Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Beyond self-help: World Bank examines behavioral science & development

Insights in behavioral science can lead to more than helping us stick to our New Year’s Resolutions!

In early December, the World Bank released its annual World Development Report. Every year they choose a different theme, and the theme this time is “Mind, Society and Behavior”.  After acknowledging that people do not always make rational choices, they present a three-part framework for ‘an expanded understanding of human behavior for economic development.’ The three core ideas – thinking automatically, thinking socially and thinking with mental models – will be familiar to anyone who’s read anything by Daniel Kahneman of Thinking Fast and Slow fame (and his work is extensively cited). In fact these ideas can be found in many recent self-help books.

World Bank Report Infographic
What’s new and exciting is the broad application of these psychological and social science findings to challenges in international development, with many real-life case studies (stories!) from policies on poverty, child development, household finance and even climate change. (The public health community has been working with evidence-based behavior change principles for many years, see the work of Alive & Thrive on breastfeeding for just one example.)

Another remarkable thing about this report is the recognition that the Bank’s own staff make assumptions and have biases that can compromise the success of their work. The final third of the report is on “improving the work of development professionals!"

How does this apply to our challenges in communicating about agriculture, food and nutrition issues? 

I believe many of us, especially those of us with science backgrounds, make assumptions similar to those made by World Bank economists. When we prepare a report, make a presentation or go to stakeholders seeking support for our program, research or policy, too often, we believe that our audience will consider all available information and carefully weigh choices, before reaching a conclusion as an individual. In fact, people rarely form opinions or develop positions that way. 

Interestingly, Paul Slovic, originator of important theories about risk perception, is also cited numerous times, including in the opening paragraphs of the World Bank’s Report. His theories underpin the principles and best practices of ‘Risk communication’, for use in situations where trust is low and concern is high. I and others have been teaching these tools in training courses and applying it in our work for years.  

I believe that combining proven risk communication practices with new insights about how people really make decisions can lead to new levels of understanding and support for agriculture, food and nutrition.  

But we have to start where the World Bank has: by recognizing biases in those we serve, those whose support we need, and in ourselves. 

Jill Kuehnert

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