A nudge in the right direction? Using behavioural insights in health

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Behavioural insight is a term which has been increasingly heard across a range of policy areas worldwide in the past decade. Essentially it involves using a combination of psychology, economics and studies of behaviour and decision making to better understand how people react to specific interventions, and evaluating and learning lessons from the way people react to help decision makers to develop better, more effective policies.

Its application has been widespread in the USA and Europe. In the UK, first under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and then more recently under the Conservative administrations in the UK, the approach has gained increasing traction, with the establishment of a UK government “behavioural insights team”.

The Behavioural Insights Team, also known as The Nudge Unit, is now a social purpose company. It is partly owned by the Cabinet Office, employees and Nesta

The coronavirus crisis has posed a big challenge for those who need to be seen to be creating policies that protect and support the public. It has also been challenging for those trying to predict how people will respond, whether they will comply and how we can “nudge” the public to make what the government sees as “better” choices.

As well as informing steps to ease lockdown and the recovery from coronavirus, behavioural insights is being more widely applied to understand how people make choices in relation to their health, and how these can be applied to preventative health measures and health based inequalities.

Nudging as part of policymaking

Nudging as a technique has been used widely across a number of different policy areas, including criminal justice and education. Its application in relation to public health has been wide ranging and has had significant implications for health policy of previous governments.

Key policy areas in public health for the UK behavioural insight team include:

  • antimicrobial resistance
  • vaccination
  • obesity
  • mental health

Using behavioural insights across all of these areas, the idea is to develop an understanding of how people think about these topic areas as issues and how their behaviour is influenced by their own thoughts, patterns of behaviour and environmental factors like ease of access to services.

Techniques like direct incentives (such as vouchers in return for healthy behaviour), measures that restrict choice (like restricting takeaways from schools), and outright bans (such as the restriction on smoking in public places) are all interventions designed in one way or another to “nudge” us towards certain behaviours.

Steps like text message reminders for appointments, offering salads or fruit instead of fries as a side, or opt out organ donation are further examples of how behavioural science techniques are being applied to encourage people to make healthier choices and reduce the strain on health services.

Many of the steps being taken are designed not only to save time and money for the public and organisations delivering services, but also to help encourage early intervention and preventative action, a key focus of public health strategies in the UK.

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A crucial role to play in understanding vaccine rollout

Vaccination decisions can be a complicated and emotive process, but with the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine understanding the routes to uptake and how people make decisions on vaccination are more important than ever.

Behavioural scientists have been at the forefront of the vaccinations programme, looking to create a better and more thorough understanding of how to manage the rollout and develop an understanding of how people see the benefits and challenges of vaccination, both collective and individual.

The ‘Increasing Vaccination Model’ they say is a helpful framework for categorising the barriers to vaccination and possible behavioural interventions. The evidence indicates that closing the ‘intention–behaviour gap’ in vaccination behaviour by improving ease of access (and thus removing practical barriers to vaccination) is the most effective type of intervention. In contrast, focusing on motivation or educational interventions appears to be less helpful.

However, behavioural scientists have noted that in relation to the coronavirus vaccine even more barriers exist, with one survey reporting that 16 per cent of UK adults would ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ avoid a COVID-19 vaccine. There is a suggestion that compressed development timelines, misinformation and media reporting could all undermine confidence and therefore uptake. Behavioural scientists are working hard to understand what steps could be taken to understand vaccine hesitancy and improve uptake across all communities in the UK and internationally.

Final thoughts

Behavioural insights, data analytics and “nudge” techniques have been part of policy making for the best part of ten years. They aim to help policymakers understand people’s reactions to policies and use this insight to help more effective policy in the future.

The coronavirus pandemic has presented a new and challenging opportunity for behavioural insights and has required them to apply their knowledge and understanding of how policy is applied and received like never before, with vaccine rollout being just one key area, along with other lockdown measures which require mass compliance in order to be effective.

How behavioural insights will continue to inform the recovery and public health strategies more widely remains to be seen, but it does appear that for the meantime at least, the “nudging” will continue.


If you enjoyed this TKE blog, you may also like to read:

Taking the long view: futures thinking and why it matters

Cross-border handshakes: what’s next for digital contact tracing?

Virtual reality: a game changer for mental health treatment?

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