Here’s a radical idea: what if, when we’re developing or implementing public policy, we factor in an understanding of the minds of the people who make up that public?

Behavioural science is the study of how people behave, and why they make the choices and decisions that they do. It is a cross-disciplinary field that draws from our understanding of how human brains work. It brings together insights from cognitive and social psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, sociology, marketing, judgment and decision-making, and behavioural economics (an exhausting but nonexhaustive list).

Here are two reasons why public policy enthusiasts should care about behavioural science:

  1. It’s about people: If we use an understanding of the public when creating and implementing public policy, we’ll be able to create better policies, programs and services.
  1. It’s evidence-based: If we use experimental methods that allow us to test and validate that something works on a smaller scale before we launch it at full scale, we’ll potentially be able to save millions, if not billions, of dollars. Or, if something already exists and doesn’t work as well as we had hoped, we can do tests to see how we can make it better in an evidence-based fashion.

Across the world, forward-thinking governments are embracing behavioural, evidence-based policy as the more tenable alternative to laws driven purely by ideology or assumptions. The UK, US, Australia, Denmark, Germany, France, Singapore and many other countries have found significant success in the application of behavioural insights to public policy issues: behavioural interventions can help people save more for retirement, consume less energy and be more likely to pay taxes on time, for instance. What is more, behavioural interventions can save governments money: a recent cost-benefit analysis found that across diverse policy areas in the UK and the US, the impact per dollar spent was significantly higher for behavioural interventions than traditional policy tools.

This movement is motivated by governments’ growing realization that people, individually or in groups, don’t make decisions in a neutral world of cold calculation — which is what much of traditional policy assumes they will do. Create an incentive, and people will act to maximize the gains. Create a disincentive, and people will act to minimize the losses. But, contrary to this perspective, decades of research in psychological and cognitive sciences has revealed that the environment or context in which a decision is made can not only change that decision, it can fundamentally alter people’s choices.

Human beings are impulsive, emotional, social creatures of habit. We don’t evaluate the long-term costs and benefits of every single decision before acting — indeed, we can’t, because our brains would likely combust if we tried to — nor, for that matter, do our good intentions always translate into ideal behaviour. While almost everyone, when in a “cold,” reflective state, agrees that it is in their own best interests to take their medications on time, eat healthy or keep their eyes on the road while driving, compliance with these asks is often lower in the heat of the moment, when distractions and emotions abound and habitual behaviour and/or procrastination is often the easiest option.

Limitations in our cognitive, attentional and informational resources (i.e., our brain’s inability to do everything all at once) lead us to using heuristics or mental shortcuts to aid our decisions. Sometimes, this can work well and increase the effectiveness of decision-making, but at other times, it can lead to biased and irrational decisions.

That people aren’t always rational seems too obvious to be an epiphany in this day and age (unless you work for government, that is). Perhaps the more useful point is that people are irrational in predictable ways, and these decision biases are systematic and can be modelled and used to drive better choices. For example, the status quo bias — the tendency to stick with the current state of affairs — can be used to automatically enrol people into not receiving notifications of text messages while they are driving, or automatically enrol them in retirement savings programs.

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The way scientists do this is to study the context in which a decision is made, predict which behavioural biases might impact the decision, and test different hypotheses that either use or combat those biases to drive better decisions. Behavioural science policy interventions apply this scientific method to understand and aid people’s decisions about adopting public programs and services, or complying with regulation or legislation, with the ultimate aim of scaling up the best performing intervention.

Classic examples of behavioural interventions for the public sector include measures that help people save more for retirement, consume less electricity, be more likely to pay taxes, sign up for organ donations and get jobs. But the application of behavioural science to policy-making is becoming increasingly diversified around the world. For instance, the Copenhagen Airport in Denmark, in partnership with iNudgeyou (a Denmark-based social purpose company), combatted the problem of people smoking just outside terminal entrances by using stickers that guide them to a designated smoking area a few metres away. Instead of telling people what not to do (no-smoking zones near doors), providing guidance on what behaviour is desirable (smoking zones away from doors) proved more effective. In South Africa, the government of the Western Cape, in partnership with Ideas42 (a US-based nonprofit behavioural design and consulting firm) and the University of Cape Town, used a computer-based “HIV risk game” to educate at-risk youth about HIV. Instead of the typical one-off information brochure, a gamification approach that got youth to make repeated decisions about HIV risk and provided immediate feedback about their choices was a more powerful aid for increasing young people’s understanding of such risks. In Australia, Alfred Health (a hospital), working with Deakin University, Monash University, VicHealth and the Behavioural Insights Team (UK), increased healthier food choices in its cafés by using a traffic-light colour system to classify nutritional value and portion sizes of beverages. Instead of telling people about the health costs of sugary beverages, the team marked drinks as red (most unhealthy), amber or green (most healthy), and “red” drinks were simply removed from the displays and self-service refrigerators and placed under the counters — still available for sale, just less obviously so. The total number of beverages that were sold didn’t change, but the sale of unhealthy sugary beverages went down by 28 to 71 percent in a range of trials.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency is successfully using behavioural nudges to get people to pay outstanding taxes and to file their taxes online. The Privy Council Office Impact and Innovation Unit (IIU) is using behavioural insights to help Statistics Canada increase its survey response rates, and to help the Department of National Defence recruit more women into the armed forces. The Innovation Lab at Employment and Social Development Canada has used behavioural insights to help people find jobs and has partnered with the IIU to increase uptake of the Canada Learning Bond among low-income families. And the foremost public sector behavioural insights group in Canada, the Ontario Behavioural Insights Unit, has succeeded in increasing organ donation rates and online licence-plate-sticker renewals using behavioural insights.

Despite these initiatives and widespread academic expertise, support and talent, the public sector application of behavioural science in Canada lags behind that of other comparable nations, and the opportunity to create better outcomes for Canadians through behavioural evidence-based policy is immense. Moreover, the bulk of behavioural-insights policy work in Canada amounts to what one might call repair jobs — it is as if we were retrofitting old buildings to make them work in the modern-day context — and behavioural science interventions are used mainly to improve implementation or compliance with a pre-existing policy. Which is important, no doubt, but we could also be building new structures that benefit from modern advancements and would be much better suited to their users’ needs. Indeed, behavioural science provides powerful tools that could help us get it right at the policy design and formation stages. And, in addition to using behavioural science to design better for the public, we could also be using these insights to design better for public servants. But there are few, if any, applications of behavioural science interventions to organizational decision-making within the Canadian government or the bodies that it regulates, so this is a significant area for exploration.

Some of our greatest challenges today are large-scale, complex problems of public policy, public perception and public action: climate change, vaccinations against infectious diseases, diversity and inclusion of historically marginalized groups, humanitarian crises, to name a few. Behavioural science promises empirically validated solutions that are derived from an understanding of the human beings that make up that “public.” And it rests its propositions on evidence in favour of what works to help people themselves make decisions that are better for them, so they can lead better lives. A pretty irresistible call to arms, wouldn’t you say?

Photo: Shutterstock, by LuckyStep.

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Supriya Syal
Supriya Syal is involved in a few different R&D ventures. She is the former chief behavioural scientist of the Privy Council Office of Canada’s Impact and Innovation Unit, and is the former vice-president of research and innovation of BEworks Inc.

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