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Rounding up the latest insights from Behavioural Exchange 2016

4th Jul 2016

Last month, members of the Behavioural Insights Team attended and presented at the third Behavioural Exchange conference, hosted by the Behavioral Insights Group at Harvard. The conference, which brought together over 400 academics, policymakers and practitioners, covered a huge range of issues at the cutting edge of behavioural science and public policy – from the more common themes such as education and public health, to newer applications of behavioural science in promoting diversity and international development.

Here are some of the team’s highlights from the conference:


The first day opened with a plenary session entitled “Making Diversity Work”, led by Iris Bohnet, where leading scholars in this field presented their work on how we can use behavioural science to promote diversity across organisations.

  • Katherine Phillips presented research on how more diverse teams perform better on various tasks compared to more homogenous groups. This highlights the importance of diversity not just for the sake of equal opportunity, but also because more diverse perspectives seem to improve decision-making overall.
  • Evan Apfelbaum from MIT discussed some fascinating research on the need to go beyond a ‘one size fits all’ approach to diversity. He contrasted two ways of talking about diversity – as ‘value in equality’ (emphasising the ways in which people are similar and therefore equal) vs. as ‘value in difference’ (acknowledging differences between people are important and valuable.) Apfelbaum’s research finds that talking about ‘value in equality’ is most effective at improving work-related performance of smaller minorities – such as racial minorities – whereas emphasising ‘value in difference’ is more effective for larger minorities, such as women.

Charitable giving

The discussion around charitable giving highlighted the tension between our natural inclinations and the actions we might think are ‘best’ upon reflection. Perhaps even more than other kinds of decisions, giving decisions appear to be made with the heart, not the head.

  • Charles Best of presented some striking findings showing people are more likely to donate to an education program if the teacher involved has the same name as them; an extreme example of how much difference ‘personalisation’ can make.
  • Deborah Small talked about how framing a donation as an investment opportunity rather than a charitable donation moves people away from choosing with their “heart” towards thinking with their head. People seem to care more about the “impact” their donation has when framed as an investment opportunity than as a charitable donation, even when the actual cause is exactly the same.
  • Elizabeth Keenan discussed her findings showing that you can reduce ‘overhead aversion’ (the tendency to judge charities by the amount they spend on overheads, rather than their actual impact) by telling people the overhead has already been covered by someone else. This further supports the idea that charitable giving is an emotional and personal decision – what’s important is where my donation goes, not the impact of the charity as a whole.


A session on the use of behavioural science in education pushed beyond the basics to suggest new approaches and challenge what we think we know works.

  • Todd Rogers presented the results of trials to reduce absenteeism in schools, where parents were sent reminder texts about their child’s attendance. Texting parents and telling them the number of days their child had missed was significantly more effective than simply telling them about the harms of missing school – but this effect was not increased by giving parents additional information about their child’s attendance compared to other students. This is somewhat surprising given other research finding that comparative social information can be very effective, and so raises the question of when this technique works – one suggested hypothesis was that the gap between one’s own child and the average was so large as to seem insurmountable.
  • Angela Duckworth talked about the promise of what she called ‘metanudging’ – going beyond simple nudges, and teaching people about key findings from behavioural science so that they can build ways to ‘nudge themselves.’ The challenge of this, of course, is creating tools and ways for people to do this themselves that make this sufficiently easy for people to do.

The future of nudging

In the closing sessions of the conference, talk turned to the promise and limitations of nudging more broadly: ethical objections to the use of nudges, and ways that behavioural science should move beyond the simple notion of ‘nudging.’

  • In conversation with Kate Glazebrook, Cass Sunstein talked about how general support for the idea of nudging has greatly increased over the past few years, to a point where he now hears very little objection of ‘manipulation’ within policy circles. More generally, he suggested, how supportive people are of a nudge seems to depend largely on how they feel about the end goal it is promoting.
  • This idea was reinforced by David Laibson, who discussed to what extent we should go ‘beyond nudges’ into strong paternalism: actively limiting people’s choices. Laibson pointed out that we actually already enforce and broadly support strong paternalism in a range of domains – giving compulsory education, smoking bans, and social security as examples. Again, people seem to often happily endorse these policies – though they clearly impinge on individual liberty in a sense – given a certain conviction in the goal of the policy.
  • Rachel Glennerster suggested the need to go beyond simply ‘what works’ to nudge people towards certain behaviours, and towards a greater understanding of the ‘why’ – the mechanisms explaining the mistakes we make. This seems particularly important if we want to use behavioural science to intervene in increasingly complex systems (such as poverty and corruption) where there’s a risk that an intervention could have unforeseen consequences on something we’re not measuring. It’s not enough to observe a simple relationship between an intervention and a single outcome – we need to be able to predict wider effects – which requires a deeper  theoretical understanding.

Many thanks to Harvard’s Behavioural Insights Group for organising two days packed full of interesting insights and conversation. We’re already looking forward to BX2017 in Singapore!



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Jess Whittlestone