Changing human behaviour is at the core of stopping the spread of Covid-19. Encouraging continued compliance with hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines amongst the public is an ongoing challenge for governments.

“This is rarely because people aren’t aware of or don’t know what they’re supposed to do,” says Denise Ong, Behaviour Change & Service Design Lead at Kantar Public Singapore. Behavioural science could help leaders better understand citizen motivations, so they can design policies that work.

Experts from data and consulting firm Kantar Public share how behavioural science has helped governments around the world, and how policymakers can apply it effectively.

Crafting better policies and programmes

Behavioural science has helped governments nudge citizens towards important national goals. Ong shares two examples.

First, the Kantar Public UK team ran a series of behavioural experiments to understand motivations for Covid-19 vaccine take up. They found that beliefs about the effectiveness of the vaccine was most important in encouraging take up amongst the UK population. This was particularly true for those above 55 years old, Ong shares.

The study also revealed that clarity and trust in the messenger can be more important than the message itself. Whilst ‘your local GP’ proved to be a better messenger than ‘the NHS’, for undecided ‘fence sitters’ and for minority ethnic groups, the ‘refer a friend’ intervention was more effective. This appears to be driven by lower trust in authority and institutions.

Second, the Health Promotion Board in Singapore launched a National Steps Challenge to encourage more active lifestyles. The programme uses various behavioural design elements, such as gamification, goal setting and feedback, small rewards and social proof, to engage hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans to move more than they did before.

More excitingly, wearables can “bring behavioral science into a new era”, Ong says. By collecting vast amounts of data – in real-time at an individual level – wearables and digital devices can build up “a much richer picture of how people actually behave, and how this varies across time points and contexts”.

Whilst data analytics can help derive patterns from data at scale, behavioural science helps explain the ‘why’ behind behavioural data patterns. This can then inform the ‘so what’ with interventions that can be delivered real-time, and in a personalised, predictive manner.

Challenges in applying behavioural science

But using behavioural science to craft policies isn’t always straightforward. Human behaviour is far from consistent – it can vary depending on one’s situation or mood – and is subject to a range of different interacting factors, both external and internal, Ong says.

This creates challenges in how policymakers capture actual versus stated behaviour and how they assess the underlying and key influences.

Furthermore, “different people are motivated and influenced by different things to varying degrees”, she adds. Leaders cannot assume that what works in one context or for one population would do so in the same way in others.

A more nuanced and targeted approach to understanding and engaging people is the ambition of more and more governments and public institutions. This starts with collecting the right data in the right way, says Ong.

Leaders will also need to integrate behavioural science with other disciplines like data science and human-centred design. This can help create more effective policies, programmes, services and communications.

How to teach behavioural science

How can governments work towards using behavioural science in its policies effectively? Focus on long-term sustainable shifts rather than just quick wins, says Sandra Lim, Kantar Public Singapore’s Managing Director.

Many governments today have used behavioural science techniques to make small tweaks to messaging, or to how a service interaction is delivered. “It tends to be relatively quick and easy,” says Lim.

This is understandable, but can sometimes backfire. For instance, Singapore often relies on incentives to nudge behaviour. “That creates an issue when citizens now expect some kind of reward / voucher to engage with an initiative, which isn’t a sustainable approach. That’s the long-term impact,” she says.

Kantar Public is collaborating with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy to run a four-day immersive programme on behaviour change. The course, titled “Mastering Behaviour Change for a Changing World”, will help leaders apply behavioural science techniques for lasting change.

The programme will use a toolbox of techniques to help participants measure and make sense of the complex range of influences on human behavior. Lessons will also examine factors such as local culture and future trends, along with how technology, data science and social media analytics can support policymaking.

This will be the course’s second run. With an emphasis on real-world application, participants will apply their learning to an actual policy challenge that they are working on.

Behavioural science offers an explanation for human behaviour, which isn’t always rational. Understanding how to apply and integrate this within intersectional teams can help leaders design more calibrated policies – all so governments can serve people better and deliver more effective public policy.