Multifaceted Functions of Behavioural Insights

Taking a Deeper Look at What Makes Us Tick and How Behavioural Insights Can Better Our Lives

Behavioural Insights and Its Role in Workplace Safety

Across the world, workplace-related injuries are estimated by the International Labor Organisation to cause millions of injuries and hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. In Malaysia, the most dangerous jobs fall in the fields of construction, manufacturing, agriculture, forestry and fishing. According to data from the Department of Occupational Safety and Health, Malaysia recorded 42,513 accidents in 2017, of which 711 were fatal.

A high prevalence of occupational hazards has knock-on effects on society. The common phrasing of 3D jobs is one example. Dirty, Dangerous and Demeaning (3D) jobs are no longer sought after by locals, which in turn creates vacancies that are mostly filled by migrant workers from lower-income countries. Apart from this, workplace accidents reduce productivity, stall progress and increase costs for both businesses and the government. In 2017, an estimated RM2.7 billion was disbursed by PERKESO, our national social security protection agency. Therefore, ensuring that our workplaces are safe for workers is an important shared goal for businesses, governments and employees.

The field of behavioural insights can offer strategies into how workplace safety can be improved. Drawing from observations that workers are faced with behavioural ‘bottlenecks,’ behavioural insights can be incorporated into training manuals, standard operating procedures or other workplace-related policies. Also, behavioural insights recognise that our environment influences how we behave. As such, incorporating reminders or visual cues in the workplace itself can have a positive impact on workplace safety. Together, behavioural insights have a role in improving workplace safety by facilitating behavioural changes that will help reduce occupational hazards. However, what would this look like on the ground?

Here, we can draw from a range of case studies related to workplace safety published by the OECD and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in the United Kingdom. These case studies demonstrate how behavioural insights have had a positive impact on reducing workplace accidents and changing worker behaviours.

One central insight from observing workers in their respective environments is that they are faced with a large number of tasks, decisions and stimuli. For example, a factory worker needs to keep track of his role on the production line, whilst ensuring that goods pass quality control. Similarly, construction workers operate in busy environments, having to perform multiple different tasks throughout a day. In the field of behavioural insights, a person's ability to process information and make rational decisions is negatively affected when there is, to put it simply, too much going on. Behavioural scientists term this cognitive overload - where having too many tasks can lead to errors and in turn, workplace-related accidents.

As such, workplace safety initiatives should be designed for simplicity. Straightforward procedures and guidelines will ease the cognitive load and workers to improve compliance with safety standards. For instance, a study conducted by BIT assessed a workplace issuing a safety checklist with over 100 items. The length of the checklist dissuaded employees, and BIT found that staff would photocopy checklists that had been filled out rather than go through them each time the task was performed. Simplifying procedures is one of the most effective ways of increasing uptake. For example, another study by BIT cited that removing one click from the process of submitting an online tax return increased response rates by 17%.

Another key strategy from behavioural insight studies is to make it attractive to perform the behaviour. In the workplace, this can include simple tweaks such as having colour-coded markings for equipment in hospital operating rooms to making sure safety equipment is closest to where workers will need to use them. In China, a garment factory was struggling with the number of cloth scraps thrown on to the factory floor which increased the risk of accidents. Managers tried installing rubbish bins closer to workstations or penalising employees but were unsuccessful.

Ultimately, a nudge was designed to place a gold coin sticker, a symbol of good fortune in China, on the floor next to factory workers. Upon seeing the gold coin, workers reduced the number of cloth scraps thrown on the factory floor by approximately 20%. Using context-specific nudges such as the gold coin can be more effective than traditional workplace safety methodologies such as reminders, checklists or fines.

Other strategies for increasing workplace safety include using the power of social norms to demonstrate that most workers perform the desired behaviour, such as wearing safety equipment, to increase compliance. Providing personalised feedback to workers has also proved effective, with a study in Kenya demonstrating that evaluating the driving behaviour of bus drivers led to reduced average and maximum speeds.

In conclusion, the field of behavioural insights has shown promising results in the field of workplace safety. By focusing on workers and their ‘cognitive load,’ and ensuring that safe operating procedures are attractive and straightforward to perform, governments and businesses address underlying issues that yield positive outcomes. Indeed, workplaces that adopt insights as part of their strategy in workplace safety may find that workers are more responsive to safety guidelines that take into account behavioural bottlenecks as well as environmental influences in their day-to-day operations.

