Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Global Association for Applied Behavioural Scientists

 A number of academics and practitioners launched a new organisation on Tuesday September 1st aimed at developing professional practice in applied behavioural science. The website of the organisation is here. Details of how to register to become a member are available here. The twitter account is available here. I have been involved in the development of this association, in particular with regard to developing the code of conduct and membership criteria, and am currently a non-executive director. I hope it provides a forum for development of good practice in what has become over time a large international area of practice. In particular, I hope it will provide outlets for career development for people who have pursued qualifications and professional experience in this area. 


The Global Association of Applied Behavioural Scientists (GAABS) is the world’s first independent organisation representing the interests of applied behavioural scientists, primarily working in the private sector. 

GAABS has a clear scientific, social and non-commercial purpose.  

Membership is open to both individuals and organisations working in applied behavioural science.


Membership offers access to a global network connecting individuals and teams with others who share similar interests and values.

Membership is regarded as a commitment to maintaining the highest standards of technical skills, knowledge, ethical conduct and practice.

GAABS provides proof of membership in the form of a certificate, membership card and entry on the Association’s register. Members have the right to use GAABS logo as a signal of affiliation.


Applied behavioural science is a rapidly growing and currently unregulated field. Although other associations exist, none function as a professional body that directly serves the interests of bona fide practitioners. 

Consequently, the needs of professional practitioners and those that commission services are currently under-represented. A need exists to:

safeguard and maintain the quality and standards of applied behavioural scientists; 

represent the legitimate interests of current and future members; 

promote the discipline’s most important insights and applications.


GAABS' Founding Members, Executive Board, Partners and Advisors include some of the world’s foremost academics and leading practitioners; including Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, eminent Harvard Professor Jennifer Lerner, and world-renowned influence researcher Robert Cialdini. As a Member of GAABS you will,

be part of a prestigious community and build alliances with peers to shape the future of applied behavioural science;

be able to grow, exchange and realise ideas on a worldwide platform;

get access to exclusive events, conferences and educational programmes (in person or virtual) hosted by GAABS’ member organisations;

benefit from exclusive access to information and complimentary subscription to subject-related academic journals and magazines;

enhance your professional profile with a quality label from GAABS.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Irish Times Article on Covid and Communication

Below is the text of an article published in today's Irish Times by Pete Lunn and I on the importance of clear communication at this stage of the pandemic response in Ireland. We had been asked to draft an article prior to a very high profile case in Ireland where a number of senior public figures were found to be present at an indoor function that was widely seen to be not adherent to rules about gatherings that several of the attendees had been involved in drafting. In general, the sharpness of the Irish government communication response to covid has been affected by several things in the last month or so, including a change of government and key personnel, as well as a number of very high profile cases of non-compliance. Having said that, overall public adherence and broad support for public health measures remains very high, and we have seen, for example, dramatic increases in adherence to the use of the face coverings over the last two months. Details of some of the research referred to in the article are available on the following webpage

High-profile people must lead by example in pandemic

Public’s behaviour needs clear guidance and belief Covid-19 rules apply equally to all

The problem with clichés is that many of them are true. So while you may now roll your eyes if someone says “we’re in this together”, it does not alter the truth of the statement. The most essential fact about fighting this virus is that success depends on the behaviour of all of us, collectively.

Behavioural scientists have spent decades studying how people behave when they try to solve problems collectively. They have established key principles that have proved useful for understanding people’s response to this pandemic from the beginning.

Here is one principle: most of us will make sacrifices for the common good provided we can clearly see why and how what we are being asked to do is best for everybody. Here is another: we will make sacrifices for the common good over extended periods provided we see that others are committed to doing it too.

And one more: most of us will withdraw co-operation and actively protest if we see rules unfairly applied to us and not others. All three principles are backed by large volumes of scientific evidence.

