How to Increase Voluntary Participation in Programs Using Behavioural Insights

Reducing reoffending is a state priority in New South Wales. New sentencing reforms will increase referrals to behaviour change programs or other support services for people who are at high-risk of reoffending. Yet non-mandatory programs can often have low participation rates, particularly when programs are new.  

We set out to better understand the social context affecting voluntary participation in programs for people at-risk of reoffending. Here’s how we used behavioural science to promote better service delivery for this vulnerable cohort.

What we did

Our project involved three stages of fieldwork, which included a total of 46 interviews with service providers (35 interviewees representing 18 organisations); two experts on recidivism; nine interviews with clients; and site visits to five sites across metro Sydney and regional NSW.  

What we found

The key approaches to overcoming behavioural barriers to engagement are:

Reduce overly-complicated steps in signing-up clients. Sign-up process for voluntary programs can be protracted and cumbersome for both clients and case workers, introducing challenges that make a program unappealing (friction costs). Use default settings to make signing up easier and reduce hassle by consolidating appointments.

Increase a program’s appeal by clearly highlighting its unique benefits that are relevant for the individual participant. Eligible clients perceive that there are too many programs seemingly addressing similar rehabilitation services. This makes services of new programs seem less valuable (scarcity heuristic). Personalise delivery, giving clients a choice for specific services tailored to their needs.

Reduce the cognitive load (by reducing the number of options, or chunking information), and make the decision-making process motivating for clients. Due to past negative experiences with other services, and because there are too many decisions to make when considering new services, clients are put-off joining a new program (choice overload). The behavioural science tool of commitment devices and the intention gap can help clients make useful goals to keep them motivated.

Use simple communication tools, such as a script, to draw attention to important details. Program aims are not always clearly communicated, making it hard to respond to program requirements and other information (salience). Make joining attractive using a behaviourally-informed communications strategy. Present information in language that resonates with clients (framing effect). Use a clear call to action. Redress the risks that clients might associate with seeking help (risk aversion).

Positive reinforcement and culturally-meaningful approaches can reduce the stigma of seeking help. Clients often have life-long negative experiences with services which have left them feeling judged, or like they are “failures” (social stigma). Program screening tools and assessment can sometimes reinforce this negativity. Programs using motivational interviewing and other interactive techniques engender stronger engagement. Strengthening client’s self-worth and celebrating minor achievements throughout their program participation can motivate them to stay.

Consider timeliness of messages, tapping into the desire for a “fresh start.” Readiness to get rehabilitated is variable depending on age and life circumstances. However, clients will almost invariably experience a sense of exhaustion at the cycle of reimprisonment. They are especially open to the prospect of taking back control of their lives as they face the uncertainty of a sentencing outcome (fresh start effect). Experts tell us that the first 48 hours of being released into the community after an arrest is an especially pivotal time. A path to reuniting with family (especially children and grandchildren), or making amends with important people, is an appealing reason for change (where this contact is safe for family and others). SMART goals can help engage clients during this period of reflection (that is, setting specific, measureable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goals).

Read our report to find out more about how to increase engagement in voluntary programs.

How to Increase Voluntary Participation in Programs Using Behavioural Insights

Applying Behavioural Insights to Emergency Decision-Making

Flood-related fatalities have been an ongoing problem in Australia since the early 1900s. Deaths during floods rank second only to heat waves in natural disaster fatalities. Approximately 159 people died from flooding in Australia during the last 15 years, with half (53%) due to driving through floodwater. NSW, together with QLD, represent 74% of flood fatalities. Rural and regional areas in NSW are especially at-risk.

Driving through flood water is a pressing issue, and has been a persistent problem behaviour that has been tough to shift.

The following reflects how our team worked through this behavioural issue, and brainstormed problems, during a recent masterclass we ran with NSW State Emergency Service (NSW SES).

Identify behavioural barriers or triggers

There are behavioural biases acting as barriers to the desired behaviour of avoiding the flood water. Drivers who venture through flood water seem to overestimate their ability to survive and underestimate the risk, displaying an optimism bias. Research by Julia Becker and colleagues suggests that this is even more the case if drivers are very familiar with the environment. This same familiarity with the environment and a particular road could also mean that the status quo bias is at work. Deviating from the usual route taken regularly, such as their route home, would require more effort and planning than sticking with the tried and tested.

