Imagining the Next Decade of Behavioral Science

If you asked Richard Thaler in 2010, what he thought would become of the then very new field of behavioral science over the next decade, he would have been wrong, at least for the most part. Could he have predicted the expansion of behavioral economics research? Probably. The Nobel Prize? Maybe. The nearly 300 and counting behavioral teams in governments, businesses, and other organizations around the world? Not a chance. 

When we asked him a year and a half ago to sum up the 10 years since the publication of Nudge, he replied “Am I too old to just say OMG? … [Cass Sunstein and I] would never have anticipated one “nudge unit” much less 200….Every once in a while, one of us will send the other an email that amounts to just ‘wow.’”

As we closed last year (and the last decade), we put out a call to help us imagine the next decade of behavioral science. We asked you to share your hopes and fears, predictions and warnings, open questions and big ideas. 

We received over 120 submissions from behavioral scientists around the world. We picked the most thought-provoking submissions and curated them below.

We’ve organized the responses into three sections. The first section, Promises and Pitfalls, houses the responses about the field as whole—its identity, purpose, values. In that section, you’ll find authors challenging the field to be bolder. You’ll also find ideas to unite the field, which in its growth has felt for some like the “Wild West.” Ethical concerns are also top of mind. “Behavioral science has confronted ethical dilemmas before … but never before has the essence of the field been so squarely in the wheelhouse of corporate interests,” writes Phillip Goff.

We asked you to share your hopes and fears, predictions and warnings, open questions and big ideas. 

In the second section, we’ve placed the ideas about specific domains. This includes “Technology: Nightmare or New Norm,” where Tania Ramos considers the possibility of a behaviorally optimized tech dystopia. In “The Future of Work,” Lazslo Bock imagines that well-timed, intelligent nudges will foster healthier company cultures, and Jon Jachomiwcz emphasizes the importance of passion in an economy increasingly dominated by A.I. In “Climate Change: Targeting Individuals and Systems” behavioral scientists grapple with how the field can pull its weight in this existential fight. You’ll also find sections on building better governments, health care at the digital frontier and final mile, and the next steps for education. 

The third and final section gets the most specific of all. Here you’ll find commentary on the opportunities (and obligations) for research and application. For instance, George Lowenstein suggests we pay more attention to attention—an increasingly scarce resource. Others, on the application side, ponder how behavioral science will influence the design of our neighborhoods and wonder what it will take to bring behavioral science into the courtroom. The section closes with ideas on the future of intervention design and ways we can continue to master our methods.

Thaler may not have been able to predict the future, but when he and Sustein imagined what the field of behavioral science could become, they hoped it would be one where behavioral scientists nudged for good.

In this collection, you’ll find traces of that ethos reflected throughout. As a field we are concerned with impact, ethics, and rigor, and we have ideas on how to use behavioral science to improve the world. 

We won’t know for 10 years whether any of these ideas will come true, who was right and who was wrong. But that’s not the point. The point is to put out into the world our hopes and fears, our vision for a better field and a better world, and ways we can get there.

—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief


Table of Contents

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SECTION I: Promises and Perils

SECTION II: Domains on Our Mind

SECTION III: Research and Application Ideas, Intervention Design, Methods


SECTION I: Promises and Perils

HOPES

If I could dream up a perfect decade for behavioral scientists, we would:

  1. Focus more on improving lives with behavioral science, bringing our knowledge to bear on an even wider range of pressing social problems than in past decades (from income inequality to crime to homelessness to climate change to the obesity epidemic).
  2. Make a dent in understanding what changes behavior in a lasting way rather than what works to encourage just one or two good choices.
  3. See a growth of “big science,” or expansive team efforts to advance knowledge.
  4. Embrace a broader range of fields and ideas in our daily work, not just psychology and economics but also neuroscience, sociology, philosophy, and computer science, for example.
  5. See near-universal adoption of frameworks that ensure our science is robust and reproducible such as pre-registration and open sharing of study stimuli and data.
  6. Raise our ethical standards, recognizing that as more and more private data becomes available, we must vigilantly protect the welfare of those whose choices we study.

Katherine Milkman is the Evan C. Thompson Endowed Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching and a tenured professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.


