Brief Takeaways from U.N. Behavioral Science Week

Last week, the United Nations hosted “Behavioural Science Week,” a series of 15 sessions showcasing the ways different U.N. programs and partners are currently applying behavioral science in their work toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Sessions included presentations on how organizations working in international development can incorporate behavioral science into their work, updates from specific initiatives like preventing violent extremism and promoting youth and women’s entrepreneurship, and conversations with Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein about behavioral economics in the context of development.

Below, I’ve outlined six brief takeaways from the week. The full agenda can be accessed here, and some session recordings are available here.

U.N. secretary-general issues “Guidance Note on Behavioural Science”

The U.N. has been applying behavioral science since the 2010s, but the Guidance Note formalizes behavioral science within the organization. Essentially, the guidance note does what it says on the tin—it recommends that all U.N. agencies and departments start implementing behavioral science in their work to help achieve their mandates laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals, and provides advice and resources for how to do so.

How behavioral science is being applied toward the U.N.’s 17 sustainable development goals

The UN Behavioural Science Group just published a report outlining the role of behavioral science in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals and how it’s currently being applied within the U.N. The graphic below illustrates various interventions and how they link up with each goal. 

The report also highlights 25 mini case studies for how different U.N. entities have used behavioral science in their work, from counterterrorism and peace building to food and financial programs to climate and migration. 

Source: U.N. Behavioural Science Report

How behavioral science can help prevent violent extremism

Fadi Makki and Nabil Saleh of Nudge Lebanon presented their step-by-step guide on how those working to prevent violent extremism could draw on behavioral insights to support their efforts. Their presentation, and the guide, draws on their experience working in Sudan and Yemen, where they leverage a range of interventions, like values affirmation and text reminders, to help youth avoid getting drawn into violent extremist groups. Their presentation can be viewed here and the full guide accessed here.

If you’re new to applying behavioral science or looking for an introductory resource, check out this chat with Richard Thaler

Mary MacLennan, who leads the U.N. Behavioral Science Group, spoke with Professor Richard Thaler about choice architecture, nudging, and the role of behavioral science in the development context. The conversation is tailored for those just getting started in bringing behavioral insights into their work. It covers how Thaler’s work was picked up by the U.K. government, why there’s no neutral when designing policy, and lessons from the forthcoming rewrite of Nudge, a book originally published in 2008 and foundation for applied behavioral science. 

Global lessons learned on vaccine uptake around the world

If you’re a regular reader of Behavioral Scientist, you’ve likely come across a healthy amount of information on how behavioral science is being applied to vaccine uptake. Two sessions of the week explored vaccination efforts. The first session focused on what’s happening in the developing world and strategies to help reach herd immunity, with speakers from the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the World Bank, including how social media is being used to enhance vaccine uptake. The second session provided a speedy tour of some of the fieldwork that’s happening around the world. Katy Milkman kicked it off with a discussion of her text-based interventions in two megastudies and expanded on her recent involvement in a vaccine sweepstakes in Philadelphia. It then headed to representatives from the World Bank, Behavioural Insights Team, Office of Evaluation Services in the United States, and Ireland’s Department of Health for briefs on what they’ve learned from their fieldwork. 

You might want to join the U.N. Behavioural Science Group
The U.N. Behavioural Science Group, which sits within the U.N. Innovation Network, supports the U.N.’s efforts to implement behavioral science across its programs. It is made up of over 600 members from across more than 40 U.N. programs and 60 countries and  is open to non-U.N. colleagues in an observer role. More information can be found here.