This is What We’re Like: how the most counter-intuitive thing you’ll hear all week will help you manage demand

(Originally published by the i-Network following my talk at their recent Shaping Demand conference)

You know how you sometimes lie awake at night planning to do something the next day – and then fail to do it? Well, you’re not the only one. We all do it.

Me, too. I’ll resolve not to have butter on my toast in the morning. Or walk to work. Or decide that, tomorrow night, I’ll wind down for sleep by doing the cryptic crossword instead of flicking through TV channels, because I know that screen time before bed makes sleep harder. And what’s more, I really, really, really mean it. Every time. But I almost never follow through on these decisions. Why not? It’s not because I change my mind and decide that I was wrong.

Here’s the counter-intuitive thing. The reason we don’t follow through on these good intentions of ours is that one of the main ways we understand human nature is wrong.

We’ve all grown up with a clear sense of self, believing that we’re in control of our actions. We take account of facts and opinions, make up our mind, then enact the decision we’ve made. And because I think I’m in control, I think everyone else is, too. So, when I want to influence someone’s behaviour, my instinct is to persuade them. If they’re doing something different, I assume that they’re doing it for a reason. So I try to change their mind.

Though we grow up with this understanding, there is a mountain of evidence that this isn’t what we humans are really like. Our evolution to be arguably* the most successful species on the planet has many quirks we’re beginning to understand better, but which are not yet in the mainstream and which overwhelmingly haven’t been reflected in how we have designed public services and shaped localities.

So what are we really like? Well, we have loads of mental shortcuts. Why? Because it gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage to leave much of their brain’s cognitive capacity available to spot and instantly deal with predators. This is why you find it harder to apply your willpower if you’re already doing an ‘effortful’ mental task. It’s also why you’re really good at pattern recognition; your ancestors who realised that the leaves rustling nearby might be due to a predator were the ones who got to influence the human gene pool by running for cover and living long enough to pass on their genes.

Life expectancy has typically been under 20-30 years for most of human existence, so it’s no surprise that we also have mental shortcuts that help us grab the resources that will help us through the night, or the winter, and hold on to what we’ve got.

We also have plenty of short-cuts that help us be social, since human co-operation has also give us a real advantage. These biases have a much bigger influence on us all than we’d like to admit; in short, no-one likes to be the odd one out.

As I said a few times in my session at iNetwork’s recent Shaping Demand conference: this is what we’re like. And I think these insights are really helpful in taking new approaches to managing demand.

Freed from believing that people always have a reason for their actions, we can try to systematically examine what people do that creates demand for public services, and understand how it happens (not why).Freed from the need to change people’s minds when we want to influence their behaviour, we can concentrate instead on making self-sufficient behaviours easier and seem more normal.

And we can make this evidence-based understanding of human nature accessible, in order to involve staff, citizens and others in co-producing new designs and approaches.

The question for each of us is: how are we going to make sure this happens, rather than going the same way as my late-night commitment to walk to work tomorrow?

[*ants might beg to differ]

Behavioural Insights: Can Local Government Use Reciprocation to Improve Outcomes?

The With The Grain tool, which gives local authorities access to behavioural insights, draws on the (now quite extensive) literature on behavioural economics and psychology. One thing pretty much all practitioners agree on is the power of reciprocation.

Reciprocity is a very powerful urge. When someone has done something for you, you want to do something for them. When you consider how our species’s success has depended on our very social nature, it makes sense. And there’s plenty of evidence for this. In fact, there’s evidence cited by Cialdini as an extension of the behaviour change experiment that nearly everyone has heard of:  the ‘getting hotel guests to reuse their towels by telling them most other people do’ story. You know the one.

It seems the most effective way of getting guests to reuse towels is to tell them that the hotel has made a donation to an environmental charity, and ask them to play their part by reusing their towels. Note the past tense: not ‘will make a donation for everyone who reuses’, but ‘has made a donation’. If it’s the other way round, it feels like a transaction and that it simply less motivating.

