The curious case of defining behavioural science
Why do so many behavioural scientists focus on such a narrow reading of the literature?
When entering a room to talk behavioural science it is always useful to first check how people define the discipline. In my experience, there is quite a bit of confusion and disagreement about what is, and is not, included in this field. This is why it is always useful to have a conversation to define terms up-front.
More formal definitions suggest it is an interdisciplinary field that applies theories and techniques mainly from psychology, but also from economics, sociology, and anthropology. Essentially, it is a broad interdisciplinary field that seeks to apply science to human behavior.
This seems perfectly reasonable and suggests value in multidisciplinary teams to work together, complementary approaches offering a very helpful theoretical breadth and depth.
I suspect that psychologist and writer Kurt Lewin would agree as he famously suggested “There is nothing as practical as a good theory”. In other words find the right theory for your problem and you have the start of a very practical solution.
However, things have not quite worked out this way within the applied environment where it often takes a much narrower flavor, frequently being aligned in many peoples’ minds with behavioral economics. The discipline of behavioral economics studies the effects of psychological factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and how those decisions vary from those implied by classical economics theory.
We might ask why behavioral science is often considered to be aligned with behavioral economics. Daniel Kahneman suggests the following:
“The “culprits” in the appropriation of my discipline are two of my best friends, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Their joint masterpiece Nudge is rich in policy recommendations that apply psychology to problems—sometimes common-sense psychology, sometimes the scientific kind. Indeed, there is far more psychology than economics in Nudge. But because one of the authors of Nudge is the guru of behavioral economics, the book immediately became the public definition of behavioral economics. The consequence is that psychologists applying their field to policy issues are now seen as doing behavioral economics.”
I would align myself with Kahneman who seems to consider that what we typically call behavioral economics is effectively applied psychology. And that this sits within the broader discipline of behavioral science (which as we have seen can include other disciplines that have relevance to human behavior).
Of course, it is possible to have different schools of thought within a discipline (as is the case in any field). My view is that some definitions of behavioural science take a very narrow view, behavioural economics flavour view of human behaviour which does not fully reflect the breadth and depth of human experience. These explantations tend to focus on theories drawn from the cognitive psychology literature, revolving around automatic, non-conscious determinants of behaviour.
While these certainly have value for some applications, this seems a very narrow way to define the discipline. I tend to prefer the broader definition of Khaneman’s - essentially we are applying psychology (but will very much welcome the perspective of a sociologist, human geographer, anothroplogist, neuroscientist and so on).
The point of applied work is that we place the question first and only then locate the theories (and approaches) that are most likely to be of assistance. It seems something of a dereliction of the practitioners duty to insist on looking at all problems by solely resting on a narrow reading.