Drivers may also consider themselves atypical, using the representativeness heuristic. They might think: “only old ladies or inexperienced youngsters get stuck”. Yet research shows the biggest flood fatalities in Australia are men (up to 80%). One of the most devastating floods in NSW in recent times occurred at the Shoalhaven, just over half (53%) of the people who drove into flood water were men, 38% were women, while the rest were unknown (9%).

Based on their expertise, NSW SES discussed how the emotional decision-making was an especially strong pull. It’s not just about driving to a time-pressed situation or the desire to get home, but rather why individuals might feel compelled to continue to reach their destination. If people have children waiting for them, or cattle that need tending, or some other priority they feel strongly depends on them, they will drive through floodwater to fulfil their commitment.

In Figure 1, we modified the work of Irving Janis and Leon Mann to look at critical decisions faced in emergencies.


From this decision pathway, the following reflections by the driver could be possible:

  • The first question a driver may ask could be “Is there a serious risk if I do nothing?” To this the answer could be “Yes my kids won’t be fetched from school”.
  • This would lead to the next consideration of whether there is a serious risk if action is taken. “Yes I could get stuck”.
  • This would bring on the question on whether more information would help: “yes it would help to know my kids are safe and it would help to know if it’s safe to cross”.
  • To answer these questions would require time and the driver may decide that there is insufficient time to research and deliberate, and so make a bad decision, venturing into the floodwater.

Each of these decision points offers potential for a behavioural insights solution.

To see how we workshopped these questions, developed solutions for behavioural change, and how you can apply this to your work, head to the BIU website:

Applying Behavioural Insights to Emergency Decision-Making

Police Brutality of Young Aboriginal Girls

Police brutality in Glen Innes, New South Wales, against a group of young Indigenous girls. You can hear one of the girls say she’ll comply with police but she wants to call her parents as they’re under 16. The policeman says no. It seems his partner, a woman’s voice off camera, tells the girls to comply: ‘Don’t make it worse for yourselves.’ Policeman says: ‘It already is worse for yourselves.’

Policeman raises his voice saying he will arrest them and give them a ticket for swearing near a school. He barks at them to get in the police van but has not appeared to tell them why they’re under arrest other than swearing. He says he will throw the girls in the van ‘head first.’

Policeman yells when the girls don’t get on the ground. The girls start crying. He is seen kicking them to the ground. The girls cling to one another. He also threatens to arrest passerbys who also appear to be young women. This is disgusting police behavior.

Police are trained to diffuse public conflict and we’ve seen plenty of evidence they are highly capable of doing this when the public is White. Black people are overpoliced and subjected to brutal force routinely. This conduct is racist and dangerous.

Please share the video.

Police Brutality of Young Aboriginal Girls

‘Our kids need proper water’: Families plead for action over uranium in drinking water

‘Our kids need proper water.’ Racist policies are making remote Aboriginal communities sick. At least three communities in central Australia have levels of uranium in drinking water that exceed health guidelines, with dozens more not meeting good quality.

“It’s an international scandal that this is allowed to happen in a country like Australia — a rich country like Australia… If that was happening in Victoria, you’d have a hell of a row… Because they’re bush people and not a concern to politicians, they don’t worry about it.”

The National Health and Medical Research Council advises: “The main toxic effect of short-term exposure to high concentrations of uranium is inflammation of the kidney. Little is known about the long-term exposure to low concentrations.”

Levels of uranium in drinking water have been exceeding guidelines for a decade. Traditional owners have been lobbying for change with viable solar power option. In 2017 the Australian Medical Association urged Gov to invest in treatment facilities in remote parts of the country.

“Water is not meeting aesthetic guidelines in the majority of the 72 remote Indigenous communities provided by the Power and Water Corporation…”

“This water looks like it’s got rust coming out and [it’s] salty, and looks bad because it’s black, and makes the stomach sore.”

‘Our kids need proper water’: Families plead for action over uranium in drinking water

People are calling for a movement to decolonize space—here’s why

I was interviewed by Newsweek on the inequalities embedded into the way people imagine colonising other planets. I discussed how the language we use about ‘colonising’ Mars whitewashes the history of colonialism on Earth:

‘“Language is one of the ways in which we shape our social reality,” Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist at Swinburne University in Australia, told Newsweek. That means using terms like colonise carries real risks. “The history of colonialism has taught us that there is no democratic way to colonise other lands,” she said. “It is about profit, and profit always marginalises minorities.”’

Read this insightful article featuring other experts, here.

People are calling for a movement to decolonize space—here’s why

Behavioural Science for Education and Training

Using fieldwork research and randomised control trials, the Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU) test low-cost behavioural science changes to issues affecting different groups in society. 