A particular challenge is that any exceptions made to general rules require strong arguments as to why the exception applies

Now we can make some inferences about managing this ongoing crisis. First, it is not inevitable that people will simply tire of making the effort and give up. Second, if communication about what we are trying to achieve and how we achieve it is not clear, we will be less likely to do it. Third, if highly visible people do not pull their weight, the rest of us will make less effort. Fourth, if rules are bent for some groups more than others, public co-operation may diminish.

One might draw the dots to recent events, but there is surely no need.

The above logic seems simple and in many ways it is. But when it comes to the nitty gritty of designing public health guidelines to fight the virus, things get more complicated.

Perceived contradictions

Take the claim that it is contradictory to allow only six people at indoor social events but far more children in a classroom. To someone who now needs to cancel a planned event, that might seem unfair. Similarly, parents and teachers may wonder why more people are permitted in a classroom than a function room. Official communication has to explain why it makes sense and is in all our interests.

That means we have to be honest and strongly communicate the purpose of the guidelines. They do not tell us what is and is not safe – all social interaction involves risk. Rather, the guidelines are decisions about what risks we are willing to accept in pursuit of our goal of getting infections back down. If we take higher risks in some areas, then to keep the virus under control we must take lower risks in others.

Following the high-profile rule-breaking, mixed messages and special pleading, the conversation must return to how we can all help each other

So it is not contradictory to take higher risk to get schools open than to hold social events. It is a sensible decision if society thinks that reopening schools is a bigger priority than holding social events. Economic and Social Research Institute research suggests most people in Ireland agree with this.

Fairness to children is the very reason we should pull together by sticking to smaller social gatherings, so we can try to get infection rates back down yet still reopen our schools. That is the logic that needs to land.

Such messages are more complex than the simple rules employed earlier in the pandemic, but getting them across is vital to the overall response. A particular challenge is that any exceptions made to general rules require strong arguments as to why the exception applies. If it looks like the authorities are giving undue weight to politically connected special interests, people will rightly perceive unfairness and co-operation will decline. This is not politics as usual.

Adoption of masks

We can maintain co-operation and compliance if the logic behind the guidelines is straightforwardly articulated. We can even obtain consensus and increase it. The story of wearing masks demonstrates this.

After initial uncertainty about the benefits, once it was agreed and explained how and why they were important, the large majority switched from not wearing them to wearing them in a matter of weeks. Most of this behavioural change preceded enforcement measures and took place while case numbers were falling.

The media will always highlight non-compliance, especially outrageous non-compliance. But we need also to keep acknowledging the extraordinary efforts most people are making. Fighting this virus by adapting our behaviour for an extended period is daunting and tiresome, but less so when we see our fellow citizens and leaders front up.

Some behavioural science can help here too. It is possible to embed long-term habits that reduce feelings of sacrifice and imposition. At one time people viewed wearing seat belts and brushing their teeth that way, now these are habitual.

Evidence shows that we need to continue to adapt physical spaces to make it as simple and easy as possible to prevent infection, and to lead by example in setting social standards. If we do this, good habits around handwashing, greetings, personal space and living more of our life outdoors need not inevitably wear off.

Following the high-profile rule-breaking, mixed messages and special pleading, the conversation must return to how we can all help each other. We need clearly communicated guidelines that we can collectively follow to get infections back down, designed to be as fair as possible by prioritising what is most important to us all. Meanwhile, we need to keep adapting our social and work environments, to support each other and reduce the pain.

Prof Pete Lunn, head of Behavioural Research Unit, ESRI; and Prof Liam Delaney, head of department of psychological and behavioural science, London School of Economics.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Gary King Harvard Quantitative Methods Course

Throughout my early career, I always found the materials provided online by Professor Gary King at Harvard exceptionally useful. He is a remarkable educator and his website is one of the most valuable resources in social science. Even by his own standards, he has outdone himself here by providing all the pre-recordings of his upcoming Harvard Quants Methods course as a youtube playlist here. This is a tremendous resource that works through core quantitative methods across 19 lectures. The lectures will be very useful for anyone with a grounding in statistics who is looking for an introductory graduate or perhaps even an upper-undergraduate overview of quantitative methods for social, behavioural, and political science.  The final lecture on anchoring vignettes might be of particular interest to some of the readers here and, once again, I cannot recommend his website on this method highly enough. Bravo Professor King. 

