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Data & Behavioural Insights

Is evolutionary psychology the next revolution in employment services?

Human beings are the product of almost 200,000 years of evolution.


Throughout this period and before, we have evolved complex means of behaving to operate within both the natural environment and our social groups in a way that has helped us survive and thrive.


These behaviours have become hardwired into our brains. Our in-built behavioural tendencies remain a very powerful part of how we respond to and operate within the world around us.


Four key behavioural drivers


As we seek to humanise employment services and improve our sector’s effectiveness (particularly in a NESM enhanced services context) it’s useful to consider how human psychology hasn’t changed.


While the 200 or so years since the industrial revolution might seem like a long time to those of us immersed in digital technology, this is really just the blink of an eye in terms of evolutionary time.


To enhance our employment services model for the future, we will be increasingly engaging with the understandings of evolutionary psychology - whether we do this consciously and purposefully or not.


Human behaviour in the context of employment and jobseeking can be understood with the help of four key behavioural science principles. Here is a brief summary of each principle.


  • We like easy


Human striving beyond our comfort zone is almost an expectation of our culture today.


For much of our evolution though, our survival has depended on doing the exact opposite - doing what is the easiest. By conserving energy, we ensured that we were able to sustain ourselves over longer periods of time and survive. Our brains live in a world where easy was the smart choice.


  • We are social


Human beings are social to the core. That’s because throughout evolutionary history we have always relied on and survived within tribes of close relatives and others. Not being social wasn’t a choice.


This means almost all our behaviour in our culture is driven by two things: impressing other people or avoiding embarrassment. If we can do both of these things, we are socially happy creatures.


  • We want control


Human beings desire control over their circumstances and destiny. We want this so much that, if we feel certain behaviours are forced on us (even if we want it or it is good for us) we will push back.


The move towards jobseeker choice and control is based on this fact. One survey found that 94% of jobactive participants say it is very important to have a say in the content of their employment plan.


  • Self-control is hard


We are terrible at exercising control over ourselves – despite our desire to master ourselves.


When it comes to self-regulating our behaviour - or the seemingly ongoing challenge of ending bad habits and building better ones - controlling ourselves can often seem like a truly momentous challenge, that shifts from one year’s list of New Year’s Resolutions to the next.


Lessons for employment services


These behavioural science principles indicate we are less like the productive machines we think we are or strive to be. With the inheritance of evolution in the form of hardwired behavioural tendencies, our days, months, and entire futures can be influenced or dominated by them.


It’s useful to ask how we might adapt employment service delivery to integrate behavioural science principles. How can we make jobseeking and entry into employment easier? How can we wrap jobseekers in positive social feedback to stimulate outcomes? How can we give participants more control in their future while supporting them to manage the difficulties of behavioural change?


As an employment services sector we need the wisdom to acknowledge these behavioural principles at work in our world and our pool of participants more fully. But we also need to realise that the world has changed: we are now better equipped to manage successful behavioural change.