Behavioural science

Top Tips from Behavioural Exchange Conference 2019 (BX2019)

Behavioural Science for the Workplace

To say I was excited about BX2019 which exploded in London on the 5th & 6th of September is something of an understatement. Hosted by The Behavioural Insights Team, 1,200 delegates from 65 countries convened at the Queen Elizabeth II centre in Westminster, and the 2019 line up was eye-watering; David Halpern & the great and the good from BIT, Cass Sunstein, Dan Ariely, Robert Shiller, Katy Milkman, Tali Sharot, Nick Chater, Laszlo Bock… the list went on.

In addition to unparalleled networking, there was a never-ending stream of spellbinding sessions, on topics as diverse as ’Have we learnt the lessons of the replication crisis’, ‘Can sustainable diets ever be palatable’ and ‘Beyond unconscious bias training’.

It’s impossible to synthesise all the themes from these powerful two days into a single article, so I have taken the lens of the work I do at Development Beyond Learning, and have picked out 4 insights for applying behavioural science in the workplace. I hope you enjoy:

  1. The power of social norms

  2. Changing behaviour to change minds

  3. Add fuel, remove friction

  4. The importance of evaluation

@betsylevyp on stage @BXconference #bx2019

1. The Power of Social Norms

From Betsy Paluck speaking about reducing violence in schools through social norms, to Cass Sunstein on the role of social interdependencies in driving change, the idea that leveraging social norms is a powerful way to influence behaviour, was everywhere.

Sunstein made the particularly striking observation that even nascent, emerging social norms have the power to change behaviour. If you tell people that a norm is emerging, they want to be on the ‘right side of history’ and they get behind it.

The implication for practitioners using behavioural science in businesses is to pay attention to established and emerging social norms if we wish to influence organisational change. At DBL, we see this all the time with our early career development programmes. Whatever behaviour new hires see (e.g. tardiness or prompt time-keeping), they emulate.

In a very real sense, actions speak louder than words, and whether your people are seen to be supporting or eschewing a new initiative, matters far more than what your carefully crafted employee engagement messaging says.


2. Changing Behaviour to Change Minds

It is a core tenant of the behavioural science movement that small changes in the environment can profoundly drive behavioural change. At this conference, I heard more about the role of cognitive dissonance in this. From adjusted HR processes leading to fairer, more inclusive practices to using incentives to nudge people to be more environmentally conscious when travelling, our desire to avoid inconsistencies between our behaviour & our beliefs is a very powerful way to nudge our behaviours, and subsequently beliefs in a desired direction.

The implication for organisational behavioural scientists is that we need wherever possible to take a holistic approach to driving change, rather than taking a piecemeal approach. Specifically, we cannot expect to create lasting behavioural shifts through development programmes or change initiatives without considering the day to day context in which our employees are operating. 

So how to change organisational context effectively? Well that brings me onto:

3. Add Fuel, Remove Friction.

My favourite behavioural science principle is that if you want someone to do something, make it easy. Dan Ariely’s suggestion that to drive change, we need to add fuel and remove friction is perhaps one of the simplest and most powerful takeaways from the conference. From complex competency frameworks to arduous performance management processes, organisations are littered with well-intended systems that make it very hard for people to do what we want and need them to do.

There are a plethora of ways in which organisations can seek to add fuel and remove friction. And the uptick for doing so can be enormous. For instance, Ariely found that companies that treat their employees well outperform the S&P 500 by fully 12%. Which brings me nicely onto my final point:

4. The Importance of Evaluation

Three insights emerged on the importance of evaluation regarding L&D interventions

  • We need more of it

The global training industry is big business. Large organisations spend approximately $372 billion on training globally each year. Astonishingly, that represents half the sum companies spend on marketing worldwide with, according to Laszlo Bock, very little evidence that this training works. In discussion with Katy Milkman, Bock emphasised the need for scientific experimentation demonstrating that these programmes have long term behavioural impact, rather than leaving their efficacy in question. 

  • We need more than self-report

In ‘How well do we really know ourselves and each other – and what does this mean for practitioners’, Nick Chater & Seth Stephens-Davidowitz suggested that caution is required when extrapolating from self-reported data. Chater, speaking about his book ‘The mind is flat’, suggests that the level of self-deception can be quite astonishing (e.g. half the people who say they are going to vote, do not) pointing to the fact that we simply don’t know ourselves that well due to perceptual limitations. Stephens-Davidowitz’s research in ‘Everybody Lies’ demonstrates that what people tell us and what the data shows, are often two very different things.

Given that self-report data predominates evidence collected on training programmes efficacy, the recurrent theme through the conference that we need to take what people say to others and themselves about their motives and actions needs to be taken very seriously.

  • We need to expect failure

A recurrent message throughout the conference was the need to accept and welcome failure. The avoidance of negative or nil-results at the heart of the replication crisis, is equally the root-cause of the prolific measurement-avoidance that L&D practitioners experience and exhibit.

In discussion with Frank Douglas, he made the opposite observation that when L&D and HR practitioners evaluate their programmes they are in effect ‘marking their own homework’. The incentive to reveal that their work isn’t working, simply isn’t there. We need to re-align incentives and encourage organisations to welcome a test-and-learn approach, and to celebrate failure, if we are really to expect evaluation to be celebrated.

This becomes even more important when one considers how common failure is. According to David Halpern, we should only expect about ¼ projects to succeed, and in organisational context specifically, Frank Douglas, Laszlo Bock and Katy Milkman all pointed to the prevalence of false positives.


