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In a recent article for Pan-European Networks magazine, we set out why a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving – including a behavioural science perspective – is so important.

intractable problems social brain

Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result could be called at worst insanity, or at best perhaps it is faith. So when it comes to complex and seemingly intractable societal problems, why would we choose to try to apply the same approaches again and again?  

Of course, subject-area experts can help make a difference in any given policy area. To address the socio-economic attainment gap in our schools, we undoubtedly need to call on the expertise of educationalists. But sometimes it can be hard to see the forest from the trees, and an ‘outsider’s’ perspective can help reframe an issue, or shed light on an alternative approach.    

Those who are trying to address these types of complex problems need a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding the problem and identifying innovative and holistic approaches to deliver lasting change.

Indeed, this is what the RSA tries to do across our projects. While we have subject area experts in three core areas (Creative Learning and Development, Economy Enterprise and Manufacturing, Public Services and Communities), we also have expertise in a range of other disciplines, including design thinking, engagement, facilitation, and we even have a resident poet. My own focus, and that of the Social Brain Behavioural Science strand, is on human behaviour. Bringing this diverse range of perspectives together to generate and share new ideas, and to connect and mobilise our Fellowship, is how the RSA attempts to generate change.

Earlier this summer, we were asked to expand on some of our Social Brain Behavioural Science work for Pan-European Networks Science and Technology magazine. In this four-page article we explained the core ideas behind our work, and how a behavioural science perspective contributes to the holistic approach to social change described above:

“Although education, financial capability and preventative health may seem like quite different challenges, the common thread running through all of our work is to understand the human behaviour dimension. The problem is rarely a lack of information, so simply providing more leaflets or public service announcements is unlikely to be a sufficient remedy.

“There are many different approaches to behaviour change. Some are more obvious, such as bans or price incentives, which appeal to people’s deliberative decision making. Others are less recognisable, and appeal to our largely intuitive behavioural responses, such as designing the choice architecture, changing the built environment, or presenting information in such a way as to systematically influence our choices. For any given issue, once we have a deeper understanding of the behavioural hurdles, we have a better chance of identifying which of the many approaches to behaviour change are most appropriate.”

The article expands on what this means for policy making:

“This approach extends to policy making, too. It is the RSA’s perspective that designers need to understand their materials. For product designers that might mean anything from plastic and wood to software code or capacitors. For policy makers, or ‘service designers’, the same concept applies, except that the ‘material’ is people. Effective policy therefore needs to incorporate within it a richer understanding of human behaviour to anticipate with better accuracy how people will respond to a policy, testing along the way and tweaking as appropriate.

“Governments are already taking heed, and behavioural insights are being used to inform policy making across Europe and in the US. A recent paper by the European Commission’s Joint Research Group provides hundreds of examples of where this is already being done in Europe.

“In the future, we believe this trend will evolve to start looking at some bigger, more complex issues. Making small tweaks to letters, for example, is incredibly useful to prove that the concept works and to build credibility of the behavioural science field within a policy context. But now behavioural scientists need to start exploring how this perspective can help with thorny, complex issues such as radicalisation, migration and other political flashpoints.”

And throughout all of these discussions, one of our anchors is persistence – how can we make lasting changes?

“Alongside all of these projects, we’ll be pushing ourselves to ask the question of how to deliver sustained behaviour change in a dynamic, complex system. In other words, when the context is continuously changing (which is, arguably, always the case), how does that affect the behaviour change? How can we create the conditions for the behaviour change to persist? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but we’ll enjoy trying to inch closer to that understanding.”


Continue reading about the RSA’s Social Brain Behavioural Science work in the Pan-European Networks Science and Technology magazine


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