Six key takeaways from the Behavioural Science & Policy Association Conference

14 June 2022

Many governments have recognised the value of behavioural science and how it can contribute to policy design. In the latest Behavioural Science & Policy Association (BSPA) conference, experts from the field discussed how behavioural science is being integrated into policy and pointed to innovative solutions to tackle social challenges such as inequality, social stigma, and global health issues.

Here, we share our 6 key takeaways from the 2-day conference:

Policy design needs integrated, inter-disciplinary BeSci teams

Samantha Power, administrator of USAID and previous US Representative at the United Nations, and Esther Duflo, Nobel Prize winner of Economic Sciences 2019 opened the conference. They believe that to make behavioural science as useful as possible in policy, integrated, interdisciplinary teams are needed. An integrated approach would have behavioural science applied in every part of the operation - where it is part of the process of policy design right from the beginning.

In a later panel discussion, other speakers also agreed on the value of interdisciplinary teams, including individuals with backgrounds in physics or law and not only those with a Behavioural Science background.

Rodney Ghali (Impact and Innovation Unit, Privy Council Office, Govt of Canada) added that “Behavioural science is not a silver bullet” but it can influence decision-making at the policy level

USAID tackling social stigma by redesigning HIV prevention medicine pill bottles

Samantha Power described a project where USAID and Conrad, a global non-profit, discovered the biggest behavioural barrier to taking preventative HIV medication in South Africa was the social stigma attached to it. Working with IDEO, a design agency, they found that by simply redesigning the pill bottle to look like a lip-gloss container, making it easier to hide, they could help women feel more comfortable taking it in public.

Innumeracy makes individuals’ decision making more prone to emotions

Ellen Peters, Professor and Director of the Center for Science Communication Research at the University of Oregon, introduced her new book ‘Innumeracy in the Wild’. The book discusses the influence of numerical ability and disability in decision making, illustrating the effect with case studies and the latest research from the field. Through her own research, she found that innumerate individuals’ decisions are liable to emotions and storytelling. That’s why information architecture methods, and how information is communicated is so important in policy.

Building cognitive ease for funding boosts student enrolment

When Caitlin Anzelone (Center of Applied Behavioural Science at MDRC) began the project at colleges in Ohio, the funder believed the lack of financial aid prevented students from enrolling in summer courses. But during 9 months of initial research, they found that students had enough grant funding, but it was too cognitively demanding for students to understand and work out what funding they had left. This understanding helped them design two very successful interventions which both boosted enrollment and are now being scaled across other colleges.

Understanding habits in supermarket shops can act as a proxy for credit scores

Low-income consumers often cannot build a credit score, limiting their access to loans and finance, or leaving them with costly, high-interest loans. Jung Youn Lee (Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University) worked with a conglomerate in the Middle East – a supermarket chain and credit card issuer. They found habits persist across domains, so they wanted to test whether habits in grocery shopping might reflect habits in how people manage their finances in general. They matched 30,000 consumers and built a credit-scoring algorithm using grocery buying data. They identified items that were more likely to be purchased by defaulters – spam, mortadella, cheap alcohol, cigarettes. They also found that defaulters were less consistent in spending – eg no regular weekly shop, but any day, any amount.

Using grocery data, credit card approval was more likely for low-income individuals. They are now building a Buy Now Pay Later facility for the supermarket to help low income, reliable customers access credit when needed.

Randomised Controlled Trials are not practical in every context

Ammaarah Martinus (BI4 Gov, Western Cape, South Africa) emphasised that in the Global South, RCTs are expensive and not practical. Instead, they have found quasi-experimental approaches like A-B testing that don’t necessarily need to be randomised much more practical.

Bringing practitioners together to discuss their experiences is a useful exercise and is helping the learning process in applied BeSci so that the maximum potential can be achieved.

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