Behavioural Insights Team

Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals – Nudging to better CEIAG outcomes

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I’ve posted before about the work of the Behavioural Insights Team (previously known as the Government nudge unit) and their work on designing and implementing changes to frameworks and procedures in the public and private spheres that result in greater positive gains.

Behavourial Science is a field with significant overlap in supporting CEIAG work. How young people make decisions at important transition points, why they aspire to certain routes, how people make and then stick with plans to enact change in their circumstances are all questions which mesh with Careers work both at the strategic, Government message level enacted via the Careers & Enterprise Company and at the much smaller, individual careers guidance sessions with clients level.

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Two of the team members are the latest to publish a book about their work. How “Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals” differs is that is takes the lessons from the big strategic projects the Insights Team have worked on and shows how the behavioural science theories then can be applied by individuals to their own circumstances.

As a read, I found the tone of book accessible but very convinced by the infallibility of behavioural economics as a science. They may have good reason to with the recent award of the Nobel Prize to Richard Thaler, but the absence of any mention of traditional psychological work or evolutionary science to explain behaviour and decision making is noticeable. Also obvious is the much repeated technique of involving the lives of the authors or their office colleagues to show how behavioural change techniques work for real people. While this is useful once or twice to show practical implications, by the fifth or sixth time the reader is hearing about Owain’s plan to balance his extremely well paid job with more exercise and the demands of his home life, your sympathy and interest does wane.

Spread throughout the book though are some fascinating nuggets that Careers practitioners could (and many probably already do to some extent) incorporate into practice.

For individual clients

Practitioners will know that an action plan should not merely be a wish list of future achievements but realistic steps which are time limited. This has shown to be effective for individuals across a wide range of public policy initiatives

Making a simple plan that sets out when, how and where you are going to follow through on your intentions has been shown to be effective at helping people to eat more fruit, increase public transport use, reduce discrimination, get more exercise, diet, improve academic performance, quit smoking and recycle more.

but for individuals the key seems to be linking actions to regular moments in a daily routine

you’re much more likely to follow through on the things you need to do to achieve it if you create a simple plan. And the best way of doing this is to create connections between moments in your daily routine and the actions you need to take.

and asking clients to write these action points down themsleves

The first, simple step, is to do exactly what the individuals in the re-running of the experiment did: write your commitment down.

Asking clients details of their daily routines to link commitments to is more the kind of intervention that a life coach would make rather than a careers practitioner but I could certainly see how a simple change towards the end of a guidance interview of asking the client to write their action points down themselves could drastically enhance the impact of that interview.

For longer term or returning clients, a practitioner may want to investigate more of the cycle of actions that “Think Small” proposes to spur change and adherence to that change.

SET

  • Choose the right goal
  • Focus on a single goal and set a clear target and deadline
  • Break your goal down into manageable steps

PLAN

  • Keep it simple
  • Create an actionable plan
  • Turn the plan into habits

COMMIT

  • Make a commitment
  • Write it down and make it public
  • Appoint a commitment referee

REWARD

  • Put something meaningful at stake
  • Use small rewards to build good habits
  • Beware of backfire effects

SHARE

  • Ask for help
  • Tap into your social networks
  • Use group power

FEEDBACK

  • Know where you stand in relation to your goal
  • Make it timely, specific, actionable and focused on effort
  • Compare your performance with others

STICK

  • Practice with focus and effort
  • Test and learn
  • Reflect and celebrate success

Some of those steps are common sense which any educator asking for improvement from a student would implement but steps such as “Put something meaningful at stake” (the book gives the example of wearing a rivals football shirt for a day at the office) can add a level of social fun that you can easily see working in practical situations with clients.

For cohorts

Many practitioners will also run group sessions for learners or work with year group cohorts. The book references studies that I’ve previously posted about that showed that sending letters of encouragement to high achieving young people in Year 12, “penned” by students from similar backgrounds, increased the number of applications and acceptances to Russell Group universities.  What may come as a blow to Careers practitioners though are the findings that presentations of data or talks

about the long-term benefits of attending university – are not effective. What does seem to work is pupils hearing about what it’s like to go to university from former pupils; such pupils inevitably dwelt on the lifestyle benefits as well as future career prospects.

