Behavioural Insights Team

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Behavioural Insights Team
Social purpose company
PredecessorCabinet Office: Behavioural Insights Team
Founded2010 in London, United Kingdom
United Kingdom
Area served
Number of employees
100 – 500

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), also known unofficially as the "Nudge Unit", is social purpose organisation that generates and applies behavioural insights to inform policy and improve public services. BIT works in partnership with governments, local authorities, non-profits, and businesses to tackle major policy problems.

Originally set up within the UK Cabinet Office to apply nudge theory within British government, BIT became a social purpose limited company in 2014.[1] Its work now spans across seven offices, having run more than 750 projects in and conducted over 500 randomised controlled trial (RCTs). The Behavioural Insights Team is headed by psychologist David Halpern.


BIT was set up in 2010 by the coalition government in a probationary fashion.[1][2] In April 2013 it was announced that it would be partially privatised as a mutual joint venture.[3]


On 5 February 2014 its ownership was split equally between the government, the charity Nesta, and the team's employees,[4] with Nesta providing £1.9 million in financing and services.[5] reported that it was "the first time the government has privatised civil servants responsible for policy decisions".[5] The Financial Times expected it "to be the first of many policy teams to be spun off as part of plans to shrink central government and create a private enterprise culture in Whitehall".[5]

BIT's objects are stated in its Articles as "(i) promote the public good, and (ii) generate the maximum achievable profits available for distribution."[6]

UK government departments that had previously received policy advice for free now pay for the service, as the cost of maintaining the team is no longer borne by government.


Although specific ideas devised by BIT have been imitated in several other countries (see below), David Halpern said in an interview that the unit's underlying methodology has still not been widely understood.[7] He said BIT's 'greatest legacy' would be not any individual behavioural insight, but its commitment to creating a set of variants on any given intervention and testing them against each other. He called the cycle of making variants, testing them, learning what works best and starting again from there "radical incrementalism".


Drawing the attention of those who fail to pay Vehicle Excise Duty[edit]

BIT implemented a trial that included adding a picture of the offending vehicle in the letters sent to non-payers of Vehicle Excise Duty that led to an increase in payment rates from 40% to 49%.[8]

Using social norms to increase tax payments[edit]

BIT tested whether adding a notice that most people pay their taxes on time to the letters sent from HM Revenue and Customs would have effect on the payments made by those receiving the message. Trials increased payment rates significantly.[9][8]

Increasing fine payment rates through text messages[edit]

BIT prompted those owing the UK Courts Service fines with a text message ten days before the bailiffs were to be sent to a person, which doubled payments made without the need for further intervention.[8] This innovation has reportedly saved the Courts Service £30 million a year by "sending people owing fines personalised text messages to persuade them to pay promptly".[5]

Increasing tax collection rates by changing the default web-link[edit]

BIT ran a series of trials with HMRC that sought to improve tax collection rates by making it easier for individuals to pay. One of the simplest interventions involved testing the impact of directing letter recipients straight to the specific form they were required to complete, as opposed to the web page that included the form. This increased response rates by 19 to 23%.[8]

Reducing medical prescription errors[edit]

A study by Imperial College London funded by BIT sought to reduce prescription errors by redesigning the prescription forms. To make it easier to distinguish between micrograms and milligrams, distinct options that had to be circled were included. In simulation testing, the new charts were found to significantly improve correct dose entries.