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Behavioural Public Policy

I recently joined the editorial board of Behavioural Public Policy, which was formed in 2017 under the editorship of Adam Oliver, Cass Sunstein, and George Akerlof. 
Editors: George A. Akerlof Georgetown University, USA , Adam Oliver London School of Economics and Political Science, UK and Cass R. Sunstein Harvard Law School, USA

Behavioural Public Policy is an interdisciplinary and international peer-reviewed journal devoted to behavioural research and its relevance to public policy. The study of human behaviour is important within many disciplinary specialties and in recent years the findings from this field have begun to be applied to policy concerns in a substantive and sustained way. BPP seeks to be multidisciplinary and therefore welcomes articles from economists, psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, primatologists, evolutionary biologists, legal scholars and others, so long as their work relates the study of human behaviour directly to a policy concern. BPP focuses on high-quality research which has international relevance and which is framed such that the arguments are accessible to a multidisciplinary audience of academics and policy makers.
I have been consistently delighted with the content of this journal and feel it filled a huge gap in providing a home journal for the emerging interdisciplinary field of behavioural public policy. The journal has published a wide range of diverse contributions to this area, including work on the ethics and political economy aspects of the field, empirical applications, commentaries on pressing issues, and conceptual pieces on the emergence of the field. It also includes a diverse set of formats, including full articles, commentaries, and a "new voices" section, and has a frequently updated blog. The journal will also soon be complemented by the development of an annual conference in the area. I highly recommend to anyone interested in the applications of behavioural research in public policy go through this journal and it will also be a very strong outlet for the work of researchers and scholars in this area.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Mental Health and Economic Policy

One of my main areas of research is the connection between mental health and economics, and the broad significance of this connection for public policy. A recent post includes the main papers I have worked on with colleagues in this area. A recent paper by Knapp and Wong (2020) is a very useful area of the state of the literature in this area. Many colleagues at LSE, including in the CEP and the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science have worked on these topics over a long time period. A very positive recent addition has been the development of a network of researchers in this area in the International Health Economics Association. Details of this below and it is certainly worth exploring for any researcher interested in developing their career in this area. 
What is the Mental Health Economics (MHE) Special Interest Group?

One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives according to the World Health Organisation. At any given time roughly 450 million people suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide. Treatment and care for people with mental health disorders can be complex and expensive, creating challenges around how to allocate scarce resources most efficiently, both in high and low income countries. Beyond health care-related costs, the broader economic costs of mental ill-health are also tremendous, with poor mental health leading to lower productivity, more time away from work, higher (criminal) justice costs, among others. Yet, mental health has received little attention, in particular within the study of economics. The Mental Health Economics Special Interest Group, in line with iHEA’s mission, sets out to connect researchers and encourage discussion and debate to further our collective understanding of all aspects of health economic research on mental health.

Aim & Objectives

The health economic inquiry of mental health and mental health care covers a variety of topics and methodologies including cost of illness, outcomes research, economic evaluation, budget impact analyses, econometric methods, policy analysis and health technology assessment. The aim of the MHE SIG is to build a network of health economists worldwide to further our shared understanding of the above, leading to an expanded body of research on the causes and consequences of poor mental health as well as that of the mental health care system. We propose to do so by providing a broad set of opportunities for SIG members to actively engage and collaborate with others in the field.

The objectives of the SIG are to:

Promote a supportive network of health economists interested in mental health and mental health care in low-, middle- and high-income countries;
Exchange experiences, skills and knowledge, and promote collaboration and research opportunities (such as writing manuscripts, grants); and
Share information on mental health initiatives.

