Evaluations of programs and intervention and the relevance of social neurosciences

Frans L. Leeuw shares his thoughts on the relevance of social neurosciences for the evaluation profession, from his experience in addressing the question of which mechanisms are important drivers to make Truth and Reconciliation Committees effective.

Frans L. Leeuw is a Professor, Law, Public Policy and Social Science Research, University of Maastricht. He was President of the European Evaluation Society (1999-2002) and of the Netherlands Evaluation Society.

This contribution has two backgrounds. One is my participation to the Norad report A Trusted Facilitator: An Evaluation of Norwegian Engagement in the Peace Process between the Colombian Government and the FARC, 2010–2016. The second is a paper that I delivered at a conference together with a former student (Ana Pendes, Maastricht University) in which we looked into truth and reconciliation processes and reports and addressed the question which mechanisms are important drivers to make TRC’s (Truth and Reconciliation Committees) effective. Or, that are at least: assumed to make that happen.

While in the Norad evaluation the focus was on (mechanisms dealing with) the (institutional) role Norway played in getting the peace process going (to cut an interesting report too short), in the paper we studied other mechanisms.

We did so by reconstructing a few TRC report: what are the mechanisms assumed to make TRC’s effective? Effective in this world usually means: realizing truth finding, mediation, relief, healing and reconciliation, trust building, democratic strengthening and non-violence (to mention some aspects). 

Mechanisms discussed are awareness raising, truth sharing, public education, due processes, civil society mobilization and several others. Bakiner (2014:12-13) is of the opinion that one of the explanations for the rather diverse (to put it friendly) results evaluations have brought to the table on the impact/effects of TRC’s is the ‘insufficient attention paid to causal mechanisms’.

This made Ana Pendes and me decide to dig a bit deeper into the question what these mechanisms can be. Instead of starting with TRC’s themselves, we followed another pathway. We set ourselves to find insights and evidence produced by the relatively new (25 years young) interdisciplinary field of social neurosciences that can contribute to tackle this problem. Evaluators normally do not use or relate to these insights which is, in my opinion, a pity.

  • See the Box on Social Neurosciences for more background information

What is the relevance for the evaluation profession of social neurosciences? I see four uses.

First, when reconstructing and testing ‘program theories’ behind a TRC or behind any other policy or measure related to behaviour, the mechanisms evaluators usually mention are social, organizational and/or institutional. Relevant but not enough, as Bakiner (2014) shows in his analysis of TRC’s. Making use of SNS insights can improve the reconstruction and enrich the program theory.

As the context-mechanism-outcome (CMO) configuration is pivotal in (realist) studies, but at the same time not very seldom the M word is used without showing readers what the Mechanisms in fact are,  learning from social neurosciences studies can increase the (explanatory) depth and power of evaluations. This applies to ex ante, ex durante and ex post studies.

Second: when doing empirical work, it helps to understand that other measurement instruments than questionnaires, participatory observation, focus groups and the like, are probably needed. In order to find out what – as an example – TRC activities are actually doing to persons (and their emotions (regulation)), evaluators may think of also using bio-markers (measuring hormone levels, other physiological reactions together with social utterances/speech).

Thirdly, and not of the least interest, being aware of the knowledge produced by SNS can help the evaluator in his/ her role as communicator, moderator, interrogator and social analyst.

During the recent EES conference in Thessaloniki Indran Naidoo (UNDP, Head of Evaluation) and I exchanged insights on the relevance of this to the evaluation profession. Dr Naidoo had Srini Pillay M.D. invited to his team to discuss this with them. I did the same in my (former) position as director of a research institute in the field of crime and justice and security (with the help of a 6 year National Science Foundation subsidy (Van Hintum, de Kogel & Leeuw, 2016).

Fourth; slowly but steadily interventions in the field of health, crime, education, work stress, loneliness and social cohesion start to be themselves based on insights from the social neurosciences. Think of programs working with oxytocin, face recognition readers, bio-feedback and sleeping behaviour. It is not a luxury for the evaluation profession to have basic knowledge before going into evaluating these interventions.


  • O. Bakiner, Truth Commission Impact: An Assessment of How Commissions Influence Politics and Society, The International Journal of Transitional Justice, Vol. 8, 2014, 6–30
  • John T. Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo, Social Neuroscience, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(6) (2013): 667–669
  • G. Kenia et al, From the Brain to the Field: The Applications of Social Neuroscience to Economics, Health and Law, in: Brain Sci. 2017, 7, 94; doi:10.3390/brainsci7080094
  • M. Van Hintum, C. de Kogel & Frans L Leeuw, Brein onder druk. Over stress, agressie en veerkracht, Amsterdam, SWP Publishers, 2017

Evaluations of programs and intervention and the relevance of social neurosciences

Social neuroscience (SNS) is an interdisciplinary field that uses insights from the social and neurosciences to investigate the fundamentals of human social and emotional behaviour, whereby the relation between the brain and social interaction is of the essence. Social behaviour is studied from the perspective of an evolutionary 'social brain' and tries to link important socio-emotional behaviours and misbehaviours not only to specific areas of the brain and their communication, but also to neurotransmission and hormonal processes.

Insights from social neuroscience are of importance for the study of mechanisms, often seen as the drivers behind interventions and programs. Think of what mirror neurons can do for persons taking the role of the other and for social learning. Think about social norms that aim to promote cooperation: what are the specific mechanisms through which social norms act to induce prosociality (or not). One of the findings is that norms make a difference because their roots are to be found in cognitive and neural foundations.  

Think also of certain physiological mechanisms related to crime and aggression, where evidence is available that persons with  a low resting heart rate are the ones to respond less favourably to certain types of therapy in helping them preventing crime and violence. Many other examples are available.

Kenia et al (2017) mentions another element, the methodological one. “In comparison to behavioural approaches, the neuroimaging and electrophysiological studies described here present significant advantages. They constitute implicit methods that enable to investigate unconscious processes as well as cognitions that participants may be unwilling or unable to explicitly admit. Social neuroscience research thus turns out to be of particular usefulness to explore participants’ motivations without having to rely on measurements that may be coloured by self-serving biases and social desirability”.

To prevent misunderstanding: nothing in science and research is without critique or is infallible. The also goes for SNS, as Kenia et al (2017) show. And also: SNS cannot live ‘on their own’, it needs input from all ‘surrounding’ disciplines like sociology, biology or economics.

This information is based on work by Cacioppo and Cacioppo (2013), the introduction to the Utrecht University program in social neuroscience, Van Hintum, de Kogel & Leeuw (2017) and Kenia et al (2017).

Published 17.12.2018
Last updated 17.12.2018