Applying Behavioral Science in Humanitarian Settings to Reduce Violence

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) Air-Bel Center, which designs and tests innovative solutions in crises, is working to find new ways to reduce violence in humanitarian settings. Violence is all too common in crisis-affected areas, and on children the burden falls heaviest. Corporal punishment by teachers and parents, frequent bullying and harassment between children themselves, and gender-based violence toward young women are pervasive and often accepted by communities in crisis as normal. The Air-Bel Center believes that the field of behavioral science can provide new insights to reducing violence in these communities.

Behavioral science is an exciting field, one that offers lessons from psychology and economics about how psychological, social and other situational factors can be altered to influence behaviors. Successful applications of behavioral science lessons have encouraged ‘positive’ behaviors, such as changing the default option on a financial product that led to large increases in how much customers saved. It has also proven effective in reducing negative behaviors; in one study, something as simple as a text message led to meaningful reductions in bribes from civil servants. The World Development Report in 2015 gives a great overview of behavioral approaches in international development.

But how might we apply behavioral science to reduce violence? Changing a bank website or government office signage is fairly easy to do, but is it possible to do the same thing in a refugee camp, and actually impact the pervasiveness and acceptance of violent acts that occur there?

Between March and June of this year, the Air-Bel Center partnered with the New York office of the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) to help answer this question. The IRC team drew on the research of Dr. Erin Fletcher of Harvard University. In 2015, Dr. Fletcher partnered with IRC research staff to better understand the violence that children experience in crisis-affected communities in Iraq and Tanzania and the social norms that surround it. Using this research as inspiration, Air-Bel and BIT crafted four-to-five proposals of simple, low-cost ways to potentially reduce violence that draw on behavioral approaches and build upon techniques IRC has already pioneered in the field. The review draws on research from outside the field of violence to provide insights that may be applied to violence reduction — like sending SMS reminders to teachers with suggestions for non-violent punishment, combining non-violent discipline trainings with public pledges from religious leaders, or targeting bystander behavior.

Our next step is to further refine these ideas with staff implementing programs, develop pilots of the most viable ideas, and test them.

To read the full report, click here

This project was funded with support from the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID).


The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.