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Behavioural insights for sustainability

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About the project

Applications of behavioural insights (BI) are increasingly being used in social and economic contexts by both public and private actors, and particularly in highly developed countries like Canada. These applications aim to use an understanding of human decision-making informed by key findings in behavioural science in recent decades, one that challenges conventional assumptions about rationality. BI applications are based on systematic and predictable errors in individual decision-making, the biases and shortcuts individuals use routinely. Proponents of BI foreground their low cost of implementation and their ability to produce benefits without regulation or incentives, preserving individual choice. In the last decade, numerous governments have established dedicated units to further pilot and implement BI in public policy, including the UK and Canada.

Our synthesis paper assesses the underlying scholarship of BI, by examining the research testing its significance for sustainability goals. We conducted a comprehensive literature review using an interdisciplinary approach and methods (from psychology, economics and public policy). Our findings indicate that this field is still cohering and contains considerable promise for reducing adverse environmental impacts. However, we conclude that the state of the research does not yet support many general policy applications.

Key findings

  • The scholarly foundation for policy applications of BI is highly divergent and unintegrated. Many studies test BI effects within specific issue contexts (especially energy efficiency and conservation) and cannot easily be generalized.
  • Promising findings are widespread in the literature, demonstrating positive correlations between a variety of interventions and sustainability objectives. However, establishing causality is an important task of future research programs in this field.
  • BI research has been conducted internationally but chiefly in highly developed societies. There is an absence of robust comparative or cross-cultural research. 
  • The main focus of recent scholarly research considers BI applications that respond to individuals’ ability to process information and their values/norms, as they can be utilized in particular decision-making situations.
  • A wide range of sustainability topics is being addressed, but energy issues predominate and may be influencing the development of the field overall. This derives from the ready availability of relevant data and the significant relationship between energy costs and consumption.
  • Preferences, attitudes and demographic factors are significant influences on the effects of BI interventions, but research in this field has been very limited in controlling for these influences.
  • While effects are apparent, their persistence is infrequently demonstrated.
  • Relatedly, the underlying ideas of what is good or appropriate are often taken for granted in the research.
  • The field of applied BI requires considerable development, particularly through better integration of researchers and end users or relevant organizations. This is particularly the case in policy contexts.
  • The field does not systematically consider the significance of BI in relation to other policy approaches, particularly the use of incentives and regulation.

Policy implications

  • BI are likely to be most effective when they are fully integrated into policy design / policy cycle. 
  • Interdisciplinary integration for policy applications using BI that include behavioural specialists, economists and policy experts are likely to provide the potential for greatest impact.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Principal Investigator: 

Dr. Ravi de Costa, Department of Social Sciences, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, York University; rdc@yorku.ca 

Co-Investigators:

Dr. Ida Ferrara, Department of Economics, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, York University

Dr. Maggie Toplak, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health, York University

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR and the Government of Canada

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