The #1 behavior-change strategy used by Obama’s Behavioral Science Team

The #1 behavior-change strategy used by Obama's Behavioral Science Team

About a year and a half ago, I was talking with a former member of President Obama’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.

This was a small group that was, more or less, a roaming behavioral economics consultancy during the final three years of O’s presidency. They worked on various projects, big and small, across various agencies.

Whenever I encounter someone who works in a different area of applied behavioral science (like public policy), I always make sure to ask them as many questions as possible—to see if I can learn anything new.

In this case, I wanted to hear a few different examples of projects the team had worked on—so I could get a sense of how they approached behavior-change work, and which tactics they to used.

After a few different case-studies, it became clear:

The Social and Behavioral Sciences Group was all about simplification.

Every single project this person told me about involved taking some bloated government process or solution and making it smaller, quicker, easier.

As an example, let’s pretend the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) wants to increase the health insurance application rate, but it just so happens the application process is 45 minutes long and requires people to fill out a health-status questionnaire.

A simplification-focused intervention would try to cut down the application length as much as possible (from 45 minutes to 10) by getting rid of or shortening steps. In this case, the behavioral science team might ask DHHS to re-design the form so that healthy applicants can fill out the health-status portion with a couple of clicks (“I am a healthy person”, etc.). Since healthy applicants are the ones least likely to apply for health insurance, a tiny tweak like this could increase the application rate for the most underrepresented (but important) group.*

Bureaucrat-designed processes tend to be much longer than necessary, so a behavior-change strategy focused on shortening and simplifying government forms makes a lot of sense.

Which brings us to the main topic of today’s email: the three types of behavioral interventions.

In general, behavior-change interventions can be put into three categories:

  • Simplification

  • Motivation

  • Instigation

Simplification is all about making a behavior easier.

Motivation is all about making a behavior more enjoyable or exciting.

Instigation is all about making a behavior salient or top-of-mind. It’s about reminding people to do a behavior.

The White House B-Sci team was focused on point number 1, which made sense for the types of problems they faced in government.

But in our personal lives and the business world, points 2 and 3 are equally important.

Whenever you’re facing a behavior problem, it’s useful to think about these three categories. You should ask yourself: Is there a way to make this behavior simpler? Is there a way to make this behavior more enjoyable or exciting? Is there a way we can make sure this behavior is remembered?

If you do that diligently, you’ll be in good shape. White House shape.

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