10 Downing Street and the human side of Economics: how behavioural patterns are being harnessed in the public interest

10 Downing Street and the human side of Economics: how behavioural patterns are being harnessed in the public interest

Economics Society guest speaker Lal Chadeesingh gave pupils an insider’s view of how behavioural economics is being applied to UK public policy – and explained that it all stemmed from the personal interest of David Cameron.

Lal works at the Behavioural Insights Team – a group that was the brainchild of former Prime Minister Cameron, who set it up under the Cabinet after reading the seminal book, Nudge. The team was later spun out into a company part-owned by the Government which now works to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of Government measures.

Headmaster Neil Enright said: “This was a good opportunity for the boys to hear about a different side of Economics beyond finance, and to understand how economic theory can be used in the public interest.”

Year 12 pupil, Ibrahim Al-Hariri, added: ‘The talk introduced a part of Economics that is often overlooked; changing people’s behaviour for their benefit is a fascinating idea that I would love to explore.”

Lal, who read Economics at Durham before completing a Master’s degree in Economics and Public Policy at Bristol, introduced boys to the principles behind behavioural economics as described in Thinking Fast and Slow – another key work about this emerging discipline and one of the first books to introduce it to a wider public. The book contrasts two modes of thought: fast, which is automatic, intuitive and requires little to no effort, and slow, which is conscious, more deliberative and logical. While traditional assumptions among economists and policy-makers about the existence of homo-economicus (a purely rational decision-maker) take no account of this dichotomy, exponents of behavioural economics have used it to develop a theory of predictable irrationality.

The Behavioural Insights Team uses this understanding to tailor policies and their implementation so that they are more effective in generating the desired results, explained Lal, who began his career working in the Civil Service under the then-Business Secretary Vince Cable. It has condensed its guidance into a simple mnemonic, EAST (Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely), for policy-makers to keep in mind.

One assignment taken on by the team was reducing the number of people missing NHS appointments by looking at the wording of text messages sent out to patients. After testing various other forms of wording, they found that stating the material cost to the NHS of missing an appointment was the most effective, with a typical message reading:

  • We are expecting you at Mile End Hospital on Sep 16 at 10:00am. Not attending costs NHS £160 approx. Call 02077673200 if you need to cancel or rearrange.

This change reduced missed appointments by 2.6% which, although a diminutive percentage, equates to 400,000 appointments nationwide.

Year 12 economist Mipham Samten said that, to some amusement from the boys, Lal also explained the theory behind painting a small fly on the back of lavatories – a small, subtle image getting men to focus on the task at hand and reducing the chances of spillages by a significant rate.

“Students were rather less amused by another novel application of the EAST framework on behaviour,” added Mipham. “The team had discovered that the effect of sending text messages to parents informing them their child will have an exam soon and asking them to encourage revision was to increase maths score grades by the equivalent of one month’s teaching.”

“Overall,” said Mipham, “Lal’s talk opened the students’ eyes to the numerous material benefits of Economics to the public and many expressed an interest in pursuing professional economics as a career.”