Posted by Dr Kim Louw & Simon Raadsma on Wednesday April 6th, 2016

On Friday March 18 2016, two members of the Behavioural Insights Unit travelled to Melbourne to attend the “BehaviourWorks Australia: Lessons from the Field” conference. BehaviourWorks is a research partnership between academics and practitioners based in Monash University working together to change behaviour in a variety of ways. We’ve summarised the key messages of the sessions we attended below for those who were interested but unable to attend.

The day was opened by the Honourable Tim Pallas MP, Treasurer of Victoria. The Treasurer remarked that governments were good at using the law, rules and regulations to enact behavioural change but that these are not the only way to regulate and modify behaviour. He went on to say that he believed that behavioural science should be an important part of government’s natural toolkit. He acknowledged that while reducing red tape was a clear outcome of applying behavioural insights, he was more drawn to the possibility to increase social equity. The Treasurer used the opportunity to announce the starting of a new behavioural insights team in Victoria, which we mentioned in a previous blog post. It’s great to see behavioural insights continue to gather momentum across Australia with the Commonwealth’s BETA team having been officially launched just a few months ago, and now Victoria.

In the morning, attendees heard from keynote speaker Dr Jeremy Grimshaw from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, who is a leading voice in the field of implementation science and sits on the senior advisory board of the journal Implementation Science. Dr Grimshaw, borrowing from Martin Eccles, joked that too many interventions and implementation strategies are designed using the “ISLAGIATT (or ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’) principle”. Rather, he suggested that successful interventions and implementation depend on human behaviour and that to change human behaviour, it helps to understand the determinants of current behaviour and behaviour changes. Or more simply, who needs to what differently, and why aren’t they already doing it. Dr Grimshaw summarised the work of James Cane’s and Susan Michie’s work into a theoretical framework of behaviour change strategies (see Cane, O’Connor, & Michie, 2012; Michie et al., 2013 and the BCTT app for smartphones). He concluded with an example of how he has applied these strategies to an intervention to increase the number of patients who continue to take their medication after they have had a heart attack. The intervention involved a targeted workbook that used commitment devices to help patients plan for difficult stages of the recovery process.

Despite the unfortunate absence of the afternoon keynote speaker, Josh Wright from Ideas42, BehaviourWorks Director Dr Liam Smith stepped in with an interesting take on when behavioural insights go bad. He cited well-known backfires of incentive schemes such as the Gneezy and Rustichini (2000) study which showed that imposing a small fine (around AUS$7) for parents who picked up children late from day care actually increased the number of parents who were late. Effectively the financial penalty placed on parents became a price – a price that parents were more than willing to pay for  extra time. Once the penalty was removed, the number of parents who were late did not reduce to what it was before, which shows that behavioural insights should be applied with careful consideration. Dr Smith also cautioned the use of discussing the widespread prevalence of complex social problems such as obesity and family violence as it may unintentionally frame these issues as a social norm.

Another well attended session was a workshop run by Dr Paula Wright (co-presenter Dr Denise Goodwin was absent) who lead the group through a series of steps to unpack a complex behavioural problem. Using the example behavioural issue of trying to increase the number of children who walk to school Dr Wright stepped the group through the following stages:

  1. First Impressions (who are the actors in the problem)
  2. Questioning the problem
  3. Analysing the behavioural data
  4. Gathering the perspective of key actors
  5. Identifying behaviours

Using these strategies, complex social problems can be broken down to reveal smaller behavioural issues that can be influenced in a number of ways.

The closing message of the day was that behavioural insights are an important tool for understanding and influencing human behaviour which underpins most, if not all, social issues.

There is often a gap between academics and policy makers. Academics are frustrated that well-established theories in academia are not taken up by policy makers and, on the flip side, policy makers are frustrated that academics don’t test their theories “in the real world”. BehaviourWorks, along with our team, and behavioural insights teams around the world are trying to bridge the gap. Conferences, like this one, which welcome academics and policy makers as delegates and speakers are one powerful tool to combat the divide between the two disciplines. The challenge is to bring together both fields so that neither is alienated and the complexity of both disciplines is preserved. We at BIU look forward to continuing the discussion at the upcoming International Behavioural Insights Conference – BX2016.

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