In these instances it is the authenticity of the person delivering the message that seems to have the impact on learners rather the (ahem) more impartial or informed Careers practitioner. The lessons for practitioners is to ensure that their program of alumni engagement is collecting contact details and that a pool of ex students are ready to be approached to revisit their old haunts and deliver sessions to current learners alongside the impartial delivery. It is their stories that will help snowball your positive destination outcomes.

For us all

Careers practitioners will regularly speak to clients about the value of work and how different values appeal to different clients in finding job satisfaction and happiness at work. It seem though that a constant is there

if you rate your relationship with your boss one point higher on a ten-point scale, it is statistically equivalent to a 30 per cent pay rise

You have to find a good boss.

Overall

I would say that the book has some good lessons for CEIAG practitioners but readers should always be keeping in mind the wider literature around careers theory and social mobility. “Nudges” are clearly based upon interesting and provable behavioural science but the reasons that the State would employ such techniques (ease, low cost for return etc) are the opposite of the time intensive, personal service that CEIAG practitioners strive to offer clients.

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The power of role models on education pathways choice

Much of the recent focus in CEIAG has been on growing the evidence base (and so being able to bend the policy ear) of the benefit of employer interactions on pupil’s employment and earning outcomes. Meanwhile the other side of the CEIAG practitioner coin of inspiring pupils to transition onto successful future education pathways has been left to happen purely on its perceived value. This is often achieved through similar activities such as site visits, taster type activities, assemblies and visiting speakers so it is interesting to see the growing evidence base for what type of provision is most successful in this area as well. The Behaviour and Insights Team have now published two studies which boost the evidence base for two practices in encouraging young people to apply to high tariff Universities

  1. That letters of encouragement to Year 12s from older students from similar backgrounds increased applications and acceptances to Russell Group Universities

and a more recent publication that shows that talks and mentoring sessions from current students at high tariff Universities also encourage higher application and acceptances rates at high tariff institutions. Any CEIAG provision requiring role models is time and commitment intensive which is a step change from their previous work on arm’s length interventions.

That these types of provisions work isn’t going to be much of a surprise to a CEIAG practitioner, it’s bread and butter stuff, but I found the four-year study interesting because of the positive impact the talks and mentoring had on the applications from disadvantaged backgrounds and also the age of students with which the provision had the most impact. The study showed that the outcome impact on acceptances was much higher for students in the program who were studying at FE or Sixth Form Colleges than those in schools.

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The working paper speculates that this finding could be a result of

college environments, which typically contain more students, are less conducive to personal support for application to university and selective university in particular. Alternatively, it could be that the selection of students into these further education colleges is a relevant factor. Because colleges offer a wider variety of courses, it could be that students who select into these institutions are interested in pursuing less typical careers and may not be aware of the benefit or options for university in the absence of our intervention.

Which reminds the practitioner around the dangers of stereotyping. Leaving aside the type of educational institution the young person was attending, it’s interesting to see that in-depth provision such as offering role models can still have large impacts with this age group. Practitioners will know that by 16-18 young people can be blinkered in their belief of the possible future pathways that are suitable for them. By this age, their horizons have been defined by the family, school and societal pressures around them. As the working paper describes

the concept of ‘social norms’ can explain how, by seeking to emulate the attitudes and actions of those in their social group, students adopt the idea that academic education is ‘not for them’

and this is just one of the modifiers of future plans. The study also follows previous findings that information giving is not enough to alter student plans as

information-only interventions have proven ineffective at encouraging college application behaviour. This is convincingly demonstrated by a randomised controlled trial in which over 1 million US students were targeted with emails and letters about the financial support available to college applicants. Despite the scale of this trial, it was found to have no discernible impact on college enrollment

This may lead practitioners to speculate that horizon broadening should occur at an earlier age but by KS5, more intensive interventions are needed.