For example, we know that 48% of apprentices in New South Wales cancel their contracts within the first year, and 77% will cancel within two years. That’s a tremendous personal cost to these students, which also translates to $91 million loss of the state’s economy in cancellations alone, and upwards of $348 million in related revenue. BIU’s research shows apprentices who cancel their employment contracts do so because they often feel they are subjected to tough working conditions for little pay (undertaking menial, repetitive tasks and long hours), receiving little guidance about their progress on the job.

In partnership with TAFE South Western Sydney, the BIU worked with teachers to send weekly SMS (mobile phone text messages) to employers about what their apprentices were learning at their education institute. Over the semester, employers were encouraged to have conversations with their apprentices about their curriculum and to give them an opportunity to try these skills on the job.

BIU’s trial found that apprentices receiving this additional support were 3.1 percentage points more likely to still be studying by the end of the semester. Plus there were additional benefits for other students. This translates to 147 extra classes that were attended for the 48 groups in the trial. There are currently discussions with TAFE NSW and other stakeholders to roll this simple but cost-effective use of SMS communication to motivate learners across the state. Potentially, this behavioural technique to strengthen the connections between teachers, learners and employers can enhance outcomes for thousands of apprentices and trainees (the latest available data show there are over 80,000 apprentices and trainees currently in training across New South Wales). 

Graph showing class attendance rate, by condition. Shows that 79.4% of students in "business as usual" (BAU) control condition, who did not receive additional support, were still studying at then end of Semester 1. The students in the intervention group were enrolled at a rate of 82.5%.

Class attendance by condition.* Source:Behavioural Insights Unit

Other trials featured in the new BIU report include:

  • Using SMS reminders resulted in a 23% reduction in domestic violence court non-attendance by perpetrators
  • Significantly fewer people commute during peak hour when encouraged to take up flexible working
  • 3x more trainee teachers opted to take a rural or remote placement after receiving messages about the opportunity.
  • A clearer fine letter encourages more people to pay their fines on time.

Read the Behaviour Insights Unit report:

[Image description: Graph showing that 79.4% of students in “business as usual” (BAU) control condition, who did not receive additional support, were still studying at the end of Semester 1. The students in the intervention group were enrolled at a higher rate of 82.5%.]

Behavioural Science for Education and Training

Ep 01: Why Are We Going? – Making New Worlds

Making New Worlds

I’m featured in the first episode of Making New Worlds, a podcast inviting experts from different fields to discuss the ethics of colonising other planets.

The issue we discuss is not about scientific space exploration (collecting data about other planets), but whether it is ethical for humans to settle Mars or other planets. My responses represent sociological considerations about the inequality that is inherent in colonialism. The quotes below are excerpts from me; listen to the entire podcast in the link.

Zuleyka Zevallos: And there is something profoundly unethical about the idea that we just discard our planet after we’ve done so much damage and then go without having learnt anything and think that we’re going to overcome the problems we weren’t willing to do on our own planet.”

That’s Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, an applied sociologist with Swinburne University in Australia. Her research specialties include race, gender, and intersectionality, and she has a lot of experience running programs that work to increase diversity in science.

“So there’s a lot of problems in these discussions that really stem from the fact that many people who are enthusiastic about colonizing other planets don’t understand the history, they aren’t willing to do the work to fix the systems that they are already a part of here.”

“…while I can see why there’s a lot of excitement around the idea of so-called discovering new worlds and thinking about life in other places, I think some of that enthusiasm does come from a lack of awareness about the issues that we’ve faced regarding colonialism in different societies across time. And in fact, a lot of those conversations ignore the current issues that we have about colonisation. I think many people who have not been on the receiving end of colonialism don’t understand that colonialisation is still happening on Earth as we speak.”

“So, colonialism is a process that is rooted in historical and political processes. It’s really about how various nation-states have been able to enrich themselves through the economic and social control of other countries and other subgroups. And in particular, colonialism is the use of violence and state force as well as ideology that legitimises taking over the land and resources and cultures of other groups in order to further colonial powers…”

Zuleyka pointed out that we don’t know for certain that there is no life on Mars, for example, that we might damage with our colonies. This is something I’ll be talking about in more detail in a later episode of the podcast. But Zuleyka also pointed out that colonialism can hurt other groups of people, too, not just the indigenous beings:

Zuleyka Zevallos: “The other aspect is really about the efforts of what it would take for human beings to colonise other lands. And that effort, we know, from history, is one of inherent inequality. The people who finance the colonial efforts are not the people who do the hard work, who will have to build the machines, who will have to, you know, build the structures that would facilitate colonialisation. And certainly the people who do that labour, that manual labour, will not be the ones who benefit from any space settlements that might be set up…”

I asked my guests whether they had any suggestions for what space settlement enthusiasts could do now to try to avoid repeating the mistakes from our past. Zuleyka Zevallos pointed to conversations like the one we’re having now.

