3 July 2014

Lining Up Behavior with Attitudes = Failure - Learnings from TEN – Five years of Applied Behavioral Science in Public Policy Conference

On the 27th of June the Five years of Applied Behavioral Science in Public Policy Conference took place at Roskilde University. Apart from some quite nice Danish weather, there were a superb line-up of speakers and some very juicy talks.

Three pieces of information caught my attention. First, “(young and naïve) Fish don’t Notice the Water”. This metaphor used by Cass Sunstein, illustrates in a very beautiful manner how, most often, we are blind to the context and its influences on what we do, what and how we think and feel.

The second piece of information that stuck with me came from Richard Thaler who supported the use of behavioral science insights and Randomized Control Trials in any endeavor of public policy, even in quite sensitive areas such as safety regulation. His argument was that the costs (risks) are very small compared with the benefits brought by the results of the RCT.

The third learning came from a study ran by the Behavioral Insights Team and presented by Owain Service (Managing Director of The Behavioural Insights Team). It concerned an effort to increase the number of UK citizens to register as organ donors by explicit consent. The BIT used 7 behaviorally informed messages plus the control (existing and non-altered one) and ran what they say is the largest randomized control trial in public policy.

What was particularly interesting for me was that the message “if you support organ donation, please register as an organ donor” did (slightly) worse than the control message – “please register as an organ donor”.

Apparently trying to match behavior with positive attitudes (almost everyone supports organ donation) is doomed to fail, or at least lead to worse results than simply doing nothing.

The message that worked best was “if you would get an organ transplant if you needed it, please register as an organ donor”. This time it is not about attitudes, but about behavior.

Yes, I took a picture with Cass Sunstein, one of my Applied Behavioral Science heroes :)

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