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Opinion leader social policy needs more than behavioural economics

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L’influence de l’économie comportementale, grandissante dans les études marketing, devient encore plus forte dans le secteur des politiques publiques. Pourquoi ? En appliquant les principes de l’économie comportementale, on pourrait changer les comportements de populations entières sans passer par de coûteux et inefficaces programmes d’éducation et campagnes d’information.
En Grande-Bretagne, le gouvernement a mis en place une unité appelée Behavioural Insights pour développer des protocoles permettant d’influencer le comportement de la population sur des sujets d’intérêt général.
Peut-on vraiment avoir une influence significative là où d’autres méthodes ont si souvent échoué ?

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Opinion leader social policy needs more than behavioural economics

  1. 1. Share this Opinion Leader Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon Brain Game
  2. 2. Share this Opinion Leader 2 Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon Behavioural economics insights can help break through the final barriers to behaviour change – but policymakers who believe they have found a “magic bullet” solution may risk disappointment.
  3. 3. Share this Opinion Leader 3 Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon For policymakers, trying to change human behaviour the old-fashioned way is expensive, risky, and fraught with failure. Launching wide-reaching education programmes, and canvassing support for new laws or fiscal policy; altering financial incentives in favour of new behaviour and trying to convince populations of the rational reasons for acting that way: all are costly, potentially controversial and come with uncertain outcomes. High-profile campaigns that fail to meet well-publicised targets whilst stirring public resentment in the process are rarely a preferred option for governments. So it’s no surprise that policymakers get excited when told there’s an easier way: a means of changing behaviour by flying under the radar, spending less and making adjustments to daily life that few people could reasonably disagree with. That, in a rather crude nutshell, is how behavioural economics has been packaged when it comes to changing behaviour in the social policy space: a subtle, clever alternative to cumbersome government policy and education programmes. From the UK, where the government has established a Behavioural Insights team (colloquially christened the “nudge unit” after the popular book by Thaler and Sunstein), to the US, Europe and Australia, policymakers have been encouraged to manoeuvre populations towards desirable behaviour by adjusting the situational cues revealed by behavioural economics thinking. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that rearranging such behavioural triggers is not the complete solution. And in placing too much faith in them, governments could be abdicating responsibility for the real challenges of changing behaviour, and sustaining that change over time.
  4. 4. Share this Opinion Leader 4 Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon Changing the System? According to Daniel Kahneman (arguably, together with his colleague Amos Tversky, the inventor of behavioural economics), the human mind uses two systems to guide its decision-making. System 1 decisions are fast, experiential and often subconscious. System 2 decisions are more reflective and deliberative, and take more cognitive effort. An example of a behaviour driven by the reflective system would be purchasing a new car. At least for most people, this involves some conscious thought and planning, and would reflect the person’s values and beliefs about different car brands. As such it forms part of System 2. In contrast, locking the car after parking it in a car park is generally something we do automatically, often without thinking at all. It is an unconscious, habitual behaviour, part of the System 1 decision-making that, Kahneman and others have concluded, governs most of our behaviour. The emergence of behavioural economics has significant implications both for our understanding of how to influence behaviour, and for the task of conducting behavioural research more effectively. And in both of these areas, researchers must grapple with the challenge of integrating insights from both behavioural systems. Many have responded to this challenge by concluding that, since System 1 is the immediate governing force for much of our day-to-day behaviour, it should replace System 2 as the primary focus of our research efforts. In doing so, they have started to mine very different sources of insights on human behaviour, but they risk replacing one blinkered approach with another. Whilst behavioural economics has made an invaluable contribution, it does not have all the answers. It is not the ‘magic bullet’ that will solve all problems. Instead a balanced, holistic approach is needed – a blending of the best from behavioural economics with the best from traditional behavioural sciences.
