Administrator Samantha Power
U.S. Agency for International Development
June 21, 2021
Thank you so much, Ayaka, thank you. And thanks, Volker. It’s great to hear you and great to have your leadership on this. To the Secretary General, just this can be a defining part of your legacy, of the UN’s legacy from this period. And I should say to Antonio Guterres, congratulations on a second term. This gives you plenty of time to implement what is enshrined in the guidance. Grateful to the UN Innovation Network for inviting me to kick off Behavioral Science Week. This is a great honor and again, gratitude to all of you who have labored, sometimes in the trenches, sometimes without a lot of fanfare and notice. But it is clear that behavioral science and its use is coming to the big stage there at the United Nations.
I may sound biased in doing this, but I have to give a special shoutout to someone who has been supporting the UN in its efforts to apply behavioral insights. And that is my husband, Cass Sunstein. Cass, I have learned tremendous amounts from you on this topic and every other topic on planet Earth and seeing Nudge units and behavioral insights units pop up all over the world, in so many countries and cities and now at international institutions. Not only is it intrinsically important for the improved development outcomes that incorporating these ideas bring about, but it’s also thrilling to see how much ideas can matter in the real world. And that is what you have shown again and again. So thank you. And I’m lucky to get to benefit from hearing from you on this and all ideas every day. So I feel very,very blessed today and every day.
So I’m not a behavioral scientist, nor do I play one on TV. But I am somebody who has the privilege of running USAID now and I am committed to working with my colleagues at AID to ensure that behaviorally informed public policy becomes even more central to our programs. A cautionary note for both my remarks and the panel that will be amazing that follows, while what we talk about today is going to sound at times so intuitive and so intrinsically appealing, low cost interventions that have great outcomes, what could be wrong with any of that? Please hear this at the outset: None of us are yet getting the most out of behavioral insights. And we will not get the most out of them, we will not optimize in our programming and in our leadership if we do not depart in critical ways from business as usual, from the way we’re doing things now.
On the one hand, everyone knows of course that human behavior matters. This is not a novel concept, and all of us have in place insistence, for a long time, on people-centered design as one example, paying attention to culture, emphasizing local conditions, right? All of this we have kind of baked in, I hope, into our DNA, even if we sometimes are not perfect in our adherence to these ideas, these are very familiar ideas and they’re broad and they’re helpful, and an important part of the UN’s work and important part of that of USAID.
But these ideas that I’ve just described, these broad principles, are actually not what behavioral scientists in London, or New South Wales, or Buenos Aires, or New Delhi, or Cape Town mean when they talk about making modern behavioral science central to public policy. And what we’re talking about today is how we can achieve a delta at USAID in development more broadly at the UN, between where we are now and optimization, and full use of what’s out there. And because behavioral science is much more specific and more concrete than these broad ideas about meeting people where they are, about respecting local culture, about taking note of human behavior and adherence, behavioral science is new. It is not old. It is not actually all that familiar. It is not what we have been doing all along. And really important to bear that in mind- standard economic theory, which inform public policy across the board, stipulated that human beings are rational, that we are good planners, that we respond well to incentives, that we consider the long term as well as the short term, that when we are given information, we process it ably. That we are neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic, and that we have a decent ability to figure out whether risks are small or large. These are our going-in assumptions, and they were the predicates on which public policy was shaped and implemented for a very long time. that when we are given information, we process it ably. That we are neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic, and that we have a decent ability to figure out whether risks are small or large. These are our going-in assumptions, and they were the predicates on which public policy was shaped and implemented for a very long time. that when we are given information, we process it ably. That we are neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic, and that we have a decent ability to figure out whether risks are small or large. These are our going-in assumptions, and they were the predicates on which public policy was shaped and implemented for a very long time.
Modern behavioral science has questioned everything that I just said. The work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky challenged conventional wisdom about human behavior, showing not that people are irrational, which is a kind of simplified way maybe that you might hear a simplistic way that people talk about this, but in fact that we depart from perfect rationality in specific and predictable ways. And we depart often instantaneously and unconsciously.
So over recent decades, extensive research has shown, for example, that human beings focus on the short-term and we often ignore the long term. Research has shown that people can be unrealistically optimistic. We exaggerate some risks and ignore others altogether, even in circumstances in which we know that making some change in our personal lives or in our community situation, even if we know it’s in our interest, we have an often overwhelming attachment to the status quo. Inertia is an immensely powerful force on our daily lives. And again, I know this all sounds kind of obvious now, but amazingly, public policy was not predicated on these findings until very, very recently when behavioral science began to make inroads.
The research has shown that we care about what is fair and what is perceived to be fair, which means that actually we will be inclined to sacrifice our material interests in order to comply with social norms. Social norms are an incredible weapon actually in our collective toolbox. So these findings have specific and concrete implications for our work. They suggest that our long held intuitions about behavior might not just be a little wrong but might be completely wrong. And if they are completely wrong, that is going to be harmful to our long term development goals.
If you take these findings to their natural conclusion, it would suggest that what we are now doing in a whole range of areas might not work. But this research also suggests very promising paths forward. Take, for instance, in Kenya, a country with an expansive public transportation network, but also frequently fatal bus accidents. Just in April of this year, a bus accident in southeastern Kenya left 15 people dead, an all too common occurrence in a country where fatalities from road accidents exceed 3,000 annually. These numbers represent people who rely on public transit for their livelihoods.