What will the next decade of BI look like? Given everything we know about the human (in)ability to forecast, I really shouldn’t be forecasting. That said, I would like to see three things happen.

Theoretically, I expect that we will move away from demonstrating behavioral irregularities to identifying when and where they do and do not occur, and identifying their marketplace effects.

In practice, I expect that we will move beyond nudging and tweaking touchpoints in two ways. First, I expect to see a lot more convergence between behavioral insights and related disciplines like design, data science, and human-computer interaction. Second, I see a lot more effort devoted to building behaviorally informed organizations, and to developing a framework for scaling behavioral interventions. My hope is that organizations spend as much time and energy on being human-compliant as they do on compliance with the law!

Finally, I believe we’ll start moving to a place where researchers and practitioners start recognizing the centrality of behavior. If products and processes are behaviorally well designed, we won’t need to nudge people to adopt them. Therefore, if nudge units are less needed by the end of next decade century, that would be a good sign of success!

Dilip Soman is a professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management. He is the author of The Last Mile.


PRIORITIZING IMPACT

ideas42 and other organizations like it that apply behavioral science to solve real-world problems have successfully completed hundreds, probably thousands, of experiments over the last decade. In the next decade, we have a tremendous opportunity to apply behavioral science to achieve impact at scale, rather than continuing to generate more experiments simply because we have made experiments our measure of success. Behavioral science can provide a different lens on changing systems. It is critical to adapt successful solutions from one context to another. We can use it to help organizations transform. Finally, in taking on these more complex projects, we can consistently use science even to optimize the process of applying the science. These broader applications will be harder to execute and harder to measure, but the potential for impact makes them worth chasing.

Piyush Tantia is chief innovation officer at ideas42.

Disclosure: ideas42 is a founding partner of the Behavioral Scientist and Piyush Tantia serves on the Behavioral Scientist’s advisory board.


Behavioral science attracted massive interest in the last decade; in the next ten years, some of this attention could move elsewhere. If that happens, we need a way of ensuring that we can still apply the same evidence, even if people are no longer asking for “behavioral” approaches.

Perhaps we will have succeeded if, at the end of the next decade, we aren’t talking about “behavioral insights” as a separate idea—because it’s been absorbed into the standard ways of making policy and designing services.

Therefore, the obvious priority is to focus more on new tactics for integrating behavioral science into the standard way that organizations do things. Embracing this priority raises an interesting question. Perhaps we will have succeeded if, at the end of the next decade, we aren’t talking about “behavioral insights” as a separate idea—because it’s been absorbed into the standard ways of making policy and designing services.

Michael Hallsworth is managing director of BIT North America.


Behavior change is hard. It’s hard to start, it’s hard to sustain. We are still spending too much, eating too much, and forgetting our medication. There are two problems: our interventions have small effect sizes and low uptake by industry. 

Applied behavioral science will need to get bolder and a little more comfortable with noise. Most behavioral scientists are experimentalists, trained to maximize control and understand mechanism. We’re running giant field studies with lots of conditions, but these are still just testing small changes in big systems: the wording of instructions in an app or the letters we send taxpayers.

How do we truly integrate the principles of behavioral science into our world? How can we give designers templates for new systems? How can we eat less meat, fly less, reduce prejudice, re-skill/up-skill, fight NIMBYism?

Applied behavioral science will need to get bolder and a little more comfortable with noise.

These will be tough studies to run, but this is our challenge. We aren’t going for gold because going for gold is hard to test. We predict the field will invest in methods that allow us to test bolder interventions that prioritize impact. We predict: 

  • All university labs will have their own dev/design teams to create websites that replicate real decisions.
  • Applied shops will invest in “living labs,” using passive data tracking software.
  • We’ll study group behaviors in addition to individual behaviors. Norm change will be the next frontier.
  • There will be a peer reviewed journal for just “applied” studies with industry partners. There will be a spotlight on bigger problems that require bigger solutions.
  • We will move beyond studying the irrationalities of human nature and will be asked to solve the problems of our future.

Kristen Berman is co-founder of Irrational Labs and co-founder of Common Cents Lab at Duke University


Focus on the choice architecture in complex systems, not isolated interventions. To this point, most applied behavioral science has taken the form of subject matter experts working on narrow, measurable problems. There has been amazing work done in this mode, but I believe we need to go beyond that to avoid getting stuck as just a fun side project for organizations.