  5. 5. Share this Opinion Leader 5 Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon The hidden world of subconscious influences Behavioural economics has highlighted two previously unexplored sets of influences that together make up our System 1 means of navigating the world. And on occasions, these influences can have a significant impact on the success of social policy initiatives. The first set of influences is external, situational cues, aspects of our physical environment that dispose us to behave in a particular way. The second is made up of internal rules of thumb and mental shortcuts (heuristics) that we use to help us make decisions quickly and effectively but can sometimes bias us towards courses of action that may not appear to be in our best interests. Together these sets of variously pre-programmed responses help to explain why people fail to behave in the way we might expect; why they stubbornly refuse to follow what traditional economic theory might consider rational behaviour. Carefully researched behavioural economics insights can produce some eureka moments when it comes to changing behaviour, especially when financial incentives, moral arguments and appeals to rational self-interest have failed to deliver. In the UK, after generous subsidies had failed to persuade expected numbers of people to insulate their lofts and so make their homes more energy-efficient, a pilot test demonstrated that offering to clear out lofts at cost-price, as part of the offer, increased response rates five-fold. The situational context that lofts were untidy, crammed full of stuff and needed to be emptied before they could be insulated had been obstructing the rational motivation to save money and the moral incentive to help the environment. Changing this context made a very significant difference.
  6. 6. Share this Opinion Leader 6 Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon Yet providing the final piece of the behaviour change jigsaw is not the same as offering the full picture. The triggers illuminated by behavioural economics are not the full sum of relevant insights on human behaviour. Choosing to believe that they are – and that populations can be discreetly nudged in one direction or another using these alone – may be wishful thinking. In the UK, a 2011 House of Lords report looked at the impact of behavioural economics approaches to policy through an extensive review of the research literature and input from numerous academic experts. It concluded that, although important, the non-regulatory environmental measures suggested by behavioural economics are less likely to be effective if used in isolation. Effective policies require a full range of interventions. The importance of deliberative context Removing situational barriers to citizens changing their behaviour can only produce sustainable, lasting results when those citizens have concluded internally that it is a change that is right for them. Without such agreement, the effect of manipulating the ‘choice architecture’ is likely to be temporary – and could even be counter-productive. There is the potential for criticism and the undermining of moral authority if citizens believe they are being manipulated into behaving in a way that they do not agree with, or which is none of the government’s business. It is one thing to make it easier for people to do the right thing when it comes to energy efficiency; it would be another to nudge them into buying national lottery tickets, or to restrict traffic flow in city centres in an effort to persuade more motorists to take the bus. They may not be as appealing as behavioural economics fixes, but deliberative, reflective systems that help to form the views and beliefs of individuals constitute a context that is still vitally important to anyone seeking sustainable changes in behaviour. In order to understand fully why people behave the way they do, we need to commit to an integrated, holistic approach that steers clear of judging in advance which system of thinking holds the greatest influence over our actions. And we require an equally holistic approach to research techniques, to reveal precisely how the different systems interact with one another where particular behaviours are concerned.
