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Article Article September 1st, 2015

What has ‘behavioural insights’ done for us?

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Citizens are being gently nudged towards paying their taxes on time...

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Behavioural insights is helping challenge the assumptions and habits of policymakers

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Behavioural insights naturally requires a greater focus on the users of services

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The behavioural scientists who gathered in London this month for BX2015 had much to celebrate.

That there are enough of them active in government service around the world is in itself a huge achievement. But it's not just about numbers. Behavioural insights is based on the idea that human behaviour can be influenced by gentle prompting or ‘nudging', rather than by larger reform programmes. The approach is increasingly being applied to a diverse range of policy areas, with dedicated units springing up around the world from the White House to the World Bank. As a result, citizens are being gently nudged towards paying their taxes on time, taking better care of their health, saving for their old age and donating their organs after death.

The ‘nudge' movement offers the tantalising prospect of making public services more cost-effective and easier for citizens to use while improving outcomes. So it is hardly surprising that books on the topic - the latest is David Halpern's Inside the Nudge Unit, about what is now the UK's Behavioural Insights Team - have become required reading in many political and policy circles.

Much done, more to do

But while ‘nudge' heralds a revolution in our approach to social policy, like many revolutions the hype is some way ahead of the reality. Even the most generous estimates of the scale of such interventions in the UK (arguably the country furthest ahead in the application of these techniques) puts the figure somewhere around £300 million of identified savings over a five-year period. Given that the total annual public expenditure in the UK is approaching £800 billion, the financial impact remains less than a rounding error. As one senior official put it rather dryly at a recent event on the topic, this is “not worth getting out of bed for”.

However, perhaps this particular yardstick is unfair. The discipline of behavioural insights remains in its infancy and it takes time to build the evidence required to truly take nudges to scale. Indeed, the greatest contribution of behavioural insights so far might be less in changing the behaviour of citizens and more in challenging the assumptions and habits of policymakers, who for years have made predictable errors and omissions that have significantly impaired their impact.

Nudging the nudgers

I see three important ways in which the behavioural insights movement is challenging the policymaking status quo.

Firstly, the behavioural insights movement has championed a greater use of evidence in policymaking. While randomised controlled trials might not be appropriate in every circumstance, the disciplines of conducting pilots with control groups and taking care to measure the size of the impact before scaling up remain the exception rather than the rule. Simply being clear what the objectives of a policy are, and how success will be measured, can be important steps in the right direction. The fact that most new policies globally are basically untestable, even post hoc, shows just how far the broader policymaking community has to travel on this dimension.

Secondly, the ‘nudge' approach tends to focus on prevention. This is in stark contrast to the majority of social policies and public services which focus on picking up the pieces when things go wrong, despite the fact that prevention is invariably cheaper and better for all concerned. Health care provides an excellent example as many of the most significant drivers of health are behavioural. As Michael Hallsworth from the Behavioural Insights Team explains, “the food we eat, the amount we drink, and the extent we exercise make an enormous difference to the greatest health problems associated with modern societies. Yet the vast majority of health research spending continues to focus on clinical cures, rather than the behavioural drivers of obesity, cancer, diabetes, and so on.”

Thirdly, behavioural insights naturally requires us to take a human-centred approach. This means a greater focus on the users of services, the professionals who deliver them and members of society at large. Too often the debate around public service reform can be framed in terms of macro-level systems and structures such as the creation of new organisations or the introduction of market mechanisms. Such thinking diminishes the importance of human relationships and behaviours - which, after all, lie at the heart of all public service.

Nudging the policy community along these three dimensions, even by a small amount, could herald the real revolution, and the true legacy of behavioural insights for society.



  • Micro to macro. The UK's Behavioural Insights Team has helped pioneer the use of behavioural sciences in government - its managing director, Owain Service, tells us about their experiences
  • BITs and pieces. Applying research from behavioural insights can drive huge changes from small steps, says Julia Fetherston
  • Briefing bulletin: behavioural insights. Find how policymakers are applying insights from the sciences to strengthen citizen outcomes

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