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Leveraging behavioural insights for informed policymaking

  • Blog Post Date 03 December, 2020
  • Perspectives
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Application of behavioural insights – backed by decades of research in behavioural economics and social psychology – to the design and implementation of social programmes is gaining traction in India. In this post, Steven Walker outlines insights from a workshop that brought together various stakeholders to discuss how ‘nudges’ may be utilised at scale in Indian policymaking, with a focus on programmes for girls and women.


Application of behavioural insights – backed by decades of research in behavioural economics and social psychology – to improve social programmes and outcomes is not new in India. Within government programmes, behavioural insights have been leveraged in the design of several high-profile schemes, including Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) focussed on eliminating open defecation, and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (BBBP) that aims to improve skewed child sex ratios. Outside the government, in both the social sector and academia, India has been a frequent host to interventions piloting or testing behavioural insights (Gauri et al. 2018, Sudarshan 2017).

The 2018-19 Economic Survey of India acknowledges these interventions and encourages the creation of an entity to apply behavioural science and insights to Indian policymaking.1 With a foundational understanding of how behavioural science can improve social programmes and interventions, and a growing knowledge base of what works (and does not work) in the Indian context, what comes next will involve the scaling up of lessons learned and application of behavioural insights in new geographies and sectors across the country.

In October 2019, a workshop titled ‘Leveraging Behavioural Insights for Informed Policymaking’. brought together policymakers, international development agencies, academics, and behavioural science organisations to discuss the future of behavioural insights and ‘nudging’ in Indian policymaking. The discussions had a gender focus, and sought to understand how behavioural insights may be utilised at scale to improve the lives of women and girls.

Some of the key takeaways from the discussion are presented below:

Communication is an effective behavioural influencer, but other types of behavioural interventions should be explored

Communication and messaging campaigns have been some of the most frequently used behavioural interventions. And for good reason – they are simple (and cheap) to design and roll out, and they have been effective in past interventions. However, the behavioural science toolkit includes a host of other methods that are useful for creating behaviour change, including default settings, planning and commitment tools, and leveraging social norms. For example, in addition to communicating the benefits of hand-washing to help people practice proper hygiene, physically placing bottles of hand sanitiser in public places, inside of restaurants, and outsides of washrooms can serve as a useful reminder of something that can be often forgotten, making it easier to make the ‘right’ choice.

Find the right messengers, and the right targets

People respond differently to messages depending on whom it comes from. This is one reason why typical advertisements partner with famous athletes and celebrities – they are familiar to most people and thus can have a greater effect at incentivising behaviour than an unknown actor. Likewise, for an intervention to show effect, the ‘right’ individuals need to be targeted. For example, targetting men for financial planning and savings interventions is not likely to produce results if in the populations being targeted, women are in control of most financial decisions. Both of these cases highlight the necessity of human-centred design in behaviour-change interventions.

Nudges are contextually dependent and do not work across all geographies

India has a diverse socio-cultural landscape – interventions that show promise in one state might fail to bear the same results in another. Factors such as historical context and cultural and gender norms, which vary greatly by region, play an integral role in determining the success of an intervention. Therefore, designing behavioral interventions always requires an audit process before implementation to ensure compatibility with such local factors. Proceeding with replicated interventions across contexts has the potential to simultaneously erode impact, and waste resources. Hence, all interventions need to be examined with the lens of ‘what worked and why’ before venturing into the phase of scale-up.

Separate the behavioural and structural barriers

Behavioural interventions are not a one-size-fits-all solution for all development challenges. They work in specific cases where cognitive biases prevent people from making otherwise beneficial and available decisions. For example, interventions encouraging latrine usage often target behavioural assumptions around cleanliness, improving user experience, or sanitation norms. However, when the latrines built are not ‘user-friendly’ for children to accompany women for instance, or with infrastructure deficits that pose a safety issue for women, behavioural interventions will not be effective. For policymakers, care should be taken in identifying the types of social problems, and underlying gender dynamics, that are behaviourally rooted, as opposed to those that are structural or institutional in nature.

Leverage private-sector resources and solutions for greater impact

A significant portion of the evidence on behavioural interventions is from those spearheaded by private-sector players. From technology and design companies, to academics and consulting firms, their aggregated insights provide a foundation of knowledge for policymakers to design and implement behavioural interventions. Leveraging these insights, as well as expanding partnerships with private-sector partners in the design, implementation, and evaluation of such interventions, can reduce the barriers to utilisation and provide adequate technical support.

Ensure nudges do not become sanctions or coercion

As behavioural interventions work to affect decision-making, how these interventions are utilised must be carefully scrutinised. What is designed as a nudge, even though intentioned to preserve freedom of choice, may become an unintended sanction on vulnerable populations. Additionally, since behavioural interventions span across sectors, the ethical and practical considerations that arise from helping people exercise more are inherently different from financial planning and investment decisions (Jun 2018). For policymakers, an ethical framework for when and how behavioural interventions are used should be established that puts the public’s safety and freedom of choice as the core priority.

Concluding thoughts

Over the past year, the advantages of behavioural insights have only become clearer. Since India began experiencing a severe uptick in Covid-19 cases in March 2020, encouraging safe social behaviours and health practices have been a foremost priority towards beating the Virus. One cause for optimism has been the use of behavioural interventions in the country’s Covid-19 response: behavioural principles have been incorporated into the government’s communication strategies and local authorities have used them to redefine public spaces.

What the insights from this workshop and the Covid-19 response show are that making behaviourally informed interventions and policies can and have improved how programmes are designed and implemented. As the pandemic continues, it is encouraging to see that calls for institutionalising behavioural insights within Indian policymaking are receiving greater attention. In other good news, following the workshop, one of the participating organisations, the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change (CSBC) at Ashoka University, has begun partnering with NITI Aayog to pilot a Nudge Unit working on the Aspirational Districts Programme. Moving forward, taking these lessons learned and sparking a collaborative approach to integrating behavioural insights within policy can make the entire policymaking process more evidence-based, human-centred, and socially-responsive.

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  1. The workshop was organised in partnership between NITI Aayog, the International Innovation Corps (IIC), and IFMR LEAD (Leveraging Evidence for Access and Development).

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