  7. 7. Share this Opinion Leader 7 Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon An integrated approach to behaviour change The fact that behavioural economics delivers valuable insights on the drivers of human behaviour does not make the insights of psychology or anthropology any less valuable. A diverse web of influences governs what we do, and achieving long-term, sustained behaviour change requires us to address most, if not all of them. The web includes several psychological factors: conscious perceptions of the costs and benefits of adopting a desired behaviour, of the efficacy of that behaviour, and of the legitimacy of the government’s position in encouraging people to adopt it; and it also includes the subconscious factors, both internal and external, that are illuminated by behavioural economics (habit, heuristics, context). Additional roles are played by our internal value system (often referred to as ‘morality’), social norms and cultural traditions, which have been the focus of work in anthropology. Habit Cost and benefits Morality Behaviour Social and cultural norms Context / Setting Legitimacy HeuristicsEfficacy Psychology Behaviouraleconomics Anthropology
  8. 8. Share this Opinion Leader 8 Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon On your bike: behavioural science applied Encouraging people to cycle rather than drive to work is a goal of many governments in developed countries, and one that promises benefits in terms of improved population health, reduced congestion on roads and public transport, and a contribution to carbon reduction targets. Seeking to understand the influences that weigh upon individuals’ decisions whether to cycle to work or travel by other means demonstrates the complex interaction of all of the influences in our behavioural web when it comes to understanding and influencing behaviour. The psychological factors begin with conscious perceptions of the costs and benefits of cycling for each individual: on the one hand they will be travelling in the fresh air, saving money, getting fit and thus feeling better and more attractive; on the other they risk injury (or even death) on potentially unsafe roads, they could spend much of their journey breathing in traffic fumes and they could arrive at work looking sweaty and unkempt. And of course, they must first fork out for a decent bicycle. All of these are conscious considerations, as to whether cycling is a good idea or not. To suggest that such conscious reflections have no influence over our decision to cycle is wrong. Equally conscious are people’s perceptions of the efficacy of taking up cycling: Can choosing not to drive to work help prevent climate change – or is the planet doomed to global warming anyway? Perceptions of self-efficacy can be equally influential to the deliberative process: do people believe they are fit enough to cycle to work regularly? Do they have the willpower? Or will they simply buy an expensive mountain bike and leave it standing in their shed? The question of legitimacy, whether the government has the right to suggest how people travel to work, is the third psychological factor, and one that has considerable influence over how behaviour change messages can be presented. Do people believe that the government is within its rights to attempt to change their behaviour in this way? Do they agree that climate change is a threat that justifies them leaving their cars at home? Or do they believe that such individual choices are none of policymakers’ business?
  9. 9. Share this Opinion Leader 9 Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon The issue of legitimacy can be significantly influenced by the anthropological factors that occupy the centre of our web: social and cultural norms and perceptions of morality, including whether cycling to work and doing your bit to prevent carbon emissions is seen as the “right” course of action. It is only in the context of individual judgements and beliefs that instinctive behavioural economics-related factors can act on individual choices. It may well be that the actions that constitute many people’s morning commute are habitual: automatic sequences of behaviour that propel them unthinkingly from waking in the morning to settling into the driver’s seat of the car, or dressing in a suit and heading for the bus or train; heuristics such as always choosing the quickest or simplest journey could bias choice towards cars; contextual factors such as the availability of bike- locking facilities, dedicated cycle lanes and showers at work could exert a big influence over whether people saddle up or not. Seeking to disrupt habits, introduce new heuristics and prepare the contextual ground for people cycling to work all play a critical role – however time and effort spent adjusting these behavioural economics levers could be largely wasted if the psychological concerns of large sections of the population have not been understood and addressed. Carefully designed choice architecture such as banks of easy-to-hire bicycles at commuter railway stations are only likely to impact on the behaviour of those who have already decided, implicitly or explicitly, that cycling is right for them. In search of sustainable behaviour change The real challenge in the public policy space is not simply to unearth a range of potential contextual triggers that could conceivably nudge behaviour in one direction or another; it is to understand exactly how such triggers interact with the psychological and social factors that exert sustained influence over people’s behaviour. Even habits, the most powerful of unconscious influences on what we do, tend to form in line with our priorities and motivations. To seek to manipulate habits and heuristics without a full understanding of the deliberative forces that formed them is to tackle behaviour change with one hand tied behind our backs. This is why the current infatuation with behavioural economics risks missing the full picture of why people behave the way that they do, particularly if it implies the rejection of all forms of behavioural insight that have come before.
