The last time you visited the doctor with an illness, what did your physician do? After taking vital signs, your doctor probably examined you, asked questions about your symptoms, possibly asked about your diet, lifestyle or recent events, and perhaps scheduled follow-up tests. This combination of data and contextual details allowed your doctor to make an informed guess about what type of treatment might help your condition, rather than make uninformed suppositions.

The behavioral diagnosis process follows similar principles of data collection and discovery, but applies them in a very different way. In the BETA Project, behavioral diagnosis is the second phase of a four-stage problem solving process: define, diagnose, design and test.

The goal for the diagnose stage is to tease out factors and contextual details that might be contributing to the behavioral problem identified during the define stage. Diagnosis is an iterative process for charting the decisions and actions an individual must take to reach the desired outcome, constructing informed hypotheses about psychologies at play and looking for evidence in the field that helps us refine those hypotheses. Think of the TV show, House. In each episode, a patient comes into the hospital with a condition. The team of doctors work on the case throughout the episode, observing symptoms and reflecting back on past cases and medical research to create hypotheses regarding what might be causing the symptoms. The first hypothesis is never right, but as the team tries to test each hypothesis, they learn more about the patient’s condition and get closer to the proper diagnosis.

Behavioral diagnosis is rarely complete with one hypothesis, but requires multiple iterations. Additionally, behavioral diagnosis is unlike medical diagnosis (especially the kind that happens on TV) in that the process will very rarely yield a single, clear answer for why people are behaving a certain way. Moreover, we recognize that different people demonstrate different behaviors. Our goal here is not to pinpoint a precise cause of a precise behavior, but to better understand the key “behavioral bottlenecks,” or places where human behavior may be preventing someone from reaching their goals in a given context.

With something as nebulous and complex as human behavior, how does one even start a diagnosis? You could ask yourself, “why are people doing [the problematic behavior]?” to generate hypotheses on potential causes of the problem. You could also look for clues to assess whether or not any of the ideas are on track. In our next three blog posts, we will share a few of the tactics we use to diagnose the underlying behaviors and psychologies at each of our BETA Project test sites.

Next BETA Project Post: Being Wrong is Sometimes Right

Our next post on the BETA Project will discuss one of our favorite strategies we use in the field: proving ourselves wrong. This post and other helpful insights from the BETA Project are available on CFED’s blog.