The activities of the SIG will include:

Regular engagement of SIG members through an MHE SIG discussion forum where members can submit news about conferences, special issue calls for journals, and new research within the field.
Networking, that is, getting to know others in the field, through face-to-face meetings at conferences as well as online meetings.
Organizing a set of proposed special sessions on mental health as part the iHEA main congress where SIG members can collaborate on creating the session together.
Organising a pre-congress session specifically for SIGs at the iHEA congress, including the one that will be held in Cape Town in 2021.
Ensuring that both SIG and non-SIG organized sessions on mental health do not take place in parallel to ensure that those with an interest in mental health can attend as many sessions on the topic as they desire.
Promoting ECR development through mentoring and supporting students/trainees and early career researchers through inclusivity in session planning.
Ensuring there is at least one convener who is an ECR at any given time to provide opportunities for the SIG to be steered by directly engaging with ECR needs.
Promoting the engagement of colleagues in low- and middle-income countries through a dedicated LMIC Research and Engagement Convener, whose key responsibly is amplifying LMIC members’ research and interests.
Encouraging collaboration among group members to apply for opportunities as a team outside of iHEA (such as grants and publications).
Connecting members for grant applications where the expressed requirement is geographical diversity.
Creating an expert list where members of the SIG can indicate their research experience in terms of topics, methods, as well as world regions, thus allowing other members to easily access information on colleagues experienced in a research area.

MHE SIG Conveners

Panka Bencsik, Founder and Lead Convener
Hareth Al-Janabi, Convener for Research and Dissemination
John Cullinan, Convener for Special Conference Sessions
Giulia Greco, Convener for LMIC Research and Engagement
Sonja de New (née Kassenboehmer), Convener for Special Conference Sessions
Christoph Kronenberg
Long Le, Convener for ECR Development
Claire de Oliveira, Convener for Special Conference Sessions and for Scientific Networking
Irina Pokhilenko, Convener for Research and Dissemination
Jemimah Ride, Convener for Scientific Networking


Membership is open to all iHEA members (regardless of career stage) who are interested in mental health economics/mental health care. Membership can be requested by logging into the iHEA website, selecting the "groups" section and clicking "request to join" the Mental Health Economics Special Interest Group (MHE SIG). Alternatively, members can join the group by contacting a convener of MHE SIG. Membership of researchers working in middle- and low-income countries is strongly encouraged as well as of trainees and early career researchers.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Radio Interview on Deposit Growth in Ireland

I was interviewed yesterday on the behaviour of consumers during covid in Ireland on the RTE "The Business" programme. The interview, with Richard Curran, is available here. I will use this blog occasionally to provide background context and links for interviews such as this.

The first question I was asked was whether I was consuming or saving myself. I answered that I was "cautiously" coming back into circulation like many others in the economy. Several of the answers I gave in the interview were, at least partly, based on the Amarach opinion surveys commissioned by the Department of Health, that I have been involved in designing and are available here. These surveys, along with several other studies, conducted through the covid period in Ireland, reveal a high degree of adherence to public health guidelines and strong support for restrictions. In general, the public has either been in favour of the level of restrictions or in favour of greater degrees of restrictions. While highly visible instances of people going against the letter or spirit of public health guidelines are likely to get media attention, a wide range of survey and mobility data suggests very high rates of compliance, and the survey data, in general, suggests high rates of risk aversion with regard to the virus. 

Related to this, a second thread of the interview related to declines in consumption and increases in deposits in the Irish context over the covid period. For background on this question, it is worth considering a number of recent documents. A particularly useful overview comes from Gabriel Maklouf, the Irish central bank governor, who discusses recent trends in Irish consumption in a recent speech available here. One key image from the speech is below, based on CSO data, showing the sharp decline in consumption arising since the start of covid.  As discussed in the interview and in Governor Maklouf's speech, there are several potential reasons to expect a decline in expenditure. One reason is clearly enforced savings, with many regular types of consumption now being temporarily unavailable. Another is a variant of something we often see in the retirement literature, namely that much of the expenditure we see among people in the labour force relate to things like commuting, hotel accommodation, prepared food, etc., that simply don't need to be incurred when one is furloughed or working from home. The fall in expenditure we often see at retirement was basically extended over hundreds of thousands of workers simultaneously.  

