What is it?

Behavioural science research provides insights into how people make decisions. Behavioural insights incorporate findings and methodologies from psychology, economics and other social sciences to better understand behaviour. When this scientific approach is applied to the delivery of public services, these insights can help governments design and promote services that reflect people’s needs and perspectives, making them more accessible and ultimately easier to use.

One example of how behavioural insights might be used involves simplifying forms and processes. People are more likely to do something that is easy over something that is difficult to use. Another example would be to help people make more informed choices by clearly presenting options and offering timely reminders. The use of behavioural insights has shown to deliver better outcomes often at a lower cost.

Ontario’s Behavioural Insights Unit was officially created in 2015 with a mandate to enhance public services by leveraging behavioural science research. It is the first government unit dedicated to the practice of behavioural insights in Canada. For more information on how Ontario is applying this innovative policy tool, visit Behavioural science insights pilot projects or email the Ontario Behavioural Insights Unit at BIU.CAB@ontario.ca.

Purpose of behavioural insights

Given the complexity of human behaviour, careful and continuous testing is fundamental to the behavioural insights approach. Behavioural science research provides insights into how people make decisions and act on them, and suggests strategies for changing behaviour through behaviourally informed design. Applying behavioural science insights can mean making public services easier to access, by simplifying forms and processes, as well as helping citizens make more informed choices by clearly presenting options and offering timely reminders. Behavioural science, sometimes referred to as ‘nudging’, can indirectly suggest or highlight a certain behaviour. Nudges and other behavioural interventions help preserve people’s freedom of choice since they are not subject to punishments, fines, or other negative consequences if they choose not to act a certain way. Applying behavioural insight findings to policies, programs or service design can generate cost-savings for government and provide desirable solutions.

Using behavioural insights

Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) are at the core of the behavioural insights methodology and are considered the gold standard for evaluations in behavioural science. A RCT is a specific type of evaluation method that uses random assignment to create two or more groups that are likely to be statistically equivalent in terms of all possible variables (e.g., demographics, personality, education, geography). RCTs compare doing something in a new way (intervention) with something that has always been done (control). In both cases, a behaviour such as accessing a service, filling out a form, or registering information online, is measured by whether an intervention would be more successful than how it has always been done.

RCTs are usually done with a small, randomized sample of the focal population. They can generate strong evidence about the effects of an intervention if it was scaled up across the entire population. This is a much quicker and cost-effective way to determine if a design works. A/B testing is considered a form of RCT.

The Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU) is staffed with subject-matter experts who can design, execute and evaluate RCTs, as well as provide expert advice for behaviour change projects. To learn more about behavioural insights research in Ontario, visit Behavioural science insights pilot projects or email your questions and comments to BIU.CAB@ontario.ca.

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