Seven Ironies of Applying Behavioral Science
Now that the number of (self-proclaimed) behavioral economics / behavioral science experts has exploded and that “nudge” became just another buzzword mostly voided of meaning, I decided to resurrect this 2014 text (with some updates).
The list of Seven Ironies of Applying Behavioral Science refers to naïve people who think that reading one book on behavioral science and watching very catchy videos (with Dan Ariely, of course) makes them ready to apply the insights of behavioral science. The list does not refer to true experts.
The number zero irony is that virtually all readers of this post will think that they are the experts and that it is other people who are the naïve ones. Luckily for our self-esteem, we all think that we are above average… read on, it’s worth it.
You know and talk about System 1 and System 2 thinking, though to be fully honest, mainly about System 1. What you fail to understand, however, is that applying behavioral science is essentially a System 2 thinking process. This irony comes from the very nature of behavioral science findings – namely that they are counter-intuitive.
In order to apply counter-intuitive findings you can’t rely on your intuitive System 1, unless you have a very profound understanding of behavioral science and your System 1 intuitions are in line with the scientific findings.
You think that everything that starts with Neuro is truer, more important and worthier of knowing and implementing. You believe that everything that “is in the brain” deserves a big WOW.
I have nothing against Neuroscience (the real one) and I truly respect the real neuro-scientists who are reserved about their work and the field. The issue with Neuro stuff is that it is so appealing that it attracts all sorts of charlatans and incompetents who are looking for attention.
Let me be clearer. The fact that something (activity) is found in the brain when investigating things like judgment, decision-making and behavior is, in essence, no news. It would be news if some activity would be found in someone’s knee when the person is making a decision. In addition, the fact that a part of the brain is activated doesn’t mean that we should jump to conclusions. There is still much more to be learned about our brains and stay reassured that the findings will not be communicated in bombastic speeches that go viral. The findings will be presented in boring and hard to read scientific papers that very few will even hear/ learn about.
This video on Neuro-bunk is worth watching. (open it in a new tab and watch it after you finish reading)
You know about the many cognitive biases and yet you are in awe when hearing successful or surprising case-studies without for one second doubting that they can be the result of chance, that the methodology might be flawed and that a part of their success comes from the nice narrative given by the presenter.
You bought “Thinking Fast and Slow”, but never gave it a proper read. I don’t mean reading it in trains, trams, airplanes etc. It’s a wonderful book, but it is not popular science and if you don’t read it at least twice using System 2, very likely you won’t get too much of the wonderful science presented in it.
Having read (skimmed through) “Thinking Fast and Slow”, you take everything in that book as the absolute truth simply because it is there. You haven’t followed through with the research findings that, since the publication of the book, have challenged/ disproved some of the truths presented in “Thinking Fast and Slow”. I’m referring to the studies on priming – including the famous one with the pictures of eyes vs. flowers that influenced the amount paid in the honesty box – that failed to replicate.
Kahneman himself, in an open letter on September 26, 2012, called for a re-evaluation of existing priming research and results. Just as a note, “Thinking Fast and Slow” was originally published on October 25, 2011.
You think that what is presented in key-note speeches and in (popular) articles is important, true, worth knowing and the next big thing. At the same time, you fail to realize that the key-note speaker’s (or journalist’s) main goal is to deliver something interesting and catchy so that his (her) brand value will increase.
You keep confusing appealing with important, popular with worth-knowing and catchy with true.
In applying behavioral science, you want to get to the applied part and skip the science bit and this is only natural since we all want to fast-forward to the exciting work. However, jumping directly into the applied part is similar to shooting in pitch darkness in the hope that you’ll hit a small target.
Because applying behavioral science seems cool, nice etc. you assume that actually doing it (applying) will be a joyride, when the reality is that there are a lot of head-aches, trial and error spiced with learning. Seeing case-studies on applying behavioral science is zillion times easier than actually doing it.
You think that all applications of behavioral science are good and you tell yourself that you would never do it for evil purposes. The irony is that you give yourself extreme examples (prototypes) of evil such as “I would never help a Tobacco company sell more cigarettes / sell to children”, when the reality is that such big evils will never-ever ask for your services.
Moreover, by giving yourself this prototype of big evil, you ignore a major finding in behavioral science, that there is a big grey area in terms of what is bad. By saying that you’d never help a tobacco company make people smoke (more), it becomes very acceptable to help companies reduce consumer surplus (i.e. take all the money) and sell more of anything useless, but not harmful.
A bonus (FREE) irony just for you
You clicked the link to this post because the title contained the catchy number “7” and something intriguing. Yet, the truth is that there are “7” ironies simply because I got bored of writing more of them. By the way, in this post there are 10 ironies (counting the “free” one, the 4.1 one and the “number zero” one in the beginning), but I guess few noticed.
On a more serious note
I came across lots of people who claim to be Behavioral Economics / Behavioral Science experts (specialists) and have never read “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk”.
I’m referring to the original paper published in Econometrica in 1979, not reading about prospect theory.
Some so called experts say that social norms are part of behavioral economics, while anyone who can call bullshit knows that the research on social norms comes from social psychology.
If you want to be/ become a Behavioral Economics / Behavioral Science expert you need to do the hard work of reading and understanding (which sometimes means reading 3-5 times and then trying to explain to someone else) all those boring and highly unappealing scientific papers.
You need to read and understand all the findings in those papers and not simply regurgitate the cherry-picked results that are presented in highly appealing conference talks or online videos.
If you want to be a Behavioral Economics / Behavioral Science expert, you need to stay up to date with the field’s findings and clean-up operation and continuously learn and un-learn.
Having read Predictably Irrational, Nudge and (maybe) Thinking Fast and Slow makes you a Behavioral Economics / Behavioral Science expert as much as knowing how to write makes you a professional writer.
The truth is out there and waits for you to find it.
Oh! I almost forgot: I don’t claim to be better than any of you who read till here. I just know that I’m prone to error, that I don’t know everything and that there are more sides (nuances) to what is presented in case studies, conference talks and other means of communicating applied behavioral science findings. I try to stay skeptic and use System 2 as much as I can :)