The Secretary-General's Guidance Note on Behavioural Science

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The Secretary-General's Guidance Note on Behavioural Science

Introduction

In many areas, the delivery of the UN’s mandates is linked to changing human behaviour.

Behavioural science refers to an evidence-based understanding of how people actually behave, make decisions and respond to programmes, policies, and incentives. It enables us to diagnose barriers preventing people from adopting a certain behaviour, understand enablers that help people achieve their aims, and design more impactful interventions.

In the UN System, interventions leveraging behavioural science are already being piloted and applied.

The Secretary-General’s Guidance urges all colleagues to explore and apply behavioural science in programmatic and administrative areas and work together in an interagency way to realise its tremendous potential for impact towards the SDGs.

António Guterres, Secretary-General

Behavioural science is a critical tool for the UN to progress on its mandate. It can contribute to combating poverty, improving public health and safety, promoting gender equality, strengthening peacebuilding and all the SDGs.

UN Entities are strongly encouraged to invest in behavioural science and work in a connected and collaborative interagency community to realise its tremendous potential for impact.

António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

OPPORTUNITY AREAS FOR BEHAVIOURAL SCIENCE

Health

Behavioural science can help promote good health in a number of areas, including through encouraging better nutrition, medication adherence and vaccination. For example, behavioural science can be applied to make vaccination more convenient and by emphasising social norms and using trusted messengers.

A computer class at a rural secondary school in La Ceja del Tambo

Gender

Issues related to gender can be enhanced through behavioural science in many areas, including changing social norms, reducing gender inequalities in the workforce, and preventing intimate partner violence. For example, understanding behavioural barriers faced by “bystanders” of violence against women can help to indentify levers for interventions and ensure that bystanders feel more compelled, able and comfortable to report violence.

A computer class at a rural secondary school in La Ceja del Tambo
Fishing at Saint Martin Island
Fishing at Saint Martin Island

Climate

Behavioural science can encourage more sustainable consumption patterns, motivate efforts to end illegal wildlife trade or reduce overfishing. For example, inspiring climate action is challenging because many changes feel like sacrifices without tangible results. Behavioural science can make it easier for people to understand the impact of their actions, offer practical alternatives and promote goal setting and pledges to carry out a behaviour.

A Non-Governmental Organization's staff

Preventing Violent Extremism

Behavioural science can help to understand the drivers of violent extremism in a novel way. UN peacemakers are intuitively applying techniques from behavioural science in conducting conflict analysis, mediation and preventive diplomacy engagements. These include addressing behaviours of conflict parties, including perceptions, fears and biases, however, with dedication to behavioural science principles and more rigorous methods these efforts can be augmented.

A Non-Governmental Organization's staff

Management and Administration/Sludge reduction

There are significant opportunities to apply behavioural science and reduce ‘sludge’ in administration and programming. For example, behavioural science can shape better social programmes by taking into account the reality of how people access government programmes, streamlining processes by reducing sludge and formulating messaging to encourage uptake.

THE UN BEHAVIOURAL SCIENCE REPORT

Explore how 25 UN Entities are applying behavioural science in the UN Behavioural Science Report. The Report outlines approaches and experiences from across the UN and shares practical steps to create an enabling environment for the application of behavioural science.

Secretary-General’s Behavioural Science report

ENABLERS FOR BEHAVIOURAL SCIENCE APPLICATION

Creating a culture that supports behavioural science

UN colleagues should have at least basic understanding of behavioural science, key concepts and its potential for impact. Senior leaders should highlight the value add of behavioural science, demonstrate their support and act as champions for its application.

Strengthening UN behavioural science capacity

The UN should invest in dedicated technical behavioural science expertise to explore and run behavioural science projects. This may include behavioural science training, learning by doing, hiring behavioural scientists and strengthening internal and external partnerships.

Supporting the application of behavioural science

The UN should support behavioural science by developing strategies and guidelines for its ethical application, curating knowledge and supporting UN Entities in identifying, conceptualising, designing and implementing projects.

Fostering exchange and collaboration across the UN and beyond

To maximise learning, build on existing experiences and avoid duplication of efforts, UN Entities should actively exchange and collaborate beyond individual teams and organisations and across the UN family and beyond.

THE UN BEHAVIOURAL SCIENCE GROUP

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The UN Behavioural Science Group of the UN Innovation Network connects colleagues from across the UN system, provides learning opportunities and facilitates knowledge sharing across UN Entities and beyond. We welcome non-UN members in an observer role (Observers currently include individuals from academia, governments, international organisations, civil society, the private sector and many other areas).

To catch up on past discussions and events hosted by the UN Behavioural Science Group and its members, please click here.