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Going beyond the obvious
Behavioural science needs to look beyond a subset of dominant theories if we are to find effective solutions
One of the characteristics of applied behavioural science is the way that our activity is underpinned by theory. Of course, there is debate concerning which theory is used in what context, but nevertheless the field is always informed by this ‘deductive’ approach. This is consistent with the academic leanings of the field: most academic work is theoretical in nature, and research is undertaken to test the theories and in doing so move along our understanding of human behaviour.
Of course, practitioners work with theory in a somewhat different way to academic practice. The challenge for practitioners is less about developing the body of theoretical knowledge and more to do with using theory to make sure we are asking the right questions, allowing us to comprehensively examine the behaviours so that we do not miss anything. Importantly it also means that we can generalise our findings (without stretching ourselves too far) beyond the particulars of the individual project. The solutions, therefore, should be more robust and effective as a result.
Pitfalls of a theory-first approach
There are however some dangers when using theory. For instance, it can be tempting to have a ‘theory first’ approach where we assume that all or most behaviour can be understood and potentially shaped by an ‘off-the-shelf’ application of a specific body of theoretical knowledge. One popular candidate for this is the work relating to social norms: many is the time we have seen this pressed into service for a range of commercial and policy issues without any evidence that it is actually the right theory to explain the behaviour under investigation. As such it is effectively guess work then whether or not it is helpful to design interventions to shape outcomes.
Anne Custers explored this very issue in the content of debt management. She examined the leading journals that would cover this topic (unfortunately an increasingly important issue). Examining The Journal of Consumer Research (JCR), she found 78 identified relevant papers, 97% of which took a deductive approach, relying mostly on existing theories from cognitive psychology and neo-classical economics. She found a similar percentage in three other journals that are considered to be the most-high ranking in the field and have over time also started publishing consumer behaviour research: The Journal of Consumer Psychology (JCP), The Journal of Marketing Research (JMR) and The Journal of Public Policy & Marketing (JPPM).
She makes two critical points: the first is that almost all papers in these journals are ‘deductive’ (in that a theory of behaviour was tested to understand consumer indebtedness rather than an ‘inductive’ approach which seeks to surface the issues after which theory is then used to interpret the findings). This makes choice of theory pretty important – given this is the lens through which behaviour will be understood and solutions proposed
What Custers found was a concentration on a narrow body of theory: in fact she found a little under half of the papers are based on just three theoretical frameworks, all of which have their roots in neoclassical economics and cognitive psychology:
Roughly one-third build on the role of informational determinants in financial decision making;
Roughly one-third build on goal-related theories;
Roughly one-third draw on mental accounting theory.
As she points out:
This clearly shows that the individual, cognitive approach to problematizing research problems prevails in CB research on consumer financial decisions.
Of course this may not be problematic – after all, these explanations may be perfectly adequate.
Anomalies to the dominant theoretical paradigm
Unfortunately, Custers found this was not the case, building a convincing body of evidence suggesting that this dominant, cognitive science / behavioural paradigm was ignoring a wide range of anomalies that it fails to explain.
For example, in one published paper she reviewed was the attempt to ‘debias’ indebted participants by systematically redirecting their attention to the (accessible and understandable) information included in their credit card statement. This reflects the broadly held assumption in consumer behaviour theory that inaction in debt management is a function of cognitive failure to direct attention appropriately.
However, a paper included a side-note that only 20% of participants reported they had received a credit card statement, whereas by law, all of them had in fact received them. She suggests that this remark is in fact very significant in the light of the inaction of debt management problem: quite likely many consumers do not read their mail. The notion of a cognitive deficit related to inefficient directing of attention in the credit card statement is therefore much less valid with this insight.
And it is quite understandable that people in these positions may wish to avoid unpleasant letters. For many respondents, the issue of non-payment is due to a complex set of choices between priority bills, while negotiating other expenses, such as festivals and birthdays. With this in mind it is inevitable that people will avoid their creditors and resort to inaction.
This is a good illustration of the dangers of the way that ‘top-down’ theory led investigation can risk merely confirming existing ideas that might have limited value rather than advancing our understanding of the problem. In order to avoid this pitfall, Custers proposes to go back to the problem of inaction and to study it from the ground-up.
This sounds very much like market research which typically operates in a ‘ground-up’ basis, exploring participants subjective experience of the world. Including this inductive stage is important to ensure that we are not limiting ourselves to operate within a particular paradigm. We cannot always assume that this contains the explanations we need in order to find solution.
What sets out is the way that successful solutions appear to be multi-determined. They rely on a multitude of factors to change behaviour, rather than a single dominant one. It is not that the one dominant factor (e.g., information or attention) does not matter, but rather than a reliance on one factor so far not proved to work – consumer debt remains a huge challenge. This is consistent with the complexity mindset we talked about previously with outcomes being less the result of a small number of strong factors but instead emerge from a number of weak, interacting factors.
And this reinforces the discussion concerning ‘upstream analysis’ –behavioural scientists should not ignore the need for a thorough investigation of the circumstances, behaviours, attitudes and beliefs that underpin the problem under investigation.
It is clear that the world we are operating in is complex, with a wide range of systemic challenges that are proving hard to change, despite the best efforts of a range of disciplines including behavioural science. This suggests that we need to push ourselves to go beyond narrow explanations that sit within dominant theoretical paradigms to build a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon which in turn can then lead to more effective solutions.