Too much of our knowledge of human behavior is based on the idiosyncrasies of a small portion of the world’s population. Over 80 percent of people live in the Global South, but 95 percent of studies in the top six psychological journals rely on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) populations as participants. Given this imbalance, is it surprising that a number of the psychological phenomena that have been used to characterize “people in general” do not hold across contexts and subgroups?
If behavioral scientists want to uncover patterns of human behavior and build interventions that improve lives, then our work must encompass the whole of the human world, not just a tiny portion of it. Focusing on behavioral science in the Global South can do just this.
There are several ways more work in the Global South can improve the field of behavioral science, including providing more representative populations that go beyond college students and allowing researchers to compare phenomena and interventions across diverse contexts. Here, we advocate for a third way that more work in the Global South can improve our understanding of human behavior: by providing opportunities to solve system-level issues that often lie at the root of our most pressing challenges.
If behavioral scientists want to uncover patterns of human behavior and build interventions that improve lives, then our work must encompass the whole of the human world, not just a tiny portion of it.
In recent years, the field has been critiqued for applying behavioral science at the margins, settling for small but statistically significant effect sizes. Critics have argued that by focusing our efforts on nudging individuals to increase their 401(k) contributions or to reduce their so-called carbon footprint, we have ignored the systemic drivers of important challenges, such as fundamental flaws in the financial system and corporate responsibility for climate change. As Michael Hallsworth points out, however, the field may not be willfully ignoring these deeper challenges, but rather investing in areas of change that are likely easier to move, measure, and secure funding.
It’s been our experience working in the Global South that nudge-based solutions can provide short-term gains within current systems, but for lasting impact a focus beyond individual-level change is required. This is because the challenges in the Global South typically navigate fundamental problems, like enabling women’s reproductive choice, combatting intimate partner violence and improving food security among the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Our work at Common Thread focuses on improving behaviors related to health, like encouraging those persistently left behind to get vaccinated, and enabling Ukrainian refugees in Poland to access health and welfare services. We use a behavioral model that considers not just the individual biases that impact people’s behaviors, but the structural, social, interpersonal, and even historical context that triggers these biases and inhibits health seeking behaviors.
More work in the Global South can improve our understanding of human behavior: by providing opportunities to solve system-level issues that often lie at the root of our most pressing challenges.
Factors like low trustworthiness in institutions, historical inequities, unjust power structures, and poorly resourced basic services all affect people’s decisions about whether to seek health care. These settings require us to design interventions that acknowledge what is to us the most fundamental principle of behavioral change: to change behavior we cannot just change the person; we must make wholesale changes to the context—to services and policies—in tandem with smaller interventions.
Because behavioral science applied in the Global South encourages us to consider the individual, along with the overarching political, economic, historical, social, and technological context, it forces practitioners to develop more complex frameworks and models for behavior change. While behavioral scientists inherently understand the importance of context, frameworks like the Health Belief Model, the Behavioral and Social Drivers of Vaccination (BeSD) model, the Theory of Planned Behavior, and Fogg’s B-MAP, do not explicitly call out surrounding contextual factors, like history, policy, and fiscal measures, making it more likely that practitioners leave these out when designing for behavior change or consider them as an afterthought.
The experience and skills acquired by behavioral scientists in the Global South applying a systems lens to behavior change is something behavioral scientists in the Global North could look to for ideas and inspiration, as they try to address systems problems in their own work.
The experience and skills acquired by behavioral scientists in the Global South applying a systems lens to behavior change is something behavioral scientists in the Global North could look to for ideas and inspiration.
For example, in Northeast Nigeria, behavioral science researchers implemented nudge-based techniques alongside localized social and emotional learning activities, to improve learning outcomes for children in conflict-affected areas. The interventions they implemented focused on individual level (gamified checklist and text-message reminders) and structural level changes to the curriculum to maximize impact. Practitioners could look at studies like these alongside models like the socio-ecological model, COM-B and the Behavioral Drivers Model, to understand how to interweave individual and system level interventions.
Conducting behavioral science in the Global South offers the opportunity to include and learn from the vast majority of the world’s population. It will enable behavioral scientists and practitioners to understand for whom and when interventions work, contend with deeper challenges, and develop innovative solutions using the entire behavioral science toolkit. From our experience applying behavioral science globally, these lessons stand to benefit the whole field and community.