Driving social mobility through behavioural insights

By Saloni Bhatia, Researcher at In Diverse Company.  

Behavioural insights are learnings from the field of social and behavioural science, that are used to both understand and positively influence human behaviour. They have been incorporated globally across sectors including: health, education, environment, and financial inclusion[i].

My reflections on the Behavioural Transformations in the 21st Century event

Last month, I attended an event organised by the London School of Economics called Behavioural Transformations in the 21st Century: Novel ways to make behavioural public policy more effective. The event focused on examining different behavioural tools and strategies, and how they could be applied across policy areas. By bringing  together experts from institutions such as the World Bank, The University of Manchester, and Brunel University[ii]. As part of this event, I attended a policy lab run by the King’s College London What Works team that discussed how to drive social mobility by encouraging participation in higher education.

As an organisational psychologist, I frequently work on diversity and inclusion (D&I) research projects, including social mobility and socio-economic diversity. This event led me to reflect on how corporates and higher education institutions can leverage behavioural tools to enhance their D&I strategies and drive social mobility.

What are the different behavioural change tools?

Nudge: Popularised by Thaler and Sunstein (2009)[iii], a Nudge is any change in the environment in which people make decisions, influencing how they behave. Nudging does not involve prohibiting any options i.e., people have the freedom to make their own choice, and it does not drastically change economic incentives associated with a decision.

While they might be the most well-known, Nudges are not the only strategies that can be used for behavioural change. The event introduced the following three strategies that are built on Nudges:

Boosts: The goal of Boosts is to increase a decision maker’s competence via upskilling, or by modifying the environment in a way which allows them to apply their learnings. Like Nudges, Boosts are not fiscal or regulatory in nature. However, Boosts can be used as an alternative to nudging, especially when the focus is on sustaining long-term behaviour change[iv]. Nudges are often limited in the sense that they lead to temporary behaviour change in a specific environment.

Nudge Plus: Nudges are largely intended to be interventions that require less mental effort from intended recipients resulting in more automatic rather than deliberative behaviour change. Nudge Plus on the other hand involves an added component of reflection/ deliberation[v]. Interventions can be a combination of a nudge and reflection, or a two-step intervention with the first stage being the nudge, and the second, reflection.

Think: This strategy is focused on ‘’large-scale deliberations to enable citizens to own the process of behavioural reforms. These often include citizen forums and large-scale behavioural therapies’’[vi].

What is social mobility and why is it important?  

Social mobility is the capacity of individuals to move across socioeconomic levels. When low social mobility exists, those in privileged positions remain so, while those from disadvantaged backgrounds struggle to improve their socioeconomic position. This is important because the disadvantage persists across lifespans and generations, influencing educational, occupational, financial, and health outcomes[vii].

Through my work with different organisations, I find that their diversity and inclusion initiatives largely focus on gender, ethnicity, disability, and LGBTQ inclusion. Social mobility is rarely on the agenda. Yet, social class or socioeconomic background plays an influential role in the hiring, promotion, and retention of employees. For instance, research by the Social Mobility Commission in the UK finds that individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are under-represented within the Civil Service and that less than 20% of senior civil servants come from disadvantaged backgrounds.[viii]

How can organisations drive social mobility using behavioural insights?

Like governments and public policies, organisations and their policies and processes too have the power to perpetuate or improve social inequalities. Reflecting on the talks I attended about the application of Boosts, Thinks and Nudges to policy problems, I have identified two initiatives that I think organisations, be it corporates or higher education institutions, can take to enhance mobility:

Collect the relevant data:

One of the biggest challenges with improving social mobility is that it is often not measured at all. This makes it difficult to understand which groups are the most under-represented/disadvantaged as well as to identify what type of support would most benefit these groups.

A nudge that we can use to address this challenge is simplification. Social mobility is a complex topic with a wide range of individual, organisational, and societal level factors influencing it. Simplification could entail providing key organisational stakeholders with an easy-to-understand guide on social mobility and how best to measure it (for example, the Civil Service has published an initial guide on measuring socioeconomic backgrounds[ix]). This can help encourage decision makers to collect data linked to socioeconomic backgrounds and social mobility.

Nudge Plus could also be an effective strategy here. Along with using the simplification nudge, the decision maker(s) can be encouraged to write a report (as is frequently done in research projects) on the outcomes associated with this data collection. This process will encourage reflection and deliberation.

Reduce entry barriers:

Organisations in the UK often have a preference for employees coming from more prestigious universities such as Oxbridge or Russell Group universities. In fact, some of Britain’s elite (i.e., those that are well paid and sought after) professions such as politics, media, and business have a disproportionately high number of employees from Oxbridge[x], who historically tend to come from more privileged backgrounds[xi].

To ensure that organisations overcome this bias and embed more inclusive recruitment practices for the long run, we can use Boosts. For instance, corporate recruiters and admissions officers in educational institutions can be provided information on these statistics, and the negative outcomes associated with such practices. This can help improve their awareness and prompt more lasting change.

Think can also be incorporated here wherein corporates and higher education institutions conduct focus groups at schools and universities with diverse student populations, that aren’t usually targeted through their outreach work. They can facilitate discussions on the ways in which diverse students can be encouraged to apply to their institutions, and how any perceived barriers can be overcome. This will provide organisations with key insights through which they can tailor their interventions.

Social mobility is an important challenge to recognise and address

There is increasing research and evidence on the effectiveness of using behavioural insights to drive change. Today, as we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic and as societal inequalities and inequities heighten, social mobility becomes an important challenge to recognise and address. For instance, we know education plays an influential role in driving upward mobility. However, Covid-19 has hampered educational attainment and experiences, often exacerbating the challenges disadvantaged students face. Incorporating behavioural insights to address these and more challenges can help make interventions more robust and more effective.

*views expressed in this blog are the views of the author


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[i] OECD (2017), Behavioural Insights and Public Policy: Lessons from Around the World, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264270480-en.

[ii] https://www.lse.ac.uk/geography-and-environment/events/a-utopian-impulse/behavioural-transformations-in-the-21st-century

[iii] Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.

[iv] Hertwig, R. (2017). When to consider boosting: some rules for policy-makers. Behavioural Public Policy, 1(2), 143-161.

[v] Banerjee, S., & John, P. (2021). Nudge plus: Incorporating reflection into behavioral public policy. Behavioural Public Policy, 1-16. doi:10.1017/bpp.2021.6

[vi] Banerjee, S. (2021). Rethinking the Origin of the Behavioural Policy Cube With Nudge Plus. In V. Mihaila (Eds.), Behavioral-Based Interventions for Improving Public Policies (pp. 1-16). IGI Global. http://doi:10.4018/978-1-7998-2731-3.ch001

[vii] OECD (2018), A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264301085-en.

[viii] Social Mobility Commission (2021), Navigating the labyrinth: Socio-economic background and career progression within the Civil Service. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/987600/SMC-NavigatingtheLabyrinth.pdf

[ix] Civil Service (2018). Measuring socioeconomic background in your workforce: recommended measures for use by employers. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/768371/Measuring_Socio-economic_Background_in_your_Workforce__recommended_measures_for_use_by_employers.pdf

[x] The Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission (2019), Elitist Britain 2019: The educational backgrounds of Britain’s leading people. Retrieved from https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Elitist-Britain-2019.pdf

[xi] Weale, S., Adams, R., & Bengtsson, H. (2017). Oxbridge becoming less diverse as richest gain 80% of offers. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/19/oxbridge-becoming-less-diverse-as-richest-gain-80-of-offers


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