I also found the study interesting as it adds to other psychological studies which show that once formed, a person’s impression of a situation can be remarkably perseverant, even when irrefutable facts or evidence is then produced which disproves the individuals stated belief. The reasons for this psychological trait and the many concerning consequences of it are covered in this fascinating New Yorker piece, “Why Don’t Facts Change Our Minds.”

The theory of cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber that irrational beliefs persist because reason evolved due to our need to live in collaborative groups

Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective

This roadmap in our minds left over from evolution leads to confirmation bias (or in Mercier’s and Sperber’s terms “myside” bias) which is all to the benefit of winning arguments

This lopsidedness, according to Mercier and Sperber, reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

One can easily imagine this effect leading to the “social norms” constraints mentioned in the Behaviour Insight’s paper limiting young people’s percieved realistic choices. Wishing to retain standing within their social group and not stand out results in young people building their own beliefs and arguments for not pursuing less trodden routes no matter the weight of evidence provided to them that those less traveled paths could be more beneficial to them.

That this and previous studies on mentoring interventions can overcome these inherent traits is very interesting. Introducing role models into a young persons social sphere injects new views and so shifts the framing of acceptable/not acceptable choices and how they are perceived. It alters the height of the parapet of which the young person is comfortable sticking their head above.

When dealing with perhaps even more ingrained beliefs, it is why mentoring is so central to the Prevent Strategy and the work to reintegrate those with extremist views.

I would suggest that the practical outcomes from these studies and the associated cognitive science for the CEIAG practitioner thinking about pathways provision would be:

  1. Information signposting is not enough to impact choices
  2. Provision that does (role models, mentoring) is in-depth
  3. Never stereotype your pathway focus for different groups
  4. Hold onto the contact details of successful and varied alumni so that they can become the role models and repeat the cycle

 

 

 

 

The nudge, nudge future of CEIAG

One of the most substantial and thought-provoking pieces of work on Careers published in the last year was the Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC) commissioned report “Moments of Choice” which I looked at here.

The report was written by the Behavioural Insights Team and it gave the CEC plenty of conclusions on which to plan their own future work

We will highlight key messages, alerting schools and colleges to the types of conversations that young people should be having and when they should be having them; the types of information they should consider in those conversations; the mistakes that young people typically make and, perhaps most importantly of all, the things that they do not need to worry about.

on how young people wanted to consume Careers IAG

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and how the CEC would go about trying to achieve that

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In the past weeks two projects have come to light which show the way that this future Careers IAG apparatus might work in practice.

First was another Insights Team piece of research which used a three year randomised controlled trial to find that sending letters of encouragement to high achieving young people in Year 12, “penned” by students from similar backgrounds, increased the number of applications and acceptances to Russell Group universities. This kind of cost-effective intervention (printing and posting some mail merge letters are a lot cheaper than Careers Advisers) can be highly targeted using not only GCSE attainment data but also parental income data now available.

This type of intervention is small-scale when compared to Careers choice help for all young people outlined by the CEC above but we can see how such interventions could be scalable yet still retain an element of personalisation to the message so desired by the young people themselves as well as using technology to more be responsive to users needs.

An example of how this type of personalised messaging system could be used to aid Careers decisions can found in another Behaviour Insights Team project called Promptable.

Aimed at FE students, Promptable uses text messages to text students and nominated “Study Supporters” weekly with reminders and prompt discussions about revision and tutor feedback in the build up to exams. The Team found that students who took part in the Promptable trials boosted their College attendance and exam performance.

Imagine a similar system designed for secondary school age young people and nominated “Supporters” discussing Careers choices at appropriate landmarks. Schools or Colleges ask students to sign up to the site, the school has uploaded their own timeline for PHSE or Careers lessons, for Key Stage 4 choices, for specific visits, talks or careers fairs, for Key Stage 5 choices, for Higher Education plans, links to CEIAG online resources etc etc and then the site sends prompting texts to students and “Supporters” to discuss these milestones or enable Supporters to remind students to attend events. As with Promptable, you could even have the student complete a short questionnaire on sign up outlining areas of interest which they can tailor by sending code texts back (“to out of messages about events please text EVENTS STOP back to this number”) which would also notify the Supporter so a discussion could be had (“actually I think it would be good if you did go to that Apprenticeship Information Evening”).

