15 November 2023
The real work of behavioural scientists is happening below the radar
Michael Sanders, Syon Bhanot, Shibeal O’Flaherty
A new book tells their story
Followers of behavioural science can hardly fail to have noticed a scandal this summer around suspected research fraud by some of the field’s most prominent academics, which has received coverage in outlets including the Financial Times, The New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Guardian.
This is all very dramatic, but it is ultimately a side show to the real work of behavioural science that has been taking place over the last decade or more, and which is the subject of our book, Behavioural Public Policy in a Global Context: Practical Lessons From Outside the Nudge Unit, released last week by Palgrave Macmillan.
The use of behavioural science in policy has seen an almost inexorable rise since the establishment of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), also known as the No. 10 “Nudge Unit”, in 2010. Hundreds of teams have sprung up1 , making use of the lessons from behavioural science to redesign policies to “help people to make better choices for themselves”. BIT’s story was told in Inside the Nudge Unit by the team’s CEO, David Halpern.
Our book continues this story, recounting the stories of 23 other behavioural units, written in their own words over 568 pages. Teams from transnational bodies like the World Bank or the World Health Organisation, to city-based groups from Rome and Philadelphia; from the United States to Qatar, Kenya and Peru.
Most of the people writing these chapters do not have tenure at elite universities; they do not give TED Talks, or pen New York Times bestsellers. Instead, as their stories show, they go to work day after day and quietly apply the lessons of behavioural science to policy, taking an often sceptical eye at the established literature, trying to build on it, and using it to inform their work in their own particular context. Still more chapters could have been written – if space allowed, and if more teams had been allowed by the rules of their employers to tell their story.
Within what has previously been called a quiet revolution, the spirit of experimentalism – rigorously testing new ideas and new interventions against data based on people’s actual behaviour – is alive and well. Often, we have found, with more checks and balances, and less of the high stakes of academia that surely encourage poor behaviour. Alongside this, there is a real spirit of co-design, working side by side with the people whose behaviour is the focus of a policy, to better design interventions to make a difference in a way that is empowering and respectful of context. The last six months have been tough, and shaken the foundations of our field. Our book offers optimism, and more than a little hope for real impacts on the lives of millions of people around the world – it has been our honour to collate them.
1 OECD (2023). There are now over 300 institutions applying behavioural science to public policy in 63 countries, including over 200 within the governments of 56 countries. https://oecd-opsi.org/blog/mapping-behavioural-insights/
Michael Sanders is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Experimental Government Team at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.
Syon Bhanot is Associate Professor of economics at Swathmore College.
Shibeal O’Flaherty is a PhD student in the Department of Political Economy, King's College London.