Helping People Help Themselves: Using Behavioural Psychology to Design Better Government Programs
“There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it”- Malcolm Gladwell
As a change management enthusiast, my favourite speaker at the 2016 IPAC National Conference was Dr. Dilip Soman, professor at the University of Toronto, whose presentation was titled: Behaviourally Informed Government: New Insights for Service Excellence. Dr. Soman’s theory is that we're all in the business of getting people to do something different - whether it's getting them to buy something or comply with something, and according to Dr. Soman, "we're terrible at it." We focus too much time on what we're building and not enough on how it's going to be consumed. We tend to assume everybody thinks like us. They don't.
According to Dr. Soman, we know from decades of research in the world of behavioural insights that humans are impulsive, forgetful, emotional, cognitively lazy and procrastinate. (This might help explain why it’s taken me a few weeks to get this blog post out.) We don’t follow directions or read signs; we stick with what we know in making complex choices and are driven by the behaviour of our peers. When interacting with governments, these behaviours result in low participation rates in government programs. Understanding how people ‘tick’ will help public servants better understand how to improve the delivery (and results) of existing programs and help our citizens make better choices for themselves.
Dr. Soman shared a number of examples to illustrate what the research has shown about human behaviour, including a photo with a man going up an escalator to his fitness studio instead of taking the stairs and he asked us why he would have chosen to do this:
Maybe he's rationally saving his energy for his workout?
Maybe he's just copying the person in front of him?
Or, maybe he's not thinking at all - just operating on autopilot.
Dr. Soman believes that the man is likely just operating on auto pilot, and he suggested that we should design our programs and services with this in mind. People will continue to do whatever it is they are already doing, or have done, unless they are mentally or physically nudged to do something different. If we change the context, people will change what they do.
To help illustrate the concept of context, Dr. Soman shared a story about an experiment he did with coffee shops. Most coffee shops have three sizes of coffee: small, medium and large, and – no surprise – medium is the most popular. He did an experiment where he interviewed people coming out of the coffee shop to ask why they chose the size of coffee they had just purchased.
Like Goldilocks, people who chose medium said that it was because “small was too small, large was too large, and medium was justright.” But when he played with the sizes, making medium more like a large or a small, people still chose medium. Why? It's all about context! Dr. Soman refers to this behaviour as the “Law of Context.” Context influences decision-making and, when in doubt, people will choose what Goldilocks chose – the one in the middle.
Dr. Soman shared a three-stage approach to embedding behavioural insights into the workings of government:
Choose your architecture wisely. Recognize behavioural barriers and attempt to overcome them with simple interventions. Make it easy for people to make the right choice.
Embed behavioural considerations into program design. If you want your programs to be successful, minimize the barriers. For example, if you want someone to sign up to be an organ donor, don’t make them fill out a lengthy form or stand in a long line. Make it easier to say yes than no.
Use behavioural insights in policy development. Embrace human 'fallibilities' in the design of policy. We know, for example, that people like to procrastinate so make sure you reduce their ability to do so by giving them limited time to act.
Critics might say that some of Dr. Soman’s suggested techniques sound a bit manipulative, but I for one appreciate being nudged in a direction that’s good for me. I believe in keeping salty snacks and candies out of reach and I belong to a running group because I know peer support motivates me to run.
Applied to our management consulting practice, we help our clients make effective decisions by making it as easy as possible for them to do so. For example, we remove the barrier of discomfort with technology by making good use of Post-it notes in our sessions and we remove the barrier of procrastination by ensuring that all of our sessions end with clear actions and accountabilities … and then we follow up to see how the next steps are going. Our clients appreciate the little nudges and supports we provide. After all, it’s a busy world with lots of priorities and we’re all human!
If you’d like to discuss any of these thoughts and ideas further or how Berlineaton can help your organization prepare for the future, please contact me at email@example.com
or call 250.472.3767.