Behavioural science in a post-pandemic world

The UK government’s initial Covid-19 response was criticised for leaning too heavily on nudges. Some critics went further, questioning whether behavioural science is appropriate as a public health policy tool when facing a pandemic.

Ogilvy Consulting’s annual behavioural science event, Nudgestock, which took place on Friday 12 June, could therefore not have been better timed. Who better to provide the case for the defence than two of the biggest names in the field, Cass Sunstein and Dan Ariely?

It was a stimulating and inspiring day and I came away with a renewed confidence that behavioural science can still play a role for both brands and governments. It’s worth visiting the Nudgestock archive on YouTube to explore the range of excellent sessions, but here are my three key take-aways:

1 / Individualised data-driven nudges are the future

The era of simple, one-size-fits-all nudges is over. Advances in technology and research now enable increasingly sophisticated ways of targeting messages at consumers.

Patrick Fagan, former chief psychologist at Cambridge Analytica, revealed how predictive models are used to create individualised nudges. For example, conscientious people are motivated by free gifts while extroverts prefer stimulating aesthetics.

These developments have implications for both segmentations – ensuring they are based on targetable characteristics – and in behaviour change approaches by ensuring we leverage this ability to target.

2 / We must reduce collective anxiety

Dan Ariely, who helped shape Israel’s Covid-19 response, pondered what could/should happen next.

Ariely thinks that, as we venture outside more often, our panic will gradually subside. Feedback loops will help with this, with the sense of threat decreasing with each outing – that panic-inducing first time we forget our now-essential face mask will be a crucial part of the process.

Businesses can play a key role: creating intermediate solutions that help us return to our less anxious selves. For example, coffee shops might gradually move outdoor tables closer together in line with an increasing appetite for risk until, eventually, we’re comfortable being inside once more.

What Ariely didn’t mention is that it’s important to understand differing levels of Covid-19 anxiety amongst your audience which can have implications for tone of voice, channel and how quickly you go back to ‘normal’.

3 / Change is viral too – and brands can use this to their advantage

Finally, Cass Sunstein’s expansive talk touched on Covid-19 but also went further, exploring themes from his latest book ‘How Change Happens’ via stories involving professional athletes, North Korea, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

It is no surprise that the concept of virality is currently highly resonant. Sunstein explained how multiple biases and factors can conspire to create movements that arise seemingly out of nowhere and spread so far, so fast that even their instigators are surprised.

Sunstein also provided clues about how brands can make change happen for themselves by leveraging new and emerging norms which (only) appeal to subsets of our increasingly polarised societies. The implications of this for brands are huge, redefining the ingredients for commercial success away from broad, bland appeal towards nailing your colours firmly to a mast and becoming a genuinely purpose-driven organisation. It also underlines the importance of going out into the market and regularly talking to your consumers and understanding their evolving behaviours and motivations.

In summary

Despite some knocks, it seems behavioural science is more than up to helping us make sense of the challenges the post-pandemic world holds. As we at Incite evolve our own behaviour change model, Nudgestock delivered plenty of food for how we become more nuanced to inform the brave new era of the data-driven, targeted nudge.

To discuss how we can help you build a human-centric plan for your brand or your business, get in touch.