Behavioural science’s wide reach: a boat on the Thames and beyond

April 23, 2014 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

A world-renowned academic, an advertising and communications guru, a boat, booze, and behavioural science. It can only mean one thing: Behavioural Boozenomics is having a birthday party! But behavioural science is about more than just booze and banter, and its reach is extending beyond the niche into the mainstream.

Thames creative commons Joe Dunckley

(we’re gonna need a bigger boat…)
image under creative commons by Joe Dunckley

It seems hard to believe that it was a year ago that I first wrote about Behavioural Boozenomics – the monthly gathering of people interested in behavioural science (including social psychology, judgement and decision making, behavioural economics, evolutionary science, among other fields). To celebrate the meetup’s second anniversary and growing membership (there are now over 500 people registered for this meetup), George Loewenstein and Rory Sutherland, two of the biggest names in the field, are joining forces tonight to have a conversation about behavioural science theory and practical application.*

The increasing interest in behavioural science and its application is reflected not just in the numbers of booze-cruise attendees: the Behavioral Economics LinkedIn Group has over 15,000 members;  beyond the usual academic conferences, events like Nudgestock, the European Commission seminar, and the Behavioural Exchange are popping up; and organisations are studying how we really behave (not just how an economic model assumes we will behave) to apply this knowledge in many ways (beyond simply trying to drive up profit and push out more product, although undoubtedly this is the aim of some).

For example, Which? has a programme of work on “real consumers” and recently hosted a breakfast panel event to discuss their findings about behaviour and decisions in personal financial matters, specifically around changing current accounts. And the Behavioural Insight Team’s latest publication, for which a launch event doubled as a celebration to mark their partnership with Nesta, provides a handy mnemonic EAST to explain that to improve engagement, it is helpful to make a request easy, attractive, social, and/or timely.

Although London seems to be a particularly vibrant “behavioural science scene”, the reach extends far. Here at the RSA we recently published a report on the promising use of behavioural insight in the classroom, especially to help under-performing pupils. We’ve received interest in the approaches provided in the paper both from here in the UK and from other corners of the globe including France, Brazil, Latvia, and Germany.

Of course this increased interest shouldn’t mean that behavioural science approaches are used as substitutes for all traditional measures of behaviour change, such as regulation or financial (dis)incentives. The practical application of behavioural science has both cheerleaders and critics, and George Loewenstein himself has been known to suggest that for all of its usefulness, behavioural science is certainly not the only, or even the best, tool in the toolbox.

Although it is certainly not the silver bullet to solve any behaviour-change challenge, insight into how we really behave – and the factors that systematically influence that behaviour – can help to design policy and practice in such a way so that it doesn’t feel quite so hard to follow. To borrow a slightly-tweaked phrase from Tim Harford’s recent article, “the appeal of a behavioural approach is not that it is [necessarily] more effective but that it is [almost always] less unpopular” and I think this holds true for both the people trying to impose the change and those who are being asked to change.

And if nothing else, behavioural science is prompting action in at least one way: getting a group of academics, practitioners, and general enthusiasts together for a monthly social event!

 

Nathalie Spencer is a Senior Researcher in the RSA’s Social Brain Centre

*Tonight’s event is already fully booked, but you can join the waiting list here.

Comments

  • Alan Higgins

    This is an area that local government is becoming more interested in as the pressure of reduced resources and increasing demand is focussing minds on how to reduce that demand. Behavioural change is being seen as an additional way of doing that and with the hope that an impact can be achieved in a short time. The reference to there being other means of changing behaviour is welcome but it is troubling that the references to behavioural science often suggests behavioural economics as the only science in town in this subject.

    • Nathalie

      Hi Alan, Thanks for your comment re reducing demand. And I agree that the term ‘behavioural economics’ is increasingly being used as a catch-all for many different fields. I’m not sure what the best term is, but have been using ‘behavioural science’ to at least widen the net a bit and incorporate both behavioural economics plus all the other fields which help us to understand human behaviour and how it is influenced.