Yellow and blue doors

Buzzword Busting: Behavioural Science

In the obscure world of policymaking, one very specific view of human beings reigns supreme. This is the view that sees individuals as rational machines who can compute everything and easily make decisions that increase their material well-being.

Want to increase spending among your population? Easy! Just add some incentives that make it rational for people to spend more, or irrational to save (the basic logic of monetary policy). Trying to reduce carbon emissions as a result of too many people driving? Simple — just explain the long-term effects of climate change!

You wouldn’t be alone if you think this sounds a little unrealistic. More and more, when we really start to dig into what constitutes an effective policy, we need to consider the actual behaviour of individuals, not necessarily guided by rationality alone, but also influenced by your emotions, upbringing, cultural context or something else entirely.

The application of behavioural science to policymaking rests exactly on this idea. In recent years, major international organisations (for instance, the World BankUNOECDEuropean Commission), as well as separate governments (for instance, the UKthe USAGermanyFrance) have begun taking human behaviour seriously when designing policies in such areas as employment, consumer protection, health, taxation, environment, education and the transport.

 Let us consider a hypothetical example, juxtaposing a classical policy intervention against a behavioural one:

Armen is thinking about the career of his children and what profession they will choose upon leaving school. Armen knows that most of his neighbours and relatives value careers in law or economics more highly for their children. Lost in the continuum of various professions, Armen convinces his child to opt for a career as an economist as well. However, Armen is neither aware of the job market trends in the country (in reality, there is little demand for economists), nor of what a typical career path of an economist may look like.

If we think from the perspective of a classical policymaker, Armen should actively search for more information, trying to understand what is in the best interest of his child. The policymaker might think a good way to reach Armen is by providing information on local government websites, or maybe even by organizing various awareness raising events and discussions. These things should ideally guide Armen in his decision-making process.

However, a behavioural policymaker would consider that Armen might lack both the time or the awareness to search for the necessary information that he needs to make an optimal decision. He’s never even looked at a government website, and certainly is not interested in attending government events. Thus, instead of posting information online and waiting for Armen to react, the behavioural policymaker may send a brief tailored brochure, explaining the job market trends and pinpointing the professions that are the most in demand in the current and future job markets.

In doing so, unlike the classical policymaker, a behavioural specialist is more likely to influence Armen’s behaviour for the better.


What has this got to do with Armenia?

In late 2017, the Armenia National SDG Innovation Labwas launched in collaboration with the UN and the Government of Armenia. One of the Lab’s key goals is to improve policymaking in the country and as such the lab will soon be embarking on the design and implementation of several behavioural policy interventions.

Through a process of collaboration between ourselves and government partners, we’ve identified several key challenges that would benefit from behavioural methodology:

  • How can we accelerate the installation of solar technologies in rural areas by harnessing the psychology of decision makers?
  • Can we increase the breast cancer screening take-up rate by sending tailored reminders to women?
  • Is it possible to motivate doctors to use more IT (mainly computers) in hospitals?
  • How can we encourage the Armenian population to consume more organic products?


Over the next few months, we’ll be going into more detail on each of these. Follow our posts to find out how we got on!