The Future of Applied Behavioral Science Will NOT Be About Behavioral Science

It’s been quite some time since behavioral science and its applications have reached mainstream media or at least have left the academic environment. There are books, NGOs, governmental organizations and private companies who apply the insights of behavioral science (or at least claim to do so).

Naturally there is a question on the future of applied behavioral science and I dare make a prediction (which I usually restrain myself). My prediction is that:

The future of Applied Behavioral Science will not be about Behavioral Science.

Now, don’t jump off your seat and don’t close this page. It will make sense very soon!

In order to get a very good understanding of this (possible and very probable) future we need to take a look to the past; not that of behavioral science, but of construction – the act of building.

One thousand years ago people were building houses, castles, monuments, cathedrals etc. We assume (wrongly) that those edifices were built using the same principles as the ones used today: designing, sketching, computing dimensions and using information on the resistance of various materials etc. In a nutshell these could be summarized in what we know today as (Newtonian) Physics and (Euclidian) Geometry.

The reality is, however, a bit different. One thousand years ago, there were very few people who had formal knowledge of Euclidian geometry and Newtonian physics simply didn’t exist. Most of the building done at the time was based on knowledge acquired through vicarious learning (stumbling upon something that works) and through trial and error.

Coming back to applied behavioural science, the situation is quite similar. Formal knowledge in the field is relatively new in historical terms (approx. 40 years), but what can be seen as applications of behavioural science date long before the formal knowledge existed.

Advertisers, sales people and others stumbled upon things that work (such as social proof, anchoring etc.) and used them in practice long before researchers studied these phenomena.

At one point in history, builders got acquainted with formal knowledge of Euclidean geometry and Newtonian Physics and found these insights extremely useful for their work – building. Many of the builders incorporated this knowledge from geometry and physics into their work and, I guess, some of them communicated things like:

Hey! I’m a special builder because I use Euclidean Geometry and Newtonian Physics in my work!

Now (in 2014) we are in a similar stage with applied behavioral science. Various companies, organizations, individuals (including myself) etc. say that they are special because they use behavioral science.

But, in a few (my guess 5) years the novelty and wow-factor of (applied) behavioral science will fade away. Exactly as the novelty and wow-factor of using geometry and physics in building vanished centuries ago.

The future will bring behavioral science into the “implied” area of various activities. I guess nowadays you expect the builder of your house to know geometry and (basic) physics and would not contract someone who doesn’t.

The future of applied behavioral science will be about doing things much better and not about applying scientific knowledge. Applying the insights of behavioral science will be implied.

The key issue is to identify the areas where behavioral science can really make a difference and get a head-start. We already know that it can be used in public policy (design) – see the Behavioral Insights Team, in public space design – see the activity of the Danish Nudging Network, in market research – see BrainJuicer and Invivo-BVA, marketing communication – See Ogilvy and overall service design (yes, me).

The value of the applications of behavioral science resides in the increased efficiency and effectiveness it brings to already existing activities. For example, public policy existed long before the BIT existed, while market research was a mature field when BrainJuicer entered the market.

The value of behavioral science applied in the above mentioned fields resides in higher effectiveness of the money spent from the public budget and, respectively, in better predictive value of market research endeavors.

If we (behavioral science enthusiasts) are to survive the future, we need to pick out a field where the application of behavioural science will lead to an increase of efficiency, effectiveness and quality.

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