Photo:UNDP Iraq




A nudge, in the words of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, is “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”. Sounds complex, but a nudge can be something as simple as placing hand sanitizer dispensers in more accessible spots or drawing attention to them through visual cues. Behavioural insights are the findings from behavioural science that inform how nudges are designed.

In the Arab States region, behavioural insights (BI) have been a long-standing favourite in UNDP’s toolbox of innovation methodologies contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Now, UNDP Country Offices are looking to BI to inform their responses to Covid-19. UNDP Sudan is busy running a range of perception surveys to better understand consumer behaviour and using these findings among others to develop behaviourally-informed messages to limit panic-buying. UNDP Egypt is partnering with telecommunication companies to send out SMS messages encouraging positive behaviours linked to: i) Covid-19 hygiene practices; ii) physical distancing; iii) countering the spread of misinformation; and iv) staying at home. UNDP Kuwait is exploring the use of behavioural insights to address the mental health vulnerabilities laid bare by the pandemic with a particular focus on addressing domestic violence. What these interventions recognize is that information and awareness are crucial, but in and of themselves may not be as effective as we would hope. Making sure we respond to people’s inherent cognitive biases matters, particularly in the midst of an “infodemic” – a proliferation of information that makes it difficult for people to distinguish reliable sources.

Insights from a tele-brainstorm

UNDP’s Youth Leadership Programme (YLP), now in its sixth year, aims to empower young people from the region in their capacity as changemakers and as SDG advocates. With the onset of the pandemic, YLP shifted its training activities entirely online, and has been introducing Covid-19 related content in recognition of the impact of the crisis on young people, but also of their crucial role as innovators.

YLP’s foundational methodology has been design thinking, a problem-solving approach that places the people we design for at the centre of the process and supports them in co-creating solutions. Design thinking and BI have much in common – for one, they both look closely at the user, and their journey with a product or service, to understand the hindrances that arise along the way.

As part of its series of learning webinars, YLP thought it pertinent, then, to introduce its community to behavioural insights with the help of Dr. Fadi Makki, a pioneer in the application of behavioural economics to public policy in the Middle East. We invited Dr. Makki and his colleagues from Nudge Lebanon and B4Development to collaborate with our community of about 70 partners from youth-serving organizations to think through Covid-19 related behavioural barriers and possible nudges, with a focus on young people, and three behaviours in particular: hand washing, physical distancing, and self-isolation. In addition to several non-behavioural barriers, such as limited availability of water and soap, the behavioural barriers and biases that came out most strongly were the following:

  • An “optimism bias” that leads to an underestimation of the risk posed by the virus, particularly where there are no reported cases in one’s own community, or no cases among one’s acquaintances.
  • There are misunderstandings that exposure to the virus will strengthen one’s immune system, that it’s “just a flu”, or, particularly among young people, that they are strong enough to handle it. This “overconfidence effect” is combined with a lack of attention to guidance on the importance of washing hands thoroughly and for a minimum of 20-30 seconds.
  • As one of the more socially active age groups, young people find it particularly difficult to give up on outings with their friends. This could be seen as a “status quo bias,” an aversion to change in one’s existing lifestyle.
  • Among those working under precarious conditions or without social protection, the immediate gain of continuing to receive an income, even at the risk of exposure to the virus, may be valued far more than possible intangible gains – i.e. being able to return to income-generating and social activities sooner if everybody complied with restrictions. This is known by behavioural scientists as “present bias,” a strong preference for immediate gains over potentially larger gains in the future.
  • A fear of being ridiculed for showing concern about the virus or abiding by restrictions.
  • There may be feelings of resignation among those who view the virus as God’s will, as destiny.
  • Covid-19 may seem like a marginal challenge within the daily realities of the millions of refugees and IDPs living in camps in the region.

So what kinds of behavioural tips did our YLP community come up with? Here’s a taster:

  1. Use influencers and community leaders to deliver messages more impactfully. For example, UNDP Somalia has mobilized its community of Somali storytellers to produce videos, animations and photos that are informing the public about how to protect themselves and others from infection. UNDP Lebanon has called on YLP alumni to record “how-to” videos on handwashing, and to encourage a sense of responsibility vis-a-vis others. These initiatives are helping to localize key messages, to brand desirable behaviours as the social norm, and to make the threat more palpable. This is known as the “bandwagon effect” – if we perceive that others are increasingly engaging in a behaviour, we become more likely to do so ourselves even if it is not something we would normally consider.
  2. Evoke emotion, create a sense of pride around helping to protect one’s family and community. This appeals to the “affect heuristic” – whereby our decisions are very often driven by our emotions even when we think we are motivated by logic.
  3. Remind people of all the things they can do from home, including available e-services and the various ways to connect with friends virtually. Reminders give salience to the desired behaviour and have been shown to be effective nudges.

Public behaviour compliant with WHO guidance has been recognized as a critical element in reducing virus transmission. Behavioural insights can complement more restrictive policy measures with a deeper understanding of how people make decisions. In times of crisis, we cannot rely on business as usual, let alone on rational reactions.

Now, as we look ahead to post-crisis new normals, the question we’ll be asking ourselves is: what positive behaviours emerged during Covid and how can we retain them? For more inspiration on designing behavioural interventions, take a look at Nudge Lebanon’s SHAPE DIFFERENCE framework.

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