Our greatest impact won’t come in isolated experiments on one-off decisions, but in altering the choice architecture of the complex organizations and systems those occur in. No one is better equipped to alter how information flows and decisions are made in massive systems than behavioral scientists. Such solutions aren’t as easy to measure in an RCT, but are ultimately much more impactful. 

I think of it this way: would I rather achieve a significant and measurable improvement to one behavioral outcome within a system, like uptake to a product or enrollment in a government program, or shift the way executives or public leaders make their strategic decisions? Behavioral science has largely played in the former, but I think the latter is ultimately more impactful, though less precise.

Erik Johnson is the marketing optimization manager on Morningstar’s Behavioral Insights Team.



Many empirical journal articles in social psychology conclude by highlighting how the findings provide a foundation for future work that could be used to improve human lives. But this “future work” typically doesn’t happen. After all, it’s relatively easy to conduct studies in the lab or online and then speculate about how they could be used; it’s much harder to conduct large, rigorous road tests of our ideas in the messy, complicated real world.

Over the past decade though, governments and organizations have become increasingly open to partnering with behavioral scientists, making such road tests more feasible. And now the incentive structure within academia is beginning to shift, enabling scientists to invest the considerable time and effort that such projects demand. In particular, several major journals now accept Registered Reports, which are accepted prior to data collection.

I would challenge my fellow behavioral scientists to look back at their last concluding statement about how their findings could someday be useful in the real world—and put that idea to the test now.

Over the next decade, I believe this format will become more common, freeing researchers to pour their time into tough real-world tests of their ideas. So, I would challenge my fellow behavioral scientists to look back at their last concluding statement about how their findings could someday be useful in the real world—and put that idea to the test now.

Elizabeth Dunn is a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and the co-author of Happy Money (with Michael Norton).


If behavioral science is about iteratively getting better and better at predicting the curve of human behavior, then the application is about bending that curve. And the dominant question of the next decade is how and for whom we will bend it.

The piloting, testing, and scaling of interventions requires resources and the natural source of those resources are companies (or campaigns) that want to bend it for their own gain. That is not always bad, when incentives are aligned. But because they are not always aligned, behavioral scientists are increasingly going to be sitting across the table from each other, fighting over the bends of the curve.

If behavioral science is about iteratively getting better and better at predicting the curve of human behavior, then the application is about bending that curve. And the dominant question of the next decade is how and for whom we will bend it.

We must arm ourselves for that conflict. We must learn to make the business case and to align incentives to fight what is immediately profitable but ultimately self-destructive. Not everyone will pick the side of what is good and right and we will have to fight them too. Not over petty things, like who has a Ph.D. or can call themselves a behavioral scientist, but over the thing that truly matters: who we are serving with our science.

Matt Wallaert is the chief behavioral officer at Clover Health and the author of Start at the End.


EMERGING ETHICS

I worry about the traps that await behavioral science in the coming decade. In particular, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution surges into the 2020s, the gold rush of massive behavioral data sets presents great opportunities and accompanying risks behavioral science has yet to protect itself against. The temptation to forget that even “big data” often measures operationalizations, and not actual outcomes, is dwarfed by the threat represented by enormous data empires with the power to employ, underwrite—and oppose science that aids or hinders their mission.

Behavioral science has confronted ethical dilemmas before…but never before has the essence of the field been so squarely in the wheelhouse of corporate interests.

Behavioral science has confronted ethical dilemmas before: whether to help governments torture, whether to speak up about the consequences of discrimination. But never before has the essence of the field been so squarely in the wheelhouse of corporate interests. Like engineering and biomedical research, behavioral science will need to construct strong ethical guardrails to protect the science against the corrupting influence of powerful, monied interests in the next decade. The good news is, it appears there is still time to figure out what we should do before the field has caused too much trouble discovering what we can do. But that’s only good news if we move to protect our science while the decade is young!

Phillip Atiba Goff is the Franklin A. Thomas Professor in Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the co-founder and president of Center for Policing Equity.


