Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

‘ “Want to grab some lunch?” ask a couple of colleagues as they walk past your desk’. This is the unconventional opening of the excellent MINDSPACE report on influencing behaviour through public policy, here taking its own advice in making information seem relevant to the people at whom it is aimed (in this case, civil servants designing policy).

Commissioned by the Cabinet Office and published earlier this year by the Institute for Government, MINDSPACE is a mnemonic for nine key influences on behaviour which should be given attention in the policy-making process. Drawn from the extensive literature on what influences our behaviour, MINDSPACE sets out that: we are heavily affected by the Messenger delivering information; respond to Incentives through shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses; we are influenced by the Norms of what others do; go with the flow of Defaults; we are drawn to Salient information and Primed by sub-conscious cues; are strongly influenced by Affect, that is, our emotional experiences; seek to be consistent to the public Commitments we make and act in ways which make us feel better about ourselves and thus protect our Ego.

The report contains lots of illuminating examples showing how these influences can be and have been used in designing policy. It also makes two very important observations about policy making as a whole. First, that

whether we like it or not, the actions of policymakers, public service professionals, markets and our fellow citizens around us have big, and often unintended, impacts on our behaviour. ‘Doing nothing’ is never a neutral option

This is of key relevance to those of us advocating a well-being led approach to policy-making. While we are often accused of wanting policy to overly interfere in people’s lives, in fact, given that all policy affects behaviour, it is also very likely to affect how people experience their lives. So policy-makers should see themselves as having to ensure that the effects they create through their policy decisions are postive rather than negative to well-being overall.

The second key observation is that

Government needs to understand the ways it may be changing the behaviour of citizens unintentionally…some priming effects work in surprising ways.

For me, this is an excellent summary of the reasons why nef advocates using well-being measures as ultimate indicators of society’s progress. When government focuses its energies on the growth of the country’s GDP, we are thereby primed to behave as though economic factors are the most important influence on our personal well-being, although the evidence, and much of our ‘folk knowledge’, suggests otherwise. By concentrating instead on the well-being outcomes of its policies, government could help us all to improve our own well-being by prioritising what really matters.