Applying Behavioural Insights at the United Nations: A Year in Review

By Mary MacLennan, Aimee Lace and Lori Foster

Contributing authors: Rafael Obregon and Ketan Chitnis (UNICEF); Marco Suazo (UNITAR); Sara de la Pina Espin and Nancy Khweiss (UN Women); and Benjamin Kumpf and Malika Bhandarkar (UNDP)

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

Behavioural science has gained a substantial amount of traction in governments and academic institutions around the world…but what is happening at the United Nations (UN)? As 2018 comes to a close, we are pleased to share our reflections about behavioural insights (BI) and their role at the UN, including some BI highlights from this past year.

  1. Why behavioural insights?

In 2015, the UN’s 193 Member States approved a global framework in the form of 17 ambitious goals, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to enable progress on key issues including equity, climate, education, peace, gender equality, income inequality, and more by 2030. These goals will require large scale change and disruption to the status quo, which we know will not be accomplished by proceeding with business as usual. Many of the goals are linked to human behaviour, norms, and attitudes necessitating change on the part of individuals, communities, organizations, decision makers, and societies. The “last mile” of any social intervention or project requires an individual to make a choice and act in a certain way — e.g. attend a training, vote, participate in a meeting, save money, take a medicine, allow a child to go to school, use fertiliser, etc. If the policy or programme fails to provide the necessary information, incentives, or means for behavioural change, it simply will not work.

Through people-centered theories and methods, the social and behavioural sciences enable interventions that produce such change. Instead of placing expectations on people that are often unrealistic, behaviourally informed interventions leverage what is known about human decision-making and invest in better diagnosing what specific behavioural barriers prevent segments of people from following through with their own intentions. While the ultimate goal of human-centered policies and programmes is to nudge decisions and behaviours to align with the SDGs, BI in the UN context is premised on freedom of choice and transparency.

2. What is happening at the UN?

Behavioural insights are being considered and piloted at several UN agencies. A non-exhaustive list includes initiatives by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), at times in collaboration with external consultancies such as ideas42, the Behavioural Insights Team, and the World Bank’s eMBeD unit.

Consistent with other behavioural insights initiatives around the globe, the UN’s BI efforts have also entailed partnering with academia. That’s where we fit into this exciting and ever-developing landscape. As a team of behavioural science experts working across the UN (formerly UNBI), our skill sets are grounded in academia and range from social and organizational psychology to economics. They include applying behavioural insights in the White House’s Social and Behavioural Sciences Team, the Canadian Privy Council Office’s Innovation Hub, and advising/working with various UN agencies.

The year 2018 offered a number of opportunities to promote behavioural insights at the UN in a rigorous, evidence-based way through training and workshops, randomised controlled trials, and the sharing of best practices between groups internal and external to the UN. As described below, this included the UN’s first-ever Behavioural Insights Day.

But first, a little history. How did BI start at the UN? Agencies such as the UN Development Programme and UN Environment invested in trials to test the effectiveness and comparative advantage of behavioural insights as early as 2013. Then in 2016, two behavioural science experts from the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST), Drs. Maya Shankar and Lori Foster, were engaged as the first-ever Behavioural Sciences Advisors to the UN. They were tasked to explore how and where BI could be applied in the UN context. A summary of the results of their efforts was published in a 2016 report titled “Behavioural Insights at the United Nations: Achieving Agenda 2030.”

With the groundwork laid in the previous year, 2017 witnessed growing momentum around BI at the UN, with projects moving forward, and interest within and across UN agencies growing. That same year, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) delivered its first BI session to public servants, which included a keynote by Prof. Elke Weber from Princeton University as well as participation and inputs from Filippo Cavassini (OECD), Mary MacLennan (London School of Economics), Benjamin Kumpf (UNDP), Irina Feygina (Climate Central), Steve O’Neil (New York University and University College London), Marco Suazo (UNITAR), Lori Foster (North Carolina State University), and Aimee Lace (Columbia University).