The next decade in behavioral science should be one in which questions over the ethical use of our collective behavioral toolkit become as prominent as the tools themselves. Behavioral science has largely positioned itself as solely descriptive, endeavoring to and often succeeding wonderfully in more completely explaining human decision-making and behavior. But like the disciplines at behavioral science’s core—psychology, economics, neuroscience—serious normative inquiry is critical to realizing the field’s full potential.  

Will behavioral insights be used to better one another or simply sell more products? Will it lead to richer, more autonomous lives or ones more easily captured by our base instincts? Will it create equality or be used as a tool of division? Will our lives be filled with positive nudges or just more sludge? 

These questions can’t be answered by the next experiment or field study, no matter how clever, because the inquiry is incomplete. When we focus only on the is, and ignore the ought, we miss the deeper understanding of humanity that behavioral science invites. Only when the complete question is considered, and considered deeply, will we understand behavioral science’s true future, and whether the next decade will be better than the one past.

Todd Haugh is an assistant professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.


Facebook, Amazon, Google, and other tech companies will inadvertently give rise to an ethical revolution in behavior scientists. The American Psychological Association’s formal code of ethics, developed shortly after the Nuremberg Code was written in response to the scientific atrocities of World War II, focuses mainly on academic research and clinical practice. But today psychologists do much more than that. With psychologists becoming more embedded in product development, a new code is needed to account for the unforeseen challenges of connected devices, large scale personal data collection, dissemination of misinformation, algorithmic bias, and mass surveillance. 

We will—we should—see the development of best practices and ethical guidelines around the contributions of behavior scientists to technology design and development. Training in the new ethical code will become a requirement for social science degrees or to serve as an investigator in IRB-reviewed research. Companies that do not demonstrate adherence to these ethical standards won’t survive in the marketplace as consumers become wise to the ways in which technology can cause them harm. And practitioners who do not abide by the code of ethics will rightly be viewed as unqualified to contribute to design.

Amy Bucher is VP of Behavior Change Design at Mad*Pow and the author of the book Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change.


Behavioral science is being used to promote good ideas and good habits from investing to healthy living. But who really can say whether these good ideas are really best for each unique individual? With the power to influence, do we need a behavioral science Hippocratic Oath, to do no harm, in the use of such techniques? 

It might be easy to dismiss such a notion as ineffective with people who use behavioral science techniques to intentionally, maliciously, and selfishly convince others to take an action beneficial to the communicator but harmful to the individual. True.

But how can we protect the public from behavioral science practitioners who may truly believe they are being altruistic and helpful, but who are actually unintentionally leading their audience down the wrong path? Might an Oath or some other cultural mindset among practitioners cause sufficient pause to encourage them to take the extra step to make sure their own data and recommendations are sound, and that they really are best for each of the people they are influencing? How can we create that mindset to make sure good ideas are actually good, rather than just something we happen to agree with?

Dave Stahlman is a director at Arc Aspicio, where he focuses on helping government agencies, non-profits, and commercial organizations improve performance and organizational efficiency.


UNITING THE FIELD

What started as a few experiments in designing tax forms has become a vast enterprise in developing solutions to the major global challenges of our time: climate change, health, and sustainability, to name a few. Behavioral science grew exponentially in the 2010s and now increasingly has the potential to design the fabric on which human lives are played out.

But our discipline still resembles the Wild West. There is no clear definition of what behavioral science (or scientist) even is. We have no agreed industry standards or accreditation processes, no common ethical edicts, and no institutional body to adjudicate our big issues. The field lacks global organization, authority, and direction.

Our discipline still resembles the Wild West.

The potential of behavioral science to make a positive impact on the world is immense. We must unite as a field to institute clarity, process, and structure; and if we cannot, behavioral science might not survive the decade.

John Pickering is the CEO of the Evidn Group (USA and Australia) and the Co-Chair of the Nature Sustainability Expert Panel on Behavioral Science. Brendan Markey-Towler is a psychological economist who serves as a Senior Advisor at Evidn. Katri Haanterä is the head of behavioral science at Evidn, where she leads the behavioral science unit. Erik Simmons is a senior science advisor at Evidn and as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Future Environments at the Queensland University of Technology.


Behavioral scientists need an association to network, collaborate, and share ideas to further advance the field over the coming decade.

