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World Development Report 2015 – “Mind, Society and Behaviour” – what’s in it for DEVCO?

World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior

This WDR brings behavioural sciences in development and shows that taking into account psychological and social elements may contribute substantially to shape more effective and efficient policies and interventions. The report suggests that there is “enormous scope” for psychologically and socially inspired interventions – social norms campaign, educational entertainment, aspirational messages, new default options.  Drawing on evidence from modern behavioural and social sciences can generate new kinds of interventions that can be highly cost effective and improve development policies and results.  Overall results of development investments can be multiplied if designed taking into account behavioural science/evidence.  Policy makers should invest more in “diagnosing” rather than “assume/suppose” behaviour of beneficiaries based on “rational economic choices”. A key lesson from the report is the importance of ensuring a sound “iterative” process when designing a policy or an intervention.

To note that the research reviewed in the report comes mainly from industrialised countries and buys broadly into private sector experiences. The Report has immediately provoked an interesting debate. Many consider it a landmark piece of work and a potential game-changer in development.  It has been well received both in the development communities and in the field of behavioural studies. The President of the World Bank considers it ground-breaking and intends to ensure follow up within the Bank.

Core messages

The analysis is built around three principles framing “decision making” processes. Human beings:

  • “Think intuitively/automatically”,  using heuristics and “default mode” (adjusting the format with which information is provided can change decisions taken)
  • “Think socially” : we are social animals influenced by social preferences, social identities and norms, we are shaped by the society in which we live, social networks and rewards have huge potential (use of social incentives to support cooperative behaviour)
  • Think using “mental models” which come from their culture and include categories, concepts, identities, stereotypes, worldviews . Because models are malleable, interventions can target them to promote development objectives (see impact of use of soap opera to provoke a decline in fertility rate in Brazil)

The analysis shows that these three principles apply to us all, to people living in poverty as much as policy makers and development professionals.  Development professionals are themselves conditioned by their own « mental models », they are subject to biases and mistakes that can arise from these three functioning principles.  The WB has administered a survey to its own staff reporting results which show how  staff judgements on how poverty shape mind-sets can be mistaken (40%). The report suggests that  development professionals may not be always good at understanding how the poor think and take decisions, tending to assume that poor people may be less autonomous, responsible, knowledgeable than they in fact are.

Development policy makers suffer as well from a “confirmation bias” and are influenced by their personal and institutional perceptions and preconceived ideas. Another experiment at the WB showed staff made more efficient choices on “neutral” subjects such as choosing a simple  skin cream (of which they know less and so base decisions on facts) than on topics related to their work where they tend to interpret data in a manner consistent with their prior view.

Recommendations of the report

The report recommends a number of measures / systems to mitigate “biases” affecting the development sector. These include:

  • internal awareness of the limits of “organisational mental models”
  • more use of  “adaptive design and interventions” offering space and time  to bring in multiple behavioural and social factors that heavily affect whether a policy succeeds.
  • bring in the picture ethnography and understanding of local culture notably in areas as anti-corruption and good public policy management
  • learning from mistakes, increasing “institutional tolerance for failure” (avoid burying findings of failure), integrate feedback loops
  • test long iterative cycles of design, implementation and evaluation. 
  • methods and operational solutions borrowed from industry and the private sector such “red teaming” to organize challenging debates with structured arguments before  important decisions are taken in order to mitigate the effects of “group thinking”

Questions for DEVCO

There are a number of questions emerging from this work relating to “DEVCO systems” and guidance:

  • Should context analysis include social/cultural/behavioural issues? And if yes, how? Are our methods and guidelines on aid delivery methods, including budget support and sector support, taking the soft/cultural determinants enough into account?
  • How do we prepare our colleagues in charge of design and implementation of programmes and policies to face different cultures/ thinking modes/behaviours before going to Delegations?
  • Is our training programme adequately designed in this respect? Do we take the human/cultural /behavioural factor into account adequately ?
  • How to work more in a “process approach” mode, including providing space for small scale funding before scaling up interventions?
  • How to follow up on this proposal, including through joint initiatives with the WB?

For more information see our Voices & Views on Mind, Society, Behaviour (and Development?)

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Info posted by

Virginia Manzitti
10 March 2015

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