What’s the fuss? The rise of behavioural science for development

What’s the fuss? The rise of behavioural science for development

June 2, 2020    

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the world are asking individuals to stay at home. Lockdown, self-isolation and quarantine are becoming a part of our everyday vocabulary as the world tries to slow the spread of the virus. Undoubtedly many of you have received a text message from your government urging you to stay home. The messaging may vary, but hopefully, you’ve received one that tells you that COVID-19 is a threat to your community and that staying home protects those around you.

Why? It turns out that we are – generally – more motivated to protect others than to protect ourselves, and research suggests that pro-social messaging is more effective at getting people to stay home than personal messaging is. This is behavioural science in action, and it can allow small things like SMS reminders to make a big difference.

Behavioural science studies the “predictable ways in which people behave irrationally”. The field tries to understand the way that people actually behave, rather than the ways that we hope, expect, imagine or assume that they will behave. It pulls together lessons from anthropology, sociology, psychology and economics to improve policies, marketing campaigns, communications and product design. By understanding the context of human decisions and their behaviour, behavioural science has been used to increase savings, improve insurance underwriting, reduce speeding on the roads, increase pension contributions and reduce electricity consumption, among others.

While the gold standard of testing in the field is a randomised control trial (RCT)[1], the real power of behavioural science lies in the methodology and the mindset: putting the end user at the centre of the research and responding to the ways in which these users currently operate, as well as their contexts, needs and aspirations. The behavioural science approach adds an experimental mindset to communications and product development, which encourages more research and testing now in order to reduce development and redesign costs later.

The potential for behavioural science to make an impact in the developing world and in financial inclusion is of particular interest. While the field remains relatively new and under-explored in the developing world, there are a myriad of problems that behavioural science can help solve in the context of low literacy levels, scarcity mindsets and low government budgets. Among these are questions surrounding the design and uptake of appropriate insurance products, the use of mobile money for increasing financial inclusion, and savings in low-income contexts.

One of the learnings about the implementation of behavioural science in the developing world is that context matters. In our COVID-19 example, some countries may be better off using personal messaging and encouraging people to keep themselves safe, rather than pro-social messaging, because some cultures are less collectivistic than others. Outside of the current crisis, research in the developed world may not be exactly transferable to the situations in the developing world, and it is important to begin to understand which findings are transferable and which are not. Despite the relatively sparse research in the developing world, there is evidence that behavioural science can make a positive impact on financial inclusion.

One of the findings in behavioural science has been the effect of personalisation and just-in-time reminders: In the developed world, this often includes SMS or email reminders that address the recipient by name, but research in the Philippines showed that individuals with outstanding balances on their microloans were more likely to repay the loan when they received an SMS reminder that included the bank officer’s name if they had been previously serviced by the bank officer. In this context, the important component of personalisation was not that the message was directed at you but that it came from someone you have a relationship with. In the Philippines, trusting the messenger and social norms are important when making financial decisions.

There is significant potential for behavioural science to make a positive impact on financial inclusion in the developing world. The combined power of low-cost interventions, scalability and design that put people first creates an exciting opportunity for positive change. Of course, behavioural science is not a silver bullet that can solve every problem – some challenges are beyond the power of psychology to influence.

Our team is excited to test where, when and how behavioural science can improve outcomes for people in Africa and across the developing world. Tempered with a healthy dose of scepticism, we’re taking a journey of exploration to try to untangle some of the nuances of the field in the contexts that matter most to us. This blog series takes you on that journey with us – telling you what questions we’re asking, how we’re exploring them and what we find along the way.


[1] Taken from the medical field, RCTs are experiments that place participants into treatment and control groups. Everything is kept the same except for one small change, and the effect of the change is measured by measuring the difference in outcomes between the participants in each group.


insight2impact (i2ifacility) was funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. The programme was established and driven by Cenfri and Finmark Trust.

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