Beating Biases Through Behavioural Insights

Jess Whittlestone from the UK Behavioural Insights Team shares with Challenge simple ways to “nudge” yourself and others to make better decisions at work.

Over the past 40 years, research in psychology has highlighted many biases that we fall prey to every day. We struggle to meet deadlines, for example, because we consistently underestimate how long tasks will take. We sometimes procrastinate because our brains are more motivated by immediate rewards (Facebook notifications!) than those that are further away, like completing a big piece of work.

Some of these biases can be overcome. The UK Behavioural Insights Team has developed a simple framework, known as EAST — we are more likely to do something if it is Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely — for thinking about how to encourage certain behaviours. Here is how you can use these principles to improve your daily work life.

Make it Easy

Removing small barriers can have a disproportionate impact on our behaviours. For example, we are far more likely to collaborate with people if they sit right next to us. Researchers at Harvard found that encouraging academics to discuss their work for 90 minutes face-to-face increased the likelihood of a research collaboration by 70%. Similarly, academics are much more likely to collaborate if they work near each other.

Think about removing every tiny barrier to collaborating — make sure that documents can be shared easily between agencies and encourage people to have short one-to-one chats with people they don’t know.

Make it Attractive

We are more likely to do something if it’s attractive to us. “Attractive” here can simply mean things that draw our attention by standing out. For example, if there is a specific piece of work you want to focus on, you could make sure it catches your attention by putting a big Post-it on your desk with the name of the project in capital letters.

Emailing a colleague you want some help from? You are much more likely to get a positive response if you make the request attractive to them: emphasising why the task is so important, or why you’re asking them specifically. One particularly effective technique is to highlight the scarcity of an activity — researchers found that people were more likely to take part in a survey if it was portrayed as a unique opportunity that few others could be part of.

Make it Social

We are all affected by what people around us do. This means social networks are powerful for influencing behaviour. If you want to achieve a goal, making a public commitment can be highly effective. One study found that marathon runners who told someone their target time before a race ran nearly seven minutes faster than those who did not.

We can also use social commitments to “lock” ourselves into doing something: the consequences of failure are much bigger when we have committed to others to do something. This is partly why self-imposed deadlines are rarely effective — it’s easy to just decide to “extend” a deadline if we’re only accountable to ourselves.

So let’s say you really want to brush up on behavioural insights. Commit to doing so publicly — say exactly when, where and how you will study. Make sure to articulate this target to others ahead of time and right before you are supposed to start your studying.

Make it Timely

Considering the best time of the day to do something can have a huge impact on how much gets done. Research on “cognitive scarcity” finds that when people are stressed or under time pressure, they have less mental energy and perform worse on a range of tasks.

When scheduling work, consider your energy levels and ability to focus at different times of day. Plan to do low-energy administrative tasks when you expect to be tired, and block out time for cognitively demanding work when you won’t be interrupted.

Thinking about timing can also improve the chances of having your requests met. For example, asking for help when someone is most likely to be receptive to a request can hugely improve your response rate — and make you a more pleasant person to work with!

The UK Behavioural Insights team works closely with Singapore to improve public services through behavioural insights, and expects to set up a branch here in Singapore in the next year.

    Mar 25, 2016
    Jess Whittlestone
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