Behavioral Science: Why the Disillusionment?

The world started to sit up and take notice of Behavioral Science about a decade or so ago. We now have Nudge Units where Behavioral Science informs government policies, Consulting arms that apply learnings from these sciences to solve business problems in multiple domains, and Behavioral Science-based approaches that are helping tackle the most wicked problems that currently plague us – Climate Change, Nutrition, Sanitation, Poverty and so on.

However, despite the universal agreement that an understanding of human behavior and how people make decisions can only serve to better the tackling of these issues, this umbrella science has certainly taken its share of knocks in the last few years. Let’s look at some of the reasons for the disillusionment

The effectiveness of Behavior Change interventions and nudges has been much larger in academic papers and books than in the real world.

If we look at the effect sizes of interventions, the delta of reported behavior change has been much lower in real-world applications. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. Consider the following:

  • Most often, academicians study these concepts in academic and research contexts, whereas interventions or solutions are applied in the real world which is more Chaotic and Messy –  there are competing demands on attentional and cognitive resources of the subjects, different priorities, goals, basically, LIFE gets in the way – and these expectations have to be factored in while planning and scaling Behavioral science Interventions.
  • Most studies and concepts in Behavioral Science have been conducted on a small, mostly homogenous group of students who are mostly WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), and therefore there is a DIRE need to test some of these concepts, nudges, and interventions in situ, in the contexts they are being used in
  • Many studies in the Behavior and Social Science space have been found to be impossible to replicate – again, this is a symptom of a larger, more pervasive problem that null or negative results are rarely ever published academically, and overall there is a bias to positive results
  • One size fits all NUDGES – This is one of my pet peeves. People DO NOT behave uniformly – the situation or the context a person is in hugely influences the decision-making of an individual – therefore the very premise that nudges work uniformly across populations is deeply FLAWED. The larger the sample of the target population is, the more heterogeneity there is – and therefore the larger the differences in how they respond or do not respond to any interventions – so Behavior Science practitioners, SEGMENT SEGMENT SEGMENT to achieve any meaningful behavioral change and to ensure your interventions translate

Translational Research and Silos

Huge challenges exist in ensuring that academic research and findings are translated effectively to and by practitioners and those trying to apply these learnings in multiple domains. This is quite typical in newer and more evolving Sciences – but Behavioral Science especially is a large umbrella science – multiple disciplines and sub-disciplines that make integrating and synthesizing findings across different areas through interesting frameworks and models even more challenging

Ethics and Learned Helplessness

The ethics of Nudging and Libertarian Paternalism has often been called into question. Treating human beings like they need to be nudged could imply that people are mindless automatons – recipients of nudges and therefore most ethical considerations are often around autonomy, dignity, and manipulation. Also, governments deciding for individuals’ greater good could over time lead to ‘learned helplessness’ – people stop trying s they believe they do not have what it takes to change a situation. While these concerns are heatedly debated in Behavioral Science Circles, many interventions lie at the periphery and require some ethical navigating.

Slow Infusion of Cross-Functional Teams

Imagine Behavioral Science Practitioners that understood and learned how to effectively scale interventions from groups of individuals to populations and nations, or if policy-making units and think tanks, or even data mining companies used insights from Behavioral Sciences about the WHYs – why people do what they do, to inform policies and segmentation – sounds ideal? However, in reality, multi-disciplinary, cross-functional teams that learn from each other are still few and far between today. Behavior Science cannot exist in a silo – it needs to be complemented with learnings from Design, Marketing, Policy, Engineering, Architecture, and Technology to truly tap its potential and vice versa. There is a need for rapid learning and information exchange for practitioners that are looking to dabble with the Behavioral Sciences.

If you enjoyed reading this article, or you are looking to be a more active participant in conversations centering around Behavioral Science – from case studies, to book reviews, discussing concepts, papers, approaches, frameworks, and more – come join our Community of Practice – the Behavior Change Learning Group on Mentza and be part of conversations like these along with a thriving community of Enthusiasts, experts and other practitioners! Oh and don’t forget to subscribe to this blog!

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