Behavioral science is getting a lot of buzz these days. Industries ranging from banking and retail to non-profits and governments are embracing behavioral science as an effective and inexpensive way to change human behavior. What was once a fledgling academic discipline is now an industry standard with companies welcoming Chief Behavioral Officers to weave behavioral insights into their current business practices. The funny thing is that, while the field is young by academic standards, the art and application of influencing human behavior is as ancient as humanity itself.
At its core, behavioral science is the label for that which is constantly humming in the background and gently guiding the choices we make. It’s the social acumen which moves you to face forward in an elevator instead of staring at the back wall. Behavioral science is the reason why you hold onto bad investments and prematurely sell good ones. Most importantly, behavioral science helps explain why we do things like cheat on our diets or fail to plan for the future.
While corporations and governments have spent years cataloging how we behave, behavioral science helps us understand why we behave and offers a guide for what may inspire change. The ‘why’ and ‘what’ of behavioral science mirror the two fundamental components of human decision-making—inputs and outputs.
Inputs represent any information we gather from the world in order to make a choice. We receive inputs from the way food is presented in a café to the layout of forms at the DMV. Outputs are our subsequent behaviors based on those inputs. This includes actually putting food onto your plate or filling out the DMV form. While it may feel like your choices reflect a stable preference, many of our behavioral outputs are driven by the cues we receive from our environment.
For example, imagine yourself at the DMV. For some thinking about the DMV may evoke an immediate visceral reaction and consequential set of emotions. Emotional responses aside, try to picture yourself filling out the requisite forms for renewing your license. Though a seemingly insignificant detail, at the end of this form often lies a deeply personal question about becoming an organ donor. In many countries, citizens are asked to check a box in order to ‘opt-in’ to the organ donation program. While it may feel as though the choice to become an organ donor is driven by an unwavering moral compass, research suggests that becoming an organ donor is heavily influenced by the default option on the form.
Many of us fail to realize how seemingly small and mundane inputs, like a default option on a form, can have tremendous impact on our behavioral outputs, or whether we become organ donors. Congruently, companies and organizations will pour tremendous resources into standard strategies and marketing approaches that typically lack an awareness of the interplay between inputs and outputs. In a world where seemingly trivial details have potentially far-reaching impacts on subsequent outputs, it’s no wonder that communications professionals and their clients alike are clamoring to infuse behavioral science into the way they talk to the general public.
Consider, for example, the unique set of challenges faced by the rising number of online subscription-based services. These services are coping with business challenges like increasing their number of monthly users or changing prices for their current subscribers. Traditional remedies to customer acquisition and retention generally include increasing ad spend, creating informational campaigns, and employing standard communications tactics (save now!).
Armed with a keen understanding of how inputs can produce outputs, behavioral science encourages companies to consider not only the marketing strategies but also how the decision environment itself effects consumer behavior. A classic example of this being The Economist’s unknowing demonstration of the power of irrelevant alternatives to encourage subscribers to choose the highest payment tier.
It’s important to recognize that classic communications tactics typically uninformed by behavioral science are well-intended and can be highly effective. Crucially, behaviorally driven recommendations present tremendous opportunity to infuse an evidence-based approach into the way we think about problems.
No matter the challenge, we need behavioral science researchers and practitioners to help us understand, and ultimately leverage, the relationship between inputs and their consequential outputs. With so many factors affecting the relationship between environment and outcome, behavioral science has become the natural champion for private and public industries alike to usher in the next generation of solutions to the business and public interest problems of today.