Photo by Michael Rivera on Wikimedia Commons

COVID-19 and behavioural insights: Questions for public policy

06 July 2020

By Colette Einfeld

My local supermarket has stickers on the floor at the checkout, marking out one and a half metres from the person in front. There are also signs asking me to keep ‘one trolley’ distance away from others. Elsewhere in Australia, signs ask you to stay one ‘kangaroo’ away; in Canada, one hockey stick. In the parks of Copenhagen and New York City, squares and circles on the grass guide people on how far to sit apart. These social distancing measures are examples of how behavioural insights are helping during the coronavirus pandemic.

Behavioural insights apply theory and principles from psychology and behavioural economics to policy problems. The approach has been built on “nudges”, which suggests people don’t always act in their self-interest, so it is the responsibility of policymakers to help people make better decisions.

Behavioural insights have come to the fore as an evidence-driven, expert-led approach to policy making. It has been hailed as ensuring cheaper more effective government. Examples of behavioural insights projects undertaken overseas and here in Australia include encouraging more people to pay their fines on time by changing the wording of a letter, increasing cervical screening rates by prompting women to write down appointment details on their fridge, and nudging people to register as organ donors. Behavioural insights have been applied to areas as diverse as education, obesity, tax, and energy. Governments around the world have also been applying behavioural insights in the pandemic. In part this has been driven by the idea that, without a vaccine or cure, it is only people’s behaviour that can limit the spread of coronavirus.

Governments have used behavioural insights to encourage social distancing, as in the examples above, as well as to develop signage about handwashing and alert people to using hand sanitiser. In the UK, Behavioural insights teams have worked with the NHS to design text messages to send to vulnerable people isolating at home.

However, a recent Guardian article accused behavioural insights of overstepping. The head of the UK’s behavioural insights team is part of the governments Scientific Advisory Group for Emergency (SAGE). He raised concerns about behavioural fatigue, advice that has been linked to the ill fated ‘herd immunity’ response and the decision not to lock down the country. Since then, over 600 academics have signed an open letter to the UK government, raising concerns about the lack of evidence for behavioural fatigue. A succession of blogs have been published questioning the role of behavioural insights in the pandemic.

This raises some legitimate concerns that I am exploring in my research on the use of behavioural insights in Australia. For me, the use of behavioural insights has also raised three key questions about the future of the approach, which also reflect on public policy more broadly.

  1. What counts as evidence? Behavioural Insights teams have actively promoted the use of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) as the ‘best way’ of understanding whether an approach works. An example of a RCT might be if a sample of the population receives one version of a letter to encourage tax compliance, whereas the other ‘control’ group receives the original letter or no letter. The differences in tax compliance can then be measured to see if the intervention worked, before it is rolled out to the wider target population. While some teams are embracing broader experimental methodologies, RCTs still seem to be privileged as the ‘best way’ to find out what works and the technical ability to run RCTs can even dictate which projects are undertaken. However, the rapid escalation of the pandemic means that interventions, whether to encourage handwashing, social distancing, or understanding ‘behavioural fatigue’, cannot always be tested before they are rolled out to the whole population. Will RCTs continue to be the gold standard of evidence, or will other types of evidence and knowledge begin to become more prominent in developing public policy?

  2. Who are the experts? Given that RCTs can no longer be undertaken before rolling out an intervention, understanding the local context, local perspectives, local experiences, and local experts becomes even more important to understand what works in a community or population. Yet, behavioural insights and nudge have been criticised as been the domain of experts, making decisions on what is the ‘best choice’ for people. In response there has been a number of alternatives or extensions of behavioural insights offered in efforts to include citizens in making decisions about nudges. However, this pandemic has seen a turn to experts and expertise as scientists and public health experts have been sought to answer questions and offer advice in a rapidly evolving situation. What might the pandemic mean for the ongoing role of experts, and local experts in behavioural insights and public policy?

  3. What about vulnerable groups? It would be remiss not to consider the impacts on vulnerable groups and the ethics of nudging. One of the persistent criticisms of behavioural insights has been whether this is an ethical approach to policymaking. The techniques that behavioural insights can use may disproportionately affect those that are most vulnerable, driving calls to consider distributional justice in the use of nudges. Behavioural insights may be used to target vulnerable groups, such as in the NHS example above, but it may also be levelled at the population without taking into account the different effects on parts of the population. In some areas social distancing, isolating at home, and regular handwashing may not be possible. Without widespread testing of behavioural insight interventions, and without using local knowledge about these groups experiences, there is a danger that such techniques might amplify adverse effects on more vulnerable groups.

Commentary on the use, and misuse, of behavioural insights in the coronavirus pandemic seems to reflect a growing recognition that the enthusiasm for behavioural insights needs to be tempered, with a recognition that the approach should not always be the first or only response. It suggests the need for a reframing from ‘how can behavioural insights help’ to ‘can behavioural insights help in this situation’? More broadly, there is the opportunity to continue the work of behavioural insights, perhaps even public policy generally, to embrace different types of evidence and expertise, ensuring that such interventions are developed with people and ethics at their centre.

Filed under:

Updated:  22 June 2024/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team