3. Community coming together: United Nations Behavioural Insights Day — July 13, 2018

By 2018, the stage was thus set for the UN’s first-ever Behavioural Insights Day, which explored the importance of systematically incorporating BI into UN programmes and policies. Hosted in collaboration with a team of three academic behavioural scientists, UNITAR, UNDP, UN Women, and UNICEF, the event took place at the UN headquarters in New York City on the occasion of the 2018 UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), the main platform that follows up and reviews SDG progress at the global level with member states providing voluntary updates on national progress toward the goals.

The event prominently featured Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University and renowned researcher on the topic of why humans act the way we do. A founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, Dan is a best-selling author and has a regular column, “Ask Ariely” in The Wall Street Journal. Throughout the day, Dan challenged development practitioners, policymakers, and decision-makers in the UN audience to think about BI as an important factor and tool in their work. Three key takeaways included: (1) people often make irrational decisions; (2) it is important to take risks and experiment; and (3) there is momentum in the UN space.

3.1 People often make irrational decisions.

People tend to imagine that they act fully rationally, influenced only by information and facts in their decisions. However, economists and psychologists have repeatedly shown that people are influenced by a host of other factors and are, in fact, often “irrational.” This has implications for the way that we design programmes and policies. For example, simply telling people that what they are doing is bad will not change their behaviour, for it’s not the information but the environment in which decisions are made that counts the most in changing someone’s actions. And luckily, that is something policymakers can, to a degree, influence.

“Choice architecture is the idea that somebody designed the decisions we make,” said Dan during BI Day. “We will act according to what they want.”

Influencing behaviour, explained Dan, is like launching a rocket ship into outer space. There are two things that will help the rocket get to space — adding fuel and reducing friction. The same things can help the UN as it looks to influence behaviour. We can add fuel to the behaviour we want to see, and reduce any friction that might make the desired behaviour harder to do.

Add fuel.

Sometimes you need motivation. This is where information fails, according to Dan. You can explain to somebody how saving money is good, but finding a way to actually put that into practice can be the difference between changed behaviour and the status quo. Dan and his team conducted a study in a rural Kenyan village with the objective to get people who own very little to save money for emergencies. Giving reminders and financial incentives helped, but Dan found that the key to changing saving behaviours was something much smaller: every week that they saved, villagers were able to scratch out a number on a coin. The small feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that came with actually being able to see their savings accumulate on the coin did more to encourage saving than did any of the less tangible enticements.

Reduce friction.

Simplicity and minimal steps can help enormously. Opting into services vs. having a default case (and opting out) is one of the most well-known examples of BI. For example, organ donations have varied drastically as result of two types of sign-up systems: one in which donors have to actively choose to donate an organ and the another where organ donation is actually the default course of action, which people can opt out of if they wish. Studies have shown that countries where donors must opt-in have fewer donors than those with an automatic enrollment. The difference has less to do with dramatically divergent attitudes toward organ donation, and more to do with the effort and action (e.g., opt-in via paperwork) required of citizens where organ donation is not the default, which results in less enrollment.

Another example is Netflix, which reduces friction just by having episodes queue up within seconds of the previous episode ending — entailing a very smooth progression with no effort on the part of users, resulting in binge-watching as a default.

The bottom line is: If you reduce the friction (efforts/ steps) between the person and the outcome, then you’re more likely to change behaviour.

3.2 It is important (critical, even) to take risks and experiment.

We often talk about the importance of accepting risks and failure to achieve the payoffs from experimentation, but in reality, this does not often happen. During the UN’s BI Day, Dan Ariely stressed the importance of having champions drive forward initiatives that involve experimentation to show that taking risks and failing is important, valued, and acceptable to carry forward. For this to take place, it is important to have buy-in at different levels especially senior ones to foster this way of thinking and provide a safe space for colleagues to delve deeper into learning and experimentation which can sometimes be lengthy and will often involve new ways of working.

The application of behavioural insights involves the generation of evidence-based policy using rigorous methods. To effectively complete this work in a policy setting, it is important that there is commitment and an appreciation for a scientific approach to policy making. When it comes to knowledge about academic disciplines as well as rigorous methods, there can be a role for knowledge sharing between policy makers and academics. A common challenge with applying behavioural insights generally is that we do not know whether a certain behavioural insight application will have a real-world impact until we experiment in the field. There is the possibility of failure, requiring a culture of experimentation that understands and accepts that this aspect of applying behavioural insights is important.