This kind of interaction fulfills all of the requirements of an easily accessible, horizon broadening intervention method that also encourages personalised face to face discussions. CEIAG event notification and student tracking systems are already on the market through products such as Grofar but this system has the added impetus (or nudge) method of the Supporter, known to the student and offering  chance for discussion. Some in the CEIAG community would ask where in this system does the CEIAG professional fit in? As the local architect of the educational establishment’s profile on the main website, the organiser of the provision, the record keeper of attendance and the option of face to face guidance as another method of provision to be offered to the student body but most of all, as the face of encouraging student sign up to the system would be my proposal.

Large scale systems face a balance between creating systems that work for the majority yet be flexible enough to impact the individual. The communication method of results of systems like Promptable and the targeted use of household data to tailor messages to young people such as the “Encouraging people into University” report could show the way on how this is feasible in CEIAG.

Moments of choice

The emergence of evidence led research to direct careers policy in recent years has been a welcome branch of a wider evidence led trend across educational policy making. Using longitudinal data to not only show that employer faced careers interventions have positive outcomes but also to pinpoint the wage premium value these type of interventions have had has been a hugely persuasive headline for policy makers.

Keen to show that they are fulfilling one of their briefs to “show what works,” the Careers & Enterprise Company recently released a research paper “Moments of Choice – How education outcomes data can better support informed career decisions”. The document is based on two pieces of research: 1) an 84 page commissioned report also called “Moments of Choice” by the Behavioural Insights Team and 2) a piece of work by PricewaterhouseCoopers which looked at the current landscape of careers information providers.

The work of the Behavioural Insights Team is fascinating as it mixes psychology, sociology and economics to enable the state (or now that it is a standalone company, any paying client) to get the reaction from the public they desire. When the Department of Health wanted more people to join the organ donor list or HMRC wanted more people to pay their taxes on time, it was the Behavioural Insights Team they called. The potential overlap of Behavioural Economics and nudge theory to the student CEIAG process in schools is obvious and the scope for young people to make decisions and choices that are more informed and considered is huge.

The Insights Team research is based on a small number of interviews with young people and career professionals and a number of round-table events attended by a range of stakeholders. I attended one of those round-tables and noted at the time just what a task the Team had undertaken

and, looking back, it was stark just how misunderstood the event was by the stakeholders attending. The aim of looking at all of the influencing elements of career choice was too nebulous a concept for many to engage with or too wide for those only attending to reinstate their patch.

This complexity extends into the source research report but essentially outlines the following:

  • That, for each young person, a huge variety of contextual factors play differing roles in shaping their views on their careers possibilities. Parents, socio-economic background, peers, media and social media and other trusted adults can all play some part in a young person constructing a flight path and dismissing non desirable destinations
  • That the sheer number of possible options open to young people leads to a wealth of information across multitudes of providers. This wildly confusing landscape causes young people to retract and be hesitant to engage and prefer to stick to well trodden paths. They struggle to find information that they think will aid their decisions and find the information impersonal and hard to contextualize to their own lives.

Throughout the document popular behavioral psychology writers such as Daniel Kahneman are referenced (and the work in his book “Thinking, Fast & Slow” on decision bias and different judgement systems is very pertinent) but it was the work of Barry Schwartz that sprung to my mind.

Who theorizes that

  • A choice architecture system with many options to choose from can cause paralysis especially when the choices have been built up to be ‘important’
  • And that, the variety of choice leads the individual to believe that there must a choice that is a perfect fit for them. When the choice disappoints, the dissatisfaction for the individual is greater as they curse their (or the advice frameworks) inability to find the ‘correct’ choice for them (Which many would agree is consistent with the stereotypical adult reflection on past careers interventions).

