I travelled with our Executive Director for the FACS and Innovation Branch to New York City to attend the Behavioural Science and Policy Association (BSPA) conference on 19 September 2017. We also met with city and state governments who are pioneering new approaches to improve citizen’s welfare and outcomes through social housing, child protection, domestic violence, city sustainability, social impact investment and data initiatives.
About the BSPA conference
The BSPA conference was held at the New York Academy of Medicine, a historical sandstone building apt for a meeting of minds and sharing of BI knowledge.
Three world-renowned researchers at the forefront of behavioural sciences shared their recent work:
Robert Cialdini (Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade) spoke about ‘pre-suasion’, influencing others in the moment before words are exchanged. The aim is to prime other people to have a receptive state for the later message.
Steven Sloman (The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone) explained a tendency for people to believe they have more knowledge than they actually do. This has an evolutionary basis. Human minds prefer to do the bare minimum, and the social nature of our species means that wherever possible, abilities have been outsourced. As a result, knowledge is spread through the community, but individually, people are individually limited thinkers. The trouble is when community members do not often realise that this is the case! The illusion is amplified on social media where people can often have strong opinions about issues they understand little about! Simply presenting facts is unlikely to change beliefs when those beliefs are rooted in the values and groupthink of a community. One way to mitigate this is to encourage self-reflection.
Scott Sonenshein (Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less – and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined) explained a tendency for people to ‘chase’ resources, overlooking the opportunities to maximise the resources that already exist. His premise is that thinking about our existing resources and creatively engaging with them from a number of angles can unlock greater possibilities in maximising their utility. The chase for more or different resources is rather futile, and our cognitive efforts are wasted in desiring something that is often not possible. Rather, we can learn to be lateral thinkers and be adaptive. For example, a shoe becomes a hammer; a difficult stakeholder becomes an advocate; a constraint becomes an opportunity.
Other highlights from the conference included:
- Insurance plans: Peter Ubel presented his work on the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) and improving the way people make choices on their healthcare insurance. He highlighted that people have difficulty comparing plan attributes (e.g. out-of-pocket costs, monthly premium), tending to still make choices based on the bronze, silver, gold labels even if the labels don’t relate to plan attributes.
- Poverty: Eldar Shaffir highlighted that where people live matter, and even simply moving to a better neighbourhood will provide better outcomes for these people. He mentioned that being perceived as wealthy can be seen as competence. He referred to a study where the same faces, but dressed as being wealthy or poor, affected the reader’s inference of that person’s competence.
- Health: Pierre Chandon presented the key findings of a meta-analysis of healthy eating nudges that were categorised into:
‒ ‘cognitive nudges’ (e.g. calorie and nutrition labelling, evaluative labelling using smiley faces and heart ticks)
‒ ‘affective nudges’ (e.g. written and oral encouragement to choose healthier options, sensory cues like “amazing broccoli” and attractive photos)
‒ ‘behavioural nudges’ (convenience enhancements for healthier options, e.g. placed in cafeteria queue, pre-sliced or portioned and larger plates for healthier food/smaller plates for unhealthy food).
The meta-analysis found that behavioural nudges were most effective (effect size d=.48, equivalent to -258 kCal or 16 tsp sugar), followed by affective nudges (effect size d=.33, equivalent to -177 kCal or 11 tsp sugar) then cognitive nudges (effect size d=.14, equivalent to -75 kCal or 5 tsp sugar). A link to this meta-analysis is here.
A different context for government innovation
A few of the organisations we met spoke about the need to have foundations in place, like improving data, before innovation can occur. There are impressive examples of innovative work underway, such as the ‘What Works Cities’ initiative by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
It was interesting to note that context can play a role. In New York City, there are opportunities presented by large philanthropic organisations that can sponsor and trigger innovation. Similar to the innovation approaches represented by the ‘Mayor’s Challenge’ or ‘What Works Cities’, NSW Government is exploring new ways of working through the Innovation Launch Program. However, it would be interesting if philanthropy became more common in Australia and, as noted by Scott Sonenshein, we also need to think about how to maximise the resources within our existing context.
The next BSPA conference
For those interested, the next BSPA conference is on May 18th, 2018. The location is to be determined. The link to the website is here.