Behavioural Science

Through people-centred theories and approaches, behavioural science (BeSci) can help enable interventions to produce change to progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Behavioural Science in the UN

Many policies and programmes designed to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals require people, communities or decision makers to change their behaviours to generate impact. This could be attending a training or participating in a meeting, voting, saving money, taking medicine or allowing a child to go to school. If a programme fails to provide the necessary information or means to encourage the desired behavioural change the programme is unlikely to be successful.

Behavioural Science (BeSci) can help enable interventions to produce the desired behavioural change. Behaviourally informed interventions leverage what is known about human behaviour and decision-making, and invest in better diagnosing specific behavioural barriers and enablers to help people achieve their aims. 

Secretary-General's Guidance Note on Behavioural Science
UN Behavioural Science Report

The UN Secretary-General encourages the use of Behavioural Science

Behavioural Science has gained momentum across the UN since the launch of the Secretary-General's Guidance Note on Behavioural Science in 2021. The Secretary-General's Guidance Note urges the UN to explore and apply behavioural science in programmatic and administrative areas and to work together in an interagency way to realise behavioural science’s tremendous potential for impact towards the SDGs and the mandates of the UN. Published as a companion to the Guidance Note, the UN Behavioural Science Report describes the experiences of 25 UN Entities and key enablers in applying behavioural science in the UN. 

The UN Secretary-General’s commitment to behavioural science is reaffirmed by its inclusion in the Secretary-General’s “Quintet of Change”, which highlights key capabilities for a "UN 2.0". 

The UN Behavioural Science Group supports the adoption of BeSci

Supported by the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General and the UN Innovation Network, the UN Behavioural Science Group brings together over 1,000 UN colleagues from 60+ UN entities and 110+ countries interested in the application of behavioural science, as well as several thousand non-UN observers. The Group hosts ongoing practical discussions at the working and senior levels, including knowledge-sharing webinars and discussions with behavioural science practitioners from the UN, academia and the Member States.

In addition to supporting the vision of the Secretary-General, the UN Behavioural Science Group collaborates with working level UN colleagues and Member States to produce technical guidance such as the UN Practitioner’s Guide to Getting Started with Behavioural Science and knowledge products. It also brings behavioural scientists from the Global North and South into the UN to work on projects through the pilot UN Behavioural Science Fellowship Programme, thereby practically creating a mechanism for progressing the application of BeSci.

UN Behavioural Science Weeks showcase BeSci across the UN 

The UN Behavioural Science Group recently coordinated the 5th UN Behavioural Science Week which brought together 26 UN Entities across 17 events. Attended by thousands in and outside of the UN, sessions took place on health, climate, peace and security, gender, artificial intelligence and more. Speakers included USG Guy Ryder, UNU Rector Tshilidzi Marwala, UNFPA ASG Diene Keita, academics from universities such as Harvard, Stanford and the London School of Economics and representatives from Governments including Germany and the US. Here are the 2023 UN Behavioural Science Week:  

Previous UN Behavioural Science Weeks have featured Nobel Prize Winners such as Professors Abhijit Banerjee and Richard Thaler, as well as USAID Administrator Samantha Power and many others speaking to their work from the UN. Further information can be found here: 

Get in touch!

If you are interested in collaborating and/or supporting the UN Behavioural Science Group, please contact us.

We are particularly keen on learning about UN behavioural science applications and engaging with Member States interested in and applying behavioural science.

Innovation in

Behavioural Science

November 9, 2023
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The Contribution of Behavioral Science to Addressing the Social and Wider Determinants of Health

This report discusses the differences and similarities between two approaches to health equity and inequalities: individually oriented behaviour change, and the social or wider determinants of health.

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October 24, 2023

UN Innovation Update 2023

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September 15, 2023

Behavior Change in Solid Waste Management: A Compendium of Cases

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September 6, 2023

UN 2.0 Policy Brief

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June 26, 2023

Use of Behavioural Science in Organizations: A Workforce Survey

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June 16, 2023
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Behavioural Science and Migration: People on the Move

In this session, UN Entities explored how behavioural science can be applied to improve the lives of people on the move.

