On pulling the levers of change

There’s really nothing especially new about behavioural science⁠1 yet it has gained traction with policy makers over the last decade due in no small part to the publication of Thaler and Sunnstein’s ‘Nudge⁠2‘.  Rory Sutherland refers to it as ‘putting what marketeers have known for decades into economics’. It’s certainly not rocket science. But as with any set of ideas that help inform what we do and how we do it, behavioural insights add value to our core work. This is a complex world and making change is difficult, so different angles on old problems can really add value. 

Policy is ultimately all about change; how to influence people to do something differently. The standard approach is usually ‘please do X’, which, as Atul Guwunde notes⁠3, is generally not that successful. Some people still throw their rubbish in the hedge, text while driving or neglect their pets, just a few examples of X. In his book the Last Mile⁠4, Dilip Soman identifies four approaches to achieve the required behaviour change, X, of which Behavioural science is just one.

‘It is cheaper (or most expensive) to do X’ is the economists approach, using carrots and sticks, financial incentives or disincentives. Make the required behaviour cheaper or the one to be avoided more expensive. Think off-peak travel concessions or the sugar tax. ‘You must do X’ is the lawyer’s approach, whereby society determines what is and isn’t ok and creates a set of rules and regulations to ensure this position is enforceable. Most law and order fits here, of course. ‘Here’s why you should do X’ is the approach of marketeers and advertisers, selling the advantages of a course of action or behaviour change and why these features and benefits make it preferable to others. The five-a-day campaign, perhaps. ‘Here’s why it’s easy to do X’ is the approach of behavioural scientists, recognising that people’s default behaviour and choices mean the preferred option is often the simplest one. Automatic enrolment on workplace pensions is a recent example.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that X represents air quality. Introducing a congestion charge or making it cheaper to travel on public transport are economic levers, setting emissions levels for cars or industry are legal levers, communicating the negative health impact of poor air quality on residents is a marketing response and making it easy and safe to walk to school and work are behavioural levers. This same approach is how smoking has become a socially unacceptable thing to do across most sections of society. Tobacco was heavily taxed; smoking was banned in public spaces; advertisements on cigarette packets and displays were covered up, and, collectively, it was made much harder to do. 

System change is difficult and can be slow; it took 450 years for tobacco to become a socially unacceptable thing to do across most of society. And yet the potential benefits make it worth the investment of time and energy. Aligning all these four approaches isn’t always necessary to achieve change but it is a useful way of thinking about which are the most appropriate responses to the issues at hand. It would also be an interesting enquiry to determine whether there are optimum combinations of these approaches in given situations. In an ideal world, perhaps, we would prefer not to resort to economic or legal means, as if we’re not careful these can become heavy-handed or state interventions.  

It’s also important to think about the prevailing social context. Change comes easier when a number of circumstances converge; there is a groundswell of public opinion, a wealth of evidence, a technical solution – what I sometimes refer to as a ‘social moment⁠5’  or in Malcolm Gladwell⁠6’s language a tipping point. The emergence of a social movement makes this shift to a new equilibrium an inevitability, part of the new normal, as with smoking. The challenge for policy-makers is to spot the signs that this groundswell is starting and, in many cases, getting out of the way to let it happen. 

The point of behavioural science, therefore, isn’t to be a silver bullet in and of itself. Rather, it’s to help us understand how these processes operate, how people are likely to respond and how context matters. It adds a range of additional mechanisms to the armoury of those who develop policy, make decisions, allocate resources and generally try to make the world a better place. And I don’t just mean bureaucrats, politicians and business leaders. Everyone does these things in their own lives, in their own communities, in their own work. This is the belief in the power to create that permeates the work of the RSA, moving towards a place where we can say ‘X is what we do’. The change has become the new social norm, the way we do things around here. Looking in on an elderly neighbour. Walking safely to school. Drinking responsibly. Recycling. Eating healthy food. Driving without texting. Exercising. Helping run a local club. This is where behavioural science can add real value – helping people make positive changes. 


1 http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/behavioral-sciences

2 https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nudge-Improving-Decisions-Health-Happiness/dp/0141040017/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480949934&sr=8-1&keywords=nudge

3 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/07/29/slow-ideas

4 https://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Mile-Behavioral-Rotman-UTP-Publishing/dp/1442650435/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480679473&sr=8-1&keywords=dilip+soman

5 https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/matthew-taylor-blog/2016/10/spotting-the-social-moment

6 http://gladwell.com/the-tipping-point/

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