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Behavioural Change & Insights

Research at the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) in recent years has applied elements of behavioural science to policy challenges in Ireland, most specifically to addressing climate change. (See here and here for some examples). Covid-19 is similar to climate change in that, if the challenge is to be met, it requires significant behavioural change by the population, and we know that changing behaviour is difficult.

Behavioural science is the study of human decision-making, specifically the impact of emotions and so-called decision-making biases on the choices we make. These biases can, for example, contribute to us not eating as healthily as we would like to or saving as much as we would like to. However, an empirical understanding of these biases can also help us do the opposite: to eat more healthily and save more.

In the current pandemic, behavioural science can help us reduce transmission, better assess risk, communicate to the public more effectively, understand the impact of isolation, and help us encourage good behaviours and discourage bad ones.

Fighting Covid-19 means changing individual and collective behaviour, from increased adoption of key hygiene behaviours, to keeping a distance of two metres between people, to longer periods of self-isolation. These changes can be encouraged by using lessons from behavioural science (lessons often referred to as behavioural insights).

Behavioural Insights: An inductive approach to policy making that combines insights
from psychology, cognitive science, and social science with empirically-tested results
to discover how humans actually make choices (OECD, 2020).

Fighting Covid-19 also means policy-makers getting key decisions right. Policy-makers’ decisions are just like any others, subject to the impact of emotions and decision-making biases. This can, for example, influence their assessment of risk, their level of confidence in their decisions, and perhaps most famously, can create the conditions for harmful ‘groupthink’. Again, policy-making can be improved by applying lessons from behavioural science- behavioural insights, in conjunction with the use of other evidence, available data and tools.

Given that the behavioural change required to contain Covid-19 is an urgent matter of public health, it is crucial that the full weight of behavioural science literature and of behavioural insights is brought to bear on this challenge, noting their limitations also.  Therefore, the NESC Secretariat will explore how behavioural science and insights can be applied to help fight Covid-19, in areas such as:

(* This Overview paper, while not dealing directly with Covid-19 is provided as an aid to reading the other working papers)