Behavioural insights could offer low-cost ways to foster social mixing or reduce inequalities between different social groups.

We know that policy nudges work. Insights from the fields of psychology, anthropology and behavioural economics have given us a much better understanding of how humans respond to a variety of situations, often in unexpected ways. Small changes to policies that draw on these insights can have a disproportionately large impact. For instance, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in the UK made minor changes to the content of government communications to citizens in a range of public policy areas with substantial success, for example reducing speeding re-offending in the West Midlands by 20 percent and increasing tax compliance by over £200 million per year by emphasising social norms.

Many of these areas have focused on shaping the behaviour of individuals. But they could also help superdiverse societies live together harmoniously. Behavioural insights could both inject new energy into integration policies, such as community cohesion efforts, and improve the user-friendliness of mainstream public services, such as jobcentres. These approaches would have the added benefit of improving communities and public services for both newcomers and existing citizens.

There are huge opportunities to make further progress across all of the main areas of integration policy, from helping people from different cultural backgrounds meet and interact with one another in a meaningful way, to ensuring that having a particular ethnic or religious background doesn’t determine your life chances. A recent paper[1] published by the Migration Policy Institute, in conjunction with the Behavioural Insights Team, maps the potential for evidence-based behavioural interventions to really move the needle on a host of social cohesion and integration issues.

We highlight below three areas of integration that we think, based on the report, could especially benefit from a behaviourally-informed approach:

  1. Community cohesion

As societies experience increased levels of immigration, it is important to nurture the skills that people need to live in diverse societies and to improve social interaction. Studies have shown that it is possible to reduce prejudice by helping people develop open mindedness and affirming the values that are important to them. Interventions could build “growth mindsets” in terms of how we approach integration.

Encouraging people to understand others’ perspectives, for instance by thinking about a time they themselves were judged negatively for being different, can also build empathy and recognition of similar experiences. Potential interventions could include encouraging school children to write journals that imagine other people’s lives or be introduced to virtual reality simulations that show what it’s like to be a migrant or refugee. BIT is currently trialling interventions based on these insights in UK schools and hope to publish their initial findings in early 2019.

Other experiments have shown promise in reducing segregation and improving social mixing, for instance by nudging people to interact with others from different backgrounds by rewarding children (with something as simple as snacks) for sitting with people they don’t know at lunchtime. Cooperative learning, where groups of students from different backgrounds (and even schools) teach and learn from each other, can promote positive interethnic attitudes and foster intergroup friendships. In Northern Ireland, such shared education programmes between pupils from different religious schools encouraged cross-group friendships and greater trust.

  1. Narrowing inequalities between immigrant groups and the broader population

In many countries, immigrants experience outcomes in key spheres of life (employment, health, housing, and education, for example) that fall substantially below the average. Taking a behavioural approach could, for example, improve employment outcomes by addressing the diverse motivations and far-reaching barriers jobseekers face. Disadvantaged jobseekers often have to contend with a considerable ‘cognitive load’, which can mean they struggle to make optimal decisions about training or job opportunities and may respond poorly to sanctions. Refugees, in particular, are likely to be under more considerable stress and may need a more holistic form of employment counselling and encouragement to plan for the long term.

Similarly, interventions in the field of education—from peer support and mentoring, to more user-friendly university applications—aim to tackle the aspirational barriers that prevent disadvantaged students from going to university.

  1. Addressing low take-up of public services, voter registration, and citizenship

Access to and use of services is a key lever in improving integration outcomes. A behavioural approach could be used to, among other things, improve application rates among individuals eligible for certain benefits. This can be achieved by making services as user friendly as possible, by creating application forms that pre-fill information about applicants that is already on file, sharing information across services, or simply the language used. Interventions have also used text messages and other timely approaches to improve adoption of services. For example, one pilot project completed earlier this year in London provided new citizens during citizenship ceremonies with opportunities to volunteer, donate blood and register to vote. The intervention produced gains of 12 percent in volunteering and 6 percent in blood donation.

Our paper concludes with five lessons for integration policymakers from the existing research on behavioural approaches:

  1. Focus on developing the skills that everyone needs to live in diverse societies. Traits such as empathy and altruism are sometimes described as innate, but there is much to suggest they can be taught in the classroom including as part of the citizenship curriculum. Numerous tools and techniques could promote intergroup social connections and reduce segregation in schools, workplaces, and communities.
  2. Understand how aspirations, motivations, and behaviour can create gaps between minority groups and the broader population. Behavioural approaches encourage policymakers to explore how complex barriers, such as stereotypes or limited social capital, can hold people back in in employment and education and explain the limitations of approaches that focus on economic incentives and sanctions alone.
  3. Understand the user experience. Improving access to services, application rates for citizenship, or likelihood to vote may depend on how easy to navigate such processes are. A behavioural lens can help government agencies and service providers reduce the time and mental costs of engaging in public services, which is especially important for people who have experienced trauma, such as refugees.
  4. Leverage policy to encourage social mixing, positive interactions, and emphasis on similarities. There are numerous policy levers—in schools, workplaces, and in the media, for example—to encourage contact and emphasise commonalities, all of which experiments have shown to increase integration outcomes.
  5. Rigorously test interventions using experimental methods and establish shared evaluation frameworks. Evaluation is often an after-thought that is poorly implemented, restricting our ability to know what works and, equally important, what doesn’t work. The use of shared evaluation frameworks would also allow the comparison impact between projects and allow policy makers to learn from them; the recently published evaluation framework from Immigration Policy Lab is great start.


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