What is behavioural science?

Mikaela Green

Mikaela Green on Apr 26, 2023

We answer eight key questions about all-things behavioural science…

When did ‘behavioural science’ become a thing?

The origins of behavioural science are difficult to pinpoint. In some respects, behavioural science is as old as philosophy. You’ve probably heard of the Socratic method, which furthers the process of human decision making and is likely to have been concepted over 2,400 years ago. You’ve likely also heard of Freakonomics, a hugely successful book by Steven Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, which brought behavioural economics to popular culture and was first published in 2005. So we might speculate that behavioural science came into fruition at some point in this window: that is, within the last two and a half thousand years!

Are ‘behavioural sciences’ and ’social sciences’ the same?

The challenge of dating behavioural science might partially explain why the term is so difficult to define. According to the UN, behavioural science refers to “an evidence-based understanding of how people actually behave, make decisions and respond to programmes, policies, and incentives”. The use of “evidence-based” is important here as many reject the idea that “behavioural sciences” and “social sciences” can be used synonymously, as behavioural science leans towards being more experimental. Whereas the social sciences deal with relationships and the workings of human society (think sociology, anthropology, political science), behavioural science deals with human actions and seeks to use these insights to make wider generalisations. In reality, both fields use mixed methods, but perhaps behavioural science’s focus on individual action makes controlled experimentation easier to achieve.

What about ‘behavioural science’ and ‘behavioural economics’?

To complicate things further, behavioural science draws from multiple fields, including psychology, sociology, anthropology. There is also a prominent strand of behavioural science known as “behavioural economics”, which uses psychological insights to explain economic decision-making. The terms “behavioural science” and “behavioural economics” are frequently used interchangeably, which is problematic for those in the former field who have little to no knowledge of economic theory. Behavioural science is used in so many fields (healthcare, public policy, organisational behaviour, to name a few) so why has “behavioural economics” become a free-standing discipline? We might attribute this to the popularity of books like Nudge, which gave rise to behavioural science teams (often called “nudge units”) in public and private organisations across the world. As an economist, Nudge author Richard Thaler was one of many who blurred the lines between psychology and economics.

There has also been a concerted effort to ‘backdate’ the use of behavioural science in economics, with Nobel laureate Robert Shiller claiming that as many as 6% of all Nobel economics prizes have actually been awarded to behavioural economists. However, some question whether behavioural economics is really economics at all, but rather an extrapolation of behavioural psychology as applied to real world scenarios.

How do I explain ‘behavioural science’ in a simple way?

In short, behavioural science incorporates multiple fields of study that look at human action: how people behave and how people make decisions.

What is a cognitive bias?

Behavioural science uses psychological insights to generalise about human behaviour. An example of this is ‘cognitive biases’, or deviations from rational judgement, that are reproducible and systematic i.e., everyone does it, even though it seems odd. We rely on biases because our cognitive decision-making capacity can never be fully rational. Sometimes we don’t have enough time or information to make a decision, or we simply don’t have enough brain space. Better known examples of cognitive biases include confirmation bias (our tendency to search for or favour information that supports an existing belief) and optimism bias (our tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing positive events and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing negative events). There are more biases and effects than our web server will tolerate, but you can find a helpful list here.

How is ‘behavioural science’ different to ‘behaviour change’?

“Behaviour change” is the real world application of learnings from behavioural science i.e., how can we encourage an individual, or a society of individuals, to stop, start or change a behaviour? This is particularly relevant to communications, as we are constantly interacting with individuals, groups and communities and attempting to influence their behaviour. There are many models and frameworks of behaviour change, but COM-B, EAST and MINDSPACE are perhaps the most commonly used in the UK.

Is behaviour change ethical?

There are really two parts to this: ensuring that the practice is ethical and ensuring that the outcome is ethical.

In terms of the practice, you’ve likely heard of ‘nudging’ as a key element of behaviour change. When we talk about ‘nudging’, we are referring to positively reinforcing or making indirect suggestions to influence a behaviour; for example, making fruit easier to reach than chocolate in a school cafeteria, to encourage healthy food choices. But there’s no sorcery involved: anyone can read about behaviour change and free will is always at the centre of decision making. The Behavioral Scientist published an excellent ‘ethics checklist’, which could and should be factored into any behaviour change process.

In terms of the outcome, Claremont believes in changing behaviour “for better living” and contributing to social good. We appreciate that this will always be subjective, but we’re pleased to have supported so many charities and public sector bodies to have made a tangible difference. We’re also heavily invested in co-design, working directly with our target audiences to achieve the best possible outcomes. You can find a write-up of our co-design approach here.

How can behaviour change help me?

Any knotty behavioural problem can be unraveled using the right approach, but our first step is always helping to define the problem. Some knotty challenges we’ve faced at Claremont include ‘How can we decrease cocaine consumption in the Thames Valley?’, ‘How can the UN support staff to get vaccinated?’, ‘How can we encourage younger and lower income women to attend cervical screening?’ and many others. If you’ve got a knotty problem that might benefit from a second opinion, you can reach out to us here.