The link between social system change and human behaviour

In New Zealand, mediation is mandatory for families before they seek the assistance of the court for parenting arrangements arising from separation and divorce.  Policy and legislation was introduced in 2014 to require mediation because of well-established evidence that mediation was more affordable, faster and produced better outcomes for families than the court system.  A 2015 evaluation confirmed that families who participated in mediation were satisfied with the service and outcomes.

And yet, three years later the program is in question because of the dropout rate.  Almost half (48%) of families were exempted from the mediation process.  80% of those were exempted because one party did not want to participate!

In the UK, less than half of families who attend mandatory Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings (where they learn about mediation) actually go on to participate in a mediation.

If mediation is such a great innovation, and families who have experienced it give it high marks, then why are so many families taking extraordinary steps to avoid it?  Their actual behaviour does not match with the expectations of the courts or policy makers.  What is going on?

What we are talking about is human behaviour.  People don’t always do what they are told to do, what they should do or even what they know is best for them.  Think of regular exercise as an example.

Insight into these phenomena is needed from a variety of disciplines.  And that is what a multi-disciplinary group of academics, corporations and institutions is doing in the US.  Making Behavioral Change Stick is the name of an ambitious initiative marshaled by two professors at the University of Pennsylvania:  Angela Duckworth and Katy Milkman.  They were interviewed on Freakanomics Radio in a recent episode called “Could Solving This Problem Solve All the Others?”.

In Angela Duckworth’s words:

In other words, the problem with human beings is that they’re human beings and that they repeatedly make decisions that undermine their own long-term well-being even when they know full well that they are eating the wrong thing, that they’re spending their money on the wrong thing, and they’re spending their time in an unprofitable way.

They put together an all-star team of more than two dozen researchers — psychologists and economists and sociologists but also people from medicine and computer science and marketing.  They decided to focus on three (huge) areas:  health, education and personal financial decision-making. There has been a lot of research into behaviour change in these areas but it has typically resulted in short-term change that didn’t “stick”.

Duckworth says that instead of focusing on short term behaviours, the intervention has to address the person’s identity:

I would say that the Holy Grail of enduring behavior changes is when you change identity, when you’re the sort of person who buys cauliflower and sunflower seeds and goes to the gym every day. In fact, economists would call this complementarity across your decisions. That if you do one, you’re more likely to do the other. And, in fact, the benefits of the other are enhanced.

They insist that the research benefits from multiple points of views – across silos.  Duckworth is a professor of psychology; Katy Milkman has a PhD in both computer science and business.  And the group they have assembled is a collaboration (“cross-pollination”) of many disciplines.  Why is this important?  Because the people encountering problems in health, education and personal finance face, every day, a combination of challenges that cross disciplines.

And they also insist that the team needs both world-class thinkers AND world-class doers.  That is why they have major corporations and institutions who will be participating and inviting their customers and students to be involved.  We need to get out of the office and talk to users.

ON the “doing” side they will be using design thinking “that is, rapid prototyping and really actually listening to the market with both ears”.  Design thinking necessarily incorporates the importance of empathy for the user.

The long term goal?  “I think one of the trends that we’re both excited about is that policymakers and private companies and everyone else are realizing that you have to engineer around human nature. You can’t just assume that people will make the rational long-term decision. You have to work with the way people are. And if this project, in the course of its run, not only produces a tangible product that helps in the short term, we do hope that it creates some kind of long term knowledge about the way human beings tick and that we would all benefit by it.” (Duckworth)

The host, Stephen J. Dubner pointed out the foundational importance of this work:  “If behavior change is indeed at the root of all the suboptimal, self-sabotaging decisions that we humans make, wouldn’t it make sense to start there?”

Justice reform (like health, education and finance) will depend on enduring change in the behaviour of both the people that the justice system serves and those who are doing the serving.  We cannot expect top down policy or rule changes to affect behaviour – at least not in the long term.  How can we understand more about the root causes of behaviour in this context and how to make change stick?

I noted that this initiative incorporated most of the key elements needed to effect change in complex adapative social systems:

  • Focus on the user
  • Trying to see the system (and looking for root causes)
  • An experimental approach
  • A multi-disciplinary group
  • A combination of academic research (thinking) and those with experience on the ground (doing)
  • Using design thinking (human centred design)
  • Empathy

This is one to follow….and to emulate?

Kari D. Boyle, Coordinator, BC Family Justice Innovation Lab