Academic research into the value and efficacy of using behavioural science to encourage positive behaviour change has shown a great deal of potential. Transferring these learnings and their application “into the wild” – that is, outside of a ‘controlled’ research environment e.g., a lab, and into the ‘real world’ also brings great promise! However, this is not without notable nuances and challenges which it is important to consider if we are to gain the most and have the greatest success possible from our interventions.

The world of behavioural science shows huge promise for encouraging desirable behaviour change, and supporting people to make decisions and behave in ways which are in their best interests from health, wealth, and financial management to altruistic and planet-saving behaviours. One review found that, in academia, ‘nudges’ – strategies targeted at prompting behaviour change –, on average, increase take-up of a desired behaviour by 33.5% compared to the average control group

However, in the ‘wild’, this review found the average effect of nudges to be an 8% increase. This difference between results between laboratory controlled, academic research and the “real world” is known as a “voltage drop.” Though while this noteworthy drop may seem disappointing, it is worth keeping in mind that smaller changes amongst a much larger population still result in a sizeable and often significant change in behaviour on-mass. You may have also of heard of the replication challenges faced in the behavioural science industry as a whole where, in controlled settings, some studies have struggled to replicate results from earlier studies, and when they have replicated them, oftentimes the effect sizes have been much lower.

The so-called replicability ‘crisis’ and ‘voltage drop’ have raised concerns around the potential of behavioural science and its application to real world challenges. However, this book provides clear insight into why these results might be seen, and how we can more effectively translate the value of behavioural science when moving it out of the lab and into the real world.

Publication bias
Firstly, as with all other academic areas, there is the challenge of a ‘publication bias’, where only positive and significant effects get published. This, however, contributes to an over-exaggerated view of the effects. As many have recommended before, this book highlights the value of publishing so-called “negative” or “null” results, and how this should be common practice across all realms of research – not only behavioural science. Doing so will help give a clearer picture of the phenomena in any given research field, as well as prevent future resources being poured into the same or highly similar studies. While some journals do publish negative or null results, e.g., PLOs One or The All Results Journal, they are still exceptionally few and, perhaps while less glamourous, there is much that can be learned from what didn’t work as well as what did!

Secondly, and very significantly, there is a tendency to take behavioural science insights ‘off the shelf’ and apply them in the wild, expecting to generate the same positive results as in the original study. In reality, however, much more careful consideration is needed to ensure their potential is reached. There is an expression that ‘context is King!’ and this is very much the case with behavioural science. One analogy used is of seeing someone with a beautifully fitting tailored suit, thinking ‘that looks smart’ and so seeking out the same store where it was acquired. Yet, instead of having a suit made to measure for you personally, you ask for exactly the same suit as Jeff from the office was wearing, as it fit him so well and looked so great. The challenge, however, is of course, you are not physically the same as Jeff! You may be taller, shorter, slimer, broader! And so, Jeff’s suit will not fit you so well, nor look half as good. Such is the challenge with using behavioural science interventions ‘off-the-shelf’: taking them from an academic paper and applying them as they are to your real-world challenge.

This blog will cover a small number of the warning factors to look out for when applying insights in the wild. These insights have been gathered, analysed, discussed, and subsequently shared by many reputed behavioural science practitioners in the anthology “Behavioural Science in the Wild”, edited by Nina Mažar and Dilip Soman.

When applying behavioural science in the wild, we must look out for unintended consequences and ‘backfire effects’
When interventions are applied without complete understanding of the full context, unintended consequences and backfire effects can occur. For example, many people around the world who are on the waiting list to receive an organ donation die each year. In the UK, when asked, it was found that many people were willing to become organ donors but were not yet on the list simply because they had not got around to formally recording their decision to ‘opt into’ the system. So, in Wales, in 2015, the default setting for the organ donation scheme was switched, instead of being an ‘opt-in’ if you wished to donate, it became an ‘opt-out’ if you did not wish to donate. The expectation was that this would cause the number of organ donations to increase significantly, and so save many lives. Of course, anyone who did not want to be a donor could remove their name from the organ donation list anyway. It was found that although the number of people registered for organ donation did become much higher, the actual organ donations did not increase! One key explanation was that this was in part due to lower levels of consent from next-of-kin at the point of organ donation. The potential donors were not having the all-important conversations about their wishes with their next of kin. This meant the opt-out system led to greater ambiguity around what the potential donor actually wanted, compared to an opt-in system, which clearly signals their choice to be an organ donor, making it much easier and much more obvious for the next-of-kin to authorize organ donation when their loved one passes away.

Similarly, an intervention which intended to discourage theft of petrified wood from a protected area ‘backfired’: using a sign stating that theft of wood damaged the landscape actually increased theft due to inadvertently making people think about taking a piece of the wood for themselves! These two findings highlight the importance of considering the wider impact of interventions on associated behaviours and decisions – and ensuring that all steps within a behavioural journey are considered. For example, nudging people to talk to their next of kin about their organ donation preference might be more productive than automatically signing everyone to the organ donor registry.

 We must also look out for ‘Conflicting Consequences’ due to differences within a population – which can hide the potential impact of an intervention
A study exploring the optimal ‘default’ amount to use to encourage donations to charity found that defaults affected both the frequency and the amount donated, and this differed between frequent and less frequent donors. Amongst less frequent donors, small default amounts led to smaller but more frequent donations, increasing the donation pot overall. Amongst frequent donors, however, small default amounts reduced the amount donated whilst frequency stayed the same – therefore overall donations dropped. These findings show the importance of understanding the population(s) of interest, and any differences which may influence the impact of an intervention.

Additionally, behavioural interventions must be tailored to the context and culture in which the behaviour takes place: For example, an intervention in Kenya and Tanzania using savings pouches with different compartments found that in African countries it was important to tailor the design of the purse to different cultures–e.g., making gender specific pouches to ensure women were not excluded. Another intervention exploring childhood nutrition focused on attempting to influence the behaviour and decisions of the mother, when in fact it was the mother-in-law that often had the greatest influence on the child’s (her grandchild’s) nutrition in that specific culture.

This highlights the paramount importance of understanding the culture and context around a given behaviour when preparing and finalizing the implementation of an intervention.

 In summary, when translating behavioural insights into the ‘wild’ we cannot just take interventions ‘off the shelf’: we must use our expertise and a scientific mindset to continue to tailor and test behavioural insights in new applications.
We greatly enjoyed reading this book as it focused on key behavioural science considerations that we always keep in mind at HRW Shift. It is where the decades of experience in a wide range of behavioural science disciplines from fourteen experts comes into play. We are present throughout the lifecycle of a project, to ensure key behavioural factors such as context are taken into account. Continuously exploring and discussing emerging research in the field to ensure we stay on top of the emerging evidence is something we take great delight in with the aim of continually refining our expertise and sharing learnings among our team to ensure our recommendations are tailored to address these all-important dynamics in your relevant field.

By Alexandra Petrache, Oliver Day, Rhiannon Connolly, Tony Jiang, Jeremy Koloski and Kate Thornton


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