Case study

Gauging Financial Risk Online

Keyboard typing

Award-winning psychological research, led by Professor Nick Chater of the People at the Centre of Communication and Information Technologies Programme, has underpinned the development of Electronic Financial Advice (e-advice) software, which delivers computer-based feedback on financial decisions. A new cognitive model of decision-making under risk was developed alongside a prototype online financial system based on user behaviour and e-advice support. The commercial spinout company Decision Technology provides a range of research for the private sector, particularly the financial and retail sector.

Case study

Helping Surgeons Perform

Surgeons during operation

Surgeons' operating skills are honed using research by Dr Nick Sevdalis at the Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution. He has developed methods to assess decision-making skills by surgeons in a simulated operating theatre using high fidelity surgical mannequins and full operating theatre teams. This work is leading to the development of reliable assessment tools and training interventions for surgeons' decision-making and communications skills. Sevdalis has also been modelling surgical risk estimation and choice of surgical procedure by expert and novice surgeons. A method to provide individualised feedback on decision-making has been exploited successfully by the Royal College of Surgeons.

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Strategic Challenges

Understanding Individual Behaviour

Mother and children playingPeople vary in how they behave and make decisions and we need to integrate the insights and methods from contemporary biology and medical sciences with those of social scientists in seeking to understand individual behaviour.

Social science enables a focus on understanding those decisions by individuals in the context of family, neighbourhood and social relations more generally.

For example, we need to know how individuals perceive risks to their health.Take screening; although reventative screening can bring benefits, it can embed a false sense of security in some people, leading others to be fatalistic: both responses can lead to increased risk to health.To plan preventative healthcare we need to know how and why individuals behave differently in response to such information.

Research is starting to bring better knowledge of some behaviours. However, links between social, biological and environmental factors and individual behaviours, choices and outcomes are still far from clear.We need to understand how diverse factors fluctuate and compound over people's lives and how they can be predicted, managed or influenced. Specific challenges include:

  • Interdisciplinary understanding of the interplay between predispositions, values, actions and possible interventions to improve, for example, the quality of financial decision-making or reduce criminal and anti-social behaviour
  • How multi-level interventions at individual, household, community and societal level may be most effective
  • Enhancing data sources to integrate social, environmental and bio-medical data to model multi-level influences on individual behaviour
  • Identifying and measuring the strengths and limitations of particular influences on individual responses to change.

Breakthroughs are likely to come as much from combining techniques as combining knowledge. As well as ensuring the sustained prosperity of individual disciplines, further investment in relevant interdisciplinary training, especially at post doctoral level, will be essential.

The ESRC will work closely with other Research Councils in deepening our understanding of behavioural choice, for example with the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) on environmental behaviours, the MRC on health inequalities, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council on biological influences on behaviour, and with the TSB and the EPSRC on future skills and creativity.

These biological and multi-level social influences are the subject of sustained attention in our other challenges. Global Economic Performance, Policy and Management fundamentally involves understanding the decisions made by individuals around the world. Within Environment, Energy and Resilience, there is a need to address perceptions about the value of environmental goods and services and people's usage of these.Whether insights into behaviour really enable reductions in health inequalities has crucial implications for the Health and Wellbeing challenge. How people learn is central to the New Technology, Innovation and Skills challenge of increasing creativity and breadth of skill.

Achievements 2005-2008

  • The National Prevention Research Initiative has provided better understanding of how individuals behave to inform the primary prevention of cancer, coronary heart disease, and diabetes.
  • Innovative cross-disciplinary research drawing on social and medical sciences resulting in improved knowledge
  • With the Responsibility in Gambling Trust, providing understanding of the effects of gambling and of the ways in which society can respond by regulation and services.

Priorities for 2009-2014

By 2014 the ESRC will have:

  • Followed up exploratory investments with grants for cross disciplinary research on behaviour with inherent risks, for example in finance and purchasing, as well as criminal and anti-social behaviours
  • Invested in the potential for new interventions at societal, community, family, and individual levels to affect individual behaviour across a wide range of substantive areas
  • Enhanced the ability to analyse individual and household behaviour and to develop and evaluate policy interventions by funding new world leading data resources such as Understanding Society and the 2012 Cohort Study
  • Through cross-disciplinary collaborations, developed multimethod approaches to the analysis of data from panel and cohort studies, enhancing the power to understand the complexities of behaviour
  • Built new interdisciplinary capacity by targeted studentships and postdoctoral fellowships in collaboration with other Research Councils.