When a pair of Georgetown University researchers, in partnership with USAID, set out to learn more about what was behind these accidents, they found passengers were not comfortable calling out drivers for speeding or aggressive driving. Turns out the social cost of being the first to complain was high. People didn’t know if others would join them, especially given the desire to arrive quickly to one’s destination. But the researchers found that specific reckless behaviors could be influenced by changing social norms. Our teams devised and tested a simple, inexpensive solution built on behavioral insights: stickers. By putting stickers on buses with the motivational message, “Speak up!” people were made to feel more comfortable telling bus drivers to slow down. The results were significant compared to rates for buses without stickers, this straightforward and cost effective intervention led to fewer deaths. People felt empowered to speak out. Road accident insurance claims fell by half and claims involving injury or death dropped by two-thirds. That pilot program has now spread throughout the country and today, four million people now ride on buses with these stickers. That is the impact that behaviorally informed initiatives can have on people throughout the world.
The central premise of behavioral science is simple. To make progress, we have to understand human behavior, not on the basis of intuitions, but using new findings and concrete data. We must learn how the people we hope to serve act or do not act in response to everyday challenges. And rather than making assumptions or applying what works in one culture to another, we need to gather evidence and data from the specific communities in which we serve.
From the pages of academic journals into the building blocks of actual policies, behavioral science insights enhance the potency of our efforts. They allow us to use precommitment strategies to help workers save more for retirement as they get pay raises later in their careers — this more than doubles average saving rates. Behavioral science helps us get more people vaccinated against COVID by recognizing that the accessibility of vaccine stations or facilities is half the battle. Behavioral science helps us develop more effective approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by changing utility companies default settings, allowing people to opt out rather than requiring them to opt in.
The U.S. Agency for International Development works in more than one hundred countries and is one of the world’s leading funders of research and programs that incorporate behavioral findings. Our work has evolved to include insights from behavioral economics, human centered design, behavior change, communications, and the use of “Nudges,” all of which evidence shows can save lives and improve livelihoods.
Some additional examples: People’s choices are heavily influenced by inertia, starting points and loss aversion. We can use strategies, like that I’ve mentioned, automatic enrollment, to make sure important programs are reaching more people. We know that complexity, jargon, and small print — two things that the UN may lead the world in, and USAID certainly can compete in that competition — complexity, jargon and small print can defeat the whole enterprise of increasing people’s capacity for agency. We also know that pervasive features of life like poverty, hunger, and loneliness impose significant cognitive costs that make it even more difficult to solve problems. Simplification, reducing barriers to access information, disclosures — these are more important tools than previously recognized.
Even when people do want to change, we have limited attention and that stands in the way. So consistent and well-designed reminders that point to a desired destination can make a major difference in helping people remain focused on what they are trying to achieve. Graphic warnings — think of those on cigarette boxes, for example, or in ads — can address our unrealistic optimism and engage the instantaneous effective responses that drive so many of our decisions. The architecture of how options are presented greatly influences our choices. What people see first, whether it’s a name on an election ballot or in a cafeteria, makes a big impression on our ultimate decisions.
And finally, by invoking social norms and particularly emerging norms like “more and more people are switching to clean energy,” we can marshal the power of informational cascades as well as our innate desire to be on the right side of history.
When we apply behavioral insights, we are much better equipped to make a difference. Take USAID’s global HIV prevention efforts. Women make up more than half of people living with HIV around the world, yet research shows that the stigma of taking pills and visiting clinics, as well as the complexity of adhering to a specific regime, causes many young people, many young women in particular, to avoid taking a once a day HIV prevention pill known as PrEP. “If it’s medical, you’re sick,” was the common refrain heard by our development professionals in the field. Remember, the old development models would have baked in the assumption that people needing life-saving drugs would pursue their own interest in obtaining them. But it turned out that there was way more than had been previously understood standing in the way. Simply funding more awareness campaigns couldn’t get at these hurdles.
After extensively engaging young women, USAID helped develop a way of delivering PrEP that fits into a routine and encourages women to generate a positive association with the treatment. Rebranded as “V,” PrEP is offered in a pill container that mimics lip gloss and would look normal in any makeup case. Taking PrEP is presented like any other daily self-care routine. What looks like lip gloss actually contains a full week’s worth of medication. Text messages nudge participants to keep focusing on making themselves feel good by remembering to take the day’s pill, and rather than asking women to embrace new rituals, staying safe from HIV is framed as being part of the already routine behavior of putting on makeup and looking good for your friends and family.
I could not be more excited to take note of the success of programs like this, to see that what we are doing at USAID is only the beginning. To know how much more research is being done every minute of every day. Research that we have the capacity to incorporate in our more than 100 mission areas around the world, 80 places where we have physical missions and a hundred areas where we do programs, to have seen the World Bank adopt behavioral insights six years ago, to now see the UN Secretary General adopting this guidance. This is thrilling. And it’s thrilling because in order to be faithful to the people that we are attempting to serve, in order to contemplate advances of the scale we know we need in fulfilling the sustainable development goals, and in fulfilling national plans and development objectives, we need to optimize. We need to lose the reliance on perfectly rational individuals. We need to inject this learning into our programming. It could not be a more exciting new frontier for us to work on together.
The last thing I’d say is one of the behavioral insights I haven’t really mentioned is about “sludge.” Sludge is needless paperwork burdens and administrative requirements that get in the way of beneficiaries actually coming to programs. For example, in the United States, students fill out financial aid forms. USAID, small organizations becoming contracting partners with USAID. There’s so much paperwork that stands in the way. I know from my time at the UN paperwork is a not insignificant administrative burden there as well. Here’s an example where our own organizations can also function better within themselves. And so what’s so exciting is to imagine behavioral science and the impacts it can make on our work in doing more work internationally, not just on our programs,but in the way our organizations run themselves.