Brooke: Hello everyone and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to democratizing behavioral science. We conduct behavioral research and consulting projects with clients such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, a research director here at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest is Faisal Naru, head of strategic management and coordination in the executive director’s office at the OECD. In today’s episode we’ll be talking about life in crisis and what it will take us to get prepared for the next ones, because there will be next ones.
Brooke: Faisal, welcome, please introduce yourself.
Faisal: Hi, thank you very much, Brooke, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to have this conversation with you. It’s always interesting to have these kinds of conversations because we often are running around doing our work, but we seldom sit back and reflect and get asked questions about what we’re doing and why we’re doing them. So it’s great for me to be here and I look forward to our discussion.
Brooke: Same here. So one of the things that I’m curious to hear you talk about is how COVID-19 is changing the way that we perceive low probability, high severity events. And I think that that question applies as much at the individual level as it does at the institutional level.
Faisal: That’s absolutely right. And I think if we take one of the biggest lessons that maybe behavioral insights has given to not only just the public policy world, but also to organizations and the private sector, is that context matters. We know for sure that things are changing, but I think that really depends upon the context of individuals and also organizations themselves. So in some instances we have people displaying slightly more anxious behavior because they are worried about what’s going on, and that’s despite whatever probability there is actually catching this new virus or the impact that it may have on them.
Faisal: But on the other hand, you have others who, despite whatever risks they might face, are displaying completely other behaviors, and are maybe being a bit more risky than you may want to see happening. I mean, for me, living in Paris, I think of recent there’s been more and more people displaying behaviors which are less cautious, and there being more and more larger gathering and more and more people in close proximity. And it wasn’t so long ago that Paris was in full lockdown. And so it’s quite interesting how, depending upon the different contexts that there are, there are different types of behaviors being displayed. And some of them that are also in relation to need. If you have a look at who’s using, say, for instance, public transport, sometimes there’s a need that people have where they have to take the public transport in order to earn a living, and they aren’t necessarily in a position where they could take other forms of transportation, or that they can’t turn up for work. So it is very interesting. We know it’s changing, but in lots of different ways,
Brooke: So it sounds like you’ve described two things. One is overreaction to the evidence, perhaps, or taking a very, very cautious approach, extremely risk sensitive, risk aware. And then these other limit cases at the other end of the spectrum, which are very much under-reacting to the evidence, they’re very risk insensitive, perhaps because those long weeks and months of confinement have kind of desensitized them. It’s not that they don’t care about these things, it’s simply that they’ve been so bombarded with messages that it’s hard to sustain the energy and sustain the novelty to continue worrying about something as much as it should be worried about.
Brooke: Do you think that there are opportunities for us to help people calibrate to find that sweet spot in between where they’re neither overreacting nor under-reacting, and that we can get them to do it for 24 months at a time?
Faisal: That’s the Holy grail there, isn’t it? But I think probably what you’ve described there, Brooke, is ultimately what is happening here is that there’s a large display of confirmation bias, of the variety of pieces of information that people are getting, the variety of different social cues that they’re getting from going outside, and the kind of things that maybe they’re feeling as well. It means that in some instances you have the optimism bias in full effect and the overconfidence that, “I’m not going to be impacted by this and I’m not going to face the consequences,” and then you have the other side as well.
Faisal: And I think that you’re right, that there could be some assistance for people to navigate through this, because I think throughout all of the different kinds of responses that we’ve seen across the world from governments, from international organizations, one thing that they’ve all been very clear about is that one of the key ways of managing and getting through the current situation, at least until there is a bonafide vaccine, is through behavior change and through some kind of behavior management. And that is going to come from the information that people have and how they respond to it. In what way that is provided, what is made salient, what is not, is going to be quite important, and having that, in a way, from a trusted source is going to be an incredibly important tool for everybody who’s in this together.
Brooke: I like that idea of trust, that it’s not just about what the information is and when it’s made available and how actionable it is and that sort of thing, but where it’s coming from must be a very important ingredient in how people treat the information and what they do with it.
