In 2021, we saw the reach and impact of behavioural science continue to extend. From the UN hosting its first behavioural science week and declaring behavioural science as a “critical tool to progress on its mandate” to the publication of the final edition of Thaler and Sunstein’s classic book Nudge.
So with more countries and organisations than ever using behavioural science to design better policies, what does 2022 have in store? From the scaling of behavioural science through to key domestic policy issues, we outline five of the issues that BIT is going to be thinking about this year.
1. Green behaviours
One of the big events of 2021 was COP26, which focused a lot of energy (both figuratively, and literally) on climate change and Net Zero. In 2022, we need to move fast and decisively to harness that momentum and make further progress on our Net Zero ambitions.
The UK’s Committee on Climate Change estimated in 2019 that over 60% of emissions reductions needed in the UK will rely on behaviour change. This behaviour change will involve two crucial aspects. The first is a degree of lifestyle change, such as reducing flights and eating less meat. Secondly, and perhaps less obviously, behavioural changes are needed in order to adopt new and greener technology – a key element of achieving Net Zero. For example, can we encourage people to buy an electric car a few years earlier than they otherwise would? How can we most effectively encourage people to install heat pumps in their houses?
A key challenge for policymakers is how to make greener choices as easy as possible for individuals. Essentially, we need a world where the greenest option is the most readily available, rather than asking people to swim against the current. For example, can green tariffs be the default option rather than an effortful and complicated choice? These choices can also shape and shift markets. For example, by providing easy ways to switch our pension investments to greener funds, we will get closer to a critical mass of investment that can then influence the might of institutional investors towards renewable and greener alternatives.
2. COVID vaccination
As of the 1st February 2022, 61% of the world population had received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine – with an impressive 10.1 billion doses administered globally. Yet, there is huge and widespread vaccination inequality across the world. Whilst in the UK double vaccination rates across the whole population are at 71%, they are only 36% in Bangladesh. And where they are 87% in Singapore, they are just 2.5% in Nigeria. In lower-income countries, on average, only 10% of people have received even just one dose.
As pointed out by the World Health Organisation, the future health and safety of everyone – and consequentially, the end of the pandemic – depends on effective global vaccination. Continuing to find effective ways to increase COVID vaccination rates across the world will therefore remain of huge importance in 2022.
Whilst many of the disruptions to the global vaccination rollout are operational, with complex supply chains and operational structures needed to reach so many people, behavioural science can also offer insights relevant to the effective implementation of global vaccination efforts. This includes ensuring accessing the vaccines and attending appointments is as easy as possible, through to unpacking the nature and role of vaccine hesitancy and how this differs across different population groups.
We should also use the lessons from the global COVID vaccination rollout to help to boost the uptake of other vaccinations across the world. While the context is different (almost always focused on childhood immunization), if we apply the lessons from dozens of large-scale behavioural studies on the COVID vaccination rollout to other vaccines, we could help to save millions of lives.
3. COVID resets and recovery
From learning to work from home to wearing masks, to picking up new hobbies – the last two years have seen the most concentrated shift in collective behaviour for at least a generation. Some of these changes already look like they are going to stick – like working from home which in March 2020 increased 10-fold, the equivalent to 43 years of pre-pandemic growth based on previous trends and seems likely to slip at most back to a 4-fold increase on pre-pandemic levels. Similarly, the increased use of technology across sectors, from healthcare to employment, holds the potential to hugely increase efficiencies – something we should encourage and evaluate.
The persistence and knock-on effects of other changes are much less clear, such as the large numbers of older workers on both sides of the Atlantic who appear to have decided not to return to work. Will we carry on washing our hands more often, for wider hygiene benefits? Will the new norm of ‘if you’re feeling unwell, stay at home’ stick? Will renewed and strengthened connections to our neighbourhood persist? Will the deeper interest in public health lead to follow-on action to address smoking rates and the wider social and lifestyle factors that lose the average person a decade of life? Will increased online fraud (specifically COVID related) continue? How can we recover quickly from well-documented backlogs in public services – from hospital to courts?
We can and should harness behavioural insights to embed the changes we want to stick and tackle the new problems that have arisen or gotten worse in the last two years.
The UK is currently dealing with high levels of inflation – in December 2021, inflation hit a 10-year high of 5.4%; and the Bank of England forecasts this will peak at a 30-year high of 6% in April. In the US in December 2021 inflation was 7% (a 40-year high-point) and high inflation is also present in many other countries. This is a major concern for policymakers and individuals alike.
Consumers and businesses make decisions in part based on their expectations of inflation, the cost of living and cost of doing business. Should we save less if the value of our savings is decreasing in real terms? Should we try to negotiate pay rises with our employers? Should businesses invest in new equipment now or hold off?
Surprisingly little is known about how we make these judgments. Are we more influenced by shifts in the price of petrol or the price of bread? Do we judge these decisions based on what the Governor of the Bank of England says, or what our friends are saying at the pub? Following our work with the Bank of England on using behavioural science to communicate inflation information, this year we are interested in seeking empirical answers to these deeper questions.
5. Evidence and scaling
As the field and reach of behavioural science continue to grow and innovate in 2022, it is more important than ever that we ensure that the evidence base that serves as the foundation for future work is both robust and representative of the diverse world in which we live.
In particular, we hope to see an increased focus on cross-cultural divergence in the effects of behavioural interventions. As Joe Henrich’s work has shown us, we need to be wary of generalising from WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) samples that are frequently used in academic studies.
Addressing this will involve an increased focus on what works around the world so that we can build the evidence base through robust evaluation and then meta-analyses that allow us to assess the effects across different population groups. As we expand our presence into new countries and the global BI community grows, we are particularly interested in replicating past interventions in new contexts to begin mapping which insights and solutions can be scaled successfully, and which are effective only in specific contexts. Data science can also support this effort by helping us to understand differential impacts on different population segments and therefore tailoring interventions to these groups.
The other puzzle piece is the publication of research and evaluations that offer insights into what works and – perhaps more importantly – what doesn’t. We are committed to publishing findings from our projects, wherever we can, and will encourage others conducting research to do the same. Making this evidence base accessible for all is critical for the success of the field.
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