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Behavioural insights

Behavioural Insights

Behavioural insights involves the study of human behaviour, often drawing on empirical research in fields including economics, psychology and sociology.

On this page:

Why you should use it
What it involves
What you will get out of it
Ideal circumstances for use
References, guides and key readings
Tools or concepts
Case studies
Centres of expertise
Community of practice

Why you should use it

Behavioural insights can be useful in a policy context to:

  • identify the behavioural factors and biases affecting people’s choices
  • develop options for designing future policy that is informed by evidence of human and organisational behaviour
  • understand how people and organisations actually behave, to help design and implement more effective or targeted policies, and consider the best lever(s) to use to make an impact

Behavioural insights are most commonly applied in regulatory and social policy, but can be applied more widely.

What it involves

Applying behavioural insights uses tools such as ethnography, interviews, observation, data analysis and experiments to deliver:

  • A deeper understanding of what drives behaviour – for example, what contextual and behavioural factors drive people to respond as they currently do? How do responses differ within and across groups? What factors that we could change to deliver a better outcome?
  • Tested options – once potential changes are identified, options can be tested (in groups, in labs or in field trials) to determine what works best.
  • Better policy design – changes to policy settings proven through testing can be embedded in final policy recommendations, implemented and spread.

How people make decisions is complex and the small details of policy implementation can make a big difference to its impact. A behavioural insights approach recognises this, and encourages the use of robust evaluations, such as randomised control trials to test what works.  

What you will get out of it

  • Policies that are based on how people or organisation actually behave.
  • Innovative proposals that challenge existing assumptions.
  • Results that are lower-cost, more targeted and higher impact than many alternative methods.

Ideal circumstances for use

  • You are seeking to change the behaviour of people, groups or organisations.
  • You want to understand an issue or situation from the perspective of end-users.
  • You are working in an early stage of policy development, where the problem and its causes are not fully understood.
  • Previous policies, incentives or approaches in your context have underperformed, but there is no general consensus on why.


Behavioural theory may not be suited to circumstances in which:

  • your policy problem has already been narrowly defined to exclude behavioural factors or you are limited in the policy responses or levers that can be used.
  • you are unable to analyse end-user behaviour (for example due to ethical concerns or timeframes).
  • you are unable to test or trial your hypotheses before implementation (although it may be worthwhile considering the behavioural perspective as part of evaluation).
  • when considering these limitations, it is also worth analysing the degree to which using pre-defined levers or not understanding end-user behaviour gives rise to its own risks and issues.

References, guides and key readings

Behavioural Insights Community of Practice - Inaugural event held on 19 April 2018

Reducing Barriers to Electric Vehicle (EV) Uptake - Ed Hearnshaw and Mahesh Girvan - Ministry for the Environment

Why Small Details Matter - Lee McCauley - Behavioural Insights Ltd

New Zealand's Perceptions of Novel Pest Technology - Jovana Balanovic - Department of Conservation

Behavioural Insights and the Rise of Empirical Government - Roundtable with Dr David Halpern

Behavioural Insights and Public Policy: Lessons from Around the World - OECD, 2017 – includes case study examples of applications for behavioural insights to public policy and service delivery initiatives from around the world.

MINDSPACE - UK Behavioural Insights Team, 2010.

Behavioural Insights Workshop - GEN 2016, Lee McCauley Behavioural Insights Team.

Behavioural Insights Applied to Policy - European Commission report, including a focus on the organisational structures and resources required for improving the uptake of behavioural insights.

Mind, Society and Behaviour - World Bank report into applying behavioural insights in policy, including case studies.

Poverty and decision making - UK, takes a behavioural lens to understanding the drivers of poverty, and offers innovative policy ideas for tackling it.

Tools or concepts

EAST Framework - Practical tool for policy practitioners to consider applying behavioural insights in their work.

Behaviour Change Wheel - University College, UK – Practical guide to designing interventions involving behavioural change based on a range of behavioural frameworks.

Behavioural Insights for Education - Guide for education policy practitioners to consider the impacts that can be delivered by changing what parents, teachers and children say and do.

Behavioural Insights for Health - Guide for health policy practitioners to consider the role of behavioural insights in delivering better health outcomes at a lower cost.

Journey mapping

Case Studies

The Rere Story - The Ministry for the Environment funded research to understand more about what supports behaviour change on the ground in rural communities, to improve environmental outcomes. 

Centres of expertise

Behavioural Insights Team - Wellington office of the global social purpose company. Contact them at

Behavioural Insights Unit - Department of the Premier & Cabinet, Victoria, Australia.

Behavioural Economics Team - Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia.

Community of practice

Promote the use of behavioural insights to support robust policy outcomes and create a community where practitioners can share expertise and collaborate on projects.

New Zealand Behavioural Insights Community of Practice
Email Dr Marcos Pelenur at to be included in future 'community of practice' emails and events.

NZ Interagency Behavioural Insights Group (natural resource sector focus):


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Last updated: 
Wednesday, 16 August 2017

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