Brooke: I wanted to ask you about institutions and how institutions are responding to this. Maybe that’s a place to start. Some institutions are responding more effectively than others in the way that they’re engaging with this crisis. What is it that’s separating the success stories from the rest? And maybe a place to start there is with trust.
Faisal: I think that what’s quite interesting about what has just happened and what people are going through and what institutions are going through, I think looking at various different examples from across the world, and also looking at institutions closer to myself as well, is that those institutions that are treating this not as a response only to a crisis, are they treating this as an opportunity to reevaluate the ways they are working, how they’re being perceived, how impactful they are, and the impact upon the constituents inside their institutions themselves? And I think those that have really taken that on board and that they are treating this in that way, are probably those that are going to come out of this more successfully.
Faisal: And I think, in relation to that, trust is definitely a very important issue there. A very good example of something that, for instance, UNDP has been doing in Somalia and in Lebanon, directly related to COVID, is that they’ve been providing information to people using the messenger effect, using trusted people to shoot videos, whether it’s through community leaders or through alumni, through trusted institutions like universities in order to get the message across around simple things like washing your hands or how to keep socially distant.
Faisal: And I think that leads on to some of the more structural things, because of course, communications is one thing, but effective communication relies upon good substance behind it. And that includes how to engage with those people you want to have trust from, and how you are also managing the people internally. So I think that is certainly one of the key areas coming out of here, where organizations who are thinking about it, understanding it, and finding ways for them to improve will certainly come out a lot better than those who aren’t.
Brooke: One of the kind of subtle nuggets tucked into what you were just talking about is the role of expertise within government, or within society, I should say. And that’s something that I think has really been flipped on its head in the last few months. In the foregoing years we had seen a steady and quite noticeable decline in the deference to expertise, is one way to put it, but the respect for expertise, the expectation that experts would be involved and that there is a role for experts to play along with the rest of us, let’s say.
Brooke: So how have we seen changes in the way that expertise has been marshaled in these circumstances and being deployed, but also being perceived? How is that playing into trust?
Faisal: I was reading recently somewhere about another new bias, and there are all these names for lots of biases, right? But the anti-science bias. But I think the broader point you’re making around expertise is very valuable, and I think that one of the lessons for experts is that they can’t take for granted that just because they are an expert, they will be heard and people will agree, and they will not only listen to it, but they’ll actually comply with or obey whatever it is that they are purporting. And that’s where one of the elements that I was talking about in relation to organizations looking at their structures and processes is even more important now, is around engagement, is that, yes, there has to be the expertise helping in order to charter things through and make sense of what is going on and leveraging from all of the knowledge and information they have, but without having the engagement with the stakeholders and the end-users and involving them in that process, it makes it a lot more difficult for people to accept whatever it is that they are trying to ultimately sell.
Faisal: And there are lots of competing sellers out there on the market of information that they are competing with. And at the same time, they are also competing with lots of confirmation bias amongst those people in the market who are buying. So there are lots of interesting things going out there. One example is actually something that first came from Richard Thaler and Sendhil Mullainathan from Chicago, an initiative called Pause Regulation. So instead of saying, “Right, we need to have a quick review of what kind of regulation and what kind of laws and red tapes are preventing us from tackling the virus effectively, let’s ask. And they put up a call, and it’s still going on, where people can come forward, small businesses can come forward and can come up with ideas. But they’re engaging them in the generation of ideas and not just relying upon experts to simply say, “Right, we’re going to do X, Y, and Z,” because that’s not the way that things work.
Brooke: Your reference to policy and regulation is also making me think that we’re seeing a new space for leaders to engage in, for institutions to engage in, and I think that this ties in very strongly with the note of engagement that you brought up before, which is we’re seeing lots of presidents, prime ministers, senior government leaders around the world, not just engaging in legislation, not just engaging in regulation, but in many cases, on a daily basis, engaging in completely uncoerced pleas. They’re just asking people to do things, without forcing them and without having any stick or any carrot, at least not in the traditional economic sense. But clearly there is something of a stick and a carrot going on there because lots of people have been, in a somewhat miraculous way, engaging in these very coordinated behaviors without any incentives, or any formal incentives, out there in the ecosystem.