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June 16, 2023
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How Does BeSci Fit into the Work of the UN? - Value Add and Criticisms

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June 16, 2023
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BeSci to Improve Knowledge and Information Sharing

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June 15, 2023
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The Role of BeSci in Tackling Non-Communicable Diseases

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June 15, 2023
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Applying Behavioural Insights to Strengthen Health Equity and Impact

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October 24, 2023
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UN Innovation Update 2023

The UN Innovation Update highlight how 40 UN Entities from across the system are leveraging innovative approaches in their work.

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October 24, 2023
October 24, 2023
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UN Innovation Update 2023

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October 24, 2023
September 15, 2023
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Behavior Change in Solid Waste Management: A Compendium of Cases

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September 15, 2023
September 6, 2023
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UN 2.0 Policy Brief

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September 6, 2023
June 26, 2023
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Use of Behavioural Science in Organizations: A Workforce Survey

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June 26, 2023
January 22, 2021

Testing Behaviours & Perceptions regarding COVID-19

With the understanding that greater awareness could favor behavioral changes that help contain the spread of the pandemic, UNDP's Accelerator Lab in Uruguay carried out two experiments to validate the following hypothesis: the use of media and specific messages aimed at different population groups contributes to raising awareness about individual and collective responsibility to control the spread of the Coronavirus. On the one hand, in the first experiment (N = 171 people), two audiovisual campaigns that gained popularity globally were analyzed, sending different videos to different groups, one of German origin (emphasis on “stay at home” and “be a hero”), and another Spanish origin (emphasis "do not participate in parties," the negative impact of doing so). The main conclusions obtained were: • Regardless of having seen any of the videos, the population is considerably aware of the virus's contagiousness since 95% of people believe that they could be infected with COVID-19. • However, 79% consider that preventive health measures are easy to comply with, and 88% that their actions can influence other people's health. • Among those who consider that prevention measures are difficult to comply with (21%), the perception of having been exposed to situations with a risk of contagion increases. • The Spanish video caused greater changes in the perception of COVID than the German video. This could be due to the timelessness of "stay at home." On the other hand, in the second experiment (N = 200), a letter was sent through the Uruguayan National Mail service, between December 30th and 31st, along with a face mask. The homes' addresses in Montevideo were taken randomly. The letter called “Your future self” sought to appeal to a positive message regarding how people can act, particularly in celebrating the end of the year and the new year. Then, calls were made between January 5 and 6, 2021, to the households to ask a series of questions, both to the people to whom the letters were sent and the control group. The main findings identified in this experiment were: • The letter was well-valued by the population, particularly by adults over 65 years old. 44% of those who received it indicated that the letter contributed a lot to them. This assessment increases in those over 65 years old. • Adults over 65 who received the letter responded more moderately to how difficult it has been to comply with the recommended measures at the end of the New Year’s Eve. On the contrary, in the control and untreated group, the vast majority answered: “very easy.” • Older adults who receive the letter declare to a greater extent having reduced the number of people with whom they celebrated the New Year’s Eve compared to the previous year (67% treated group, 53% control group) • 90% of the treated group and 85% of the control group do not consider that situations of possible contagions were generated in their year-end celebration. The letter does not seem to affect the response. Still, it is highlighted that the perception of the risk of contagion could be more present in the population outside their homes and not so much in their intra-family activities. • The delivery of face masks can be valued positively and contribute to the prevention of infections, at least in the population approached by this experiment, where the majority (62%) used it less than a week after receiving it. It is important to note that various comments on the letter's impact have also been received in the process, and they are not included in this quantitative analysis. For example, people stated that they kept the letter, shared it with their family, or even left it next to the Christmas tree. These emotional factors are not negligible in a context where people must maintain certain behaviors that require effort. In this proof of concept that comprised both experiments, the relevance of contacting people when they are most likely to be receptive is concluded, with messages tailored to the circumstances, acting quickly. The temporality of the messages is key: it is not enough for the message to be clear. It must also be transmitted at the right time. In both experiments, it is possible to identify that the population tends to declare that it is relatively easy or very easy to comply with the recommended health prevention measures. This process was carried out in its entirety in one month and creates an opportunity to continue working in partnership with academics, organizations, and civil society to overcome the health emergency to achieve sustainable development goals.

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