So, it seems that reciprocation is a much more powerful motivator of our behaviour (whether we are aware of this or not, and whether or not it’s rational) than incentives. You can see where this discussion is going, can’t you? In public services, we are used to thinking in terms of providing incentives to people to make smarter choices. For many, it’s pretty much a default setting when considering how to encourage behaviour change. We are not used to thinking in terms of reciprocation; and, what is more, there are real barriers to thinking in terms of, say, a local authority providing something in advance of the reciprocated action. It feels too risky to many; and we might worry about being criticised for being extravagant with public money.

And yet, and yet … there are examples of local authorities using the reciprocation effect. I’m thinking in particular of LB Sutton’s approach to gritting over the past couple of years. There are now 10,000 households who accept free grit from the Council. The expectation is that they’ll clear their – and their neighbours’ – pavements when there is snow. There is no obligation to do so, but sure enough they do it, which takes pressure off of local services. It’s interesting to contrast this with the (shall we say ‘mixed’) reactions to communities being asked to expected to staff libraries on a voluntary basis to replace an existing service.

Two points seem worth making. First, the Sutton grit example has legs: if we’re looking to encourage new behaviours, show that you trust people by fulfilling your end of the bargain first. In this way, what looks like a transaction, a ‘deal’ in a committee paper, might not even feel like one to residents. Second, more complex, is to consider how we might apply this principle more to relationships which are already transactional. Can we find ways of moving towards more reciprocal relationships, where the authority’s trust is rewarded by more independent behaviour and choices on the part of local communities, citizens and customers? I think this one has a long way to run.

Behavioural effects can be used by #localgov. About time too.

This is the full (unedited) version of the article Municipal Journal published last week. I think it’s clearer than the shortened version. It tries to explain in 1,400 words the principles we’re using to apply behaviour change techniques, and gives one example of this in practice.

I know it uses some technical (behavioural) terms, but I honestly think understanding of these will become mainstream, so we may need to get used to them!

Amplify’d from web.mac.com

ripple effect

Working with the grain

Friday, 14 October 2011

Warren Hatter and Kieran Stigant on how West Sussex County Council is learning to work ‘with the grain’ of human nature.

For the past year or so, policy makers and academics have found it hard to steer clear of the topic of behaviour change. Cue conference speeches, broadsheet articles and the important debate taking place on the role of the state (most recently highlighted by the House of Lords Science & Technology Sub-Committee report on behaviour change). This discussion needs to happen in the public domain, as it affects citizens’ expectations of government, but it does not need to get in the way of using behavioural insights. So we have decided to sidestep most of the debate and get on with developing the practice. Our rationale is simple: human behaviour is strongly influenced by context all the time, so we should be looking to influence that context to encourage the type of behaviours that improve wellbeing and reduce costs. Though a simple principle to work with, we acknowledge that it goes against the grain of 200 years of post-Enlightenment thinking. Mainstream economists and policy-makers have tended, until now, to assume that people behave rationally, but the evidence from a wide range of disciplines – not least behavioural and evolutionary psychology – now is clear that human behaviour is subjective (though often predictably so), context-dependent and intensely social.

Equally, reservations are sometimes expressed that local or central government using insights from behavioural sciences to shape communications or services is somehow sinister. We disagree; we think that local government’s responsibility is to get the best outcomes as effectively and efficiently as possible. HMRC increased tax revenues last year by changing the wording of letters sent to citizens in a way that employed behavioural insights (telling people, for example, the high percentage in their area who pay their taxes on time); we have yet to see any serious argument that this is underhand behaviour inappropriate for government. Likewise in local government: if we can reduce the number of unnecessary school admissions appeals by wording the communication with parents more effectively, then we should do so.

What has inspired us is less the theory and the policy debate, more the practical examples. In the past few years, there has been an explosion in the amount of evidence we can draw on. We have seen practical interventions using behavioural psychology and behavioural economics, carried out by organisations in all sectors, sometimes with academic engagement, and analytical approaches (the highest profile public sector example being the MINDSPACE report) that help us understand the range of behavioural effects that can be employed. We decided to draw on this evidence to see what opportunities it provides.