How Behavioural Insights Can Help Promote Sustainable Consumption

Sustainability is a complex and multifaceted issue for governments to tackle. For instance, to regulate pollution, governments can issue carbon taxes, greater regulations for pollution producers or subsidise alternative energy sources. Recently, we have seen the growth of green financing models, where the financial sector looks towards environmentally friendly development initiatives, industries and projects Besides, governments can restrict development by gazetting forests, lakes and other natural ecosystems to act as carbon sinks. In addition to these strategies, however, a growing body of evidence suggests that there is a missing piece of the puzzle; consumer behaviour.

A strategy that addresses the consumption factor, which ranges from household goods, food, utilities such as electricity and water usage and transport to name a few, asks if sustainable consumption behaviours can have a positive effect on the environment. If so, how might governments begin to nudge citizens to consume sustainably? Here, the field of behavioural insights offers a glimpse into how public policy can be designed to encourage citizens to consume responsibly. However, focusing on consumer behaviour is difficult for some reasons.

Firstly, the consequences of unsustainable consumption or overconsumption are difficult to grasp. How many times in our own lives have we left the lights on, or water running in our own homes? How do we think through what products to purchase at grocery stores? Or how strict are we about separating our trash, or sending plastic, paper and glass refuse to recycle centres? Furthermore, practising sustainable consumption might not seem relevant on an individual level. For instance, studies have shown that when asked about climate change, most people agree that it is an issue that affects other people, in other places more significantly. This suggests that individuals are less likely to act sustainably, seeing as the issue does not directly affect them.

These examples suggest that unsustainable consumer behaviour is enabled by a lack of information that allows consumers to understand the impact their consumption choices have on the environment, and a lack of understanding of how sustainable practices have benefited themselves, their communities and their environment.

Public services around the world have taken note of such tendencies and designed policies and behavioural interventions that seek to influence such belief systems, values and ultimately behaviours. By focusing on consumer behaviour, governments are pursuing new strategies to tackle the issue of sustainability. But how has this played out on the field? Some examples of successful interventions are considered below. Consumption of public utilities such as water and electricity are two central areas where behavioural insights can promote sustainable consumption. When attempting to reduce electricity consumption, policymakers can consider several strategies. The first is personalisation. Making the effects of electricity consumption apparent to citizens creates a sense of personal responsibility that can help spur action.

For instance, in the state of California, households were sent utility bills with details about the health impacts of their electricity usage. Factors such as increased neighbourhood pollution, greater chances of childhood asthma and cancer due to overconsumption of electricity were outlined. By outlining the localised effects of electrical overconsumption, households reduced their energy consumption by an average of 8%; however, households with children saw the greatest decrease, with a reduction of around 19%. In this example, emphasising the personal impact of energy consumption led to a greater sense of responsibility in managing their energy usage.

In addressing water usage, a core strategy of the behavioural insights field is to leverage the power of social norms. In Costa Rica, the World Bank piloted an intervention that sent household letters comparing their water usage to the local neighbourhood with a smiley face sticker if the household’s water consumption was below average and a frowny face sticker if it was above the neighbourhood average. The intervention was designed for households to compare their usage to their immediate peers and work towards reducing water consumption. This low-cost intervention, coupled with public outreach resulted in an average 4.6% reduction in water consumption.

In Malaysia, our public consumption of water and electricity utilities remains the highest amongst our ASEAN neighbours. Partly because of the highly subsidised rates, Malaysian consume an average of 4286kwH per capita in comparison to an ASEAN average of 3049kwH. Similarly, Malaysians consumed 266 litres per capita per day in comparison to 155 litres in Singapore and 90 litres in Thailand. Should we draw inspiration from the programmes initiated in Costa Rica and California, modest reductions in water and electricity usage will have multiplier effects if applied across the population.

These examples indicate that when addressing the issue of sustainability, it is important to consider small changes that can have a great impact if scaled across the population. Using behavioural insights to nudge citizens to consume sustainably is a strategy that appreciates that behaviours can be nudged, and that policy can be designed to support sustainability initiatives alongside traditional instruments such as regulations, taxes or penalties.

