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

There has been a recent increase in demand for behavioural research to tackle major societal challenges, from responding to climate change, COVID-19 and antimicrobial resistance, through to new technologies and their collective impact.

As the field of behavioural research has witnessed significant scientific and technological developments, demand for it has also increased in policy, making it the government’s largest area of research interest and an emerging priority for ESRC.

To address this research need, ESRC has just announced a major upcoming investment comprising a hub and a Centre for Doctoral Training Plus. See ‘opportunities, support and resources available’ for information on the pre-announcements.

The aim will be to:

  • enhance existing capability to integrate behavioural research into the design and implementation of policy
  • apply evidence and theory to inform strategic decisions, and improve outcomes.

To do so, we will draw upon theory and practice from any social science discipline that helps us to understand how and why people, organisations and groups behave in the way they do. As such, our research into human behaviour is highly diverse and interdisciplinary and moves beyond individualistic approaches to behaviour change.

Below are a few examples of current cross-cutting work that uses behavioural research.

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. From assessing the impact of restrictions on the economy and individuals’ mental health to mapping the public’s attitudes to the measures used to tackle the pandemic, our investments are helping the government assess and improve policies.

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.

Antimicrobial resistance

Prevention-related research informs the development of programmes and policies that help to keep people healthy. Our funding alongside the other research councils in UK Research and Innovation focuses on some of the other major threats faced by the UK, including antimicrobial resistance (AMR), the ability of microbes to become resistant to antimicrobial drugs.

Tackling AMR must include understanding how to influence attitudes and behaviours towards antibiotics. Our jointly funded 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, 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.

Read more about the role of our research in the fight against antibiotic resistance spread.

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, hosted jointly by the London School of Economics and the University of Leeds, 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 is the primary focus of the newly-established Advancing Capacity for Climate and Environment Social Science programme, which will integrate insights from behavioural research to reach this goal.

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

ESRC have invested in behavioural research comprising a hub and a Centre for Doctoral Training Plus (CDT+). The funding opportunities opened in September 2022 and are now closed. The successful teams are set to start in September 2023.

Find out more from the funding opportunities:

The key objectives of this investment 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
  • enhance national capability by building a critical mass of researchers with the knowledge and skills to transform our understanding of human behaviour. Researchers may apply for a range of relevant methods such as data science, human-centred design and experimental methods. This objective will be achieved in part by the CDT+.

Who to contact

Last updated: 25 April 2023

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