  10. 10. Share this Opinion Leader 10 Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon A holistic approach to researching behaviour Traditional research techniques reflect traditional views about how people make decisions: in a deliberative way that can be consciously recalled. In the language of Systems 1 and 2, traditional research techniques have been good at understanding System 2 decisions but quite poor at understanding and measuring System 1 behaviours. If it is System 1 that governs much of our behaviour, then this is clearly a problem. However, it is not an insurmountable one. Proven techniques for uncovering the role of System 1 exist. Rather than relying on direct questioning, researchers can observe behaviour through the techniques of ethnography, or they can seek to recreate contexts in order to analyse their impact on behaviour, as in the case of cognitive interviewing, projective techniques and controlled behavioural experiments. All of these techniques are now vitally important parts of the research toolkit. Some commentators have even advocated that we should abandon traditional research techniques altogether and depend entirely on such System 1-attuned approaches instead. Ewing and Pankauskas ,in their award-winning ESOMAR paper, argued that “research without questions is not only possible, it’s often essential – it’s the best way to get at what people actually do, not just what they say they do”. But knowing what people actually do is not enough where social policy is concerned. When it comes to consumers’ choice of products or brands, particularly in low-involvement categories, knowing the truth about people’s behaviour and unconscious responses may constitute a complete insight in itself. But where our task is to influence more complex decisions, it is not. Knowing what people really do in relation to their health, their kids’ education, their ageing parents, the social cohesion of their community, the broader environment, and so forth, is of little value without a deeper understanding of why they behave that way. And for this understanding to be truly complete, it must incorporate all relevant elements of the behavioural web.
  11. 11. Share this Opinion Leader 11 Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon For this reason, insights for sustainable behaviour change in the field of social policy can only come through a balanced approach to research, which fully embraces the new methods of behavioural economics but uses these to augment rather than replace traditional interview techniques. Such a holistic approach does not necessitate bigger research budgets. Making intelligent use of ethnography and cognitive interviewing to construct a precise audit of people’s behaviour can reduce the number of focus groups needed and inform shorter, smarter surveys. The net effect on research spend should be neutral. Putting “all the eggs in the behavioural economics basket” is no less misguided as the now out-dated notion that all human behaviour is logical, rational and consistent with internal beliefs and values. We have the techniques available for integrating behavioural economics insights with others that are proven to help deliver sustained behaviour change. It is vital for the on-going success of social policy that we use them. We have the techniques available for integrating behavioural economics insights with others that are proven to help deliver sustained behaviour change.
  12. 12. Share this Opinion Leader 12 Why social policy needs more than the behavioural economics bandwagon About the author References Mark Francas has a strong interest in behaviour change, social marketing, and public policy development. He is the Head of the Behaviour Change Institute within TNS Political & Social, comprising senior TNS researchers and international academics. The Institute has developed an industry-leading model, based on the latest thinking in behavioural theory and behavioural economics, which is used by many national governments, NGOs and donor organisations. A Fellow of the AMSRS, Mark has received several prestigious industry awards recognising his work. Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Allen Lane. Behaviour Change. Report of Science and Technology Select Committee. House of Lords. UK. July 2011. Ewing, T. and Pankauskas, B. (2012) Research in a world without questions. Esomar conference. French, J. (2012) Why Nudging is not enough. Emerald Publishing. Thaler, R. and Sunstein C. (2008) Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. Penguin Books. Ariely, D. (2008) Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions. HarperCollins. Cialdini, R. (2007) Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Collins Business. Priluck, J. (2013) The overselling of behavioural economics. Reuters Online.
  13. 13. Share this Opinion Leader 13 About Opinion Leaders Opinion Leaders is part of a regular series of articles from TNS consultants, based on their expertise gathered through working on client assignments in over 80 markets globally, with additional insights gained through TNS proprietary studies such as Digital Life, Mobile Life and the Commitment Economy. About TNS TNS advises clients on specific growth strategies around new market entry, innovation, brand switching and stakeholder management, based on long-established expertise and market-leading solutions. With a presence in over 80 countries, TNS has more conversations with the world’s consumers than anyone else and understands individual human behaviours and attitudes across every cultural, economic and political region of the world. TNS is part of Kantar, the data investment management division of WPP and one of the world’s largest insight, information and consultancy groups. Please visit www.tnsglobal.com for more information. Get in touch If you would like to talk to us about anything you have read in this report, please get in touch via enquiries@tnsglobal.com or via Twitter @tns_global You may be interested in... Behavioural economics: the complete picture? > The value of context: or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economics > Breaking the habit code > The secret life of the brain >