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Getting started with behavioural science

2 June 2023

News and media


This guest editorial was written for the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of practice monthly newsletter, highlighting new additions to the Regulation Policy and Practice collection on APO. The RP&P collection brings together a range of practical resources from national, local and state/territory governments, regulatory agencies and external institutions conducting monitoring, inquiries and reviews. You can receive this newsletter by  joining the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of Practice (membership is free) or subscribe to the newsletter directly.


By Liam Smith, Professor and Director, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute 

Traditional views of regulation emphasise the role of the law as the primary tool for compliance.  From this standpoint, regulation’s focus is the communication and enforcement of rules created by governing bodies with non-compliance usually punished through penalties or sanctions.  Of course, not all (or even many) regulators view their role this way, with many recognising that behaviour change is the focus of, and even synonymous with, regulation.  This recognition is important because it opens up a raft of new approaches to the practice of regulation through the use of behavioural science tools. 

Behavioural science seeks to understand behavioural motivations and by using tools to unpack these, regulators can gain a deeper understanding of why individuals and businesses behave the way they do.  Based on this understanding, behaviour change practitioners can design more effective interventions that align to these motivations and go beyond traditional law enforcement.  And because behavioural science is agnostic about the type of tool, regulators that embrace behavioural science may find themselves persuading (for non-compliance reasons), training, modelling good behaviour and offering incentives.  Indeed, behavioural science offers hundreds of techniques, such as nudges and other Behaviour Change Techniques (BCTs), that can be used to influence behaviour both consciously and unconsciously. 

Despite the benefits, embracing a behaviour change approach can be difficult for regulators and can take time to embed.  At one end of maturity is an individual or a small behaviour team with limited scope and activity is often limited to either preventing behaviour change mistakes (such as giving too many facts, offering too many choices, or emphasising the size of the problem) or making small changes in program delivery, typically via communication. In BehaviourWorks’ method we call these ‘generic behaviour change tools’.   

Mature behavioural insights teams employ a broad suite of tools to unpack problems (such as system mapping, segmentation and evidence review), understand drivers and barriers of target behaviours (via audience research) and have sophisticated research and evaluation tools (or they partner with universities or similar organisations to assist).  Mature behavioural insights units often reside centrally in governments and can partner with regulators to apply behavioural science to policy and regulatory challenges.  

Whether applying behavioural insights is supported by a large behavioural insights team or the work of one or two individuals within regulatory organisations, the goal of incorporating behavioural science into regulatory practice is to increase both compliance and outcomes. Below are three tools that may be particularly useful to regulators: segmentation, choosing specific behaviours and understanding motivation. 


While segmentation in behavioural sciences has traditionally focused on grouping individuals, businesses can be considered the same way.  One segmentation approach that is commonplace in regulation categorises businesses based on motivation and ability. Such an approach is beneficial for regulators as it enables a more nuanced approach to regulatory oversight and enforcement. By categorising individuals or entities based on their motivation and ability to comply with regulations, regulators can identify high-risk segments that may require closer monitoring and more stringent enforcement measures and allows regulators to differentiate between actors who are willing but may lack the resources or knowledge to comply, and those who have the means but choose not to adhere to regulations.  

Choose specific behaviours

One key need in behavioural science is to be specific about the behaviours you want your target audience to do. Considering “who does what, where and when” allows regulators to talk to their audience about the reasons why they do and don’t do the specific behaviour.  While the benefit of specificity is that regulators can be much more targeted in their questions about drivers and the design of interventions, regulation contexts often require regulatees to undertake numerous behaviours, not just one.  To resolve this, there are a few options.  First, behaviours can be prioritised, which will allow regulators to focus in on the most impactful / important behaviours. Second, regulators could choose to have several conversations about different behaviours.  Finally, although not ideal, behaviours can be grouped into categories – e.g. “store hazardous waste correctly” vs specific behaviours such as “install bunding around waste storage”, “check for leaks”, “install a spill kit” and the like). 

Understanding motivation

Undertaking the two steps above allow regulators to have a clear answer to the question “who (which segment) needs to do what (specific behaviours) differently”.  This is the starting point for inquiries into why individuals and organisations do and don’t undertake these behaviours.  There are numerous ways to ask questions about the specific behaviour, but three simple ones include: 

  • What are the advantages / disadvantages of doing behaviour X? 
  • Who would approve / disapprove of doing behaviour X? 
  • What makes it hard / easy to do behaviour X? 

By asking these questions about specific behaviour(s), regulators will quickly get an understanding of the drivers and barriers for particular behaviours in particular audiences.  This understanding places regulators in a much better position to identify which tools may be more effective.  

Incorporating behavioural science and tools into regulatory practices has the potential to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, and impact of regulations. By identifying key audiences and behaviours and understanding human and organisational drivers and barriers, regulators can create a regulatory landscape that is more aligned with the needs and behaviours of individuals and organisations, leading to better outcomes.