Behaviour change: The appliance of science to public service interventions and communications

Humans are incredibly complex and the context in which a behaviour occurs heavily shapes our actions. How can local government use this knowledge more effectively? Sam Tatam, Behavioural Strategy Director at Ogilvy Change UK, explains.

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Key points

  • More than an understanding of behaviour change theory is necessary – we need a cultural shift in our willingness to take risks, experiment and test.
  • Look to frameworks like EAST (make it: easy, attractive, social and timely) and MINDSPACE (consider: messenger, incentives, norms, defaults, salience, priming, affect, commitment, ego).
  • Never stop testing and your communications will never stop improving.

The real drivers of behaviour

In recent times behavioural science – drawing on the insights of psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and behavioural economics to better understand how and why people decide and act – has given us a new lens through which to better understand the real drivers of behaviour for our citizens.

The success of policy and public service campaigns have always depended on shaping the perceptions, decisions and actions of citizens, behavioural science has provided us with a powerful new tool to help improve the lives of the people we serve.

It could be argued that in the past most public service policy and communications were built on traditional economic assumptions, optimised for what might now be considered the experiences of ‘hypothetical humans’. For example, if we want to encourage a behaviour, we should “fine people if they don’t do it” or alternatively we should “educate people of the benefits”.  

While ‘rationally’ these both sound like valid approaches, behavioural science is offering fresh and sometimes counterintuitive insights to help solve age-old problems (for example, making an opportunity seem limited to encourage a behaviour, rather than discourage it). It’s important we recognise that for many of the challenges the public services continue to face, if the solution was purely rational or logical in nature, they would have already been solved.

Over several years we have witnessed an increase in the application of behavioural science within UK Government. Today, there’s strong evidence illustrating its impact across a spectrum of challenges, from reducing medical prescription errors[1] and encouraging loft insulation[2], to increasing debt repayment.[3] Critically, most of these impacts have been found by making small, low-cost changes to existing processes based on our ‘psychology’ (like a slight reframe in an email subject line) and not the introduction of expensive or complex ‘technology’.  

While awareness and acceptance of behavioural science within government has clearly grown, we believe an opportunity remains to increase the confidence by which these principles are applied across the public services – particularly within local government. This not only stands to have a positive impact on the effectiveness of our local campaigns, it also offers to benefit the behavioural science discipline itself.

Not all interventions are created equal

Behavioural science is not a ‘perfect’ or ‘complete’ science. Humans are incredibly complex and the context in which a behaviour occurs heavily shapes our actions. Because of this, it’s a discipline that requires ongoing experimentation and evaluation to reinforce its validity and replicability within modern society. 

The nature and structure of local government offers a perfect platform for this. By embracing a consistent way of thinking across all councils, we’ll be able to independently explore how we solve and better understand many of the universal challenges we face, accelerating our collective learning.

Importantly, we also know that there are principles of human influence that are stronger when applied at a local level than on a national level.  We know, for example, that referencing ‘local’ social norms (“Kent is recycling”) can enhance the relevance of a message when compared to more universal norms (“The UK is recycling”). That is, if you’re living in Kent.

The human brain is hard-wired to detect novelty. What is different and new naturally captures our attention and unfairly influences our behaviour.  Knowing this, we believe ‘creativity’ also has a role to play in the application of Behavioural Science, applying familiar insights to novel contexts or in novel ways, to increase their efficacy and progress our understanding.

As an example, for many years the ‘watching eyes effect’ has been shown to encourage prosocial behaviour in humans[4]. The presence of artificial eyes, a subtle suggestion that people are being watched, has been reported to encourage people to leave less litter at bus stops[5], pay more honestly for a coffee[6] and even has been shown reduce bike theft.[7]

While the watching eyes effect has been consistently illustrated, psychology also tells us that ‘baby schema’ (the round eyes and face of babies) also evokes a feeling of caring in humans, lowering anti-social behaviour.

How to get started today

To increase the application of behavioural science across local government, we believe that more than an understanding of its theory is required, but a cultural shift in our willingness to take risks, experiment and test.

Reinforcing the perception of risk is the concern that behavioural science always requires deep expertise. This is not the case. 

At its best, behavioural science provides a ‘check-list’ of simple yet fundamental questions like “How might we make this easier?” orHow might we deliver this message at the right time to trigger action?” These are sound challenges that certainly don’t require a PhD to understand – yet can be extremely powerful when executed.

To help, pragmatic frameworks like EAST have been developed (make it: easy, attractive, social and timely)[8] and MINDSPACE (consider: messenger, incentives, norms, defaults, salience, priming, affect, commitment, ego)[9]. These should be a first point of call when developing communications or community programmes.

The same concern can be true of experimental design and statistical analysis. While conducting a randomized control trial (RTC) is a ‘gold standard’, on occasion it can be valid to challenge this scientific purity to encourage a mindset of experimentation and deliver pragmatic findings. We don’t always have the control, sample size or statistical nous to conduct an RCT, but with an approach grounded on behavioural science principles and an attitude of test and learn, we will only ever improve our understanding and shared learning.

The future of behaviour change - possibly

Predicting the future is always fraught with danger but we can highlight anticipated shifts in focus.

We expect a more human centric approach to public service initiatives and communications, with fewer, more targeted programmes underpinned by a powerful learning agenda. We anticipate that this will begin to focus on an individual’s context, their existing emotional state or social restraints to responding (simply considering the timing of a message can be powerful!).  

We also expect a shift in the appreciation of behaviour change being driven in a more holistic sense, from a single direct mail campaign, to an integrated experience, many with elements that don’t feel like Governmental communications at all.

David Ogilvy, the father of advertising and founder of Ogilvy & Mather, said: "Never stop testing and your advertising will never stop improving."

Behavioural science is not a panacea nor a silver bullet. It is a powerful tool that we should embrace and continue to experiment with. Contemporary behavioural frameworks provide a fresh lens helping us to better design initiatives and therefore more easily draw upon human biases and subconscious drivers in effective problem solving.

By embracing, creatively applying and experimenting with Behavioural Science, we’re finding more and more that our psychology - not technology - can make the biggest difference, and that the smart and small can yield valuable returns.


[1] Behavioural insights team: Redesigning hospital prescription charts to reduce prescribing errors

[2] Department of Energy and Climate Change: Removing the hassle factor associated with loft insulation: Results of a behavioural trial

[3] Behavioural insights team: How can a letter encourage us to pay our parking fines?

[4] Haley K. J., Fessler D. (2005). Nobody’s watching? Subtle cues affect generosity in an anonymous dictator game. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 26, 245–256.

[5] Ernest-Jones M., Nettle D., Bateson M. (2011). Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behaviour: A field experiment. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 32, 172–178.

[6] Bateson M., Nettle D., Roberts G. (2006). Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biology Letters, 2, 412–414.

[7] Nettle D., Nott K., Bateson M. (2012). “Cycle thieves, we are watching you”: Impact of a simple signage intervention against bicycle theft. PLoS One, 7, e51738.

[8] Behavioural insights team: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights

[9] Mindspace: Influencing behaviour through public policy