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If you want to learn more about the conference, you can read David Halpern’s summary here, where you can also sign up for the BIT newsletter which will announce when recordings from the conference are released for your personal viewing pleasure. And you can sign up for BX2020 Toronto here.

Hope to see you there.

Behavioural Economics: Think Small. Act Small.

Think small. Act small.

This is my renewed mantra.

And it is completely counter to the approach I’ve taken to life and business for the past 22 years. Thinking big has always been my thing. I enjoy it and it energises me. Acting big, however, has not always been as easy.

I find taking big action quite hard. And so when big dreams, goals and ideas are left to me, I often get stuck. I can be overwhelmed by the enormity of some of the actions required. If I let this last too long I feel guilty for the inaction … and so on. It’s great fun.

Unless others get involved, this has nearly always stifled any progress, and made personal change or business change towards a dream, goal or vision much more difficult.

When others get involved however, magic happens. I’ve gotten better over many years at surrounding myself with teams of relentless, action-oriented executors. And in more recent times, leaders who build their own teams of such talent. I think this is only part of the solution.

The idea of forgoing “thinking big and acting big” for “thinking small and acting small’ seems to have merit.

How Behavioural Economics can help

Behavioural economics, and the science that is growing around it, suggests there are ways to make the actions and changes we desire, easier by creating small and simple changes in our environment to nudge us in the right direction - thinking small, and acting small. Sure, have big dreams and goals, but ‘think and act small’ to find ways to make the pathway towards them easier, and thus their attainment more likely.

Evidence is building in favour of such an idea. 


Nudge Theory in Practice

In 2010, UK Prime Minister David Cameron piloted a different approach to public policy to help achieve big things. Cameron was partly convinced that behavioural economics had the potential to unlock some of the big changes he was hoping to achieve whilst in government.  

This was based on the emerging field of behavioural economics, which lists Nobel prize winners such as Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler as it’s founders. A field brought to prominence with Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness based on the idea of nudge theory.  

A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

Cameron gave David Halpern the green light to establish the Behavioural Insights Team – or what famously became known as the Nudge Unit. Behind closed doors, deep inside 10 Downing St and with two years to prove that a team of people using behavioural insights could achieve dramatic change towards big goals in a minimum of two government departments.

‘Would you like anything else?’ - Nudge theory in action

‘Would you like anything else?’ - Nudge theory in action

Examples of Nudges

At the Behavioural Exchange conference this year, Halpern shared several examples of nudges that have, in the years since, achieved significant social or economic impact in the UK.

One nudge resulted in people paying their taxes quicker! HMRC tested various social norm messages in their direct mail campaign to Self Assessment tax debtors. Some people received letters pointing out that the majority of people in their local area had paid on time, and that most people with a debt like theirs had already paid. Others had no such messages in their letters.

Payment rates from the first group increased by 5% leading to £1.2m more being paid in the first month.

Nudge Theory in Learning & Development 

At an organisational level, we use behavioural science, and nudge theory, in the design of our learning and development programs for our clients around the world – and have been for as long as 10 Downing St.

Action Learning Periods were an idea we first tested and then pioneered in the Australian and SE Asian graduate development industry around 2009. An ALP is a set of simple, carefully curated behavioural nudges provided to a learner over a period of time – often in between workshops – to make behavioural change and learning transfer, easier.

Look out for an article shortly on how Behavioural Science can be used to make learning and development programs more effective in creating change by our Chief Behavioural Officer Alice Scott (MSc, Behavioural Science). As an aside, I’m sure Alice will appreciate that very public use of a ‘commitment device’ - which in itself is a behavioural nudge!

Nudge Theory for Personal Growth

So what about on a more personal level? What nudges can we use in our day-to-day lives to help us take action and make change, easier? I can only share from my own experience and I am curious to hear if you have some of your own.

Here are two really simple examples of nudges I have adopted over the years simply by ‘thinking small and acting small’.   

Wallet sized goals

I have found having my vision, goals and affirmations on a credit card size piece of card in my wallet incredibly useful. Our thoughts become our actions, then our habits, and our results. I realized I had on average, over an hour of time each day where my thinking had little focus or value. There was always plenty on my mind but I wasn’t using it effectively. Think waiting for the train to arrive, waiting in a foyer for an appointment, waiting for the barista to make your coffee, etc.  

Opening my wallet, pulling out my vision, goals and affirmations for a quick 3-5 minute read a few times a day, helped ensure what was most important to me was always top of mind, bringing me energy and focus in the noise of day-to-day life.

Running gear ready to go

I’ve spent the past 10 years building a business, beginning and developing our marriage, starting a life on the other side of the world, traveling fairly excessively, and most importantly becoming a father to three children and experiencing everything that three children five years old and under brings to ones life. 

It’s fair to say I haven't always found early morning starts, easy. And it's even more fair to say exercise over the past decade went out the window. At times where I have decided to run quite a lot, early in the morning, I will always put my running gear out the night before, and right next to my bed. This has made it easy to put the feet on the floor and straight into running gear. A shift in physiology that has made it a lot easier to get out the door and trotting off down the street.  

Think small. Act small. Big Changes.

Thinking small and acting small can have a profound effect on our ability to achieve behavioural change with others, and with ourselves.  

What nudges have you seen that have had a great impact on your own life, your industry or the world around you?