Let’s Bring the Science Back to Behavioral Science

Behavioral science is exactly what it sounds like – the scientific study of behavior.

And like all sciences, it is rooted in the scientific method. Yet with its rapid uptake in the marketing world, there are many versions and understandings of what the field is. The biggest challenge is an understanding of the discipline as a set of ‘quick-fix tools’ that are easy to sell and quick to execute in a research initiative. Buzz words like implicit, subconscious, nudges, and randomized controlled trials dominate the vernacular of behavioral science in industry, and while these individual components are important, applied piecemeal they lose their value. We need to bring the science back to behavioral science and understand that without the rigor of the scientific method, we risk missing a big part of the picture in understanding consumer behavior, and ultimately lead our clients astray.

Let’s explain using a real example. An electric utility company in the United States wanted to reduce energy consumption by implementing a nudge initiative with 35,000 costumers. To leverage the power of the social influence bias, consumers were told that they were less energy efficient than their average neighbor. The execution worked well for liberal consumers who were nudged in the desired direction. However, conservative costumers actually increased their energy consumption. The problem? The nudges were selected from a menu, and the executions weren’t based on tailored insights. The electric utility company didn’t have a deep enough understanding of their consumers to know what would work and for whom.

Unlike in industry, in the academic world researchers have a rich, multi-level understanding of their areas of study. Academics eat, sleep, and breathe a very specific section of understanding and collaborate with others everyday who do the same, allowing them to generate useful hypotheses that they then test. As market researchers we often have only several weeks to bring our clients through insights all the way to strategy and execution. The challenge therefore becomes applying the mantra of rigor that the scientific method is rooted in, to our clients’ challenges. But how? We must adapt the scientific method for application to industry, and the first step is becoming fast experts in our clients’ challenge. This can be done by using a multi-disciplinary and multi-method approach to gaining insights. So that in addition to understanding the drivers of behavior, we are gaining an understanding of the cultural forces that impact those drivers. The best way to do this is to combine the academic disciplines of behavioral science and cultural anthropology to achieve a multi-disciplinary lens from which to view client challenges. Secondly, by using multiple methods we can leverage the principle of converging evidence to ensure that the insights will lead the client to the solutions that will best serve them and their consumers.

By putting the science back into behavioral science, we ensure that all the value the discipline has to offer is harnessed. In the long-term this will serve to ensure that the application of behavioral science to marketing is not just a short-lived fad, but a powerful approach for commercial impact.

This integrated multi-method approach is the best way to understand and change human behavior, in all of its’ complexities. We will be exploring this topic in more detail during our talk at IIeX Behavior 2018 in London UK on May 10: “Keep it complicated, stupid: A holistic approach to unrealized brand potential.”

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