Behavioural insights can help GCC states to transform, says Strategy&

26 February 2018 5 min. read

Strategy consulting firm Strategy& has suggested that the governments of the GCC should consider setting up centralised behavioural science units to support the efficacy of policymaking, as traditional measures fail to account for common cognitive biases.

As an era of change sweeps through the region in response to the flattening of oil prices and the consequent need to diversify local economies away from a reliance on resources, the governments of the GCC member-states have embarked en masse on ambitious national transformation programmes, such as the Vision 2030 and Vision 2021 projects of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the similar projects underway in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman.

Yet, in a report released at the World Government Summit in Dubai in collaboration with PR and communications group WWP, strategy consulting firm Strategy& has said that such programmes can only succeed if they meet key social, economic, and environmental objectives, and, its authors argue, traditional policy-making involving incentives and regulations will be insufficient to affect the necessary changes in behavior due to common cognitive biases.

Such biases outlined by the report include, for example, a bias toward the present, which provokes a leaning toward instant gratification insomuch as things are perceived to be of greater value now rather than later – demonstrated by the imprudent use of credit cards rather than saving for a purchase. A further example given is ‘negativity bias’, by which prior negative experiences can impact on future decision-making and ultimately impede change.Examples of cognitive biasesThese common biases, however, aren’t uniform from population to population or even within populations; hence the need for dedicated behavioural science centres to first garner greater localised insights, which, according to the CEO of WPP’s public sector practice, Michelle Harrison, form the ‘foundation for every part of the execution plan, including measurement and optimisation.” WPP’s public sector Executive Director, Philippa Clayre, adds;

“Behavioral science uses psychology and sociology to understand what makes people tick, exploring beliefs, attitudes, and emotional triggers that can make them ignore rules, regulations, incentives, and penalties - even when this goes against their self-interest. It then designs interventions that can nudge people toward the desired outcomes, without restricting their freedom of choice.”

Noting that they should be transparent and not misleading, the report highlights a range of tools and levers which can be adopted to achieve successful outcomes, such as; ‘framing communications messages’; ‘promoting discursive consciousness’; ‘designing interventions’ in schools and through the media; ‘leveraging role models’, like popular brands or public personalities, and; ‘incentivising individuals through gamification’ with the creation of reward systems for meeting personal targets for example or by setting up competitions on social media.Opportunities for behavioral interventions in the GCCDelving deeper, the authors of the report analysed the current transformation programmes of the GCC member-states and identified 12 specific objectives where behavioural interventions could potentially be applied, further categorising the expected effectiveness of interventions on each objective from highest to lowest, with goals toward promoting environmental sustainability, healthier lifestyles, and civic engagement featuring at the top.

Looking closer at environmental sustainability, the GCC nations are said to consume more water than the world average – as much as between 10 and 39 times more than the amount of renewable water available to them – while electricity usage continues to rapidly increase in the region. Further, while GCC countries rank in the top ten in terms of waste generation, waste recycling rates in the region are relatively poor by global standards, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, recycling only 1% each of their municipal solid waste in comparison to the 64% achieved in Germany.Increase recycling rates; GCC municipal wasteThe report states: “Part of this problem is the limited consumer awareness of the value of recyclable goods for the economy and environment…coupled with an insufficient recycling infrastructure and a lack of related policies... However, cognitive biases also interfere in the way people recycle (or don’t). For example, people tend to sort intact papers, cans, bottles, and the like, for recycling, but prefer to throw away objects in the trash when they appear too damaged, even if they are recyclable, something known as the ‘distortion bias.’”

To counter such behavioural roadblocks, the report gives an example of a successful intervention from China’s Environment Protection Agency (which had tried unsuccessfully for 20 years to educate the public about sorting recyclable waste), with a campaign targeting "Chinese citizens’ sense of peer pressure and attention to social standing" by linking greater levels of waste segregation with higher corresponding IQ levels marked on the bins. In just a single day, nearly 90% of the waste collected had been placed in the correct bins.

Fadi Adra, Partner at Strategy& says in summary; “GCC states are involved in historic transformations that are crystallising new futures for their countries, further driving social, economic, and environmental development. However, these policies, whilst certainly ambitious, depend to a considerable extent upon changing peoples’ behaviors. Conventional policy levers alone - such as penalties, incentives, taxes, etc. - have not always succeeded in altering behaviors. Hence, over the past decade, the use of behavioral science in policymaking has become mainstream in many governments.”