Brooke: So what is it that these individuals are doing such that they are managing to help us to coordinate our behavior in the absence of any of those typical incentives? And what’s the relationship there to engagement? What’s happening, Faisal?
Faisal: I wish I knew, Brooke. I could look into my crystal ball and make lots of money. I think that what has happened really is a short, sharp acceleration of what was happening already, which is that those days of command and control, this citizen wanting everything done for them, has kind of been blown away through loads of different things that have happened, not least things like the internet and the availability of information and the ability of everyone to become an expert in everything, thanks to certain search engines. So, with that has come a different kind of citizen, and a citizen that is not looking for command and control, and to be honest, doesn’t really respect command and control, but rather the citizen and society that wants to be engaged and wants to co-create. They don’t necessarily want everything that they say to happen, but they want to have a say.
Faisal: And that, I think, what we’re seeing at the moment, is kind of a short, sharp acceleration of that, given the unique situation that we’re in with the crisis, with the huge amounts of uncertainty, where people actually had to say, “Well, perhaps I will do this. There isn’t a law telling me to do it, there isn’t a fine if I don’t do it,” or at least not yet, I don’t know, we’ll see what happens in the future, I don’t want to necessarily predict anything that’s not going to happen. But I think what you are having is in that world of uncertainty and becoming more comfortable with that answer, I think comes a more mature relationship between institutions and people. And I think that is something that has really become magnified, but I think that was something that was happening in any case, but it’s just we weren’t really fully aware of it.
Brooke: As a young person who’s never been all that inspired by the politicians that I’ve seen around me, but seeking that inspiration since the ’80s with the decline as the role of government, in the Anglo-American world anyway, in day to day life, and the decline of a lot of social institutions as well that help us to feel connected to each other, that in some senses their absence deprives us of opportunities to participate in coordinated collective action, to feel that we are participating in something that’s bigger than ourselves as individuals. I latch onto stuff like this like crazy. And one of the questions that I ask myself is how can we sustain it up to, but hopefully not including, artificially extending any crises? Which of course has been a political solution to some problems in the past, but one that I hope we can avoid. How can we sustain this kind of engagement with our institutions, including our political institutions, but other types of institutions as well, and with each other? How can we sustain the coordinated collective action that allows us to be part of something that’s bigger than ourselves?
Faisal: I think there’s probably two other things here. I think both of them are related to lessons from around the world of what has been more successful and what has been less successful in this crisis. And again, if people, society, can reflect and think about what really helped us through this, I think there were two other things. I think the first thing is slightly related to the expert point we were discussing, but is around intelligence and evidence, that being in uncertain times and knowing that you’re going to be in this kind of situation for really the foreseeable future, and maybe even forever, and that doesn’t just relate to COVID, but it just relates to how fast the world is now and how uncertain things are and how quickly information spreads around, kind of having your finger on the pulse is really, really important. And that is something that maybe hasn’t had so much attention before, particularly from institutions.
Faisal: Some good examples of this during the current crisis is that in Germany, for instance, since March, they’ve been doing weekly surveys to try to understand how people are feeling, how would people feel in relation to complying to different kinds of interventions, and those kinds of things, that can help inform decision making. The Netherlands also has been good in testing and understanding the willingness to comply, for instance, with various measures they could have. And through doing that for instance, they’ve found that most people were quite happy to comply with whatever measures were going to be needed, except for young males, which is, by the way, yourself and myself, Brooke.
Faisal: But I think what that shows is that constant need to not only have data, because there’s been lots of discussions around data and big data and how you use these kinds of things, but institutionally, how do you consistently make sense of what’s going on with a strong evidence base? And therein comes various sciences, including behavioral sciences, to ensure that you are debiasing decision making and that you are getting the right kind of data points coming through to inform decisions. And so that is going to be very important, moving onwards as well, as we come out.
