The insights of behavioural economics can seem like the answer to policymakers’ prayers: a means of changing behaviour that doesn’t require expensive education programmes or potentially controversial new laws. BE-based strategies promise to “nudge” people towards choices that benefit both themselves and society as a whole.

But while behavioural economics has added vital new dimensions to our understanding of behaviour and how to change it, it does not constitute a "magic bullet" solution. Those who rely too much on contextual triggers to influence behaviour are likely to find themselves disappointed.

The great contribution of behavioural economics has been to reveal the previously ignored sets of influences that constitute our System 1 means of navigating the world. This is an important corrective to a traditional research approach that focused solely on our System 2 consciousness, and assumed that our behaviour was largely the result of considered, rational choices. But in declaring that they will sweep away traditional quantitative and qualitative research and rely almost wholly on observation of System 1 behaviour, many research agencies go too far. They risk replacing one blinkered system for understanding behaviour with another.

When it comes to growing market share for FMCG brands, understanding the immediate influences on buying behaviour may constitute enough of an insight in itself. But making sustainable, long-term changes to behaviour usually requires more. Besides heuristics, habits and contextual triggers, we must engage with a complex web of psychological factors: perceptions of cost and benefits, legitimacy and efficacy, as well as the cultural and moral contexts for our choices.

The challenge of behaviour change requires a holistic approach to researching and understanding why people behave the way that they do – and a commitment to engaging with all relevant influences in the behaviour web to change that behaviour. We have the techniques available for integrating behavioural economics insights with those of the other behavioural sciences. It is vital for the on-going success of social policy that we use them.

Key action points for policymakers:

  • Do not put all your eggs in the behavioural economics bandwagon. As the UK’s House of Lords recently concluded, behavioural economics-based strategies are unlikely to succeed in isolation.
  • Do integrate behavioural economics insights into a holistic understanding of all of the influences governing current behaviour. They can often provide the missing, final piece of the jigsaw.
  • Ensure that you map the full web of relevant influences on the behaviour you are seeking to change, incorporating insights from qualitative and quantitative research as well as behavioural economics and other behavioural sciences such as anthropology.
  • Keep the impact on budgets neutral by incorporating techniques like cognitive interviewing and behavioural experiments and using the insights they provide to inform, shorter smarter surveys.
  • Commit to a balanced, open-minded view, and do not assume from the outset that one type of influence on behaviour is necessarily more important than another.
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