Our Best Behavioral Wishes to the United Nations on its 75th Anniversary

By Anson Tong, Liz Tracy, and Joseph Sherlock

On September 21, today, the United Nations is celebrating its 75th anniversary with the theme of “The Future We Want, the UN We Need: Reaffirming our Collective Commitment to Multilateralism.” The goal of the UN is to improve the quality of life for people all over the world, whether through peacekeeping efforts, humanitarian aid, international law, or other avenues. In order to help people, we must be able to understand their psychology and behavior, which is why the UN has partnered with Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight (CAH) in a variety of ways to apply behavioral science. As we look back and celebrate a truly remarkable and impossible institution, we also look forward. Forward to the future of the UN and the role behavioral science can play in its ambitious mission.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we as individuals, communities, nations, and a world have a lot of reevaluation, reform, and rebuilding to do. Many inequalities have been exacerbated and broken systems have been exposed. Together, we can envision a brighter future. From a behavioral perspective, we know temporal landmarks offer us an opportunity for a fresh start, a new beginning. These landmarks can be the start of the new year, new month, new week or a new semester. For instance, Google searches for “diet” increase significantly at the start of a new week, month, and year (Milkman et al., 2014). They can also be personal landmarks or shifts like a birthday or moving to a new place. A 2012 study in Copenhagen found that providing car commuters with a free public transportation card for a month only caused a switch to public transportation commuting among drivers who had changed residence or workplace in the last 3 months (Thøgersen, 2012). As a society this year, we have been forced out of our habits ranging from daily work commutes to hugging friends. It is a large-scale reset no one wanted, but we shouldn’t let it go to waste. We ought to treat this as the pivotal opportunity it is. How we attend school, do our work, interact with our loved ones, move around, and spend our free time has changed. Our institutions and organizations should reflect that, both in the medium-term during the pandemic  and in the longer-term. So to the UN, on your 75th birthday, what comes next – don’t waste the silver lining opportunities a pandemic brings.

Behavioral science is by no means the end-all solution. Rather, it is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how and why people make the choices they do. We work to collect evidence, test hypotheses, and evaluate interventions. For example, in collaboration with the UN on polio eradication, behavioral insights can be applied to encourage individuals to attend all their appointments for immunizations. Issues such as limited public infrastructure or vaccine supply, however, require other policy solutions. Behavioral insights are one tool to address the challenges we face and should be used appropriately in conjunction with other tools. For the UN to use behavioral science to its full impact, it will be essential to recognize where this tool is most useful, and where it isn’t.

Some of the standout behavioral science implementations have been as simple as just wording changes, such as the Behavioural Insights Team’s work on encouraging people to pay their taxes with social norms. However, we can also look at the larger picture to understand how processes work (or don’t work) for people. One aspect of applied behavioral science is about how we craft the messaging surrounding positive behaviors like eating healthier. Another is about making those choices more convenient by making the healthy option prominent (e.g. at eye level in the grocery store), affordable, and accessible (e.g. available in general supermarkets). A very relevant COVID-19 example is promoting self-isolation if someone exhibits symptoms. It is important to publicize and frame this message correctly, but potentially more important to assess and reduce barriers to self-isolation like fear of losing one’s job or having a living situation that makes self-isolation challenging. There are many behavioral barriers that must be addressed further upstream. So our challenge here for the UN is to be bold with behavioral science. See it as more than just changing copy in a letter, but as a tool that will help in the design of policy and strategy from the start. Give behavioral science a seat at this table and allow it the time and space to demonstrate value.

A particularly vital change to make within behavioral science is to diversify teams and better understand local contexts, beyond those just in the United States. We must build a more comprehensive and inclusive body of literature and evidence that comes from a diverse set of contexts. We need a wider variety of researchers doing this work. The UN’s work championing behavioral insights, through the UN Behavioral Insights Network and other partnerships, is an excellent start. Currently, CAH is collaborating with UNICEF on projects in a variety of workstreams including: polio, HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, water, sanitation, and hygiene. We are also working with the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), helping the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) examine financial decision making, and running sessions with the UN Behavioral Insights Network. Behavioral science is an expanding and maturing field. In the coming years, we are sure to see many more exciting insights, partnerships, and applications from all over the world and across a variety of domains. Our birthday wish for the UN here is to use its unique position to help behavioral science embrace diversity.

Behavioral science, as a field, and the UN, as an institution, are both young with plenty to learn in the years to come. We at CAH tremendously value our UN partnership and hope our paths continue to wind together while we strive for a connected, diverse and impactful future. The United Nations may be 75 years old, but it is still constantly innovating, adapting, and changing to be the UN we need. And we appreciate this.


Anson Tong – Research Assistant
Liz Trazy – Project Manager
Joseph Sherlock – Senior Behavioral Advisor