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What are Behavioural Insight Teams?

A lot of articles on here have been understanding and changing behaviours. Behavioural change is created by at first gathering behavioural insights, and going from there. Many companies have a behavioural team, and quite a few consultancies have behavioural insights at the heart of their operations. But that is only the private sector. For once, the government did it first. And these behavioural insights teams (BITs), got popular as government bodies, before spreading into the private sector at quite a high rate. But what exactly is a Behavioural Insights Team What do they do and what can they do? And how is it possible that it was picked up from the government; what is the hype about?

What is a BIT? When initially referring to the “behavioural insights team”, it meant referring to the Nudge Unit of the British government set up in 2010. BIT was set up to apply nudge theory – the cross between behavioural economics and psychology -- to try to improve government policy and services (and save the UK government money). This was done in contrast to creating and rolling out policies that were mainly based on standard economics (which cost a lot of money).

Initially, BIT was within the Cabinet Office, but has been partially privatized: in 2014, ownership was split equally between the government, the charity Nesta, and the team's employees. As such, the UK government departments that had previously received policy advice for free now pay for the service, as the cost of maintaining the team is no longer borne by government (ka-ching!). So, when referring to BIT now, especially as this concept has been imitated throughout the world (31 countries and counting), means to talk about a “social purpose” company, that might be, but doesn’t have to be, backed by the government.

What does a BIT do? So the focus of the initial BIT was specifically nudging people and creating better policies through nudge. BIT has also realized its own objects on top of that, which state that BIT will: “promote the public good, and generate the maximum achievable profits available for distribution.”

These theoretical objectives can take very different practical forms. If you check out the official website of the BIT, you can see a whole list of projects that have started, are currently engaged in or have already been completed with the results lined up next to it.

BIT mentions themselves that they have run more than 750 projects to date, including 400 randomised controlled trials in dozens of countries. Now I’m not too eager to dive into all of these projects, but I will give you a rather quick overview of key behavioural insights, and how to policy was designed to apply it: - Using social norms to increase tax revenue: people received messages stating that 80% of people pay their taxes, on time. People are herd animals; they don’t want to be with the other 20%. As such, they complied with the actions of the 80%, and tax revenue increased. This works with energy consumption as well. - Using reciprocity to increase organ donations: When people would renew their car tax online, they’d receive a message asking if they want to join the organ donor register. The most successful message asked: "If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others.” To think of the need you might have yourself, opens you up to the needs of others. - Using commitment devices in job-seeking: Jobseekers were required to make commitments to the job advisor about what they are going to do in the next week. They had to write their commitments down in front of the job advisor, who then follows up whether they were successful. The job seekers are encouraged to make the commitments as unambiguous as possible, by specifying when and where they are going to perform the action. The results have shown a significant increase in those off benefits at 13 weeks. This type of commitment device has worked for other goals, such as saving and weight loss as well. - Changing default options to improve tax collection rates: rather than being send a webpage that included the form, recipients were send the form directly. This increased response rates by 19 to 23%. Default rates have also been shown to help with retirement investing in Scandinavia, and with organ donation in countries such as the Netherlands.

Again, I only described a few of the behavioural insights and projects done. Some of them might seem incredibly simple, but they are effective, and that is what it is all about. Check out the BIT website for more information on what they do!

But what is the hype about? It isn’t a coincidence that the first BIT was created in 2010. Behavioural Economics had garnered much more popularity and Nudge (book by Thaler and Sunstein) had hit the Western world like a tsunami of knowledge. The academic concept became mainstream and ultimately even the government acquiesced. BIT was no longer an idea, it had manifested.

On top of that, nudging, or other behavioural science informed policies, tend to be cheaper. Keep in mind, being small yet effective, rather than “large and in charge” is one of the core values of nudging, if not behavioural science itself. So, the interventions and policies created and rolled out by BIT, are a rather cheap (and effective!!!) tool for the government. Even though BIT might have been created on probationary terms, it passed that probation with flying colours, and then some. As it was the first of its kind, it gained a lot of attention. And who doesn’t want cheaper solutions that happen to be more effective as well?!

Although initially BITs might have been a hype, I feel that the concept (when carried out properly…) is rock solid enough to stay, yet flexible enough to adapt to whatever it is society needs. How’s that for some promo?!

Backlash and skepticism Sure, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Especially at the start, BIT and other BITs have gotten backlash. Standard economists do not seem the biggest fan of behavioural economists, and vice versa, and this has led to criticism.

Moreover, not all countries BITs have spread to were as welcoming as the UK, where Nudge had hit like a damn nuke. Sure, Nudge (by Thaler & Sunstein) has gone global, but that doesn’t mean it has been received equally well. Nudge relies on behavioural economics and psychology being taken serious by the society they are operating in. And that is just not a guarantee everywhere. A lot of people are still skeptical. But with behavioural insights spreading and the results obtained by these interventions and policies, and the rigorous, scientific testing behind them, I’m pretty sure it’ll be a matter of time (it’s not like I’m biased or anything…).

BIT @ Warwick I have already mentioned that people have been ready to imitate BIT outside of the UK. But what about in the UK? I am happy to state that I am part of the management of Warwick’s BIT, and yes, that concept has been cleverly borrowed. We are a for-student, by-student organization that consist of two teams: the engagement team and the nudge unit. The latter (NU) also promotes the public good, in line with BIT. Projects we currently have running focus on using Nudge to increase recycling, to increase garbage take-out and cleanliness, reduced water usage and reduced energy consumption. For next academic year we are also looking into reducing fast fashion and reducing plastic usage. The Engagement Team (ET) organizes great events, such as workshops and talks on behavioural science, to promote it to anyone who might be interested. The highlight of our year is coming up: the Behavioural Science Summit, which will focus on the impact Behavioural Science can have on Health and Well-being!

If this all sounds interesting to you, check out WarwickBIT, the summit, or just immediately buy your tickets for the summit here!


Behavioural Science

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