Giving a day's salary to charity[edit]

BIT ran a trial with Deutsche Bank to examine how to encourage people to donate part of their salaries to charity. The control group received generic emails and leaflets encouraging people to participate. This approach was tested against a range of new interventions, including offering people sweets branded with a charitable giving message; and making the email more personalized. They were found to be highly effective and cheap ways of increasing uptake and showed an even greater impact when they were combined.[8]

Increasing response rates of doctors by attracting the attention of a specific group[edit]

BIT ran a trial with HMRC to test the effectiveness of different letters aimed at encouraging doctors to pay any outstanding tax liabilities. In November 2011, around 3,000 doctors were sent one of four different types of letters. One group received a generic HMRC letter. The second group received letters in the style that HMRC might usually send to a specific group, emphasizing that it was a campaign focused on doctors. The third was a short and simple letter suggesting in direct tone that failure to come forward was previously treated as an oversight, but would now be treated as an active choice by the recipient. The fourth was identical but contained an additional moral message (which pointed out that a recent poll showed that most people trust their doctor to tell the truth). Emphasizing that the letters were targeting a particular group through a specific campaign had a considerable impact, raising response rates by more than five times. Simplifying the message also had a strong effect above and beyond the focus on the specific group.[8]

Using a clear call to action stamp to improve payment rates of fines[edit]

BIT ran experimental trials with Australia's New South Wales' Department of Premier and Cabinet and Office of State Revenue to improve payment rates for fines, debts, and taxes.

A number of fines trials involved testing the use of a "stamp" to provide a clear call to action for recipients. One of these trials involved "Enforcement Orders", which are issued to those people who have failed to respond to a Penalty Notice and Penalty Reminder Notice for fines ranging from traffic and parking infringements to civil disorder offenses. A red "Pay Now" stamp was printed in a prominent position on letters in the trial group, alongside a number of other changes that made the messaging more salient. In a sample size of 48,445 letters, there was a 3.1 percentage point increase in payment rates in the trial letters compared to the standard notice. When rolled out to scale, this translates to AUD$1.02 million in additional payments for the NSW government, as well as 8,800 fewer vehicle suspensions, which has wider socioeconomic benefits for the community.[8]

Using a lottery to increase electoral participation rates[edit]

BIT ran a randomised controlled trial with a local authority to test the efficacy of using lotteries to increase electoral registration rates. There was a 3.3% increase in registration rates when the prize was £1,000, and a 4.2% increase when the prize was £5,000.[8]

Encouraging charitable giving in wills[edit]

BIT partnered with Co-operative Legal Services to test whether social norm messages in telephone scripts could be used to encourage people to donate more to charity in their wills. When customers booked a will-writing appointment, they were randomly assigned to a will-writer, who would write their will with them over the phone.

The control group of customers was asked if they would like to donate money to charity in their wills, asked the simple question "Would you like to leave any money to charity in your will?" (we call this the "Just Ask" condition), or told, "Many of our customers like to leave money to charity in their will". They were then asked "are there any causes you're passionate about?" (called the "Social Passion Ask" condition). In the "Just Ask" group, 10% of customers chose to leave a gift to charity in their wills. But in the "Social Passion Ask" group, donation rates rose threefold to 15%, and, unlike the "Just Ask" group, the average donation doubled. Furthermore, the average size of the donation among people in the "Social Passion Ask" group was twice as large (£6,661) than those in the control (£3,300) or "Just Ask" group (£3,110).[8]

Encouraging people to join the organ donor register using reciprocity[edit]

In 2013 BIT collaborated with the Department of Health, the National Health Service, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and the Government Digital Service to increase organ donation.

When people renew their car tax online, they receive a message asking if they want to join the organ donor register. For one month, eight different messages were introduced to encourage sign up, and visitors were randomly allocated to each. Since over 1 million people visited the site during the month, this represented one of the largest randomised controlled trials in the public sector. The most successful variant asked "If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others'", which has been estimated to add around 100,000 extra organ donors per year relative to the control.[8]

Personal commitment devices in Jobcentres[edit]

BIT is working with Jobcenters in a trial involving cutting down the process, personalizing job advice and includes the introduction of commitment devices, which require the jobseeker to make commitments to the job advisor about what they are going to do in the next week. They write their commitments down in front of the job advisor, who then follows up whether they were successful. The job seekers are encouraged to make the commitments unambiguous by specifying when and where they are going to perform the action. The early results from the trial has showed a significant increase in those off benefits at 13 weeks. The trial will be published in 2014.[8][needs update]