Faisal: The second thing that is going to be really important, and going back to your point on how do we capture the current momentum, is around a focus on empathy and ethics. What has been quite clearly demonstrated here is that having pro-social, kind of even fun, and also focusing on the common good, has been more successful than being pro-individual, highlighting the dangers and the risks, and focusing on anxiety. I think two good examples here are firstly from New Zealand, when New Zealand’s mantra in this current crisis has been, “Be Kind.” Another interesting place is Malaysia, where Malaysia’s introduction of wearing masks was all about protecting others from yourself if you are displaying any particular signs of illness or coughing or anything else, which is very different from focusing on, “You must wear a mask so that you don’t get infected from others.” So I think that understanding about the fact that actually we are quite social creatures, and that understanding more about our emotions and what drives our ethics, our intrinsic motivations, are some of those lessons that, if we keep to, surely are going to be more applicable in lots of different ways in the future.
Brooke: As you were speaking I was thinking about good data storytelling. So the first element of data that you talked about for decision making is one that I totally agree, having more data and being able to draw more current insights is incredibly valuable to be able to make the right kinds of decisions. But that second component of the empathetic narrative collective identity aspect of this human experience is something that data can support as well. It just turns out that the kinds of applications for data that are most valuable in supporting that kind of thing, and data storytelling is what I have in mind there, tends to be not the kind of skillset that most of the data crowd develops in their training, it’s not their mindset. There’s this heritage, even in behavioral science, so if we think about classical economics, there’s this idea of trying to predict the actions of the rational agent, and behavioral economics coming along and displacing that and saying, “Well, we don’t act like rational agents in all of these very well documented, sometimes hilarious ways.”
Brooke: Behavioral economics, when framed in that way, has not satisfied in displacing the ideal that a rational agent is what we ought to be if we could. And behavioral science is a really powerful tool box to help us overcome these unfortunate human encumberments. Now we’re sort of shifting into this new phase where an identity is not simply something that inhibits someone from being rational, but actually an identity and building up a sense of self and a sense of connection to others can be a legitimate project all on its own, along with making rational decisions to make sure that you’ve got the bread that you need and a roof over your head and this kind of thing. Do you feel that there are some opportunities in behavioral science, or some promising leads of things that have been applied that can help us to really focus more on that aspect? How can behavioral science help us in this identity making project?
Faisal: The point you’re making around storytelling is really important. And I think that that, if you like, is one of those key points around helping decision making, whether it’s for the individual, and that individual is a person in society, or if that individual is somebody who is on the leadership board of a big company, or if it’s somebody who’s sitting inside a government institution at the very top. And I think that what is very powerful when you start to merge some of these different skill sets is that ultimately you are trying to tell stories and you are trying to provide narratives that are backed not only by the numbers, but also by the emotions and feelings that come with this, and the values that they support, and therefore the ethics that they are displaying as well.
Faisal: All of these things come into the decision making, and that can be captured through storytelling and through the narrative. And I think that, again, one of the interesting things that has probably happened in the application of behavioral science, maybe not so much yet, but is beginning to happen, is around how do you do that, and how to do that inside of organizations so that when you are managing and running an organism, how do you ensure that all of these things are there together in your analysis? And not as separate pieces because at the moment, the decision-maker, if you like, gets those different pieces of information from different people, or from different sections, but there isn’t that merging of it together to really make sense of it in a more holistic way of having processes for better decision making. And I think that really is the essence of what you’re asking about.
Brooke: Yeah, trying to reach the best conclusion about what to do, not just based on what would be the best outcome if we could achieve it, but what is the best outcome that is actually achievable, understanding that the participation of others is often a key ingredient in whatever outcome we’re going to achieve, and that if we want to achieve the best outcomes that are available, it’s going to take coordination. And so there needs to be this engaged, collaborative approach to triangulating that outcome that we’re all going to reach together, knowing that if we don’t collaborate enough, if we don’t triangulate, we will not have coordinated action, and we will probably end up at a worse outcome just in virtue of not being coordinated.
