22 Feb 2016

Behavioural sciences for policy: what is their added value?

Commissioner Navracsics speaks at the launch of the BIAP European Report 2016.
Commissioner Navracsics speaks at the launch of the BIAP European Report 2016.
© EU, 2016

Behavioural sciences combine knowledge from different disciplines such as psychology, economics and neuroscience, to provide evidence on how people make decisions in everyday life and act on them. They are increasingly informing policy-making by taking into account how people perceive, interpret and react within different policy areas. A new JRC report presents, for the first time, a wealth of policy interventions informed by behavioural insights in 32 European countries and calls for greater exchange of practice.

Tibor Navracsics, EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, responsible for the JRC, said at the launch of the report: "Behavioural sciences introduce new thinking but also new methods into policy-making. They invite us to test before we act, and design new policy solutions with real people in mind. We now need to see how behavioural insights can help us tackle the big challenges facing the EU today – such as the search for stronger economic growth and perhaps even the handling of the migration crisis. I want policy-makers at all levels, researchers and citizens to work together to use behavioural applications more effectively."

The authors of the report identify areas where further improvement is possible and should be pursued. Behavioural insights should be used to anticipate potential enforcement or implementation problems, which could jeopardise the effectiveness of an initiative that seems right on paper. The authors invite policy-makers and the academic community to work more closely together. They also point to the fact that there is a wealth of under-used public data sets from which relevant evidence could be distilled. Finally, more transparency in the use of the behavioural approach and the long-term impact of behavioural policy interventions is necessary, while effective communication and evidence sharing with citizens can increase public support for behavioural policies and decrease citizens' scepticism.

The report, Behavioural Insights Applied to Policy: European Report 2016 was presented at an event, which took place on 22 February 2016 in Brussels with over 120 participants, mostly policy-makers from the Member States, European institutions, NGOs, think tanks and academia. The event will be followed by a first workshop with Member States representatives, with the objective of facilitating exchange among Member States experts and Commission officials about behavioural insights in specific policy fields, such as taxation, consumer protection, environment, health, transport, employment, competition and public sector modernisation.


Behavioural insights supporting EU legislation

The European Commission has been a front-runner in bringing behavioural insights into legislation and regulatory intervention since 2008, in particular in policies related to consumer rights, competition, and health and food policies. Behavioural insights informed the Directive on Consumer Rights, currently protecting more than 500 million consumers from the abuse of pre-checked boxes in online contracts. Behavioural insights were also used on a competition case, offering a demand-side solution to a case of abuse of dominant position (in relation to Internet Explorer tied to Windows). More recently, behavioural insights informed the revision of the Tobacco Products Directive, the design of new energy labels, and informed also a recent Recommendation on Online Gambling.

The European Commission's Better Regulation Agenda calls for evidence-based policy-making across the entire policy cycle with the objective of delivering more effective policies and transparency in the EU decision-making process. The outcome-oriented approach of behavioural insights further strengthens the focus on evaluation and can support impact assessment as recognised in the Better Regulation "Toolbox". The JRC has been supporting Commission services with its expertise in behavioural insights.


Behavioural insights in the EU and beyond

The JRC report presents a comprehensive review of the use of behavioural insights across Europe, with examples of more than 200 policy initiatives from across the 28 EU Member States as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Behavioural teams have been created in the UK, The Netherlands, Germany, France and Denmark, with Austria and Finland following the steps. Nevertheless, the incorporation of behavioural insights into policy is not yet systematic across Europe and it is still difficult to follow developments in countries in which there are no dedicated teams applying behavioural insights to policy. At the international level, the World Bank and the OECD have published reports emphasising the importance of identifying and addressing the behavioural element in policy. In the US, President Obama explicitly called on all US agencies to increase their use of behavioural insights.