Yesterday I attended an event at IPPR about the role of behavioural economics in public policy. Director of the Behavioural Insight Team, David Halpern, was the main speaker, and the panel include Gerry Stoker, Daniel Read and Claudia Hammond.
Background: Whatever your critiques of behavioural insight, let's not forget that it is an achievement to have started at all. We have moved from 'should we do this?' to 'How should we best do this?' which is a big step forward.
Role in economic growth. It sounds like the Behavioural insight team are thinking of how behavioural insights might kick-start the economy. Halpern was quite careful not to disclose things prematurely, but it did sound like he believed there were many ways that economic activity could be promoted/supported with behavioural insight-a lot of it seemed to be about reducing the 'hassle' of transactions, so watch this space.
Message Framing: Don't say: We will insulate your home for free. Nobody wants that(too much hassle) Do say: We will clear out your loft for free. Everybody wants that(the same thing, but reframed).
Social trust: I think I knew this already, but I was struck by the fact that in response to the question(need to check exact wording): "Do you think people can generally be trusted", only about 30% of British people agree, and the evidence suggests there is no good reason for people to feel this way. As Halpern put it: "We drastically underestimate our fellow citizens." Moreover, in relatively deprived areas, people see each other more AND distrust each other more, so it's not simply a function of not knowing people. Halpern added an interesting historical perspective about Anglo Saxons "using their wealth to escape from the inconvenience of dealing with other people."
Indifference and the limits of Nudge: More on this later, but a key point from Daniel Read is that nudge tends to work best on issues that we don't care too much about. So organ donation and pensions sound like big issues, but actually they don't matter that much in terms of immediate desires. He added that the deeper problems relating to climate change and obesity etc (what we call 'adaptive challenges' in our recent report) arise because people basically want things that are not in their interest or the broader social interest. Nudge works when we are moved along our 'indifference curves' as he put it in economic language, but doesn't really change what we want.
What is behaviour? More on this later too, but I asked a question about the theoretical underpinnings of behaviour and how this plays out in policy terms. Behaviour can be framed in many ways, e.g. in terms of agency, stimulus response, goal seeking etc. Halpern conceded that the current approach basically was behaviourist and outcome focussed, and Read seemed to think this was right. But Gerry Stoker seemed to have a much bigger interest in what follows from viewing behaviour in terms of agency- because then your responsibility to help people understand their own behaviour, rather than just changing it for them, comes to the fore. Again, all of this is in our recent report.