Can irrational humans create a sustainable future?

Why behavioural insights matter for the Global Goals

July 12, 2018

UN Member States gather this week in New York to discuss progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during the 2018 High-Level Political Forum. One element will connect all HLPF discussions as it connects all goals: change.

To achieve the ambitious 2030 Agenda, economic paradigms, means of production, institutions and systems have to change. Human behaviour needs to change on a massive scale. But changing human behaviour is a lot more complex than it seems. “We are all far less rational in our decision-making than standard economic theory assumes. Our irrational behaviours are neither random nor senseless: they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains,” stated behavioural economist Dan Ariely in ‘Predictably Irrational’ in 2008.

Indeed, the Homo Economicus, that uber-rational, self-interested prototype posited by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, doesn’t adequately capture the range of human choices and behaviours. There’s a lot more driving us than competitive self-interest—and this has implications for public policy and programme design. The birthplace of behavioural science is Israel, and since the 1960s the findings have been put increasingly into practice in policy. The approach is most commonly labelled behavioural insights and combines human-centred design methods with evidence from behavioural science and rigorous evaluation to facilitate change.

National governments—including Australia, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Africa and the United Kingdom— as well as organizations such as the World Bank and the OECD have launched initiatives using behavioural insights to address policy challenges. UN agencies and funds are catching up.

To highlight the potential of strategically embedding a behavioural insights approach in international development, UNDP and the Government of Israel are hosting a discussion about Behavioural Insights for the SDGs, featuring Dan Ariely.

UNDP was an early adopter, starting a first collaboration with the UK Behavioural Insights Team and the Government in 2013. In Moldova, many adults treated for tuberculosis stop taking their medication and relapse, negatively impacting the individual’s health and the national economy. We discovered that one of the main barriers was that people had to make a mandatory visit to a clinic to take the drugs in the presence of a doctor: a friction cost. Results from a randomized control trial indicate that twice as many patients follow through with treatment if allowed to take medication at home while connected to a doctor or nurse through their phone camera – 87 percent compared to 43 percent in the control group.

Since then, the UNDP Innovation Facility has supported more than a dozen trials. These trials apply behavioural insights to some of the most wicked challenges in global development: tackling violence against women and girls in Egypt, Georgia, and South Africa; preserving Mongolia’s national parks; preventing violent extremism in Sudan; safely disposing of electronic waste in China.

A woman in a pink uniform in stands in front of a group of colleagues.

In Bangladesh, UNDP and partners are using behavioural insights to test how to improve services to recipients of social security cash transfers. Photo: UNDP Bangladesh

Addressing a complex problem such as violence against women and girls with interventions that focus on changing concrete behaviours might seem counter-intuitive. Gender-based violence is so deeply ingrained in structural inequalities and social norms, that it seemingly cannot be solved with isolated experiments.

We argue, however, that systems change goes hand in hand with ethically designed experiments. Different actors in the system play different roles: from activists rallying for better legislation and implementation, service providers improving their efficiency and reach to decision-makers developing better policies. In Egypt, the National Council for Women, UNDP, UN Women, and the UK Behavioural Insights Team set out to find measurable ways to address gender-based violence and to improve prevention efforts. The partners followed a process that includes the design of  behavioural maps, investing in understanding context-specific behavioural drivers and barriers, and jointly developing experiments to improve prevention and response.

We incubated a portfolio of measurable experiments and are planning a trial that would deliver behaviourally-informed messages to women via electricity bills to encourage survivors of violence to seek help, potentially reaching thousands of households. Thus far, the envelopes contained one message targeting women who experience domestic violence. Reflecting on findings of context-specific behavioural drivers, we co-designed a range of alternative calls for actions. These were prototyped and then refined. Sending different messages, some focusing on reciprocity, others on social norms, to certain households and monitoring calls to the help hotline can identify which messages have more traction and which are less effective.

In Bangladesh, the UNDP-powered ‘Access to Information’ Lab and partners test how to best service recipients of social security cash transfers. The initiative involves testing two widely used digital payment mechanisms to replace physical delivery of social security cash benefits with a randomized control trial. The two leading mobile-money service providers in Bangladesh have provided participants with low-cost mobile phones and orientation on regularly receiving their social security cash benefit. Early results indicate significant time and cost savings among the groups that used digital cash transfers.

Meanwhile, UNDP Yemen, in collaboration with Nudge Lebanon, is exploring the drivers and motivations of violent extremism and what works to counter radicalization. Particularly focusing on young women and men, the initiative—comprising a combination of text messages, media and video, along with psycho-social support services—is currently being tested in three districts in Aden, with the aim of mobilizing the target population to join a community support programme.

These examples highlight an experimental, evidence-based approach to designing policies and programmes that invest in understanding how people make decisions in their everyday lives. We know that better evidence does not automatically lead to better decisions, and accordingly rigorous monitoring systems are not always the right thing to do.

As Dan Ariely has written, “Even the most analytical thinkers are predictably irrational; the really smart ones acknowledge and address their irrationalities.” It’s time to embed such humility in development globally, invest in understanding context-specific behavioural drivers and barriers, and design experimental interventions. Together with Professor Ariely, behavioural insights experts and change-makers from various UN agencies, we will discuss how to institutionalize such ways of working in the UN – stay tuned.

Join the conversation with Dan Ariely, jointly organized by the Permanent Mission of Israel and UNDP: UN Web TV on 13 July at 1:15 p.m. EST

About the author
Benjamin Kumpf
 works on social innovation for UNDP, exploring data for development, human-centred design, behavioural insights and other extraordinary topics to change business as usual. Follow him on Twitter: @bkumpf