Behavioral Insights Go Mainstream(1)

The Institute’s Behavioral Insights Research Center (BIRC) announced earlier in the year is a timely addition to the Institute’s research activities and to the resources available to public relations practice.

This became clearer during the 2016 Behavioral Exchange conference held last week at Harvard Business School. The conference, third in a series that began in Sydney in 2014, brought together 400 participants from 26 countries and 175 organisations.

They heard that approaches to decision making based on behavioral insights — careful use of the behavioral sciences — has now moved into the mainstream of government policy making. This came from David Halpern, CEO of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, the original ‘nudge’ unit set up at the heart of the British government and since spun off to form an independent consultancy.

In the US, a Presidential order, 13707, signed September 15 last year puts the need to use behavioral science insights at the heart of US government practice. The order emphasizes the importance of communication, the need to “improve how information is presented to consumers, borrowers, program beneficiaries, and other individuals.”

This year’s conference though smaller and less populated by academic ‘superstars’ such as Robert Cialdini (Influence) and Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) was as rich in insights for public relations for public relations as the London conference in 2015.

Concentration on diversity and poverty led on important studies relating to the role of women, and to the ways in which disadvantaged people are able to use information that might help them take advantage of opportunities.

Studies reported by Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks showed the obstacles to women making progress as leaders and as entrepreneurs. Her studies are especially relevant to public relations, a practice in which women are in the majority in some areas. She found that women entrepreneurs consistently lose out to male competitors in competition for investment backing and strikingly that better looking male candidates pitching for investment support will be more likely to get it, even though the content of proposals from women may be obviously stronger. In other research, she found that women have more life goals than men, and seek other satisfactions than career advancement.

Research on experiences of poverty introduced the concept of bandwidth. People in poverty have less capacity – bandwidth — to think beyond day-to-day needs to survive. They are poor not because they have made bad decisions, but rather poverty leads to inability to make good decisions. The wider implication of this for public relations is that when trying to communicate with disadvantaged groups it’s important to consider the stress, worry or physical conditions that may limit their capacity to attend, let alone act.

A number of questions raised during the conference suggest there is scope to improve links between developing interests in behavioral insights in governments, non-governmental organisations and private sector organisations with work already done to incorporate the perspective derived from public relations and communication practice into policy making.

This will provide an opportunity for the Institute for Public Relations to put this topic onto the agenda for the future. BX2017, the next Behavioral Exchange conference, will be held in Singapore in late June or early July and is being organised by the Singapore Civil Service College. Information to come on

Jon WhiteJon White, Ph.D., is an independent consultant, a UK Chartered Public Relations Practitioner, a psychologist and visiting professor at Henley Business School. Earlier this year he was appointed a research fellow with the Institute’s Behavioral Insights Research Center. Follow him on Twitter @DrJonWhite.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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