizens which is ultimately what this is all about.

When money is tight there is new urgency to make sure our interventions actually work that is our duty as policymakers. Especially in tight financial times, being able to develop government projects and being able to deliver government services in a way that improves the lives of our citizens is absolutely at the core of what good government is all about.

I also recognise that turning theory into practice is difficult because humans are incredibly complex and complicated if we all behaved like we ought to in an economics textbook life would be boring indeed. But we can't always predict what will work out best. Sometimes we try things that will fail. This means that we have to try out new things and iterate by observation, not prediction; by controlled trials, and not assumption. I see this as applying the rigour of science to the art of government.

When the team first started in 2010, the UK government was seen as a first mover. We"re extremely proud of that but we"re also glad that this has become a global movement. Because the further it spreads, the more data and ideas we have to share, and the more we learn about how to use these insights to inform better public policy. Because ultimately that"s what this is about. Making government work better, to help more citizens lead good and fulfilling lives.

Ana Revenga, senior director for poverty and equity at the World Bank

I have been working in development for 25 years but am a newcomer to behavioural insights. However, I am very excited about the potential it offers to improve development policy.

It is clear that bringing behavioural insights into the design of projects can make them more effective. I and my team at the World Bank routinely work in settings where resources are scarce and where there is widespread poverty. It is very exciting that small, and relatively cheap, changes can make programmes work better. This means there is an opportunity to reshape development policy to make it more effective.

At a deeper level, we can also use behavioural insights and insights on decision-making to better understand the big development problems that we are working on. The stresses of poverty affect decision making and affect cognitive capacity and bringing this into our work we did this recently in Latin America and trying to understanding how the poor are less able to make good decisions will change how we understand the problem and how we tackle it. It's very exciting to think that we can improve our interventions in that way.

Jang Ping Thia, Singapore Ministry of Finance and Civil Service College

I have two jobs. At the ministry I try my best to help the minister spend public money wisely, and at the Civil Service College I teach economics and the use of randomised controlled trials and behavioural economics. In this role I try and bring about greater appreciation for these tools in wider policymaking.

In Singapore we always have a very rational way of making decisions, especially in areas of economic policy. But in the past five years there has been an increasing appreciation for how difficult it is to meet your objectives and take into account behavioural issues. And so the work of the UK's Behavioural Insights Team has been very helpful to us. They have given us a language, case studies to leverage and have inspired us to follow in their footsteps.

We have taken a more eclectic approach to behavioural insights. Not only are we using new data but we have also taken design-thinking into the process: how do you design a letter better; how do you design a zebra crossing better, how do you design a train station better and so on. So it is not necessarily the case that Singapore is going very heavily towards just behavioural insights or randomised controlled trials, but more about the integration of three of four domains that we think can produce the best outcomes.

This reflects our starting point of putting the citizen at the centre of policymaking. It doesn"t really matter what tools you use, as long as you put citizens at the centre and you get the right outcomes.

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