Faisal: That’s right. And I think one of the interesting things from what we’ve just gone through, maybe at a national policy level, is around understanding who and what are essential workers and essential parts of the economy. And, if you like, for most countries going through this, the key parts of infrastructure weren’t the roads or transportation links or lots of other traditionally thought about pieces of infrastructure, but they were much more social pieces of infrastructure. It was, first and foremost, the health systems, then it was the education systems. And it wasn’t just because the education systems skill society, but it was actually the broader role that it plays, allowing others to be able to carry out their functions. So in families, parents being able to do their jobs because the children are at school. And what happens when that doesn’t actually occur.
Faisal: And so I think that’s been hopefully another woke moment for thinking about how our societies actually live on function at the moment. And this has lots of consequences for lots of other debates that are happening at the moment, for instance, around sustainability, whether that’s environmental or financial or whatever kind of sustainability, but the UN’s SDGs and lots of concerns around the climate can also be thought about now from the experience that has just happened globally, and on which direction we should be going in in the future.
Brooke: Yeah. There’s the interconnected concepts of resilience and redundancy, that we’ve built very efficient systems, but getting to efficiency has cost us a lot of redundancy. And that hollowing out that redundancy has made us very brittle and not very resilient, and that creates moments such as we’ve seen in the last few months, that actually it’s thrown back into stark awareness, back into salience, that actually having no behavioral scientists for a week really is not nearly as bad as having no grocery store clerks for a week.
Faisal: That’s right.
Brooke: But that really doesn’t translate into the value that we place on those jobs, or the monetary value that we offer as compensation for those jobs. And we’ve recognized, I hope, but I fear not in a sustainable way, that in fact we have put too much distance between the things that we esteem highly and the things that we do not esteem highly, and we’re going to need to shrink that distance if we’re going to get back the resilience that we want to the crises that we are running into.
Brooke: This has been a fantastic conversation, I know I’ve already kept you over time, so I shall set you free. Podcasting is a catch and release business. So, on behalf of TDL and all our listeners, thanks very much for sharing your insights with us today. For me personally, thanks very much for sharing your insights. Again, every conversation is a renewed pleasure. I think my main takeaway, from today anyway, is about the importance of data and sustaining engagement for decision making, for sure, but also for the empathetic narrative and collective identity project. Both of those things, the rational and everything over and above rational, will be critical components for us to be better prepared for the next crisis, because it is coming. It may already be here. And I hope that today’s discussion will help some of our listeners to reflect on how we might be better prepared for that next one.
Brooke: Before we sign off, is there anything that you would like to share, something summative or just something that we didn’t get to talk about today that we’ve mentioned in previous discussions?
Faisal: I couldn’t have said it better myself, Brooke, so really just to thank you for this and it’s been a pleasure as well. And like you, I’m probably more hopeful that we will be able to come out of this stronger and more resilient, but we have to remain vigilant and can’t be complacent.
Brooke: One of the nice things that vigilance has taken on in the discussion here is that vigilance is not about sustaining a state of fear and perpetuity, that actually that’s a far less powerful motivator than hope, inspiration, and aspiration.
Faisal: I think about all the examples from across the world showing us that the silver lining in all of this is around how people are reconnecting, even though they’ve been in quarantine, and how there are numerous different initiatives that have been going on. I mean, I know some initiatives in the UK where I’m from where free meals were being handed out. It wasn’t just the hundreds or thousands, it was in the region of hundreds of thousands to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to feed themselves. And that really is the biggest lesson, that we are people, at the end of the day.
Brooke: Now, that’s an excellent note to end off on. So once again, thanks very much, and I look forward to continuing our conversation sometime again very soon.
Faisal: Absolutely. Thanks a lot, Brooke.
Brooke: If you’d like to learn more about applied behavioral insights, you can find plenty of materials on our website, thedecisionlab.com. There, you’ll also be able to find our newsletter, which features the latest and greatest developments in the field, including these podcasts, as well as great public content about biases, interventions and our project work.
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