Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Understanding behaviour

Investment in research to understand human behaviour is an emerging priority for ESRC. We aim to enhance capacity and capability to tackle major societal challenges, such as COVID-19, levelling up and climate change.

Partners involved:
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

The scope and what we're doing

Understanding human behaviour is a key priority for ESRC in our strategic delivery plan. It underpins ESRC’s other four strategic investment priorities and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) strategic themes.

Understanding human behaviour is fundamental to how we respond to major global challenges, from climate change through to how we harness positive impacts and mitigate harm from new technologies, merging trends or new markets.

There is substantial demand for behavioural research from policymakers, practitioners and industry leaders across the UK and globally. This comes at a time when scientific and technological developments, for example in data science and methods, provide exciting possibilities for advancing research in this field.

The following are a few examples of current cross-cutting work that uses behavioural research. This includes our flagship programme to harness, connect and extend the UK’s capacity and capability in this area: the National Capability in Behavioural Research.

National Capability in Behavioural Research

ESRC has invested £17 million over the next five years to create a new National Capability for Behavioural Research (NCBR) programme, which aims to build world-leading capability in interdisciplinary behavioural research.

The programme will harness, connect, and extend the UK’s existing capacity and capability to research fundamental questions about human behaviour. The NCBR’s key objectives are to:

  • facilitate evidence-based decision making through timely, high-impact, and independent research on human behaviour that meets the needs of policymakers, industry, and civil society
  • build a critical mass of researchers with the knowledge and skills to transform our understanding of human behaviour by applying a diverse range of relevant methods

Central to this investment is Behavioural Research UK, which aims to connect and convene stakeholders from across different sectors. Its leadership team is developing a ‘hub’ that covers the whole of the UK with academic, policy and industry representatives across the four nations.

This is complemented by the Centre for Doctoral Training and Research Excellence in Understanding Behaviours (CENTRE-UB), a Centre for Doctoral Training Plus (CDT+). CENTRE-UB will develop the next generation of PhD graduates, early career researchers and provide relevant training to researchers working in government and other sectors.

These investments will complement and build on existing expertise, resources and research by building capacity and expanding the range of disciplines and expertise that can contribute to understanding of human behaviour.

Find out more: ESRC to radically expand UK behavioural research capacity.

Understanding the impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a bright light on the role that social sciences can play alongside biological and medical studies.

Behavioural research, such as that carried out by our Network for Integrated Behavioural Science on mask wearing and social distancing, has proven to be valuable in the pandemic response.

ESRC has also supported projects investigating individual and community behaviours, attitudes and language around interventions such as those intended to stop the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases including:

  • developing evidence-based messages to encourage preventive health behaviours such as handwashing and social distancing
  • vaccination, to help shape public health messaging and increase vaccine uptake

Behavioural research was critical to the UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with new collaborations and advisory structures supporting evidence-based decision making in government.

Our ambition with the National Capability in Behavioural Research is to build on this legacy and create a lasting capability which informs practice and directly addresses the toughest policy challenges that we face nationally.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR)

Prevention-related research informs the development of programmes and policies that help to keep people healthy.

Our funding alongside the other research councils in UKRI focuses on some of the other major threats faced by the UK, including AMR, the ability of microbes to become resistant to antimicrobial drugs.

Tackling AMR must include understanding how to influence attitudes and behaviours towards antibiotics.

We jointly funded the Fresh Approaches to the Study of Antimicrobials in Society (AMIS) hub with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Department of Health and Social Care. AMIS is looking at ways society uses antimicrobial drugs to offer policymakers, scientists and funders new ways to conceptualise and act upon AMR in order to reduce the threat of resistance at society level.

Transdisciplinary networks involving social and behavioural research are also at the centre of a recent cross-council funding opportunity: Transdisciplinary networks to tackle AMR. Successful investments will be announced shortly.

Climate change and sustainability

Understanding behaviour and drivers of behaviour is essential to the study of climate change and the efforts to mitigate and adapt to it.

Our Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy is carrying out wide-ranging research addressing a number of issues, including incentives for behavioural change to reduce emissions and support better policy decisions and product design.

Behaviour change has been proven to play a major role in emissions reduction, and the journey to net zero by 2050.

This is the primary focus of the Advancing Capacity for Climate and Environment Social Science (ACCESS) network, which provides leadership on the social science contribution to tackling and solving a range of climate and environmental problems. BR-UK and ACCESS will connect to reach their joint goals.

Nutrition and obesity

ESRC contributes to the Medical Research Council’s broad range of high quality research relating to diet, nutrition and obesity.

The portfolio includes, among other topics, observational and interventional research on behaviours leading to chronic diseases.

Through a collective approach, the councils’ aim is to:

  • underpin reliable nutritional advice
  • provide better understanding of food choice and consumer behaviour
  • improve public health messaging and support innovation to develop healthier food products

In this sense, behavioural research, particularly in a marketing and retail context, will play a key role in encouraging individuals and target populations to move towards healthier food choices.

Opportunities, support and resources available

Read the National Capability in Behavioural Research (NCBR) announcement: ESRC to radically expand UK behavioural research capacity.

Please contact us if you would like to connect with the NCBR investments.

Who to contact

Behavioural research and Behavioural Research UK (BR-UK)

For any questions about behavioural research, or to ask about or connect with BR-UK


Centre for Doctoral Training and Research Excellence in Understanding Behaviours (CENTRE-UB)

To ask about or connect with CENTRE-UB.


Last updated: 22 May 2024

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