Using Behavioural Insights at Home and in the Classroom to Improve Learning Outcomes

Governments around the world invest in education for its role in furthering social and economic progress. A well-educated society is the cornerstone of a developed country, and a robust education system positively influences productivity, creativity, and technological advancement. In Malaysia, our educational system is improving, in the most recent PISA rankings, Malaysian students marked improvements in Science, Mathematics, and Reading literacies. Such progress is reflective of investments in education. According to World Bank Data, in 2019 the Malaysian government spent 4.16% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education. In comparison, ASEAN spends an average of 3.2% of GDP on education.

However, a closer examination of the 2019 education budget reveals where such funding was directed. According to Budget 2021, government spending was focused on textbooks, food assistance, and school infrastructure upgrading. Broadly, it is useful to think of educational outcomes as driven by two important aspects. There are structural issues, such as classroom size, school infrastructure, textbooks, and the student: teacher ratios that need to be at an adequate level. Beyond this, however, are ‘softer’ issues, which include student motivation, teacher effectiveness, and parental guidance that also play an important role. Increasingly, the field of behavioural insights is contributing to the second half of the equation. By promoting certain behaviours, ongoing research suggests that teachers, parents, and students can improve learning outcomes.

Indeed, a key study conducted by the Pearson and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in the UK outlines that by applying behavioural insights into the classroom and at home, teachers, students, and parents can shape learning outcomes in a positive direction. By introducing techniques, practices, and mental models that help frame and improve the experience of learning, behavioural insights are gaining credibility as an investment for governments. But how does this play out in schools, classrooms, and at home? Some examples are explored below.

The study outlines three major focus areas. The application of behavioural insights is segmented into its use at home, in the classroom, and for school management purposes. In exploring the use of behavioural insights at home, the study suggests that learning is an attitude that can be cultivated from a young age. In this, the study leans on the research done on mindset theory, which is understood as the relationship between an individual’s mindset and its relationship to success in areas ranging from health, relationships, and education. Pioneered by Professor Carol Dweck from Stanford University, mindset theory differentiates between two kinds of mindsets.

The first is termed a fixed mindset, where individuals believe that they are born with a fixed set of skills, competencies, and abilities, which remain more or less the same throughout a lifetime. The second is termed a ‘growth mindset’, where individuals believe that our abilities and talents are determined more by the amount of effort we put into practice. The crucial difference between the two is the belief that greater effort will yield results. As such, parents who cultivate growth mindsets in their children when they are faced with a suboptimal result; a loss in a sports game, a bad grade in an exam, or difficulty in learning an instrument, are cultivating a lifelong behavioural system that will equip children to face challenges by believing that results are not a function of innate abilities but rather of hard work, perseverance and effort.

Another similar exercise suggests that children who take time to reflect on abstract concepts in the classroom with their classmates perform better in class. Initiated by The Philosophy for Children (P4C) program, teachers are encouraged to start classes by watching a video or reading a text on a concept such as ‘truth,’ ‘fairness’ or ‘society.’ Following this, students are given time to reflect and come up with questions that will guide the discussion in the classroom. Teachers help to guide students in their questions and ensure that every student has a chance to contribute. Studies measuring its effectiveness in classrooms in the UK and Madrid have demonstrated that students that underwent the program showed a greater likelihood of helping others, improved cognitive ability, and gained approximately two months’ worth of progress in reading literacies.

Other examples of incorporating behavioural insights into the classroom provide strategies for giving students effective feedback, facilitating peer learning and group discussion as well as encouraging students to combat negative attitudes and stereotypes of themselves. What they share in common is their focus on soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and perseverance alongside an emphasis on mental models and self-belief systems.

In this way, behavioural insights encompass an approach to education that marks it out as a unique investment. Investing in students' mindsets and behaviours is less tangible than purchasing new textbooks, ICT equipment, or improving school infrastructure. However, if we consider that learning is centred around students, who are as affected by biases, heuristics, and their mental models as an adult, it becomes clearer that behavioural insights have an important role to play. Indeed, if teachers succeed in fostering an attitude of perseverance, growth and lifelong curiosity in their students, it might be the case that they go on to succeed in both their academic and professional careers.

