Government social research – Behaviour Change Review

January 15, 2011

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GOVERNMENT SOCIAL RESEARCH BEHAVIOUR CHANGE KNOWLEDGE REVIEW – Reference Report: An overview of behaviour change models and their uses

“Behavioural economics provides numerous principles combining economic and psychological theory, all of which serve as qualifications to rational choice theory. These principles have been summarised in a review for policy audiences by the New Economics Foundation (Dawnay and Shah 2005). Some of the most widely applied principles are:

Hyperbolic Discounting
In prospective decision making, people tend to offset long-term benefits against short- term rewards; this calculation results in a discount rate. Different people apply different discount rates (eg. those in disadvantaged groups tend to have high discount rates, showing a greater preference for short-term rewards – see Halpern et al 2003), while an individual’s discount rates vary according to the behavioural decision in question (eg. different products attract different rates; airconditioning is commonly highly discounted – Wilson and Dowlatabadi 2007). Such considerations mean that the rates applied vary across the timeframe of the decision (hence they are ‘hyperbolic’), with the result that people’s preferences appear inconstant. However, it is not clear that this always contradicts rational choice. For example, it may appear that people are irrational in not providing sufficiently for their own pensions, but life expectancy is uncertain, investments are uncertain, health is uncertain and people may simply prefer to consume when younger even as they wish they had more for their old age. (For more information on discounting, see HMT 2003.)

Framing
The decision made by an individual depends on how the available choices (the ‘reference frame’) are presented to them. Framing the same choice in terms of losses instead of gains can alter the decision made, as can presenting the items in a different order (see Talbot et al 2007, Harford 2008).

Inertia
When faced with a difficult decision or one involving too much choice, people may choose not to change their behaviour at all, or to choose the easiest option (the path of least resistance). This principle is often in evidence in financial decisions (such as investments, or changing energy supplier – see Talbot et al 2007, Wilson and Dowlatabadi 2007).

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Applying behavioural insight to health

January 14, 2011

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APPLYING BEHAVIOURAL INSIGHT TO HEALTH

“Governments have always used a wide range of tools to achieve policy objectives. ‘Traditional’ tools, including legislation and regulation or fiscal measures – tax and spending – have been used throughout history to provide incentives to people to behave in certain ways. Many of the most dramatic improvements in the quality of life of British citizens have resulted from the use of instruments of this kind. Early building regulations helped to reduce the spread of devastating fires in our cities. Public works programmes addressed the ‘big stink’ of the Victorian era through the building of public sewage systems. Immunisation programmes have consigned many infectious diseases to the history books.

Many of the most pressing public policy issues we face today are equally influenced by how we, as individuals, behave. We can all cite instances in which we know that we should act differently in our own self interest or in the wider interest, but for one reason or another do not. The traditional tools of Government have proven to be less successful in addressing these behavioural problems. We need to think about ways of supplementing the more traditional tools of government, with policy that helps to encourage behaviour change of this kind.

The Behavioural Insights Team has been established to do just that. Its aim is to help the UK Government develop and apply lessons from behavioural economics and behavioural science to public policy making. In short, it supports Government departments in designing policy that better reflects how people really behave, not how they are assumed to behave. And in doing so, it supports the Coalition Government’s commitment to reducing regulatory burdens on business and society, and achieving its goals as cheaply and effectively as possible.

The Behavioural Insights Team is based in the Cabinet Office, and I personally chair the Steering Board which sets the team’s agenda. The team is composed of a small group of civil servants, drawing on academic and empirical evidence from the world’s leading behavioural economists and behavioural scientists. I am delighted with its work so far and the fresh approach it brings, and look forward to its joint papers with a number of key Departments in the coming year.”

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Social Marketing: A time to change?

January 12, 2011

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A TIME TO CHANGE?

“But perhaps the most immediate gain from embracing the Big Society is that it moves social marketing away from perceptions of nannying. Rather than solely being something that is ‘done’ to people by the Government, social marketing becomes a skill that government can help others to develop and use – for the good of all.

In the immediate future, though, one argument may override all others: social marketing can save the Government money by preventing future demands on its services.”

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MINDSPACE: The full edition

January 9, 2011

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The “Mindspace” Document referred to in the previous post was “The Practical Guide.” The document below is the full edition.

It should be noted that on the bottom of each page of both documents is the following statement: “Discussion document ‒ not a statement of government policy”

MINDSPACE – INFLUENCING BEHAVIOUR THROUGH PUBLIC POLICY – THE FULL EDITION

Public permission and personal responsibility

The use of MINDSPACE (or other “nudge-type” policy tools) may require careful handling – in essence, the public need to give permission and help shape how such tools are used. With this in mind, we consider issues around gaining democratic permission for behaviour change policies. We explain how three factors are particularly useful for understanding controversy around behaviour change: who the policy affects; what type of behaviour is intended; how the change will be accomplished.

Behaviour change is often seen as government intruding into issues that should be the domain of personal responsibility. However, it is possible for government just to supply the trigger or support for individuals to take greater personal responsibility. And we suggest that evidence from behavioural theory may, in some areas, challenge accepted notions of personal responsibility.

Conclusion

New insights from the science of behaviour change could lead to significantly improved policy outcomes, and at lower cost, than the way many conventional policy tools are currently used. For the most part, however, MINDSPACE powerfully complements and improves conventional policy tools, rather than acting as a replacement for them. MINDSPACE may also help identify any barriers that are currently preventing changes in behaviour.

But there is still much that we do not know. There remains uncertainty over how lasting many of the effects are; how effects that work in one set of circumstances will work in another; and whether effects that work well with one segment of the population will work with another, including their potential impact on inequalities – though there are grounds to think that going with the grain will help to reduce them.

There are also questions about how far such techniques should be employed by central government or left to local policymakers, professionals and communities. One of the most important roles for central government in the coming years will be to ensure that local and professional applications of behavioural approaches are rigorously evaluated, and the results made available for communities to debate and adopt as they see fit. When the cost-effectiveness for an application is clearly shown, and the public acceptability has been established, central government might them move to national implementation – be this to reduce crime, strengthen communities, or support healthy and prosperous lives.

Whether reluctantly or enthusiastically, todays policymakers are in the business of influencing behaviour, and therefore need to understand the various effects on behaviour their policies may be having. MINDSPACE helps them do so, and therefore has the potential to achieve better outcomes for individuals and society.”

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MINDSPACE : Influencing behaviour through public policy

January 7, 2011

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MINDSPACE-PRACTICAL GUIDE

Potential for controversy

“Framing  is  crucial  when   engaging  the  public  with   behaviour  change”

“Policy-makers know that attempts to change citizens’ behaviour may well be controversial. This is particularly true given the emergence of new evidence about how people act, and new ways of applying this evidence.

The most obvious point to remember is that framing is crucial when attempting to engage the public with behaviour change. As Gillian Norton has pointed out, ‘talking about behaviour change is a sure fire way of making sure it doesn’t happen’.18 Across government, many of our interviewees have argued that ‘behaviour change’ is an unhelpful term. “Behaviour”, in particular, has negative and paternalistic associations.

Of course, there are good reasons why public acceptability should not be the only condition for going forward with behaviour change. Richard Reeves has recently proposed tests of legitimacy, autonomy and effectiveness for health-related behaviour change.

Furthermore, it may be that government needs to take a lead on issues despite public opposition, since these public attitudes may actually shift in response to the introduction of the policy.”

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