As a behavioural scientist, Professor Paul Dolan has spent the past decade at LSE trying to understand what makes people happy, expose the societal barriers that prevent it, and guide interventions to steer public policy.
Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE and best-selling author of Happiness by Design and Happy Ever After. To mark his LSE anniversary, and against the backdrop of the Biden inauguration and a third UK lockdown, he spoke to Dr Grace Lordan at the online event “A Decade of Behavioural Science” on Wednesday 20 January 2021. Listen to the event in full here on LSE Player.
The discussion covered some of the enduring issues that surround how we understand and influence human behaviour, from biases to narratives, polarisation to class. Here we breakdown a few of these, from the past to the present, with a look to the future.
Narratives: what we see in other behaviours is an unpicking of our own desires
The stories and narratives that we tell ourselves and that we are told as a society can be helpful and often give people a sense of structure amidst chaos. They are not, though, always helpful for all of us, all the time.
Take social class, for example. Interventions that encourage people from working-class families to access higher education often assume that being middle class is better, in every sense, including for our happiness. Understanding the basis for these narratives are both crucial for understanding happiness, and for designing interventions that are truly beneficial. We are good at making assumptions about what is good for people, but we need a proper enquiry about what is substantially good for them, and what really makes people happier.
Subjective Wellbeing (SWB) levels have become increasingly central to understanding populations and guiding policy agenda. And behavioural science is lending an ever more guiding hand in designing effective interventions, particularly in health policy, from smoking to obesity.
What Dolan and others argue is that the context in which we make decisions matters a lot and has significant implications for the policy makers who try to understand human behaviour and happiness. It is important we understand the wellbeing causes and consequences of behaviour, and the best way to do this is not focus solely on behavioural science, but other social science disciplines who consider other aspects of human behaviour, from culture and biology, to data science. While it isn’t surprising that behavioural science has offered “quick wins” that are easy to measure and understand, it is time to paint a bigger picture about people’s behaviour, the richness of it, over time.
COVID-19: the voices left behind
There is much consensus about what we ought to be doing, even under this uncertainty, and this must be because of a lack of diversity in decision making. – Paul Dolan
Policy responses to COVID-19 in the UK have called on some of the largest (and quickest) behavioural shifts we have seen in decades. Many people moved to remote working almost instantly and compliance with physical distancing and mask wearing appears to have remained high.
Since the first UK lockdown was announced in March 2020, Dolan’s work has tried to measure and highlight the impacts of the policy responses on wellbeing.
Older people are most at risk from the COVID-19 virus but both the old and young are most harmed by the COVID-19 policy responses, which have predominantly been made by middle-aged people, with a lack of diverse perspective. From the beginning, the UK Government and their advisors have sought to “follow the science” but, as Dolan has argued, has made decisions that have impacted physical health, mental health, education and the economy without any experts in these areas around the decision-making table. By listening to a range of perspectives, policy responses may have been more sympathetic to the needs of people impacted by the policy responses from the beginning.
There may be polarised views that experts need to hear and respect too. For some people, taking a vaccine that has been produced relatively quickly is a cause for genuine concern. Bias here would assume that all people who are reluctant to take the vaccine are anti-vaxxers. If we are to truly listen to a range of perspectives in society though, this means listening to the views of people that we may not always necessarily agree with.
A global pandemic is an example of a “wicked problem”, something that is difficult to solve and that, by nature, is not predictable. However, there are lessons that we take away from this pandemic that could help the public and policy makers better prepare for the next one.
Turning to the future
To understand human behaviour and design interventions that are fair to the people they are aimed to help, both research and policy making decisions need to incorporate a range of perspectives, both from the social sciences and from a range of ages and types of experience.
There are big challenges ahead, and one of the biggest obstacles is learning and listening to each other, including people who have very different views to our own.
Watch previous events with Professor Paul Dolan
A Decade of Behavioural Science at LSE
With Professor Paul Dolan and Dr Grace Lordan, January 2021
Why Aren’t Policy Makers and the Public Demanding Emphasis is Placed on Happiness?
With Professor Paul Dolan and Lord Gus O’Donnell, December 2020
Behavioural Science and a Post-COVID World
With Professor Nick Chater, Professor Paul Dolan, Dr Grace Lordan, Professor Tali Sharot and Rory Sutherland, November 2020
Happy Ever After
With Professor Paul Dolan and Professor Tali Sharot, February 2019