I was running late to the Behavioral Insights conference in NYC. Despite planning efforts, I was having trouble checking into the hotel and now only had fifteen minutes to get from East 92nd Street and 1st Avenue to 78th and Madison (Bloomberg Philanthropies!). Seeing the time tick by, I made a decision. I abandoned the concierge, grabbed my luggage and began my stressed out walk/run toward the nearest 6 train. While I clamored across the upper east side, I drilled through what I would do if I got there five minutes late (walk in quietly and sit down) versus fifteen minutes late (wait out the first meeting of the day and join the group after) versus more than thirty minutes late (resign in shame). The scenarios raced through my head as the 6 train pulled into the station, I got on and quickly sat down.

I arrived six minutes late. Thankfully, all was forgiven and a funny silver lining came from my morning debacle.   

The conference was lead by the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), a social purpose company whose mission is to integrate behavioral science into the design of public services. Most public services are created with the expectation that a constituent will consider the service, weigh all of their options carefully and decide that using this service is the best, most logical decision for them. BIT argues that this is not always the case, that people are busy and bombarded by choices they have to make every day. Some of those decisions are super important and should be given time and attention… but some aren’t. Thinking back to my frantic commute, I remember my train of thought around the conference, but where I sat on the train... not so much.

Work-shopping at Bloomberg Philanthropies & Behavioral Insights Team i-teams training session

Work-shopping at Bloomberg Philanthropies & Behavioral Insights Team i-teams training session

BIT argues that in a world of endless choices, the human brain prioritizes. It places the hundreds of choices into two bins. A bin for complex, unfamiliar and important decisions and a bin for all the others. The first bin gets slow, reflective thinking that is based on analytical thought. It takes energy and the more decisions you place in this first bin, the more exhausted and stressed you become.

The second bin gets shortcuts. BIT believes that your brain has adapted by creating automated decision-making mechanisms. It uses information from your past and context clues from the environment and your own emotions to make a fast decision with little effort from you at all. I remember thinking through being late for the conference, I don’t remember how I decided upon my seat on the train…  I let the shortcuts take over.

As I recall, I ended up sitting in a seat near the door; probably wasn’t the closest, but it was close enough. I don’t remember making a conscious decision but I am happy with the outcome. However, these shortcuts have their shortcomings; they’re susceptible to generalizations and biases and can be easily diverted by distracting environmental or emotional information. Is close enough always good enough? These imperfect choices may add up overtime.

When informing the public about service or law, it’s hard to determine whether someone will really think it through or whether they’ll just use their “shortcuts.” BIT argues that we should inform the public in such a way that the chosen answer is the right answer, regardless of the way you choose.

i-team participants in Bloomberg Philanthropies & Behavioral Insights Team traing

i-team participants in Bloomberg Philanthropies & Behavioral Insights Team traing

Diving deep into the research around behavioral science, BIT has developed tactics to appeal to the shortcuts; essentially by making a choice easy, attractive, social and timely. Throughout the conference, BIT and Bloomberg’s i-teams talked through how we might apply BIT’s insights to our work. The Syracuse i-team is excited to integrate the insights and methodology as we roll out our Priority 2 initiatives. Could changing the text and look of our notice of violation letter motivate more people to fix their code violations? Could a script incorporating BIT principles into our call intake and customer service operations inspire better communication between property owners and code enforcement? Could targeted information get more tenants to show up to eviction court, greatly increasing their chances of a better outcome? Or could new outreach get more families to take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)?

Check back in as we learn to understand challenges and develop solutions through this lense!