In recent years behavioral insights have captured the attention of governments, business leaders, and academics alike, yet the business community has done little to collaborate with others. This is happening even while behavioral science is propagating throughout businesses at an increased rate, all without any uniform approach or quality control. Resembling a common problem, businesses eager to experiment commonly do so without pursuing procedures that ensure valid and reliable results. Concurrently, academic behavioral scientists are facing pressure to test theories outside the lab. My thought is, Who better to solve this disconnect than those who research the choices leading to this outcome? 

To date, I have founded Behavioral Insights Professional Society, and am working with the Behavioral Science Policy Association to create a singular nonprofit association. This group will set out to solve the aforementioned problem, among others, through setting ethics and guidelines for determining legitimate behavioral science application, creating a repository of case studies, hosting job and research opportunities, among many others. To be successful, this effort needs the support and participation of the entire behavioral science community. 

Connor Joyce is a behavioral researcher at Microsoft and the founder of the Behavioral Insights Professional Society.


Antoine de Saint Exupéry said “For there is but one problem—the problem of human relations.” I think in the next decade, behavior sciences need to methodically unpack different facets of this problem and offer solutions in a more cohesive and collaborative manner. So far, we have uncovered hundreds of cognitive biases and designed lone-standing interventions to make human life better. I believe it is time for us to more systematically attend to the multifaceted social interactions, address individual biases and behaviors in the context of a social ecosystem to create constructive, systemic, and lasting change.

Tackling intricate human problems might require more integrative approaches and potentially more complex methodologies. We need to have deeper and more courageous conversations across disciplines. These conversations need to involve experts from both academic and non-academic circles; they can’t happen in isolation in two separate worlds. When we can all unite around bigger, more interesting questions about the web of human relations, only then, we can truly help individuals, organizations, and communities breathe easier. 

Lalin Anik is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.


FINDING OUR IDENTITY

Since the field of behavioral science was first established there has been an explosion of growth in our knowledge and understanding. Over this time, the number of identified behavioral science concepts has increased tenfold; from anchoring and endowment to the cheerleader and bandwagon effects. And we would like to suggest that some of this expansion has been, in some cases, a little unscientific.

Because of this rapid, somewhat unchecked expansion, we suspect that over the next 10 years we will almost certainly see a narrowing or tightening down on concepts. Behavioral science practitioners will be less interested in coming up with unique and potentially counterintuitive findings to make headlines, and more focused on observing and revealing deep behavioral insights. With fewer concepts remaining, the focus will turn to better understanding the actual magnitude of impact of these concepts across different contexts and establishing what can dampen or enlarge effects. Our understanding of these narrowed concepts will become much stronger and more nuanced, and the research around them more robust and rigorous.

Doubtless we will find that many of the ones that remain will feel most intuitive!

The future will look brighter, with behavioral science practitioners having access to an even more powerful toolkit of tried and tested concepts, and the ability to utilize the nuances of context to have the biggest influence. Interventions will be more reliable, and we’ll have put the “science” back into behavioral science!

Crawford Hollingworth is cofounder of The Behavioural Architects.


As behavioral scientists, we’re not exactly a diverse bunch. We’re university educated. We live in major cities. We work in academia, tech, consulting, banking and finance. And dare I say it, we’re rather liberal. Read the twitter streams or other public outputs of the major behavioral science institutions, publications and personalities, and the topics of interest don’t stray too far from what a Democratic politician (substitute your own nation’s centre-left party) would discuss in a stump speech.

We need to be self critical, open to being wrong, and not cheerleaders of our own narrow conception of the world.

In that light, we need to think more broadly about both the questions we tackle and the answers we “like”. We need to ask what problems matter to the large swathes of the population that we don’t encounter in our day-to-day. We need to be self critical, open to being wrong, and not cheerleaders of our own narrow conception of the world. We must find and listen those who don’t share our points of view. We must question our orthodoxies.

In practice, that’s not easy. But its vital to our relevance and to our intellectual foundations.

Jason Collins leads PwC Australia’s behavioral economics practice.


What constitutes a good behavioral scientist? What skills do they have? What similarities do they share? What outputs constitute success and prestige? Do publications, funding, or impact matter most? Do they hold any official accreditation or acknowledgement from a larger organizational entity? Does any of the above matter? Does all of it matter? 

