What do we mean when we talk about behavioral science?

People sometimes appear to behave in peculiar ways.

We tell ourselves we’ll definitely exercise before work tomorrow, but when the alarm goes off at 6am we’re suddenly not so sure.  We know that it’s a good idea to save more for retirement, and yet we never seem to get around to increasing our pension contributions. We’re more likely to do something if we think other people are doing it—regardless of whether it’s the best thing for us. And we let small hassles, like filling in a form, get in the way of reaping large rewards.

Gym escalator

Humans and their quirks in action

These insights about how people behave, and many more like them, come from academic fields like economics, psychology and neuroscience—collectively called the behavioral sciences. Crucially, these academic fields also help us understand why people behave the way they do.

Why does it matter?

The fact is that all of us fall prey to behavioral quirks. And yet most policy, program and product design is based on the traditional economic model, which makes a number of assumptions about human behavior. According to this theory, we weigh all available information, assess the costs and benefits of each option, and make a choice that’s in our own best interests. And then we act on it.

But, as we can see from our own lives, this often isn’t the case—and that can sometimes lead us to do things that aren’t in our own best interest.

This means that if we’re going to design effective policies, programs and products that help people make and follow through on the best decisions for themselves—and for society—we need to understand real humans. We need behavioral science.

Applying insights from behavioral science to social problems is already having a huge impact. For example, millions more people in the U.S. and the U.K. are saving for retirement thanks to a simple change to the way workplace pensions are set up. And giving people feedback on how their energy usage compares to that of their neighbors has already helped consumers shave $700 million dollars off their energy bills. Here at ideas42, we’re using behavioral science to solve problems in health, education, criminal justice, international development, and government efficiency.

So what else does behavioral science tell us?

One of the most significant things we learn from behavioral science is that context really, really matters.

By context, we mean the environment or situation that people are making decisions in—things like when and how they’re presented with information, the physical environment, and what other people around them are doing.

Behavioral science teaches us that the interplay between the context and our psychological quirks can have a surprisingly powerful effect on our behavior.

The insights that come from behavioral science allow us to anticipate and account for these inconsistencies in product, program and policy design. We can then be more certain that they will have the biggest possible impact.


How do we use these insights in the real world?

Applying insights from behavioral science points us toward concrete solutions. For example, it tells us that:

      • Prompting people to make a plan and set goals can help people follow through on their intention to save money.
      • Changing the default option can lead to more people choosing that option, while not limiting choice.
      • Sending a simple, well-timed reminder can result in more people taking an action.
      • Shortening the feedback loop on how people are performing can have dramatic impacts on their decision-making.
      • Changing people’s perception of what the ‘social norm’ is can lead them to behave differently

But how do we know which solution will work in a particular context?

It’s not easy. Understanding how people make decisions and what drives their behavior is complex. And, because so much of it happens unconsciously, this understanding can’t usually be gleaned from more traditional consumer insight methods. This means we have to take a different approach.

At ideas42 we’ve spent years developing a new way of doing things.

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. We talk to people: service-users, employees, and experts. We analyze administrative data sets. We do literature reviews. We observe.

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.

And, because human behavior is so hard to predict, we test the effectiveness of our proposed solution by conducting rigorous experiments before scaling them up.

Ready to learn more?

Click here to explore a few key principles and psychologies that inform the work we do applying behavioral science

Click here for an in-depth look at our work in action across multiple domains and specific contexts

Click here for regularly updated insights from the Behavioral Scientist, a journalistic publication brought to you by a consortium of some of the most influential pioneers and practitioners of behavioral science, including ideas42, our adviser Richard Thaler, and the Behavioral Science & Policy Association