Imagine a discipline so powerful it could predict social movements like the Arab Spring, make plant-based diets popular, get more girls to study computer science, get people to go to the gym, or even inoculate the population against the misinformation of ‘fake news’. Well, that discipline is multi-disciplinary behavioural science and over the course of two days in London, these and many more case studies were shared at the Behavioural Exchange 2019 Conference.



The Behavioural Exchange (or BX2019) was a conference held at Queen Elisabeth II Centre in London over the 5th and 6th of September. The event was organised by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), headed by the legendary David Halpern. The BIT started within the UK government (the ‘nudge unit’) applying behavioural science to public policy to encourage pro-social behaviour using nudges rather than legislation. It has since grown to a 150-person strong team of behavioural scientists in the UK alone, with teams across the world, including Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. And with their excellent track record, they attracted delegates in the thousands, from a wide range of industries including academics, government, charity, finance, and healthcare.

Although public policy is a different world to the commercial consultancy we operate in, there are opportunities for idea exchange and so much evidence and inspiration to be gathered at conferences like this, that it was worth the investment. Plus, a line-up that included legendary behavioural scientists Katy Milkman, Cass Sunstein, Dan Ariely, Tali Sharot, Christophe Van Der Linden, Ben Goldacre, Lazlo Bock, Robert Shiller, Ritish Patel, and Nick Chater. It was like a rock concert for behavioural science, being surrounded by so many of my favourite authors and superstars! Plus, I had the exciting opportunity to attend a live taping of one of my favourite podcasts, Freakonomics with Stephen Dubner.



In addition to superstars onstage, I enjoyed, as always, opportunities to meet new peers, catch up and network with so many wonderful fellow behavioural scientists with whom I’d exchanged ideas before but never met! Including experts in corporate culture, finance, defence, science communication, and developmental policy.

Interested parties should be able to find many of the talks on YouTube over the next couple months (the BX2019 organisers appreciate the FOMO conference attendees get when they miss a session everybody’s talking about).

My overall takeaways from the sessions, beyond inspiration and energy include:

1. To continue to fight for opportunities for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) or RCT simulation designs. Randomised controlled trials continue to be the gold standard for developing effective nudges in the policy world and although our clientele are usually too heavily regulated, the audience too condensed or the issue too time-pressured to be willing to try this approach, there were many examples of where what should be an effective approach fails due to contextual factors, audience factors, intervention fidelity, or unexpected reactions. As much as we are gathering examples of nudges that are effective in some cases, we can never be sure until we test, and it’s so great to see the RCT approach being used widely across policy teams.

2. To look inward. Several sessions related to occupational psychology, education, and training. And of course, we as behavioural scientists have our own ‘bias blind spot’ where we might not recognise our own biases at play, and we don’t always take a step back and apply the behavioural science lens on ourselves. And it was great to learn from invited speakers and the behavioural insights team about some of their methods. As the HRW Shift (behavioural science expert team) continue to grow, we are doing more internal training, auditing our internal processes for meetings, for recognising behavioural biases, and for communicating them with client teams. These sessions were important reminders of reasons we need to constantly be questioning our methods to maintain their robustness.

3. To continue to push upstream. Dan Ariely mentioned during his closing remarks that although behavioural science has achieved remarkable results with small tweaks to existing offerings, he lauded the potential of how much we could achieve if behavioural science was baked into ideas and technologies from the very beginning. And indeed, at HRW Shift we’ve been so delighted to see what clients can do to help turn around struggling brands or optimise campaigns to achieve better results. These are often our most recognised case studies because clients can say: we were doing this, it wasn’t working, now because of HRW Shift we’re doing this, and now it is working. Yet, in earlier stage work the potential of behavioural science has been remarkable and we’ve been able to save clients’ money by making sure they’re not wasting investment. Although these are often more complicated case studies to describe because there’s no ‘alternative’ approach that ‘failed’, surely it is more powerful to help companies get it right the first time, so we’re inspired to keep helping clients use behavioural science earlier.

If you’d like to hear more about any of the individual sessions, or to discuss what multi-disciplinary behavioural science can do for your brand, don’t hesitate to get in touch.


By Katy Irving

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