To my mind though, it is noticeable that some elements you would expect at least a passing reference to are missing from the Insights Team report. When looking at how young people engage with career decisions, it is odd that any reference to the wealth of publications on career theory is absent. As anyone who has waded through Unit 3 of the Level 6 careers qualification will attest, plenty has been written on careers theory. Perhaps this decision was taken as the report only focuses on a specific age section of the employability journey while career theory can take a more holistic approach. Even then though, there is much the Team could have taken from Holland (1997), the importance Super’s (1953) Life Span theory places on “self concept shaped by feedback by the external world” or Gottfredon’s (1981) theory of Circumscription and Compromise considering the Career Enterprise Company’s overall aim of improving social mobility. There is also the disregard for the kind of career trajectory that Krumboltz’s Happenstance theory outlines. For a report whose aim is to outline an architecture that places the choices of individual as the author in control of their story, it is perhaps understandable but still striking to omit a theory which proposes that it is not even desirable for this to be the case.

There is also the lack of reference to the psychology of habit. Career decisions are not taken by individuals as single events in a vacuum. The habit loops of an individual will already be affecting their engagement with education and possible adult influencers well before career choices are tasked to be made. The work of Charles Duhigg and the concept of feedback loops

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could have added value and helped place the behavioral psychology of choice into the wider context of a young person’s experience and how to positively interject into this.

Published simultaneously was the response to the research by the Careers & Enterprise Company which contains proposed actions such as disseminating further research and data such as longitudinal earnings figures to help individuals make more informed decisions. They also propose to convene an experts group to spread ‘advice’ statements on what works. The Company also sees a remit for itself in communicating advice to schools and CEIAG practitioners,

We will highlight key messages, alerting schools and colleges to the types of conversations that young people should be having and when they should be having them; the types of information they should consider in those conversations; the mistakes that young people typically make and, perhaps most importantly of all, the things that they do not need to worry about.

but that it

does not intend to provide individual advice to young people or create information tools designed to produce individualised recommendations. Our focus will be solely on high level advice i.e. advice that is true for large numbers of people.

This is slightly ironic considering the preceding thoughtful passages on ‘choice architecture’,

Personalisation is central to the creation of good choice architecture in complex scenarios. Personalisation means the degree to which the construction of choice sets and information sets is determined by what is known about an individual. Zero personalisation occurs when everybody has access to the same information and has to identify what is relevant to them. Weak personalisation occurs when information sets are created which are relevant to very large numbers of ‘average’ people – for example when information about career choices tells you about the average for a whole population of people entering into a particular career.

Which covers the nub of a paradox in the current UK Careers structure for young people. Distilling advice on the choices of individuals managing a trajectory through a hugely complex system such as the transition through education to work and beyond into career will only result in impersonal generalised statements. The report discusses the possibility of careers personalisation for young people being delivered by websites programmed with similar algorithmic processes to Amazon recommends. It acknowledges though that the bulk of responsibility of personalisation comes from the interactions with professionals involved in the day by day careers conversations, group work, trips and lessons designed to aid those young individuals. It is that very part of the process which, for all its strategic work with Enterprise Advisers and cold spot funding, the Company will remain at arm’s length from.

The tightrope of generalisation is even there, tripping up the Company in the Executive Summary

However, we can identify choices as ‘poor’ if, on clearly defined criteria such as ‘likelihood to increase earnings’, an individual has made a choice on a misconception

which fails to acknowledge that a misconception does not automatically lead to failure. A learner could choose a course on false information, love that course, be nourished by meeting like-minded people on that course and find happy, fulfilling work in the course area after graduating. A choice based on ‘wrong’ information can still turn out ‘right’: it’s a complex world and, as with general medical advice, there are always exceptions to the rule.

All of the strands of the Careers & Enterprise Company’s work can drive engagement between young people (and parents) and exploring careers decisions; bringing businesses into schools can illuminate job roles, publishing earnings data can lead to greatly informed decisions, sign posting ‘approved’ advice and notifying important calendar times can all help clear the fog of the unknown. It is though, the balances to strike between acknowledging complexity and simplification, between generalisation and personalisation and good advice and diktat that the Careers Company will have to find to succeed.

Hat tip to Tristram’s blog for bringing this report to my attention.