Explore, design and test: using behavioural science to improve public policy and communications

The Covid-19 pandemic has birthed one of the most intense periods of behavioural marketing and policy making since the field’s inception, writes Kantar Public

By Kantar Public

10 Dec 2020


Behavioural science is having another moment in the spotlight. The Covid-19 pandemic has birthed one of the most intense periods of behavioural marketing and policy making since the field’s inception. Throughout 2020 we were never far from a message, incentive or situational ‘nudge’ that is intended to influence the way we behave; and until November, we were frequently reminded that our behaviour was the best weapon we had against the virus. Even as a medical response appeared on the horizon, our behaviour remained crucial: immunisation programmes take time to implement, and a vaccine, no matter how effective, can only have a significant impact if a very large proportion of the population elects to take it.

None of this is new, of course. The way we behave has always been critical to the way our society, services and economy operate. This makes understanding why we behave as we do – and how our behaviour can best be influenced in the interests of individuals and society – central to effective policy making and evidence-based governance.

Understanding the complex factors influencing people’s behaviour 

The trouble is that behaviour is inherently difficult to understand, let alone predict, as it is driven by myriad personal, social, cultural, material, environmental and circumstantial factors, many of which cannot be reliably articulated. Generally speaking, asking citizens why they take risks with their health, respond late to requests for payment, waste food or energy, or demonstrate any other kind of behaviour, is not enough.

The same applies to examining how citizens will react to a policy or communication that is put in place. To reach an accurate prediction, you need to observe their response in an environment that realistically depicts the future scenario. To understand this response, you need to isolate, identify and measure the factors that drive it.

The trouble is that behaviour is inherently difficult to understand, let alone predict

This kind of evidence – empirical rather than opinion, objective rather than subjective – can be the basis for solid policy decisions. But there are two final requirements for it to be practicable: you need data quickly and cheaply if it is going to be used ‘upstream’. We are entering the world of policy experiments, pilots and randomised controlled trials (RCTs); however, these exercises take time, money and commitment. You need a solution that is fast enough to inform decisions in a rapidly moving policy environment, and cost-effective enough to let you test, learn and adapt your ideas.

Behaviour Change Lab: putting behavioural science into practice

Kantar Public have created the Behaviour Change Lab to do just that. Behaviour Change Lab utilises an online platform to simulate the environment in which an intervention will be introduced; an RCT to evaluate the impact of different interventions on behavioural outcomes; and diagnostic analysis to explain the drivers and barriers of that behaviour. It lets people take decisions and make choices instead of answering questions about what they do. Put simply, it shows what works, why, and how that could be improved. And it does this within a few weeks – even a few days if the exercise is simple enough.

Will people wear a face covering and use public transport with confidence? Will they stockpile food during a second national lockdown? Will they take a vaccine when one becomes available? And, most crucially, what will work best to ensure that people do (or don’t do) these things? At Kantar Public, we examined all these questions in our Behaviour Change Lab during October and November 2020. And it’s not just about Covid-19: we also looked at how best to ensure citizens act with financial responsibility given increased flexibility in how they can use their pension pots.

Behaviour Change Lab results come back quickly and clearly enough to make a difference, informing communications, service design and policy development. Decisions can be based on evidence and observation rather than opinion and inference. In situations where a fast-moving context meets a complex set of behavioural drivers, this is invaluable.

To find out more, contact Kantar Public’s behavioural experts at public@kantar.com


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