Behavioural science gains momentum
We end the year with the discipline in better shape than ever and with a call for this growing confidence to focus on unpacking the complex societal and commercial challenges we face
Behavioural science is increasingly understood to have a valuable role to play to understand the complex world we live in. It can be tough to unpick to match up the complex systems shaping our lives –supporting people to navigate sustainability, live in an ethical inclusive way as well as managing their work lives, financial well-being, their personal health and wellness, childcare and so on. These are all issues which are complex, have all sorts of challenges for policy makers and brands who have to understand these spaces and unpick them to determine how best to support positive outcomes.
What role does behavioural science have to play?
Much of the media discussion of the application of behavioural science in policy and marketing has focused on the delivery of desired outcomes. Based on the work of people such as Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, there has been a focus on what we might call the ‘downstream’, solution-focused nudging where simple changes to the choice architecture are developed with the intention of creating behaviour change.
While there is certainly value in this (particularly in some contexts such as retail), much of the activity and value of applied behavioural scientist is moving ‘up-stream’, using the discipline to help us understand and define the challenges we face. In this way, it is often used to understand the system that the behaviour is embedded in - all the actors, interactions, systems influencers and so on. This requires careful reflection and examination using behavioural science frameworks and theories to unpack what is happening and why. Through this, behavioural science can offer a foundational understanding of issues which allows a much more solid bridge to solutions. The risk of not having done this work is that the solutions are simply addressing the wrong issues.
In fact. the solutions themselves may not always sound like the silver bullet that is at times expected from behavioural science. So, for example, it may simply be that there is a need to run an awareness campaign, albeit with direction given with a behavioural design brief. This may seem a little ‘obvious’ for a behavioural science recommendation but the added value lies in the aggregate. We can be confident about indicating when to run an awareness campaign and when not to – but also the type of awareness that it needs to offer. This offers an effective brief that can be given to creatives whose skill set can then take-over, safe in the knowledge that the foundational work means we can be confident of the direction.
The value of being upstream
By using behavioural science in an ‘up-stream’ position, it ensures the discipline is seen to offer a much more strategic approach than the more commonly considered ‘tactical’ / final mile tool. Of course, other disciplines do operate in this ‘up-stream’ location to some extent. For example, market research can occupy this role, but it is arguably often more descriptive than analytical (more inductive than deductive). The use of behavioural science theory does not preclude other approaches, but is complementary, offering insight and understanding of behaviours in a way that other disciplines are not quite able.
Given the upstream focus of much activity, this means that a significant drive for the use of behavioural science is through the impact of helping to unpick, understand and offer directions of travel for complex issues. The value comes from risk reduction through the process of understanding the issues and evaluating the likely impact of action.
Take care not to over-play downstream testing
We should also note that many of the proposed solutions and actions, that result from this process, by their very nature, often cannot be tested. For example, legislation or programme of behaviour solutions cannot be tested in meaningful ways. RCTs, the ‘gold standard’ currency for testing, are designed to test for change in very specific behaviours with tactical interventions.
Whilst useful and important, there is a danger that an over-emphasis on RCTs can lead to short-sighted decisions made as a result of the (often necessarily) piecemeal nature of the testing that takes place. Indeed, there is a danger that the widespread focus on them is a reflection of the behavioural science industry’s desire to prove itself to have impact, rather than offering broader value.
This means that teams need to have the confidence of moving away from only proving their worth by demonstrating short term impact (which may often not exist in reality) and instead have confidence in the value they add by looking at the problem, understanding the nature and shape of it, and using this to facilitate better decision-making and action.
Of course, down-stream behavioural science does offers some perfectly good solutions in certain contexts. For example, if we want smooth and fluent user journeys, or assisting in decision making ‘at the shelf’ in a retail environment, then this is where more ‘downstream’ behavioural science has a key role.
But the reality of what is done on the ground is often so much more than operating at the execution stage and testing. Instead we are seeing a move to much more happening at the earlier stages - offering a precise understanding of the mechanisms that sit under the behaviour.
Empowering teams with behavioural science
Given the complexity that needs to be unpicked in most challenges, then work needs to be done in many different contexts and teams. This means it is important to keep behavioural science jargon out of the room as it can be a distraction for stakeholders to understand the problem. Behavioural scientists are increasingly aiming to influence the decision-making process and as such speak the language of the stakeholders, not vice-versa and not arguing from authority.
As such, a much broader range of people within government, brands and other institutions increasingly being called upon and empowered with the tools to think through different ways to define and understand behaviours in complex processes.
Applied behavioural science is still a relatively new area and as such it is inevitable that as it grows there will be different schools of thought and approaches. That is the marker of a healthy discipline. There is also a case to be made to boost confidence in the value of behavioural science in ‘up-stream’ analysis. As the issues we need to grapple with and the means to effect change are ever more complex, behavioural science will play an increasingly important part in driving this insight and through this, offering effective solutions.
Don’t miss a post in 2022 by subscribing to get Frontline BeSci sent directly to your inbox