One example is UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality (FGE). Working with women-led civil society organizations (CSOs), the Fund was interested in applying social innovation approaches to its work with these organizations. With internal senior level and donor support and the space and time to experiment, the Fund was able to create a unique opportunity for its grantee partners to experiment with different approaches and embrace failures, for self-reflection, learning, and re-thinking of existing strategies through its ‘Re-Think. Experiment’ initiative.

BI Day discussions around experimentation led to a related topic: How should the UN Secretariat and agencies best think about embedding behavioural science at an institutional level? Several models were discussed, including integrating behavioural insights into existing monitoring and evaluation and communications teams, and working closely with sectors such as health and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene). Another model involves creating a centralised group of BI experts. This dialogue, which is ongoing, moved forward during discussions at the UN’s 2018 BI Day.

3.3 There is momentum in the UN space.

Behavioural Insights are gaining momentum at the UN. This was clearer than ever at the UN’s 2018 BI day, as panelists from across agencies came together to discuss their progress in this arena. While by no means an exhaustive account of “everything BI” at the UN, a few examples include the following.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has played an important role in applying behavioural insights at the UN. For several years, the UNDP Innovation Facility in particular has invested in Country Offices and partners to design and execute BI trials and has advocated for the application of BI via thought leadership and high profile events. Since 2014, more than a dozen experiments have been initiated and documented in UNDP’s flagship Innovation report, including the latest Annual Review ‘Moon Shots and Puddle Jumps — Innovation for the SDGs. The advocacy and engagement on BI is paying dividends, and the appetite to apply BI has seen a marked increase. In 2018, the Innovation Facility received applications from 36 countries looking to explore how BI could be used. In fact, 1 of every 5 applications received looked at testing how BI could be used to accelerate the implementation and reach of 13 SDGs. Over a quarter of the 2018 Innovation Facility winners are testing BI, a 20% increase from 2014. After supporting several trials in developing countries, UNDP is now investing in institutionalizing BI as a key tool in the organization’s toolbox.

UNDP’s leadership in the BI space shone brightly throughout BI Day, including in an afternoon event co-organized by the Permanent Mission of Israel. A panelist at this event, UNDP Innovation Policy Specialist Benjamin Kumpf described how BI has been used by UNDP around the world, including, for example, to encourage people treated for tuberculosis to keep taking their medication rather than relapsing, which has implications for individual health and wellbeing as well as the national economy when scaled up. UNDP has also applied BI to environmental sustainability, noting that “the everyday actions of regular people have broad implications for the environment.” Accordingly, UN Environment has also begun exploring BI as a tool for policymakers concerned with sustainable consumption and production.

UNICEF is strategically integrating BI into its work in its Communication for Development (C4D) unit. Ketan Chitnis of UNICEF explained how C4D is a natural home for BI, as C4D is responsible for social and behavioural change initiatives within the agency. Accordingly, UNICEF sponsored a number of BI talks and lectures to C4D audiences worldwide in 2017 and 2018, and has begun integrating elements of BI into its C4D training. UNICEF is also scoping out and executing BI pilots, including a trial to increase immunizations in the Middle East in collaboration with Nudge Lebanon. At the same time, it is engaging in a strategic mapping exercise to determine where and how BI best fits into its organizational structure and BI’s application to help accelerate key results for children and how to build capacity in the right ways, at the right levels across the organization’s technical teams.

UN Women is increasingly recognizing the value in supporting initiatives that promote research and experimentation to offer new, evidence-based solutions that are more sustainable and impactful, including by using behavioural insights. In Moldova, they have utilized positive deviant approaches to identify unique but replicable practices and behaviours amongst survivors of gender-based violence who had successfully accessed support to overcome the trauma, enabling those findings to promote policy measures to support many other women in the same circumstances. In Palestine, UN Women is leading a ten UN-agency initiative to identify and promote positive masculinity behaviours as a way to advance resilience and adaptability among men and youth and an environment of gender equality through public campaigns and programming. This approach is being tested in a multi-UN initiative under UN DOCO.

