Gentle reminders to pay up pay off

Use of light 'nudges' aims to influence decision-making

In future, a young offender on probation could be further motivated to observe his curfew, not by heavier punishments, but by peer pressure - when he and other probationers with curfews are notified of when each of them has checked in.

"If the probationer successfully observes the curfew, the behaviour is positively reinforced. If he does not, it creates social tension with his peers that the probationer would otherwise prefer to avoid," said Mr Calvin Chu, managing partner of the Eden Strategy Institute, noting that acceptance from peers is important to probationers.

Replying to queries from The Straits Times, he said this is a trial his institute proposed, when applying for a government tender that called for behavioural insights consultancy services to work on two projects - reducing the number of curfew breaches by probationers, and recruiting more foster parents.

The tender by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) closed earlier this month and has not yet been awarded. The only other applicant was the Britain-based Behavioural Insights Team, which has an office here.

Behavioural insights, also known as nudge theory, mix lessons from psychology and other social sciences to influence decision-making through light touches or "nudges" - such as rewording a letter or sending a reminder SMS - without limiting options or making large changes in rewards or punishments.

In recent years, such insights have been applied by governments around the world, including in the United States, Britain and Singapore. But they have rarely been applied in the areas covered in the tender.

An MSF spokesman said that "external control measures" such as monitoring devices, phone calls and physical checks by probation officers are used to ensure probationers observe their curfews.

He said: "We are exploring the use of behavioural insights to do more of increasing probationers' intrinsic motivation to change behaviour, which could lead to more sustainable changes, and also be more cost-effective in the long run."

He did not give the annual number of curfew breaches, but said probationers often find it hard to observe curfews.

Meanwhile, MSF wants to recruit more foster parents, so more vulnerable children can be cared for in a familial environment instead of in institutions. Since 2013, the number of foster parents has increased by 77 per cent to about 430, but more are still needed, said the spokesman.

"We need more foster parents to care for infants, teenagers, and children with special needs. We face challenges in getting enough foster parents for these groups," he said.

One of the proposals by Eden Strategy Institute is to get volunteers from other organisations and foster parents to plan events together, so volunteers get to hear foster parents share their experiences and are exposed to fostering.

Behavioural Insights (Singapore) declined to comment on its bid and proposed trials for both projects, citing commercial confidentiality.

Meanwhile, academics here said behavioural insights must be used with care as there could be "hidden costs", such as in moves that pressure people to conform.

"In the long run, the persistent use of norm-shaping interventions may... prime society to discriminate more harshly against minority behaviours," wrote Dr Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences and Dr Ong Qiyan from the National University of Singapore, in an article published in public policy journal Ethos last month.

"Policymakers must exercise discretion and even restraint when considering behavioural interventions, particularly because they are relatively easy to implement."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline Gentle reminders to pay up pay off. Subscribe