This guide is cross-posted from Busara as part of MIT GOV/LAB’s practitioner-in-residence program, see the original post online.

Executive summary

If nothing else, remember these guiding principles:

If you are applying behavioral science in development contexts, be thoughtful to avoid creating and perpetuating biases. To be thoughtful, uncover the difference between what you expect and what is. Build meaningful partnerships where your partner gets as much out of the study as you do. And, no matter what, put the community’s lived experiences at the center of your research process.

Introducing the guide

We have been talking about the WEIRD phenomenon in behavioral science research for a while–Henrich et al.s’ argument that people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) countries are systematically different from those from non-WEIRD contexts. But no matter where you conduct your research and where you are from, we are all a little WEIRD. Maybe not by definition, but we are all one level removed in some way or the other – whether we are from a different community, different hierarchy, different culture and such.

The divide in behavioral science research is not as black and white as Global North and Global South, a power hierarchy exists everywhere – within the Global South, within various stakeholder groups and within all sorts of partnerships (and Henrich also clarifies that there is a lot of variation within the two categories he sets out). Its easy to feel overwhelmed and to believe researchers should only work in areas that they are ‘from’. However, bringing together researchers across the world creates a richness of ideas, methods and perspectives, if done thoughtfully.

Before you wreck yourself. Facing the hard truth that we are all one level removed, is a practical tool to help researchers from around the world conduct more thoughtful behavioral science research in international development contexts.

The halls of conferences, partner meetings, and organizations are filled with stories about unexpected occurrences while conducting behavioral science research in the context of international development. You might hear about participants pretending to be married to participate in a study on intra-household bargaining, on-the-ground partners not being enthused by a novel intervention idea, or communities seeming disengaged and only going through the motions of a relatively short survey. However, these remain anecdotes — not captured in the published paper or synthesized for researchers to refer to. Before you wreck yourself attempts to bring together these learning experiences so no researcher feels unprepared to navigate new territories.

What can behavioral science do for international development?

International development suffers from a limited understanding of people’s mindsets, behaviors, local needs, and viable solutions to their specific challenges. At Busara, we address this lack of understanding using a behavioral science approach that aims to understand and influence human behavior through the process of both observation and experimentation.

Uncovering the nuances of human behavior as it is relevant for those who are implementing programs is not straightforward. Usually, it requires a partnership between researchers (academic or non-academic) and the agency or NGO that is implementing a program. To focus the research on a specific angle of human behavior, a research question is needed, which might get formulated collaboratively with the involved partners. Sometimes, the researchers will come up with a research question and then refine it with the implementing partner. The researchers then contribute their expertise in designing the research, while a local implementing partner contributes the expertise about the context in which the research is conducted.

This guide hopes to provide a thoughtful starting point to realize our own biases as researchers — how our context has shaped us and how that can get in the way of designing studies, how we can build more collaborative partnerships with on-the-ground organizations, and how we can listen to the needs of the community when it comes to research processes.

Is this guide for you?

This guide is for researchers, situated within an organization, who have some knowledge of concepts of behavioral science and are interested in solving problems for development outcomes in partnership with local NGOs or implementation agencies. For example, if you spend your time thinking about overcoming behavioral barriers to improving child immunization rates in rural Kenya, or how to encourage digital savings for low income families in Colombia using commitment devices or other behavioral interventions, you may find this guide helpful.

Do you find yourself asking any of these questions?

  • The communities I want my project to serve end up in a ton of research studies, is there anything I can do so they feel appreciated?
  • I’m not from this particular culture or region, what perspective might I be missing?
  • I really want to know “what’s the real problem here?” and “will the community
    be able to use my intervention?”
  • I wonder how I can build an effective collaboration with these partners? They seem great, but I have expertise to bring too.

It is our hope that this guide proves to be a useful companion on your journey toward answering these questions and toward more thoughtful behavioral research.

What can you expect to take away from this guide?

This guide includes learnings, anecdotes from experts, and suggestions for your own quantitative and qualitative research studies that apply behavioral science toward alleviating a challenge in international development. We cover three approaches that can contribute to more thoughtful behavioral science research:

  1. Putting communities at the heart of your research – which has to do with the
    researcher’s own mental model.
  2. A new pair of glasses. Frames to understand your own expectations – which
    covers relationships between the researcher and implementing organizations.
  3. Building a true research partnership – in which we talk about meeting
    communities where they are.

We recommend you embrace these three approaches as you embark on your study. You can pick this guide up as you start thinking of behaviorally-informed solutions to move the needle for a development outcome, or when you are wondering why research implementation is not going as planned weeks after kick off.

How did we compile this guide?

As part of the practitioner-in-residence program at MIT GOV/LAB, I interviewed 24 experts from across 22 organizations in academia and practice and combined their insights with Busara’s own experience of applying behavioral science for international development. Experts were selected through snowballing to represent a variety of perspectives — those working within government nudge units, to academics and those from behavioral science research organizations. Experts shared their experiences, perspectives, struggles, failures, learnings, and advice from running research in areas from conflict ridden regions of Northern Nigeria to the legislative corridors of Lebanon. Interviews were conducted from September through November of 2022.

To adhere to confidentiality requests, we have masked the stakeholders in many stories.


Suggest citation: Singh, Anisha. Before you wreck yourself: a guide to facing the hard truth that we are all one level removed. Busara Groundwork (Thought Piece). Nairobi: Busara and Combridge, MA: MIT Governance Lab, 2023.


This resource was developed as a collaboration between Busara and MIT GOV/LAB as part of the lab’s practitioner-in-residence program, which offers a tailored experience for practitioner partners to systematically reflect on their work and share lessons learned while also providing resources for exploratory research.

Photo by Hennie Stander on Unsplash .