Colleagues at the FGE are actively promoting the learning and use of behavioural insights at UN Women both internally and with partners. In their ‘Re-Think. Experiment’ initiative, they are testing a new way to do feminist grant-making by building the capabilities of their grantee partners (national women’s CSOs) in incorporating social innovation tools such as design and systems thinking and BI into their work on women’s economic and political empowerment, and helping CSOs test different strategies. The grantee CSOs have identified specific behaviours that can influence women’s leadership and socio-economic status. For example, Maasai men in Tanzania making their wills in writing can improve women’s ownership over land. And, the decision of Filipino women who have migrated to Hong Kong and Singapore as domestic workers to enroll in a training programme on financial education and entrepreneurship can make the difference between a secure and successful reintegration back to their countries or a precarious and unsafe situation when they return.

Several members of the Office of Human Resources Management (OHRM) in the UN Secretariat attended BI Day as well. OHRM is leveraging behavioural insights in the form of a new Innovation and Learning Speaker Series, which launched in late 2017 in partnership with Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP). Every other month, a SIOP member is invited to give a talk sharing research, theory, and evidence-based best practices from organizational psychology with UN human resources professionals. This is consistent with broader trends toward applying BI to organizational change. Sessions to date have covered a variety of topics through a behavioural lens, including talent management, performance management, survey design and analysis, and data-driven policy. Following on from BI Day, OHRM’s August 2018 session was specifically devoted to applying Behavioural Insights to Human Resources.

4. Beyond BI Day

The first-ever BI Day in 2018 not only reflected BI’s growing momentum at the UN, it also catalyzed subsequent action. While a detailed account of each and every ensuing event is beyond the scope of this article, one particularly special session is important to highlight. In September 2018 at a UN General Assembly side event Professor Cass Sunstein (founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School and former Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) gave a talk on how better understanding human behaviour can help achieve the SDGs.

Professor Sunstein provided examples from his time applying behavioural insights in the Obama White House including nudges that he worked on from pensions and savings to calorie labelling. He also discussed how behavioural insights can act as a Global Positioning System (GPS) helping to address the problem of navigability when it comes to programming — and the importance and power of tools such as defaults, information, warnings, reminders, and social norms.

Reflecting on Cass Sunstein’s visit to the UN, Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the UNDP Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, stated that “Behaviour change on a global scale is instrumental to achieve the SDGs.” “To make progress,” he expressed, “we need to better understand the importance of choice architectures and of cognitive biases, including our own.”

Cynthia McCaffrey, Director of UNICEF’s Office of Innovation agreed, and reinforced the importance of inter-agency partnerships as well as partnerships with academia and government in realizing BI’s potential to effect behavioural change. “We are always looking for innovative approaches and tools to foster social and behavior change,” she noted.

In the spirit of collaboration, recent discussions at the UN have centered on the establishment of an informal community of practice on BI, as a way to facilitate connections share learnings across the UN. Already, events for the coming year are being planned, including a session on Sport, BI, and Sustainable Development co-organized by UNITAR and the Qatar Behavioural Insights Unit. Stay tuned for more updates about behavioural insights at the United Nations in 2019 and how these concepts continue to be put to use towards the achievement of the SDGs.

5. Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, BI momentum at the UN has been years in the making through much effort, awareness raising, high-level buy-in, and interest among public servants looking for ways to change traditional approaches to development. The world has set a 2030 deadline for achieving the SDGs, and we are only 12 years away from that date. Without well-informed policies and programmes, advancements will be minimal and initiatives may even backfire. BI can serve a large and important role by working at the root of many of the issues we are facing — human behaviour and practices that are stymieing societal progress. By tackling global challenges at this level, we can progress toward our shared goals faster and more effectively.

About the Authors

Mary MacLennan is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics.

Aimee Lace is a PhD candidate at Columbia University.

Lori Foster is a Professor at North Carolina State University and the University of Cape Town.