London – RSA

Silver bullets need a careful aim. Dilemmas in applying behavioural insights


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Read our report on the ethical dilemmas of applying behavioural insights here.






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Download our scenario cards to facilitate policy decision making.





When:      11th May 2015, 9:30-4:30

Where:      Prince Philip Room, RSA, 8 John Adam Street, London, WC2N 6EZ

This seminar is hosted by Collaborative Change

Confirmed Speakers:

Leigh Caldwell, The Irrational Agency

Professor David Chandler, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster

ABSTRACT: This presentation discusses the assumptions behind the politics of behaviour change and seeks to locate behavioural change on a continuum from classical liberal assumptions of the autonomous rational subject – which have difficulties with ‘libertarian paternalism’ or the environmental choice-shaping of behavioural change – to posthumanist attempts to enhance the capacity to see reality in real time (the quantified self movement, Big Data analytics, for example) – which seek to improve decision-making through the subject’s own (digitally-enhanced) agency. In this way, it is hoped that the underlying framing assumptions (and limits) of top-down approaches to behavioural change become clearer. While behavioural approaches often claim to appreciate the socio-historical context and contingent or non-linear emergence of behavioural choices, their attempts to materially ‘enhance reality’ – through various ‘nudges’ at different levels of social depth – 1) engage reality indirectly, artificially and instrumentally to improve choice-making, keeping linear understandings and subject/object divisions intact; 2) necessarily maintain an elitist divide between those who know better and those who do not; 3) necessitate working back through socio-historical ‘path-dependencies’ on the contradictory assumption that they remain fixed, thereby reifying or naturalising these contingent relations. The inner contradictions in the logic of behaviour change becomes clearer when compared to more pragmatic and real-time approaches to enhance human perception of reality which do not make reductionist and linear assumptions nor problematise choice-making or set up hierarchies of knowing subjects.

Steven Johnson, Collaborative Change

Dr Adam Oliver, Department of Social Policy, LSE

ABSTRACT: In recent years, behavioural economics has gained considerable traction in the policy discourse, with a particular conceptual framework called libertarian paternalism, which informs nudge policy, dominating. Libertarian paternalism requires policies to protect individual liberty, to be focused specifically upon improving the welfare of those towards whom the intervention is targeted, and to be informed by the findings of behavioural economics. In practice, however, many of the interventions that are being advocated as nudges do not meet all of these criteria. Moreover, libertarian paternalism is not the only framework in which behavioural economics can inform policy. Coercive paternalism and behavioural regulation, frameworks that respectively underpin shove and budge policies, both use behavioural economics to inform public policy, and both face their own set of limitations.

Luke Perry, Jigsaw Research

ABSTRACT: Behavioural Economics presents specific ethical challenges to commercial qualitative researchers. Such ethical ambiguities have of course been around before, but BE provokes a much more stark confrontation with some real ethical dilemmas, as the industry has now enthusiastically adopted a framework that could in theory be used to exploit human fallibility in a more systematic way than perhaps hitherto. What commercial qualitative researchers do as practitioners hinges on the quality and authenticity of their relationship with respondents, much of which is drawn from various psychotherapeutic traditions. BE has further sharpened our awareness of just how vulnerable people can be, and uniquely compared to all the other practitioners in the mix, qualitative researchers have to see ‘the whites of their eyes’ as it were, on a daily basis.  The presentation explores some real projects and real dilemmas taken from health care, energy, and financial services.

Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy Change

Dr Dimitrios Trivrikos, Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, UCL, and Prime Decision


Seminar theme:

Behavioural Economics has become the flavour du jour of UK government policy. However, realising its true potential will depend on a more sober, critical appraisal of its application.

Over recent years the ‘application of behavioural insights’ has risen to prominence, in both public policy and commercial marketing. Calling predominantly on recent or refreshed research from Behavioural Economics (BE), its principles and prescriptions have emerged as the dominant behaviour change paradigm informing public policy and intervention design under the Coalition government.

The shift away from the largely theoretical foundation of classical economics to a more empirical basis for policy creation represents a clear step forward. In particular, a focus on the use of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) to establish the efficacy of interventions prior to scale-up and roll-out represents a significant sea-change in applying behavioural insights in policy and practice.

However, this seminar will question whether the buzz surrounding ‘behavioural economics’ is preventing proper critical appraisal of which contexts are appropriate for its application and contexts that aren’t.

More importantly, it will explore ethical tensions implicit in many BE approaches and the potential for negative unintended consequences. In particular, whether behaviour change brought about through ‘designed contexts’ (‘Nudging’) disempowers citizens by bypassing the conscious agent.

In particular, this seminar will question:

  • Are there contexts in which BE tactics are effective and those in which they are not?
  • Can the critical differences between these contexts be articulated, defined and profiled?
  • Can BE tactics create sustainable behavioural change as well as influence choice or trigger one-off behaviours?
  • BE focuses on universal cognitive dynamics. How can we ensure it responds to the diversity of our communities and their needs?
  • Does the political appetite for BE create the risk of issues less conducive to BE tactics being overlooked or de-prioritised?
  • To what extent is the emphasis on BE driven by political expediency i.e. low cost interventions that deliver startling, press-friendly impacts in politically sensitive contexts (fine repayment, tax evasion, benefit fraud etc)?
  • How does a BE approach build on the massive effort to build Social Marketing capacity within the public sector under the Labour government?
  • Does the emphasis on BE blinker policy professionals and behaviour change practitioners to other approaches and paradigms?
  • Are ‘Nudge’ approaches (influencing behaviour through the design of contexts) ethical, insofar as they bypass the conscious agent?
  • Can ‘Nudge’ create long-term, sustainable change across a range of contexts.
  • Can ‘Nudge; approaches have negative unintended consequences—such as crowding out or diminishing intrinsic motivation—through financial incentives and designed contexts?
  • How might future technological developments (e.g. big data; wearable biosensors) affect the application of behavioural insights and raise new ethical dilemmas?



Why take part?

Make connections with behavioural and social researchers across different sectors.

Make space to consider both the practical and ethical dilemmas involved in applying behavioural insights in different contexts.

Benefit from research insights on and practical experience of behavioural change.

Discuss the wider impact of behavioural economics in policy making.

Set new research challenges for the future investigation and application of behavioural insights.

Initiate collaborations with researchers and practitioners to design progressive behaviour change interventions with high impact potential.




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One thought on “London – RSA

  1. Wow, it seam’s to me questions like “Are ‘Nudge’ approaches (influencing behaviour through the design of contexts) ethical, insofar as they bypass the conscious agent”
    are important anyone who works in the public sector, and believes they do so for the best interests those they work with.

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