Chart 1

Relatedly, the last few months have seen a dramatic increase in deposits in Irish banks, as illustrated below by the graph from Governor Maklouf's speech. As discussed above, there are many reasons why one might expect a fall in expenditure and these could account for some of this deposit growth. Furthermore, there have been payment breaks on billions of euro of loans, some of which may reflect precautionary behaviour on behalf of workers worried about their labour market security. I referred to potential precautionary effects in the interview and also the possibility that a pattern of highly financially secure households increasing savings during periods of economic uncertainty may also be accounting for some of the deposit growth. The increase in deposits achieves something that many policies in Ireland have failed to achieve over decades, namely increasing the savings rate. However, it potentially comes at the cost of a slowdown in activity in sectors already very hit by covid and with potential employment effects. Furthermore, it is highly likely that the increase in deposits may have come from groups already in reasonable financial situations, something borne out by the CSO surveys. There is a lot more research needed on this but a combination of the various reports from ESRI, CSO, and Central Bank, paints a picture of covid having a disproportionate economic effect on low-to-middle income workers in affected areas such as hospitality and tourism and it is difficult to think that the deposit data reflects a deviation from these tendencies. 
Chart 2

I was asked about the potential for recovery after covid in terms of the build-up of savings leading to increased consumption later in the process. I obviously do not have any particular forecasting powers in this area but it is plausible to think that the build-up of deposits could lead to a rebound in consumption in a covid-free environment and this has been discussed in a number of recent works by the ESRI and Central Bank as well as other commentators on such scenarios. But I did make the point that the very high degree of risk aversion emerging from most data sources suggests this is not something that will happen quickly. An interesting question arose in the interview as to whether norms of responsible behaviour might drive recovery in consumption to some extent. I think it would be worth thinking about this a lot more, particularly if a large amount of this deposit build-up comes from older financially comfortable households, who are considering whether it is appropriate to engage in different types of consumption activity. The extent to which the behaviour of such households might be affected by things like tax rebates for domestic expenditure is worth questioning, particularly policies like offering rebates where deadweight loss and administrative burden might detract from notional stimulus effects. I mentioned in the interview that thinking about different types of safety assurance systems might be a more promising way of sustainably increasing consumption in affected sectors such as hospitality.  More generally, the Irish govt stimulus programme is focused mostly on bolstering the continuity of businesses and employment throughout the period of covid uncertainty and this seems like a more reasonable aim than attempts to directly stimulate expenditure in specific areas through rebates. This was discussed in detail at a recent Oireachtas committee session.


I mentioned briefly the potential role of narratives in shaping responses to crises. The recent Princeton University Press book "Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events" by Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller is a fascinating account of this and very relevant to the current situation.

I am member of the Central Bank Consumer Advisory Group and the NPHET behavioural change subgroup and have been thinking about these issues a lot over the last few months. Obviously, all thoughts offered here are given in a personal capacity.

The CSO social surveys are a very useful account of the social and economic impacts of covid on Irish households. The ESRI work on the employment and distributional consequences of covid are also very useful references. The IFS in London have also produced a remarkable set of reports on the economic impacts of covid, many of which are highly relevant in the Irish context.

A useful background reference is the research conducted by the Irish Competitiveness and Consumer Protection Council on health of household finances in Ireland

Friday, July 24, 2020

New Policy Case Study: Using behavioural insights to increase patient engagement with validation of hospital waiting lists

I have been on the advisory group of a set of projects run in the Irish Department of Health bringing behavioural science research into the administration of the Irish health service. Details of the first project from this group are available on the website of the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation. This project drew from a wide range of literature to improve the communication to patients in the process of validating waiting lists. This is based on work conducted in 2017. Over the last number of years, we have been working on a range of topics, in particular on improving attendance rates in inpatient and outpatient settings. Many of the project advisory team also formed part of the behavioural change subgroup of the covid public health emergency response team in Ireland (described here in a previous post). I will update this post as new papers and publications emerge from the project.

Update: The Department of Health has updated their webpage to include a range of reports in the area of behavioural research and health services.