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Better understanding of human behaviour can help achieve the global development agenda

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Recycling e-waste: Research shows that people are highly motivated to take actions their peers have also taken, and this knowledge can be used to design people-centred policies to achieve positive results. UNDP photo

Should you take the medication you need every day at the designated time? Should you test your drinking water supply for safety? Should you invest in fertilizer when you know it will increase your yields? Should you save enough for retirement?

The answer to these questions, and to others concerned with general matters of personal wellbeing, is clearly yes. Most people want to do what’s best for them.

Despite knowing what’s good for them, many people do not take their medication on-time, ensure their drinking water is safe, spend their money on long-term investments or put aside enough for retirement.

All too often, we humans postpone important intended actions to tomorrow, pursue information that only reflects our own point of view or unfairly emphasize the latest information we see over older yet relevant data.

In 2015 at UN Headquarters in New York, 193 countries adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Biases that influence human decision-making directly impact the work of the United Nations and Governments to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and achieve gender equality — three of the UN’s top priorities for the next 13 years.

If governments and the UN, along with civil society and the private sector, are to achieve the ambitious SDG agenda, we must take an experimental approach to designing policies and programmes that incorporate findings on how people make decisions in their everyday lives.  

Enter behavioural science, a field that draws on research from psychology, economics, sociology and neuroscience to generate insights about why people make the choices they do. Behavioural insights help us to design people-centred policies and programmes that comport with, rather than confound, the actual psychology of decision-making.

Using behavioural science enables us to design choice environments in ways that help people to act in accordance with their long-term goals - an approach that was first presented by Sunstein and Thaler in their bestseller, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness.

The UN has begun to embrace the use of behavioural insights. UNDP started its first cooperation with the UK Behavioural Insights Team and the government of Moldova in 2013. Now, the work is scaling. Our report, Behavioural Insights at the United Nations – Achieving the 2030 Agenda, advocates this approach for inclusion in every policy maker’s toolbox and presents 10 valuable case studies.

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. Early 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 – 80 percent compared to 40 percent in the control group.

Research shows that people are highly motivated to take actions their peers have also taken. UNDP and private-sector partner Baidu in China applied this principle to better enable people to recycle their old refrigerators, computers and other electronic devices. We worked with the team on the mobile app and incorporated outreach messages such as: “Join the 250,000 people who are already helping to preserve our planet by e-recycling.” A “social proof” feature enables app users to easily invite friends in their social networks to download the app through a simple SMS message.

The everyday actions of regular people have broad implications for the environment. Behavioural science can also be applied to help consumers evaluate the costs and benefits of their actions. How can policy-makers design smarter programmes? UN Environment just released a behavioural insights report proposing five concrete actions for guiding sustainable consumption.

Interventions based on behavioural insights are usually low-cost, do not impinge on freedom of choice and are built on rigorous empirical tests. Many development problems are characterized by implementation challenges that are particularly important to solve, as the main underlying principle of the SDG agenda is to leave no one behind.  Behavioural insights can help to identify what prevents marginalized people from taking up services and help to identify what works to remove these barriers.

The World Bank, as well as governments in Australia, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States have all launched initiatives to use behavioural insights to address policy challenges. The UN has an opportunity to deliver on its promise of a “people-centred” global agenda by ramping up its use of behavioural insights in policy and programming around the world.

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