Behavioural Insights (BI) have had a positive impact on policy making and the delivery of public services. Low-cost “nudges”, a term popularised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, can lead to significant changes in behaviour—an advantage too good for many administrations, faced with tightening fiscal budgets and manpower constraints, to ignore.
While incorporating behavioural considerations into policy may not be new, BI suggest that people are much more automatic, rather than deliberative, in the way we think; that we are more easily influenced by prevailing social norms than previously thought. Our mental models may prevent us from making decisions we would have wanted. In areas such as public service delivery and enforcement, applying BI to public policies has helped citizens to make decisions that are more in line with their goals. Singapore’s public agencies have deepened their insights by conducting randomised controlled trials to test the efficacy of new ideas, including those adapted from other contexts. From helping citizens keep track of medical appointments and financial planning, to making payments on time to avoid penalties, BI can help public policies and programmes work better for citizens.
BI can better inform domains where behaviour is particularly hard to change. Staying healthy is a good example because behaviour is often entrenched in daily habits and lifestyles. Getting people to eat more healthily, exercise more, or quit smoking is no easy task, even with the use of behavioural interventions. BI applications may need to be refined to ensure greater timeliness and saliency, and to tap on social norms in specific contexts. Applying BI also reduces barriers and increases the relevance of more environmentally friendly practices such as recycling and using appliances that are more energy efficient.
However, despite its wide range of applications in public policy, BI has sometimes been criticised for being too intrusive on an individual’s freedom to choose. Others have labelled it a fad, since giving due consideration to how people think and behave is not new.
To address these criticisms, we need to design more mindful choice environments so that people get to think through their choices, improving their own welfare as well as that of society at large. In particular, there could be hidden costs when applying BI to policy, for instance, when nudges evoke negative emotions to get individuals to change their behaviour. We should thus build on past insights to sustain, customise and scale up interventions that work better for society.
The consensus among policymakers, practitioners, and experts featured here is that a BI approach is not an end in itself. Neither is it the silver bullet to all our policy challenges. The full potential of BI cannot be reached unless we effectively combine its use with other tools such as data science, which offers new possibilities in the way relevant information is collected, analysed and presented. More importantly, BI is just one of the many tools needed for public sector innovation to address the increasingly complex problems we face. To resolve these challenges, the whole of society—not just the public sector—will have to make more thoughtful and informed choices.
I hope that the expert views and local BI efforts convened for this issue of ETHOS contribute to future efforts and learning in the community of practitioners and supporters. I wish you an insightful read.
Behavioural Insights Issue