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Behavioural economics: all aboard

By February 17, 2017 Uncategorised 5 Comments
Hand reaching for apples in supermarket display of fruit.

Behavioural economics is taking off in Australia and offers insights for those of us working in communications in agriculture and natural resources to be more effective in bringing about change.

Think about the last time you went to the shops and bought an apple. What made you buy it and how many did you buy? Perhaps they were on sale or you were after a particular brand. Or was it something else, like the location of the apple stand in the store, or something you saw before you entered the shop. Or was it simply that they were in a bag and easy to grab.

Behavioural economics looks for the answers to these types of questions. It identifies what causes us to do what we do, or why we act in one way over another. Put simply, it’s the science of decision making.

It’s not just about why we buy one product over another – as perhaps the word ‘economics’ may imply. But really what causes us to partake in any type of behaviour and what could be adjusted in the world around us to make us more, or less, likely to do it.

Take recycling. We might recycle because we think it’s important or because it might make economic sense. But it’s also about how easy it is for us to actually complete the act of recycling. Behavioural economics looks at what might stop us from doing it, and what factors contribute to us doing it, even if we have ambivalent feelings about the value of recycling.

Behavioural economics across Australia

Australian governments have switched onto the insights offered by behavioural economics to help them turn policy into results with forerunners NSW establishing their Behavioural Insights Unit (NSW Government) in 2012. This was followed in 2016 by the first national level unit called the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA) and later that year by Victoria establishing its Behavioural Insights Unit (Victoria Government).

NSW is most advanced having already initiated and delivered a number of projects. For example, they provided guidance on the wording of cervical cancer reminder notices that resulted in more women making appointments and attending them. They’ve also recommended changes to how case managers undertake their work so they are more effective at helping medically discharged police officers find new jobs. The positive early feedback on this program has resulted in it being extended before the full results are even in.

Closer to home, BehaviourWorks, a company born in Monash University and its newly formed Sustainable Development Institute, has been exploring behaviour change in relation to sustainable development issues such as reporting livestock diseases and reducing food waste. It might be too early to see the real-world results of their research and recommendations yet, but their work looks promising.

So the concept of behavioural economics, or insights, is already being applied in agriculture and natural resource management. While this adoption of behavioural economics has largely been to support government policy, there’s a broader scope for us to apply it in our sector and combined with communications.

Informing how we tell stories

If you’ve ever worked with someone in communications you’ll have heard us talking about ‘telling stories’ or ‘communicating key messages’ or ‘getting good content’. These strategies are generally designed not just to communicate a piece of information for the sake of it, but to evoke a change in behaviour in the intended ‘audience’.

Whether it is (in my recent history) to encourage apple farmers to explore export opportunities, or to (in my more distant history) encourage ongoing support for research into Golden Rice that could help to reduce devastating vitamin A deficiency, we can always do our job better. If we have evidence that suggests a certain perspective, subtle change in words, even design or communication channel, or any other factor could be the tipping point to cause someone to change behavior or not, we can become so much more effective.

After being a Freakonomics (beautifully researched and produced book and podcast showcasing examples of behavioural economics) junkie for years, it feels like Australia is finally catching up. I’m also excited because I’m about to start my first unit offered at Monash University on the topic with an environment and sustainability bent.

And, as a new employee at Currie Communications, it’s also exciting to see that Currie is already on board, with the Capturing Coral Reef and Related Ecosystem Services project. Currie and our partners are using evidence-based behavioural insights and the principles of a positive parenting model to promote better waste management. I can’t wait to get started!

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Jacinta Cubis, Qbis, for providing editorial suggestions.

About Sophie Clayton

Sophie wants to make the world a better place and believes that by improving agricultural systems, conserving natural resources and supporting rural communities we can do this. She is passionate about evidence-based insights into communication, agriculture and the environment and applying those to help farmers become more productive, profitable and environmentally sustainable.


  • Good blog Sophie.
    We here at Agribusiness Global (AG) are interested in how ‘behavioural econs’ can cater for emergent technologies impact on behaviours. For example, there is already a market forming around GPS-tracked food provence systems (the holy grail of the food system of the future). Since this is entirely on-line it requires assessments about behaviours online (but before an emergent technology ‘disrupts’ the status quo, and before it can be ‘seen’ and experienced).
    Behavioural econs, like econs itself, is reliant on past data to project forward. How so in the case of disruption….?
    If you’ll excuse the pun, food for behavioural thought?
    Cheers, Roy

    • Hi Roy,
      Thanks for your comment – definitely lots to chew on there! I can’t say I know a lot about GPS-tracked food provenance systems but there’s lots to learn from disruptive technologies about human behaviour that can be applied to new technologies being developed for the agribusiness sector. Surely testing technologies before they are rolled out can provide clues about how they could be adopted, promoted or adapted for greater uptake and for improved impact.
      I’d be interested to talk to you more about what you are doing in this space so drop us an email or give us a call if you have some time to discuss.
      Cheers, Sophie

  • Jacinta says:

    thanks for the acknowledgement Sophie. Happy to help!

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