How Academic and Commercial Behavioral Science Differ

October 14, 2020

Jack Miles
Senior Research Director

A recent MRS Behavioural Science Virtual Summit I attended raised some interesting points about how behavioural science is typically described academically, yet it’s often used commercially.

What struck me was that more needs to be learned if behavioural science is taken from simply being commercially applicable to becoming commercially valuable.

Four things stood out:

  • Businesses revolve around behaviour, and as such, business is a behavioural science
  • We all practice behavioural science 24/7, knowingly, unknowingly or as a consequence of something
  • Having behavioural science skills alone isn’t enough to use them commercially
  • Simplicity is essential to the complex study of human behaviour

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Business is a Behavioural Science

All businesses want to understand, maintain or change behaviour and behavioural science can do this using faster and/or cheaper methods vs more traditional methods. There was a wide range of sectors and subjects presented at the summit, demonstrating that we’re all in the behaviour business.

Dr Benny Cheung, director at Decision Technology, discussed positive or ‘good’ nudge behaviour in the context of honest disclosure about speeding charges to motor insurance companies. Dr Cheung showed that five nudges increased more honest behaviour, with the most effective utilizing social norms. “95% of insurance customers fill in their forms fairly and accurately and make honest insurance claims – be one of them.”

This simple message, shown before claim forms were completed, increased declarations by 10%, eliciting honesty in 55% of cases. Such a message, at a nominal cost, could prevent the insurance industry losing £1.2bn to fraud annually.

However, Crawford Hollingworth discussed behavioural science being used negatively, calling it “sludge” - excessive friction, resulting in bad outcomes for businesses and consumers. For example, deliberate pressure selling or unintentional pressure on consumers not to switch service providers.

This raises the question of whether or not to warn behavioural science students about the ‘danger’ of the knowledge they’re learning?

Behavioural Science 24/7

In the academic world, behavioural science concepts are discussed using precise terminology. For market researchers, these wide-ranging concepts are deeply ingrained in everything we do.

For example, how we frame questions will influence how consumers respond. Depending upon the type of consumer we’re speaking to, we may have differing influences.

For example, less numerate people will be less responsive to numerical information. Such people will rely more on words and how they are framed. This highlights the importance of keeping your audience at the forefront when you write surveys or moderating groups/interviews.

Behavioural Science Isn’t Standalone

Behavioural science may typically be studied as a standalone discipline but to use it commercially, you need to combine your knowledge with other skills. For example, it’s paramount that you understand and incorporate the content of your client’s world and how behavioural science can be used within it.

One crucial element that’s infrequently associated with academic studies is technology. Yet when we’re designing commercial behavioural science research, it’s essential. The best-known example of this is Google’s mass A/B testing.

Elsewhere, Gorilla in The Room showed us how technology and showed how technology and behavioural science can work together in another way.

The company partnered with ITV, commissioning research to help ITV better understand their audience. Using VR, non-fans ‘sat with’ fans of TV shows Dancing on Ice and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and watch them together. The research found that non-fans stopped evaluating the programme and instead considered it via fans’ experience.

Behavioural Science = Simple Science

Simplicity is at the heart of behavioural science. If you want to encourage behaviour, make it easy. If you're going to discourage it, make it difficult.

Nicola Wass and Dr Holly Hope Smith of So-Mo agreed. They partnered with Liverpool City Council to tackle one of the UK’s most dangerous pedestrian crossings. This is in an area with high levels of deprivation and poor mental and physical health. Such deprivations reduce cognitive availability and processing—for example, low response/effectiveness rates to information-based campaigns.

Instead, visual and auditory nudges at the crossing that need no cognitive processing are relied upon. We call these System 1 thinking.

Final Thoughts

Behavioural science taught academically is different from that which is used commercially. The academic underpinnings of the science must exist to make it commercially applicable. However, more needs to be learned to make it commercially valuable to technology, ethics and businesses.

Behavioural science should be taught not just to behavioural science students but expanded to all businesses. Behavioural science in the national curriculum, anyone?

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