HARNESSING BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE FOR GLOBAL CHANGE
by Sylva Das, Guest Contributor
“Behavioral Science is a critical tool for the UN to progress on its mandate…UN entities are strongly encouraged to invest in behavioral science and work in a connected and collaborative interagency community to realize its tremendous potential for impact.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres
The UN has increasingly recognized the value of behavioral science to its mission — in particular, the recognition that changing our behaviors both individually and collectively is essential for creating a more equitable and sustainable world.
Recently, the UN Innovation Network held its 5th UN Behavioral Science Week. The virtual sessions centered around how behavioral science could advance topics such as food security, gender-based violence, climate change, and artificial intelligence, as well as be used to improve the efficacy of evidence-based UN policy. The sessions highlighted the work of the UN Behavioral Science Group, an offshoot of the UN Innovation Network, and its collaboration with ~ 800 individuals across more than 40 UN entities like the UN Environmental Programme, UN Development Programme, the World Food Program, etc., and 60 countries to apply behavioral science to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 goals serve as a "call to action" for the United Nations and member countries to create a more sustainable, healthy, and just planet by addressing areas as diverse as climate disasters, domestic violence, hunger, and world peace.
Here are three climate-action-focused takeaways that stuck with me from the 2023 Behavioral Science Week:
1. Emotions and climate action: Finding the sweet spot in messaging and communication
Incorporating emotions into messaging can be tricky, especially when messaging about climate change. Researchers have discovered just how important emotions are to increase individual and collective climate action. Studies by Tobias Brosch and his team at the University of Geneva found that overall, people who respond to the climate crisis with more emotion—negative or positive—are more likely to engage in pro-climate behavior or vote for environmentally-friendly policy. Negative emotion-based communication evokes loss aversion, fear, and anger regarding the future of the planet which have been shown to increase people's awareness about the seriousness of climate change. Negative emotion-based communication, in particular, also increases people's willingness to prepare for climate risks. However, finding the sweet spot between evoking climate fear and climate hope is important. If fear outweighs hope, it can lead to climate anxiety, which inhibits action.
Tobias' team found that although negative emotions are necessary in most cases to make people care about climate change, it is actually messaging that elicits positive emotions such as hope, possibility, and togetherness that mobilizes people to take action. In conclusion, evoking emotions through climate messaging is one of the most important tools out there, but it needs to be done in a careful, considerate way.
2. Prompts and feedback: The most effective behavioral science tools being applied in developing nations
Dr. Jo Puri from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) presented her team's research reviewing the effectiveness of different behavioral science interventions to promote pro-environmental action in developing countries. As the researchers undertook this task, they began to understand the many cognitive biases—overconfidence bias, availability heuristic bias, and presentation of choice, to name a few—that prevent people from changing their behaviors even when they are aware of the threats posed by climate change. They called this phenomenon the "last mile gap," which refers to the gap between knowledge/skills and concrete behavior change. Individuals' cognitive biases are constantly widening the gap. After gaining this understanding, the team began employing empirically-validated behavioral science tools to counter the cognitive biases and behavioral barriers impeding change and close the gap as much as possible. They found that behavioral science methods such as feedback and prompts/reminders are statistically the most effective intervention for reaching people, households, and small businesses in developing countries and helping them improve sustainable electricity and water consumption. We would add a caveat that numerous other techniques have not been implemented to the extent that these have, and it may be that other techniques will be shown to be effective as well.
3. Education is Essential
Although the UN is still at an early stage of incorporating behavioral science, it has already accomplished a lot. In 2021, the UN's first Behavioral Science report evaluated the success of behavioral science applications across the various UN entities. To educate staff throughout all UN entities worldwide on how to use behavioral science strategies to advance the SDG mandates, the UN brought in behavioral science experts to conduct training on how to use the understanding of human behavior and decision-making. The training has increased the application of behavioral science tools and collaboration throughout the UN structure. The UN also created a Behavioral Science Fellowship program to educate leaders on behavioral science strategies.
The UN Behavioral Science Group aims to incorporate all perspectives and voices. Regardless of your affiliation with the UN, if you are a long-time behavioral scientist, someone with a growing interest in the field, or just want to learn more about how behavioral science can be used to better understand the topics you care about, you can join the group as an observer at this website.
It is clear that behavioral science is becoming integral in UN research and policy-making in many more ways than the three takeaways presented here. The United Nations is incorporating behavioral science because human behavior is at the root of every sustainable development problem they tackle. Behavioral science is useful for individuals as well. Evaluate your own behaviors, ask yourself questions about your own ingrained habits, and use some of the UN resources surrounding behavioral science to make more pro-environmental decisions in your own life. If you are curious about other specific topics and want to watch sessions yourself, check out the YouTube playlist of this year's Behavior Science talks. In the words of the UN Secretary-General, "The choices we make, or fail to make, today could result in a breakdown or breakthrough to a greener, better, safer future. The choice is ours to make."
Sylva Das is a summer intern with CBC from Wellesley College.
P.S. If you want to learn more about behavior change for climate action, check out the Center for Behavior and Climate's ten-minute demo here or register for our Behavior Change for Climate Action course. Coming soon – a one-hour course on Behavior Change for Collective Action!
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