Three steps for regulators to embrace behavioural science

Artificial intelligence
  • Published Date: 08 August 2020

Professor Liam Smith, Director BehaviourWorks Australia

Regulators have always been intensely interested in the theory and practice of achieving individual and business compliance. Whether it’s the Dutch incentives framework, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s compliance posture or new models to predict compliance with COVID-19 rules (see here for an example), there are many ways of identifying drivers of compliance.

For a brief, optimistic period behavioural science was thought to be the ‘silver bullet’ which would solve every compliance problem in government, but it can never be the only compliance tool in regulators’ tool kits. It can assist though, as demonstrated by a number of projects in the environmental regulation space conducted by BehaviourWorks Australia (BWA) which show how regulators can be aided by well-designed and appropriate use of applied behavioural science. This short article outlines three simple rules to help regulators gain the greatest benefit from new and applied research in behavioural science.

1. First, define the problem

The first step required is to tightly define the behaviour under investigation, because behavioural science works best when there is a clear answer to the question: “who needs to do what differently?”.

For example, in one project conducted by BWA, researchers unpacked the “who” by working with Environmental Protection Officers (EPOs) to understand how they identified regulatees’ motivation and ability to comply. Based on this assessment, they found that there are four different audiences based on a matrix of willingness and ability.

In terms of the “what”, behaviourists recognise that compliance is not just one behaviour, it is many. Behavioural researchers spend time identifying and specifying the behaviours that underpin problems and then frame them in the positive. For example, in this project, rather than targeting illegal dumping of hazardous chemicals into local waterways, BWA asked businesses in particular areas about barriers and enablers for putting spill kits in place, checking drains and storing chemicals properly in their storage facilities.

Once behaviour is defined, research can then be conducted to understand, in detail, why the target audience is or is not performing a desirable behaviour. In this example, research conducted with householders to understand why food is wasted identified that habits and routines primarily dictated why food waste was produced. Once researchers uncover why particular behaviours are occurring, regulators are in a better position to influence them.

2. Don’t underestimate the influence of unconscious heuristics and biases

Regulators sometimes assume non-compliance is conscious and therefore miss the influence of unconscious heuristics and biases. Where non-compliance is less conscious, understanding heuristics and biases is important to understand how they influence behaviour, as well as how to use them to advantage.

It is known that people dislike losses more than they like equivalent gains (termed “loss aversion”). Using this principle, in this project BWA used loss aversion language by emphasising how much offenders would lose from not paying their fine on time (in addition to the fine), the result being increased on-time payments.

Timing of the use of change tools also matters. In trying to persuade people not to swim in Port Philip Bay when it is polluted, research found, unsurprisingly, that it was very hard once they had arrived at the location. Instead, encouraging the use of an App enabled the delivery of information to potential swimmers before they had left home.

3. There is nothing wrong with trials and pilots

Accompanying the recent resurgence in behavioural science has been an appetite for trialling behaviour change tools. Trials and pilots are a time-honoured way of testing what works and ceasing what does not. Some examples include this trial, which tested a self-assessment checklist for underground petroleum storage system owners, this trial which tested the effectiveness of signs and deterrence measure on illegal dumping at charity stores and this trial which tested the influence of letters followed by independent assessors conducting visual assessments of compliance.

In conclusion, behavioural science has proved to be a very valuable addition to the regulatory tool kit. The proviso is that its effective use requires some humility; recognising that we don’t always know what the problem is, that it takes more than information or incentives to change behaviour, and that focusing on just one strategy is rarely sufficient.