Having explained the imperative behind our work, we want to share the three principles that have inspired our approach. It is driven by three insights we gained from our research and initial work: the first, key, one is that we can improve outcomes and efficiency with low- and no- cost interventions. There are numerous case studies where this has been shown, for example well-evidenced examples of a smiley face helping to ‘lock in’ appropriate behaviour such as low energy usage or safe driving. This can be hard for people to accept, as we have rarely questioned narratives that assume we behave rationally.

The second principle is that Councils can do this. It’s not the exclusive domain of university academics and high-priced consultants and – to most – it’s not just interesting, it’s useful, too.

The third is that need greatly exceeds demand. In our view, just about every service has aspects that could benefit from using behavioural insights, but very few are actively ‘in the market’. Managers are not in the habit of using behavioural insights to generate ideas on how their approach could be configured differently, or communications reframed. We have started to change this.

And we also recognise the starting point that WSCC is like almost all other authorities. We have no staff with ‘behaviour change’ in their job description or job title, and hardly any staff who would describe ‘behaviour change’ as part of their role. And yet in many areas, West Sussex, like other Councils, is ‘doing’ behaviour change by encouraging residents in, for example, pro-environmental behaviours.

Our focus now is on using behavioural insights wherever human behaviour is a factor in our work. So, for WSCC, this is about building capacity; growing the amount of expertise in the authority on using behavioural insights.

The With The Grain Tool

The way we are building capacity is project by project using our new West Sussex With The Grain tool. To create WSWTG, we worked with experts in the two professions who make most use of behavioural insights to affect behaviour: designers and communications professionals, as well as getting input from academic experts and practitioners in local government.

WSWTG gives officers (and staff from partner organisations) access to:

•a way of pinning down the behavioural changes we are looking to encourage

•a presentation and poster explaining a wide range of behavioural effects, using the most memorable (as opposed to the most worthy) examples; and

•a method for systematically exploring the full range of behavioural effects to generate ideas from which the team can identify those worth pursuing

We have identified four clusters of behavioural effects that we introduce to officers. These are:

•approval effects, which make the ‘right’ choice (that is, the behaviour we are looking to encourage) seem normal;

•ease effects, which make it easy/ier to make the ‘right’ choice;

•reward effects, which increase the perception of reward for the ‘right’ choice; and

•obligation effects, which help people feel a sense of obligation to make the ‘right’ choice

So, for example, when we looked for ways to encourage all staff to clear their desks at the end of the day, promoting flexible working and enabling the authority to save money by reducing the desk:staff ratio, the following ideas were generated:

•Status quo bias (one of our ‘ease effects’) tells us that new behaviours are maintained when they fit into existing routines, so we are considering including a ‘clear your desk’ prompt or verification to be included in the logging out process at the end of the day. This could be like checking the box to confirm you understand the terms & conditions before you are able to make some purchases, such as train tickets.

•A range of ‘reward effects’ can be employed. Rather then communicating the benefits to the organisation (the likely default option), internal communications can focus on the ‘payoff’ for individuals, particularly in light of temporal discounting, which makes us favour immediate gains: in this case, being able to get up in the morning and decide where to work.

•‘Approval effects’ are very relevant, in particular social norms (none of us wants to be the ‘odd one out’) and authority effect (chief officers and senior managers will need to lead by example).

•Commitment and consistency may be the key ‘obligation effect’; we all want to behave consistently with a commitment we have made publicly. In this instance, asking teams to sign a declaration recognising the benefits of flexible working – not least the end of ‘presenteeism’ – and also the commitment involved (to clear one’s desk) may be a way of driving ‘bottom up’ change.

This is a very brief example of how behavioural insight can be useful, drawn from a current project. Our experience so far is that using the WSWTG enables staff to generate a better understanding of the behaviours which are a factor in their service and generate many more, better ideas than would have been the case without considering behavioural insights in a systematic way.

Having innovative ideas is not enough, of course; success will depend on being able to test and implement the best ones. We will be open about what we learn in West Sussex from now on, not least because there is a good chance that innovations driven by behavioural insights that work here will work elsewhere.

The debate will continue; in the meantime, local authorities have the chance to use behavioural insights to shape future services.

Warren Hatter is a Local Improvement Advisor working with WSCC on behaviour change. Kieran Stigant is Chief Executive of WSCC.

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