Hi, and welcome to TARG’s shiny new blog! I’m Olivia Maynard and I’m a final year PhD student. I’ve recently found out that for three months over the summer, I will be working as a Research Fellow in the Behavioural Insights Team, part of the UK government Cabinet Office . I thought that I would use my first blog post to tell you a bit about the team I’ll be working in and why I applied for the job.
The Behavioural Insights Team’s aim is to ‘find innovative ways of encouraging, enabling and supporting people to make better choices for themselves’. Since its creation in 2010, the team has claimed among its many successes: encouraging more people to pay their income tax, saving energy by promoting loft insulation, helping more people into work and making government savings of 22 times the team’s cost.
The secret behind the team’s success is its reliance on ‘nudges’, which are anything that ‘alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives’. It is therefore known as the ‘Nudge Unit’, and uses these nudges to help inform and design effective policy interventions. To use the example of the loft insulation scheme, the team realised that one of the greatest barriers to people insulating their lofts was the amount of junk they had stored up there. In a trial where residents of two London Boroughs were offered loft insulation with or without a subsidised loft clearance scheme, those offered the loft clearance were four times more likely to get their lofts insulated. In this case, removing the ‘hassle factor’ nudged people in the direction of saving both energy and money in the long-run.
The team also hope to make inroads into the nation’s health problems, with plans to encourage organ donation by changing the current opt-in scheme to an opt-out scheme, promoting healthy eating by placing signs at supermarket checkouts detailing the amount of fruit and vegetables the average shopper buys, and helping people to quit smoking through schemes offering rewards to those who sign a contract stating their commitment to quit. In addition to using these novel techniques to encourage behaviour change, the team have pioneered the use of rigorous randomised controlled trial methodology to assess these interventions.
My main motivation for wanting to work in this team stems from my strong interest in public health and the important interplay I see between research and policy. Now in the third and final year of my PhD, I’ve been using objective experimental techniques, such as eye-tracking and brain imaging to directly assess, for the first time, the likely impact of standardised tobacco packaging on behaviour. As an academic researcher, it’s all too easy to lock yourself in your windowless lab and ignore the outside world. However, I have learnt the value and importance of engaging with policy makers throughout my PhD, and as a result, my research has been used by a number of governments and by the European Union to inform their tobacco control policies. I hope that by working within the Behavioural Insights Team, I will gain a greater understanding of how evidence is actually used by governments to inform policy and I hope to be able to come back to research with a fresh perspective on how to engage and collaborate with policy makers.
Another motivation is that I want to try something new. Although I’ve enjoyed working in such an exciting field over the course of my PhD, the very nature of a PhD means that you spend three or four years focussing all of your attention on one particular idea or project. Now I’m approaching the home-stretch, I’m looking to expand my research interests and develop myself as an independent researcher. The three month internship will involve working collaboratively across government and local authorities, writing briefings for members of government on how behavioural science can inform policy and also designing, managing and analysing the data from a variety of policy intervention trials. I hope that this experience will provide me with new ideas for research when I return to my PhD in October.