Behavioural Science – why do people do what they do?

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Dr Julia Muraszkiewicz | Head of Programme Against Exploitation and Violence
Olivia Iannelli | Senior Research Analyst

Date: 1 October 2020

What is Behavioural Science? It is the science of understanding how people behave,  their motivations and attitudes including both their rational and irrational behaviours. It allows us to gain a better understanding of a person’s actions, biases, outlooks and opinions. This, in turn, sheds light on potential ways to change or mould them.

The key is that behavioural science might allow us to understand how to influence human action, for a better world. Small and targeted changes or interventions can produce larger transformations and impacts on human behaviour, which may trickle down and affect perceptions and intentions more widely in society.

Trilateral Research sees great potential in making positive changes to society by leveraging knowledge drawn from behavioural science. Indeed, behavioural science could go a long way in helping us understand both offender motivations, attitudes and both intended and actual actions.

This knowledge can be used to encourage changes in behaviours, hopefully to ensure positive outcomes for both the individual and society as a whole. It can also be used to help understand victim behaviour, as well as specific and general circumstances to help prevent individuals in similar conditions from also suffering similar or related victimisation.

Behavioural Science merges various disciplines, ranging from experimental and behavioural economics, social and cognitive psychology, judgement and decision-making within marketing and consumer behaviour studies, health, biology and neuroscience, philosophy to happiness and wellbeing research.

It includes a multidisciplinary perspective because peoples’ behaviour is not only linked to psychological factors but rather, includes societal, cultural and contextual factors that need to be analysed to fully understand why people do what they do.

As the popular Netflix drama Mindhunter showcases, understanding minds and mapping behaviours could help us more accurately identify perpetrators of violent crimes to safeguard potential victims. Behavioural science might help produce more accurate predictions of behaviour and thus, develop effective solutions to tackle many key issues faced by society; from tackling pollution to addressing healthy eating habits.

Trilateral seeks to examine and address issues embedded in local communities and society by combining machine learning models with social and behavioural science methodologies.

Behavioural science for an effective response to COVID-19

Van Bavel et al. indicate the importance of behavioural science for an effective response to COVID-19 and potentially mitigating the impact of the pandemic. In their paper they state that “the crisis requires large-scale behaviour change and places significant psychological burdens on individuals.” The paper highlights that insights from the social and behavioural sciences could be used to adjust human behaviour, according to the recommendations of epidemiologists and medical experts.

The paper puts forward various examples of interventions which may be used to achieve improved cooperation, moral decision making, zero-sum thinking, leadership, improved trust and compliance, identity leadership and encourage a strong sense of social identity, which are all essential for managing the pandemic.

For example, it proposes enlisting local voices to help build engagement and trust in health officials and thus, increase the success of such public health measures. It also provides other examples to better achieve social distancing while tackling loneliness and fostering a sense of connection as well as helping intimate relationships stay strong and encouraging a healthy mind-set during this difficult time by connecting on online platforms, managing expectations while also establishing priorities.

Using behavioural science to create positive changes within society

The Hazme el Paro (“Have My Back”) initiative in Mexico City is also good example of a programme that uses behavioural science to create positive changes within society. The programme identified that one of the main issues for women experiencing harassment on public transportation was that onlookers did not intervene when witnessing it happening and, in some cases, even – quite startlingly – felt that women did not object to the harassment they were subjected to.

In light of this, the programme combined a number of technologies, such as mobile technology and loudspeakers on buses, to enable both the women and bystanders to report harassment in real time, which would then spark an announcement for everyone on the bus to hear, reproaching harassment through a public shaming process. Denouncing this behaviour in this manner serves as a deterrent to perpetrators and presents a strong statement from society that the behaviour was completely unacceptable.

Trilateral is exploring the potential in making positive changes to society by leveraging knowledge drawn from behavioural science in a variety of its projects.

Project CESIUM, for example, seeks to advance risk identification and assessment to better combat child exploitation by furthering understanding of offenders’ characteristics, as well as understanding victimhood and the stages which lead to an individual being exploited.

Within this project, Trilateral identified that there is little understanding of specific characteristics of perpetrators of child exploitation and the associated motivations, including emotions, moods, desires and obsessions.

Trilateral had a similar focus in the TRACE project (Trafficking as a Criminal Enterprise), where one of its deliverables focused on traffickers’ characteristics and motivations. Indeed, research undertaken for this deliverable proved that money was a dominant factor for committing the crime, and human trafficking was considered as a low risk high gain venture by offenders.

The deliverable also highlighted the enjoyment of power as a strong motivating factor, identified through interview with perpetrators. All of these are important considerations to map behaviour and identify effective interventions to prevent these crimes from occurring.

Project SOTER and CC-DRIVER are two other examples of Trilateral’s work in this domain. Trilateral Research’s main work within SOTER focuses on mapping and understanding human factors in effective cyber-security for the financial sector, whereas CC-Driver seeks to understand the technical and human drivers of cybercrime that impel young people to commit these crimes in an effort to prevent these behaviours.

The potential for behavioural science to provide key research insights is abundant. In addition to understanding victim and offender behaviour, it could be used to tackle other issues such as homelessness by identifying indicators which may explain how people become homeless and provide avenues for effective intervention in efforts to prevent or reduce homelessness within society. Consumption patterns and behaviours, including buying habits and transportation behaviours, could also help tackle climate change, health and forced labour (from a business perspective).

Behaviour Science is at the centre of how we understand the complex and nuanced relationships between individuals and society, as we try and shape the evolution of the planet for the betterment of all.

For more information on this research area please contact our team.

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