Increasing loft insulation installation[edit]

Although loft insulation is essentially a zero-risk proposition, there were very few people installing it. The team discovered that people's lofts were full of junk, and provided low-cost labor to clear them; this caused a fivefold increase in the proportion of installed insulation.[2]

In June 2012, they published a policy paper on the use of randomised controlled trials in collaboration with Ben Goldacre.[10]

Benefit Sanctions for Disabled People[edit]

Tasked by the Department of Work and Pensions to investigate the effectiveness of "sanctioning" recipients of disability benefits (punishing them with fines of up to three years ineligibility to benefits for supposed bad attitudes or non-compliance), the nudge unit noted that these methods were ineffective, but rather than recommending they be withdrawn, proposed changes which might make sanctions and benefit conditionality more effective.[11][citation needed]

Influencing Unemployed Disabled People via their GPs[edit]

Working with the DWP and the Department of Health, the nudge unit investigated ways of pressuring sick and disabled people in receipt of the Employment and Support Allowance benefit towards work.[citation needed] These included GPs prescribing work coaches, and the integration of health and employment information. Disabled people's and other groups raised immediate concerns.[citation needed] The ESA benefit itself is awarded on the basis that the sick or disabled person is not currently fit for work, something pressure to work ignored and potentially exacerbated, and the amalgamation of health information and employment had obvious privacy concerns, particularly in the wider context of DWP having made repeated attempts to gain a right of access to medical records.[12][citation needed]

International adoption[edit]

United States[edit]

BIT has expanded to the United States setting up an office in New York. The North American operation is working with cities and their agencies, as well as other partners, across the United States and Canada, running over 25 randomized controlled trials in the first year of operation.

The model has been followed in the United States. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has a "Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative", whose goal is "to translate academic research findings into improvements in federal program performance and efficiency using rigorous evaluation methods".[13] On 15 September 2015 President Obama issued an Executive Order which formally established the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team and directed government agencies to use insights from the social and behavioral sciences to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their work.[14]

Oceania and Southeast Asia[edit]

BIT Australia worked with the New South Wales government, whose Department of Premier and Cabinet boasts a Behavioral Insights unit.[15] In Singapore, BIT works with Singaporean government agencies, including the Ministry of Manpower, Public Services Division of the Prime Minister’s Office, and Ministry of Home Affairs.[16]


  1. ^ a b "Behavioural Insights Team".
  2. ^ a b Bell, Chris (11 February 2013). "Inside the Coalition's controversial 'Nudge Unit'".
  3. ^ "Government launches competition to find a commercial partner for the Behavioural Insights Team".
  4. ^ "'Nudge unit' sold off to charity and employees". BBC News. 5 February 2014.
  5. ^ a b c d Plimmer, Gill (5 February 2014). "UK Cabinet Office 'nudge' team to be spun off into private group". Financial Times.
  6. ^ Articles,
  7. ^ "The UK's 'nudge unit' is saving lives by steering citizens' choices | Apolitical". Apolitical. Retrieved 23 April 2018.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k
  9. ^ Hallsworth, Michael; List, John A.; Metcalfe, Robert D.; Vlaev, Ivo (April 2017). "The behavioralist as tax collector: Using natural field experiments to enhance tax compliance" (PDF). Journal of Public Economics. 148: 14–31. doi:10.1016/j.jpubeco.2017.02.003.
  10. ^ "Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials".
  11. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 13 June 2018. Retrieved 13 June 2018.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. ^ "Revealed: Social Experiments to 'Nudge' Sick and Disabled into Work". 6 November 2015.
  13. ^ "Dr Maya Shankar". Behavioural Exchange 2014. Retrieved 19 October 2014.
  14. ^ "Executive Order Formally Establishes US 'Nudge Unit'". 16 September 2015.
  15. ^ "Behavioural Insights". New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet. Retrieved 19 October 2014.
  16. ^ BIT homepage Missing or empty |title= (help)

External links[edit]