Saving Us from Ourselves: How Behavioral Science Can Improve the World

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  • October 6, 2016
  • Caitlin New

Some things will never change. That chicken will always be crossing the road to get to the other side (usually to her demise). Little Red Riding Hood will never realize in time that her grandmother, is in fact, a wolf. The first two of the Three Little Pigs will fail at building sustainable homes.

In all seriousness, what these jokes and fairy tales illustrate is human nature’s unyielding tendency to make mistakes. Sometimes, we’re so grounded in our own habits that we don’t see them as bad, or even if we do, it’s hard for us to make a positive change stick. It’s this conundrum that behavioral scientists want to solve. What is behavioral science? It’s fascinating.

Behavioral science is the combination of the ‘ologies’ and economics: psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and economics. It aims to go beyond the “what” and answer the “why?” For instance, we know that nearly half of American families have no retirement savings at all. Why does such a large percentage of our nation neglect to set aside money that will aide them in later years? Behavioral science looks at the relationship between the social environment, physical environment, and human behavior and detects patterns that help identify why problems exist. Once we can understand why, we can then use these observations to lay out the situation-specific solutions that stand the best chance of long-term success.

Ideas42, a behavioral science nonprofit, said this about their trade: “Understanding how people make decisions and what drives their behavior is complex…[t]his understanding can’t usually be gleaned from more traditional consumer insight methods. We approach every new problem with a thorough analysis of the specific context. We look at the situation closely and identify common snags – things that can trip us up… Once we have gathered the quantitative and qualitative data available, we can pinpoint the most pertinent behavioral problems. We use this diagnosis to help us design scalable solutions that we believe have the best chance of making a positive impact in that particular context.”

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of the books Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, say that influencing behavior can sometimes take just the smallest changes: “By a nudge we mean anything that influences our choices. A school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front. We think that it’s time for institutions, including government, to become much more user-friendly by enlisting the science of choice to make life easier for people and by gentling nudging them in directions that will make their lives better.”

So what kinds of social programs are using behavioral science? Check these out:

SMarT (Save More Tomorrow): Financial Savings
Two researchers, including Mr. Thaler from Nudge, created a solution to tackle the low retirement savings issue I outlined above. Mr. Thaler and Shlomo Benartzi proposed a four-step approach that increased employees’ 401(k) plan contributions by automatically raising participants’ contribution rates whenever they received a raise. They tested it at several businesses over a few years and saw overwhelming success for the employees who participated in the program. Read more about it here.

“Reframing HIV Risks”
Ideas42 worked with the Western Cape government in South Africa to find a behavioral solution to the high instance of HIV in teenaged girls due to an “alarming phenomenon thought to be the widespread tendency for young girls to have relationships with older men, who are more likely to be HIV positive.” Ideas42 designed a “simple, computer-based ‘HIV risk game’ to correct [the misperception that older men are safer partners], drawing on the behavioral insights that people are: (1) more likely to learn something new if they have repeated exposure to the information; and (2) more likely to remember concepts that they teach themselves.” Read more about the prototype game they developed along with the results of the program here.

Energy Conservation in San Marcos, California
Harvard Business Review highlighted an energy conservation initiative that involved sending letters to residents in San Marcos, California that were high energy users. “To influence them to consume less energy, the letters told them how their consumption compared with that of their neighbors. Finding out that they were consuming more than others like them triggered strong negative emotions that in turn led to behavioral changes and a 10% reduction in energy consumption.” Read more about the program here.

So what can communicators learn from behavioral science? I see an interconnect between communications and behavioral science for bringing about positive social change. Communications manages information about a social issue and can be used strategically to reach people at the right time and in the channels where they’re most likely to pay attention. Behavioral science enables us to find the agent of change needed to not just change people’s minds, but change their behavior. For example, a strategic communications plan in support of a behavioral science project would analyze the target audience, and find out where those 50% of Americans who don’t save for retirement are getting information. They could be consuming news on LinkedIn, watching the NBC affiliate channel for local updates, or chatting about work-related issues on Twitter. Targeting each of those channels with content and social media discussions that raise awareness of the retirement issue will help prime the pump for behavioral scientists, who will have an engaged audience at the start.

There is an entire spectrum of analysis, communication, and policy that occurs between the awareness phase and decision phase. It’s an exciting thing to watch as behavioral science employs a symphony of scientific tactics to solve a social issue.