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The Poverty Podcast: Behavioral Science and Poverty

When you think of behavioral science, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Maybe human behavior, social sciences, psychology...maybe culture? That would all be correct, as there isn’t one simple standard definition of behavioral science. Today, we’ll explore that field and see how the World Bank has been using behavioral science in its global programs.

Welcome to the fourth episode of the Poverty Podcast. I’m your host, Mel Fleury.
On today’s episode, I’m joined by Ana Maria Muñoz-Boudet and Zeina Afif, from the Mind, Behavior, and Development team here at the World Bank. Ana Maria and Zeina will walk us through how the World Bank uses behavioral science in its projects, and how this area of science can support the Bank’s work by identifying factors that affect what people think and do. The World Bank’s Mind, Behavior, and Development unit, or eMBeD, helps governments, policy makers, and counterparts think through development challenges taking into account the target culture where each program takes place. They are currently working in over 50 countries with over 70 partners, across many diverse sectors, like environment, health, education, and finance.

By using a behavioral approach to development, the World Bank can better understand how people do certain things, like thinking or making decisions, and take these factors into account when designing projects or advising on policies, for example. We’ll see very clearly the importance of this process later in the podcast as we talk through how the Bank has been using behavioral science to fight vaccine hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic with the use of social media. So, stay tuned!

Mel: Thank you both for being here. I want to start by asking a very straightforward question: Thinking about the work the World Bank does and its twin goals—ending poverty and increasing shared prosperity—how can one use insights from behavior science to achieve these goals?

Ana Maria: The Bank teams have been doing in their own way, to some extent, behavioral science, and they do it every time they think about a project, right? Because you think about “who is this intended for? What can they access, maybe what are their motivations?”
Parents want to educate their children so, if I build a school, children will come to school, that might be a very sort of like simple way. As our team is called eMBeD, we actually go and embed ourselves in the project and ask the questions that people tend to forget to ask. What are the barriers that people might have to come to school, right?
We do a lot of diagnostics, which is, how do you ask the correct question? Or how do you frame your problem? What are the things, the behaviors and the decisions that need to happen for that little thing, say a child going to school, to take place and what are all the possible roadblocks that a person or a stakeholder involved this process, a parent, a child, and a teacher have to take and go through for that to happen. We unpack the process to get to that outcome and all the possible barriers and obstacles that people might face.

Mel: According to Ana Maria and Zeina, field evidence suggests that the condition of poverty and social exclusion triggers psychological and cognitive processes which affect decision-making. As suggested by researchers in the field, poverty creates a tax on mental resources and shapes mindsets and aspirations in a way that is detrimental to investments.
Poverty is also associated with higher levels of stress and lower psychological wellbeing, these have negative impacts on attention, memory, focus and the capacity to plan among others. Understanding these impacts and addressing them via policies targeting the poor can increase policy impact and effectiveness.
Ana Maria guided us further by explaining what they call “choice architecture,” which is how you present a solution in a way that it will influence people’s choices. The seemingly easy task of enrolling kids in school might not be seen as easy by many vulnerable households. Their thought process considers transportation, food, uniforms, time spent away from home, and much more. So, the objective is to understand these concerns and add incentives (such as a school uniform voucher, for example), to that program or policy design to achieve desired results.

Ana Maria: When your head is so busy thinking about how you're going to feed your family tomorrow, you don't have a lot of time to think, to plan for the future, to do mental accounting. And when you have income at hand, your priority is to spend it in the immediate needs that you have, less than putting them for the future. And, and this is interesting because it takes the discussion out of the poor as being lacking things to the condition of poverty, making the life and the decision making of the poor very difficult. So that helps us understand how can we help for example, their environment of decision making to be easier to make better choices for a future wellbeing.

Things such as nutrition for children, it's better prompted when you actually give the parents the food or the conditional cash transfer or the voucher that solves that problem in their head. So, in a way it's a lot of like how we help poor people make decisions that are better for the future without saying that this is a problem of them as poor people, but a problem of the context of poverty and the situation that poverty does.

Mel: The World Bank is now using behavioral science to tackle one of the most complicated challenges we face in the fight against COVID: vaccine hesitancy.

Zeina: We already knew vaccine might be an issue. And we worked very closely with the Middle East and North Africa region health team. We brought in a lot of the key people working who have the right skills and the tools. We worked together in seeing ‘can we quickly through social media understand, better vaccine hesitancy’. And we picked social media because it's fast. You can relatively roll out a survey and collect data within a week. And we were already doing that for some other projects. So we launched this online survey in nine countries in the MENA region to quickly understand, what are the attitudes around vaccines?

Mel: To create a strategy to motivate people to get vaccinated, not only did the World Bank use social media to better understand how people felt about vaccines, but also how their behavior would change depending on who the messenger was. Would more people get vaccinated if a celebrity talked about it? What about health officials or religious leaders?

Zeina: So that was a very interesting finding, and it really showed how important who is talking about the vaccine. Who's giving information about the vaccine is going to be as important as the information about the vaccine itself.

We started identifying groups that needed, really needed more information. They needed information around the vaccine safety, its efficacy from people that they could trust. And then you had another group of people who just didn't trust the government, didn't trust the health organizations, whether international or local.

Mel: The surveys have gotten over 160,000 responses and are going on in more than 24 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and Central Asia, and East Asia and Pacific, in addition to the Middle East and North Africa. After the surveys, the World Bank started working with governments and health teams to test the messages to see if their insights increase vaccine intention.

Zeina: So now we're working with different countries, trying to address specific issues that they are dealing with the vaccine rollout, whether it's the booster, whether it is targeting specific groups or regions. Also, targeting issues like returning to school, making the vaccine mandatory or not.
The bigger problem we have on social media is that there's just so much disinformation and misinformation, and that's really what's fueling a lot of the issues around vaccine hesitancy.

Mel: To better explain their efforts against vaccine hesitancy, Ana Maria tells us the difference between social and behavior communications, and social and behavior change communications. Social and behavior change communication is a process of interactively communicating with individuals as part of an overall information dissemination, problem solving and planning. The communication channels, used as part of the overall program, aim to achieve positive behavioral change. To get people to actually change their behavior, we need to give them more than just information.

Ana Maria: In public health, a lot of social and behavior change, social and behavior communications has been rolled out for a long time, which is basically we give people information. So I tell you that the vaccine is good. Tell you that the vaccine saves lives, and I tell you to get the vaccine and where to get the vaccine. But clearly as we all live through COVID up until now, that did not make people wash their hands more often, keep social distance, keep their masks or go and get the vaccine. There is the additional bit, which is that you want to achieve behavior change. So social and behavior change communications is kind of like communicating in the way that people will listen, that people will understand and will drive their action, which is a little bit more than just giving you information.

Mel: In many countries, the team was able to see a shift from vaccine intention after the surveys and targeted messaged on Facebook, and a lot of the countries are using the results from the surveys in their national communications campaign.

Now, the World Bank is starting to use other social media platforms in addition to Facebook to reach a broader and more targeted audience. This is all part of the World Bank’s contribution to the Alliance for Advancing Health Online, an initiative to advance public understanding of how social media and behavioral sciences can be leveraged to improve the health of communities around the world.

This is our episode for today. To learn more about the over 80 projects the Mind, Behavior, and Development team has worked on, visit

Make sure to follow us on Twitter for regular updates, at WBG_ Poverty. We’ll be back soon with more updates on poverty, stories, data and analysis from the World Bank Group and its staff around the globe.

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Click here to learn more about the Mind, Behavior, and Development unit