Behavioural insights and public policy: MINDSPACE and the ONS wellbeing research agenda

Behavioural insights and public policy were the themes for a pre-AGM discussion at the Academy of Social Sciences. We invited David Halpern, currently working for the Cabinet Office in the Behavioural Insight Team known as the “nudge unit”, and Stephen Hicks from the Office of National Statistics to address the government’s focus on wellbeing.

Download David’s slides here and Stephen’s slides here

David began by referencing the Big Society: he quoted David Cameron on the coalition agreement, saying “finding intelligent ways to encourage support and enable people to make better choices for themselves.” This is one of several new initiatives showing a shift in government thinking.

Most domestic policy has strong behavioural components, he explained. Public health is notable, where behavioural factors are very important. However as David pointed out health spend does not reflect this. Most funding is for medical interventions – this is a big discrepancy.

Information is not the problem: David referenced the research that shows while the UK and Germany show high levels of awareness of how to eat healthily, they are also the countries with the highest levels of obesity; we know what we should do but we do not do it.

David shared information about the government initiative: MINDSPACE (NB you can read a post from Paul Dolan on MINDSPACE here). The mnemonic is:

  • Messenger we are heavily influenced by who communicates information
  • Incentives our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses
  • Norms we are strongly influenced by what others do
  • Defaults we ‘go with the flow’ of pre-set options
  • Salience our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us
  • Priming our acts are often influenced by sub-conscious cues
  • Affect our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions
  • Commitments we seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts
  • Ego we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves

Several examples of the use of these principals then followed. For defaults, David referred to the forthcoming change to organ donation registration: this is now moving to a ‘promoted choice’ model, where people have to select yes or no on DVLA forms. This is expected to facilitate a noticeable rise in donations.

For commitment, he referenced a hospital study, where the appointment system was modified to have patients repeat the appointment out loud and write it down themselves. This led to a drop in numbers that did not turn up for their appointment.

For priming, a US study looking at car insurance showed that participants who signed the form (acknowledging the veracity of information provided) at the beginning rather than at the end declared higher mileage, or in other words were more truthful.

David closed by noting that the measurement of wellbeing is not just useful for government but also for citizens. Importantly, it draws attention to big chunks of life that policy makers often miss. This was echoed through Stephen Hicks’s presentation, which shared more on the Office of National Statistic’s (ONS) research into national wellbeing, led by Jil Matheson.

The ONS vision is to produce an accepted and trusted set of national statistics which people turn to first to understand and monitor national wellbeing. As a multidimensional measure, it encompasses not just economic factors: but also quality of life, and sustainable environment.

Measuring wellbeing, said Steven, supported the public; enabled international comparisons; furthered academic research; and facilitated the monitoring, formulation and appraisal of policy.

Four questions have been integrated into the household survey, completed by 200,000 people each year, starting from April 2011. Also, questions have been added to the ONS opinion survey, reaching 1000 monthly. He described both of these as experimental statistics: further testing and development is being undertaken, and they may keep refining them.

Since the launch in November there has been a national debate to find out from the public what they think is important. This finished on 15th April, and the ONS are now finalizing the report, which will publish on 25th July. In the Autumn there will be further consultation, and the first annual experimental IHS dataset will publish in July 2012. For further information search for #UKWellbeing or follow @stasticsONS on Twitter.

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Academy of Social Sciences

The Academy of Social Science’s mission is to promote social sciences in the United Kingdom for the public benefit. The academy is composed of individual academicians and learned societies; it responds to government and other consultations on behalf of the social science community, organizes meetings about social science and seminars on topics that span social science disciplines, and sponsors a number of efforts that promote social science and enhance its value to society.

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