• Opinion
  • August 28, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 2

Three ways behavioural science can help integrate immigrants

Opinion: Harnessing defaults, SMS prompts and translating more can improve outcomes

This opinion piece was written by Alexandra De Filippo, Chris Larkin and Johannes Lohmann from the Behavioural Insights Team. If you’re interested in becoming an opinion contributor, take a look at Apolitical’s guide for contributors

Integrating into a new society is tough. Immigrants, and in particular refugees, tend to face a thicket of challenges, from learning new languages to dealing with hostile host communities, not to mention worrying about the well-being of loved ones left behind.

Integration also requires understanding and navigating complex webs of rules and customs that govern our economic, social and legal lives. Doing so is cognitively demanding: unfamiliar decisions are made in a new environment, often in a foreign language.

All of these challenges affect the ability of immigrants to make thoughtful decisions on important matters. As humans, we all have a finite ability to hold and process information. We are quickly overwhelmed by new information and taxing decisions, especially when we are already stressed.

“As humans, we all have a finite ability to hold and process information”

In this respect, immigrants are no different from the rest of us. Imagine moving to a new country. Even simple exercises, such as finding a doctor, can be very challenging. When it comes to interacting with public services, byzantine official procedures only make things worse.

To empower immigrants to become well-integrated members of society, we must help them overcome these mental and procedural hurdles. Behavioural science, which is gaining momentum with governments around the world, can help us redesign procedures, link immigrants with important services and ultimately facilitate better decision-making by all parties involved in the long journey of integration.

While the opportunities are endless, there are three areas in which insights from behavioural science could immediately start to improve integration.

Improving access to existing services

There are typically many resources available for immigrants as they transition and adapt to their new life, yet accessing them can be fiendishly difficult.

For example, those asylum seekers that are given refugee status often only have a short period of time to transition to new benefits, find housing and get a job. In this process, they encounter a number of catch-22s. Typically, they can’t get a bank account without a home address, yet they can’t get housing without proof of income — and they can’t receive benefits without a bank account.

“Behavioural insights would suggest that service providers eliminate needless procedural steps and set appropriate defaults”

Designing such processes with immigrants in mind would increase the chance that they follow through with what is expected of them and avoid homelessness and destitution. Behavioural insights would suggest that service providers eliminate needless procedural steps and set appropriate defaults, such as automatically issuing benefits cards or supporting immigrants as they open their own bank account by making crucial information as simple as possible.

They could also make eligibility requirements easier to understand and applications easier to complete, and find other ways to meet service users half-way, for instance by providing translation services.

Promoting labour market integration

Immigrants can fill vital skills gaps in local labour markets, improving the lives of both immigrant and host communities. However, finding and holding onto meaningful employment isn’t always easy.

Behavioural insights could play an important role in helping immigrants adapt to new labour markets. They can increase attendance and pass rates at re-skilling programs and language training, as exemplified in a project by the Behavioural Insights Team, during which regular prompts were sent to adult learners in community colleges and their friends and relatives via text messages. They can also make training more effective by focusing on rules of thumb that are easy to absorb and remember.

Behavioural insights can also make getting a job easier, for instance by improving the way we match job seekers to open positions or by making applications more inclusive and easier to complete. The Behavioural Insights Team’s work in unemployment offices in the UK had considerable success at getting unemployed people into jobs faster by simplifying the process and asking job seekers to formulate clear plans for their job search. Key elements of the project were then adopted into national policy.

The path to citizenship 

Obtaining citizenship can be a turning point for immigrants. It increases the likelihood of achieving meaningful employment and higher earnings. It also drives other changes associated with integration, such as increasing the desire to stay in the country long term, improving political knowledge and reading more domestic newspapers. Yet, there are over eight million eligible-to-naturalise immigrants worldwide who have yet to take up the opportunity.

“We typically value losses more than equivalent gains”

One particularly promising behavioural approach to boost naturalisation applications is to use framing effects. All of us are inherently biased, whether we realise it or not. We respond to information very differently depending on how it is presented, often resulting in different choices. Message framing has been used to improve outcomes for a wide range of policy objectives, from getting out the vote to increasing retirement savings, and could be applied to naturalisation as well. For example, we typically value losses more than equivalent gains, so emphasising the potential loss of opportunity associated with not completing a naturalisation request may increase engagement.

In the same vein, becoming a citizen of a new country often means severing ties with the country of origin. To many immigrants, the fear of losing the connection to their previous existence may be a barrier to applying for citizenship. Appropriate framing could put the benefits and losses of naturalisation into perspective and counter unfounded fears.

A smarter approach

Integration is a difficult and unpredictable journey, and these are merely an introduction to how behavioural insights could facilitate it. For starters, streamlining delivery, harnessing the power of defaults and making it easy for immigrants to access services can make success more likely.

“Streamlining delivery and harnessing the power of defaults can make success more likely”

More fundamentally, better service design by governments, voluntary agencies and other parties involved in integration can and should empower immigrants and host communities.

Behavioural insights must play a key role in redesigning such services. Along the way, it will be crucial to evaluate changes and document what works and what does not. We believe that smarter approaches that take human behaviour into account and are routinely evaluated can make all the difference for immigrants and their host communities. — Alexandra De Filippo, Chris Larkin and Johannes Lohmann

(Picture credit: Pexels)



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