The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), Praekelt.org, Wits University, and the University of North Carolina are pleased to announce the publication of our research in PLOS Digital Health. The study, titled “Effects of digital chatbot on gender attitudes and exposure to intimate partner violence among young women in South Africa,” tests whether a WhatsApp chatbot can reduce intimate partner violence (IPV) by improving young women’s beliefs and skills around healthy relationships.
- Three chatbot versions we tested improved young women’s attitudes and beliefs about power equity in relationships compared to a no chatbot control
- Two behaviorally-informed chatbots were associated with reduced exposure to IPV after 3 months
Intimate partner violence is a pressing challenge
In South Africa, 1 in 5 women will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Patterns of violence can start at an impressionable age, when teenagers and women start their first serious relationships and learn what is “normal”—or even desirable—in a partner. There is a strong connection between positive power equity beliefs and lower IPV prevalence. While evidence shows that traditional media can promote help-seeking and gamified platforms can improve health outcomes, our study is among the first to assess IPV exposure after having participants use a digital, interactive platform.
Our intervention: Meet ChattyCuz
In 2021, BIT partnered with Praekelt.org and Wits University in research supported by the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund to address IPV through technology. Using behavioral science and IPV research, we developed ChattyCuz, a WhatsApp chatbot intervention. Throughout its development, we incorporated the voices of young South African women via workshops and advisory groups who made key decisions during the experimental trial.
ChattyCuz delivers content by chatting with participants, asking them to reflect on healthy relationships and to practice useful skills, such as identifying unhealthy relationship behaviors, seeking help from a trusted person, and planning for safety.
How we tested it
To see whether chatbots could improve attitudes and beliefs about power equity in relationships and reduce exposure to unhealthy relationship behaviors, we tested the effects of two treatment versions of ChattyCuz compared to controls:
- Chatty Cuz-Gamified delivered IPV-specific content through a gamified interactive design
- Chatty Cuz-Narrative delivered IPV-specific content through a narrative interactive design
- Control ChattyCuz was based on an existing chatbot that delivered sexual and reproductive health information only (no IPV-specific content)
- Pure control: No chatbot
19,643 young women in South Africa participated and were randomized into each group. We measured their exposure to unhealthy relationships and mental health three months after the intervention through a survey. People also took quizzes throughout the trial to measure outcomes.
Key results: Reduction in reported violence
- Reduction in IPV: 56% of young women in the Gamified group reported exposure to some form of IPV compared to 62% among those who received no intervention
- The gamified chatbot improved users’ attitudes and beliefs in power equity compared to controls
- The gamified chatbot increased participants’ ability to identify unhealthy relationship behaviors
What this means for the future of violence prevention
Given the potential for chatbots to reach many users at low-cost, our results are valuable for organizations working to prevent IPV in South Africa and worldwide. More than 2 billion people use WhatsApp globally. Drawing from our research, similar chatbots or edutainment tools could be leveraged by governments and development organizations to address IPV in different countries and contexts, promoting healthy relationship behaviors at a large scale.
“We are excited about the impact that chatbots for behavioral change can have on the lives of millions of people in low- or middle-income countries.” —Paloma Bellatin-Nieto, Principal Advisor, The Behavioral Insights Team
Read the article
The full paper can be accessed on PLOS Digital health here.
About the Behavioral Insights Team
BIT is a global leader in using behavioral science research to design services, policies, and interventions that improve people’s lives. BIT was established by the UK government in 2010 and in 2014 became an independent social purpose company. In 2021, BIT became wholly-owned by innovation agency, Nesta.
Praekelt.org is an African nonprofit organization dedicated to using mobile technology to improve the lives of people living in poverty.
About Wits University
Wits University School of Public Health researches intimate partner violence interventions in rural, peri-urban, and inner-city areas in South Africa.
About the University of North Carolina
Gillings School of Global Public Health at University of North Carolina leads research and policy in preventing intimate partner violence.
For more information, contact:
Paloma Bellatin Nieto