Applying Psychological Insight in Transport Policy by Using the Behavioural Insights Model BIM

Applying Psychological Insight in Transport Policy by Using the Behavioural Insights Model BIM


N Schaap, O van de Riet, KiM - Institute for Transport Policy Analysis, NL


Behavioural responses to policy measures often differ from ex ante expectations, and insights clarifying these responses are dispersed. The insights from social psychology and behavioural economics are brought together in an overarching framework.


Behavioural responses to policy measures often differ from ex ante expectations, and insights clarifying these responses are currently dispersed. This paper is the result of an attempt to bring the insights from social psychology and behavioural economics together in an overarching framework, called the Behavioural Insights Model BIM. At its base lies the insight that behaviour can originate from both conscious and subconscious decisions and mechanisms. The understanding that behaviour has both conscious and subconscious origins is the first step in explaining and clarifying mobility behaviour, and in strengthening policy measures. The BIM embodies three categories of mechanisms: individual, social, and physical level mechanisms, which are summarized below.

Individual level mechanisms
Although each person has unique characteristics, perceptions and attitudes, a number of psychological mechanisms exist for which most people are, to a certain degree, susceptible. These biases can affect behaviour on the individual level. The mechanisms at the individual level can be related to one of the following three subcategories: ‘Simple over difficult choices’, ‘Better safe than sorry’, and ‘The sooner the better’. An overview of powerful and insightful mechanisms within each of these subcategories will be provided in the paper, such as the affect heuristic which allows emotion to influence decision making processes, and the bias which leads people to prefer existing over unknown situations.

Social level mechanisms
Behaviour does not only originate from mechanisms at the individual level: social influences also play an important role. Parents, friends, employers, and other aspects of the social context people live in, as well as the norms related to this social context, determine a large part of their behaviour. There are two types of societal norms: prescriptive and descriptive. On the one hand, prescriptive norms describe how people should behave, according to the rules. These rules can be wither formal (laws) or informal (norms), and are often used to stimulate desired behaviour – for instance from a societal point of view, such as sustainability. Descriptive norms, on the other hand, describe ‘normal’ behaviour - exhibited by role models or peer groups – regardless of whether this behaviour is desired from a societal point of view. Influential research into the effects of peer groups and social norms has been conducted by Cialdini, who described six basic principles that affect human behaviour through social interaction - hence, mechanisms at the social level. The related subcategories are: ‘Social proof’, ‘Authority’, ‘Commitment/consistency’, ‘Liking/sympathy’, ‘Scarcity’, and ‘Reciprocity’. These subcategories will be elaborated on in the full paper.

Physical level mechanisms
Physical situations and surroundings also play important roles in shaping behaviour and choices through physical level mechanisms, partly determining the available options and constraints, such as, for example, through the availability of infrastructure, accessibility or transport modes, and the ways in which travellers are guided through the transport system. This cluster of mechanisms consists of three subcategories: ‘Legibility’, ‘Ease and convenience’, and ‘Ambience’.

Additional mechanisms
Furthermore, the BIM provides a set of five additionally highlighted, practical mechanisms that can be used in shaping policy measures and in explaining their behavioural effects. These are: Make use of discontinuities; Follow the processes in which behavioural change processes naturally take place; Apply measures in a coherent set when possible; Try to ensure that desired behaviour is sustained; and Make use of the characteristics of different groups (target groups).

The BIM’s validity, coherence and completeness was reviewed by eight experts in the field of social psychology, mobility behaviour, behavioural economics and policy analysis, and was applied to a test case involving practitioners from the field of transport policy, who subsequently stated that it was useful and insightful for working systematically with the framework, and that it was helpful in developing policy measures.

This model can be of assistance in shaping and strengthening policy measures that make optimal use of the behavioural insights, as well as helping to explain the different effects of deployed policy measures. The paper contains some of these applications and a course for further research.


Association for European Transport