Using Behavioural Insights to Improve Health Outcomes

Governments wish for their citizens to live long with healthy lives. However, across countries, healthcare systems face similar challenges; from an aging population, increases in diet-related problems such as diabetes and high cholesterol, to antibiotics resistance and respiratory illnesses from lifestyle habits such as smoking. The rise of these non-communicable diseases (NCDs) worldwide, which are largely related to behavioural choices, is a rising concern for governments.

Indeed, in 2020, a report released by the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization revealed that NCDs costs the Malaysian economy approximately RM8.91 billion a year. Globally, NCDs are estimated to be responsible for two-thirds of premature deaths. As such, healthcare systems are recognising the importance of preventative measures. A preventive approach promotes health and treats root causes, rather than symptoms. But how prepared are we to tackle such challenges?

The healthcare sector in Malaysia is one of the most progressive in the world. With a doctor: patient ratio of 1:454, it is well above the 1:1000 ratio recommended by the World Health Organization. Furthermore, upwards of 3.5% of Gross Domestic Product is invested in healthcare systems. Ultimately, Malaysian citizens benefit from such investments, with up to 98% of healthcare costs in the public sector subsidised by the government.

Be that as it may, it is clear that the rise of NCDs calls for a different approach. Indeed, the fact that several NCDs such as diabetes or lung diseases are caused by behavioural choices, such as smoking, eating unhealthy meals, a lack of exercise, or excessive sugar intake suggest that

targeting behavioural change could be a productive strategy. Here, the field of behavioural insights offers some examples of how this can be implemented. By focusing on preventative measures and behavioural change, healthcare systems can reduce the financial burden on governments. Some examples of how behavioural insights have contributed to public health will now be explored.

In Canada, the Public Health Agency implemented principles of behavioural insights to tackle obesity. Using nudges in the form of air mile points, Canadian citizens were encouraged to sign up with gyms. Members who visited the gym more than three times per week were awarded air miles. The intervention also made use of loss aversion theory, which states that individuals would prefer to avoid a loss, rather than gain the same amount of incentives if offered at the same time. Therefore, members who had signed up for the program would lose their air miles, if they were to visit the gym less than two times per week. Over 98,000 members signed up for this program and year-on-year comparisons demonstrated that 62% of participants increased gym visits by at least one extra day per week. A study evaluating the social return per dollar investigation concluded that the program generated 3.5 Canadian dollars of value for each 1 dollar invested. Finally, it also demonstrates that it is possible to drive behavioural change in a positive way when coupled with interesting, unconventional incentives.

Another interesting public health initiative relied on the timeliness of the intervention and the cultural and religious context surrounding it. In Qatar, an intervention was piloted to screen for the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes. In normal circumstances, individuals have to undergo fasting for at least 9 hours, which is difficult to organise on a large scale. However, during the period of Ramadan, where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, the Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) saw an opportunity to encourage diabetes screening. Setting up screening centres in the Grand Mosque of Qatar, HMC worked with imams who encouraged worshippers to undergo diabetic screening. A total of 2,177 people were screened over 2 days, which led to a diagnosis of almost one-third of people who were unaware, or, who were close to developing diabetes. Individuals who were screened were also provided with targeted interventions for lifestyle changes to prevent the progression of diabetes. This intervention made use of the observation that people are most open to change during specific periods in their lives; moving houses, getting married, or, in this case, a religious observation. The timeliness of the intervention meant that participants met the fasting requirement for diabetes screening and also that they were supported with actionable steps immediately to make the behavioural changes needed to promote their health.

These two examples are given here to make use of behavioural insights to promote public health. Across countries, other strategies that have been implemented include the very successful, ‘default’ option for organ donations - whereby organ donation is offered as the default option and

donors have to opt-out. Besides, gamification and loyalty point behavioural interventions have been shown to be effective in encouraging exercise and increasing HIV-related awareness and prevention. Utilising social norms to show that most people perform the desired behavior has been shown to reduce antibiotic prescription rates and help increase vaccination uptake.

Across these examples, positive behaviours are being targeted through the implementation of behavioural insights. Utilising a preventative approach to healthcare acts as a complement to traditional investments such as hospital equipment and infrastructure or medical staff training. If behavioural interventions are successful in creating long-term behavioural change, long-term health costs are reduced greatly which benefits both governments and society in promoting long, healthy lives.

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