Zuleyka Zevallos: “I think, you know, that one of the fundamental things that has to happen is for conversations to be happening with the r— between the right groups. So, for the groups that are advocating space exploration, to actually connect with, you know, scientists and community leaders from groups that have a keen understanding of the history and current impacts of colonialism. So that means listening to the leadership and the wisdom and the scientific knowledges that come from from various Indigenous groups, you know, speaking to groups that have experienced enslavement, including various Black communities from different parts of the world.”

Read and listen:

Image: Picture of terrain on Mars in the background, showing an aerial view of what appears to be sea, land and clouds. A quote from me is overlaid over the top as above, “And there is something profoundly unethical … on our own planet.”

Ep 01: Why Are We Going? – Making New Worlds

Tech Inclusion Melbourne

I’ll be speaking on a panel at the first Tech Inclusion conference in Australia, in Melbourne, on 13 February 2018. Tech Inclusion is aimed at various practitioners from the tech industry to discuss issues of diversity. This includes: executives, hiring managers, human resources, data scientists, educators, entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers and diversity and inclusion advocates.

I’ll be on the panel hosted by Cory-Ann Joseph, UX Lead at ANZ. The panel is called: We’ve got a time machine, now what are we going to do with it?

From the event website:

Growing up in Australia came with a sense that we were lagging behind our bigger, ‘cooler’ brother of the USA – movies, pop music, concert tours all took weeks or months to get to us – if at all. But Silicon Valley doesn’t always lead the way. Mistakes were made in the ‘early’ days of diversity and inclusion: centering men at Women in Tech events, a focus on women first instead of race, and the victim-blamey rhetoric of women needing to change their behaviour. And perhaps the biggest mistake of all is that despite a decade since the first D&I efforts – not much has changed.

How can the tech industry in Australia avoid the same and chart a different course for the future?

Book on the event website.

Date: 13 February, doors open 8.30 am.

Address: Whitehouse Institute Of Design, 672 Bourke St, Melbourne.

Tech Inclusion Melbourne

Here’s Why Your Criticisms of Intersectionality and “Identity Politics” Sound Ridiculous

I was interviewed by writer and social justice coordinator with the American Humanist Association, Sincere Kirabo, about misunderstandings of intersectionality and the problems with the term “identity politics.” He writes:

…White identity politics go “undetected,” as we’re socialised to regard the sustaining of dominant culture as “what is expected” or “the way things ought to be.”

Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, sociologist with Swinburne University, echoes this sentiment, stating:

‘If the phrase has any value at all — and it really doesn’t — “identity politics” calls attention to the ways that people from majority groups, especially White people, do not “see” how their identities are governed by politics.

This is how Whiteness works: White culture is embedded into all fields of public life, from education, to the media, to science, to religion and beyond. White culture is constructed as the norm, so it becomes the taken-for-granted ideal with which other cultures are judged against by White people.

‘Hence, White people do not recognise how their race shapes their understanding of politics, and their relationships with minority groups.’

Read more on Medium.

Here’s Why Your Criticisms of Intersectionality and “Identity Politics” Sound Ridiculous

NT royal commission finds girls in youth detention subjected to ‘inappropriate sexualised behaviour’ – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

TW sexual assault: The Northern Territory Commission into youth prison Don Dale finds girls were sexually assaulted by male guards, as well as being sexually harassed (including after being released) and were given less access to basic amenities, recreation areas and education in commodation to male detainees.

There is a general injustice in the abuse of human rights of these young women, as well as institutionalised racism at play here. Don Dale faced national condemnation after footage was released of guards torturing a young Aboriginal man. Aboriginal people are overrepresented in Australian prisons, largely due to over policing with regards to petty fines and low level, non-violent offences.

“At times, male youth justice officers showed inappropriately sexualised behaviour towards girls and young women and otherwise behaved towards them in a way that did not meet society’s expectations.”

NT royal commission finds girls in youth detention subjected to ‘inappropriate sexualised behaviour’ – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)