What constitutes a good behavioral scientist?

These are a few of the pressing identity questions the behavioral sciences will need to answer in the coming decade. The behavioral science mixture of disciplines is a young one. Consequently, it is hard to pinpoint the exact knowledge base or skill set required to meet the base requirements of what we would consider a “behavioral scientist.”

Ask a behavioral scientist with a background in psychology and you will get one answer; ask a behavioral scientist with a background in economics and you will get another. Like an adolescent, as a field we are figuring out who we are and experiencing the mandatory growing pains. The coming decade will hopefully bring more clarity to the field, while maintaining the flexibility that has allowed it to be creative and innovative.

Erik Simmons is a senior science advisor at Evidn and as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Future Environments at the Queensland University of Technology.


The field of behavioral design currently resides in the hands of experts steeped in empirical behavioral studies and RCT analysis, but in the next decade it is likely to become increasingly commoditized. Much like “design thinking” is now ubiquitous, practitioners with more enthusiasm than formal training will increasingly start to practice behavioral design. This is not necessarily bad. Democratization promises to embed behavioral perspectives more broadly and organically into how we envision and develop offerings, organizations, and policy. More accessible entry paths to expertise may also reduce the perception of academic exclusivity or that a Ph.D. is a requirement for practice. 

When everyone’s a “behavioral thinker,” there’s a high chance it will become increasingly necessary—and important—to communicate the value of true proficiency.

But this also means a shift in who owns the definition of what “good” looks like, and just as with design thinking, we’ll likely see a new proliferation of get-smart-quick programs that reduce nuance and precision to more formulaic processes and the promise of instant expertise. Defining standards, like LEED certification for architecture, and codifying methods may be one way to maintain a level of consistency and quality. But when everyone’s a “behavioral thinker,” there’s a high chance it will become increasingly necessary—and important—to communicate the value of true proficiency.

Ruth Schmidt is an associate professor at the Institute of Design in Chicago.


In an ever increasingly complex world, behavioral insights has provided a way to understand why people do the things they do, and how interventions can change individual behavior. From a practitioner’s perspective, the next decade will be how to mainstream the science, its methodologies and lessons into systems and organizations. There are three key things to consider for behavioral insights to go to the next level:

  1. Humility: A “getting real” moment to live not in false certainty, but rather sure uncertainty signals a paradigm shift. This shift acknowledges that those in authority, whether in public or private institutions, do not have, never did, and should not be expected to have all the answers, but are humble and competent enough to find the solutions without bias.
  2. Honesty: A mature approach in relationships between those in authority and those they lead or govern based on a better appreciation and understanding of human nature. This may be scary, however with the rapid spread of data and information, “command and control” will have to be replaced in many instances (but not all) with “collaboration and enabling” whether in governments or in organizations.
  3. Ethical: Ethics has been fundamental to the successful spread of behavioral insights across the world, and it will continue to be even more so. Public bodies have existing ethical frameworks, checks and balances, scrutiny and public accountability. Private institutions will require similar frameworks as they utilize behavioral insights more, and both will need to ensure that these are strengthened and used in system change.  

In 1958, Werner Heisenberg the Nobel Laureate for Physics said “What we observe is not nature itself, but rather, nature exposed to our particular method of questioning.” The most powerful lesson that behavioural insights has given is that our systems and process can be biased, and therefore limited or even flawed in their use for making decisions. This is an even greater lesson for leadership, and something that behavioral insights can assist to address in the coming decade.

Faisal Naru founded the behavioral insights work at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and is currently head of strategic management and coordination in the office of the OECD executive director.


FEARS

We live in a time when academics have a number of great platforms to engage people in the “real world”—from blogs to op-eds to TED Talks to podcasts. One worry I have for behavioral scientists is that the allure of the simple, digestible message, which may be devoid of nuance or intellectual depth, will result in academics taking their eye off of the big, important questions and toward less meaningful (but more “catchy”) work. To some extent, we are the guardians of intellectual discourse in the domain of human behavior—let’s make sure that we don’t shirk our responsibility to keep the spotlight on the aspects of human behavior that are most relevant for humanity more generally.

Syon Bhanot is an assistant professor of economics at Swarthmore College and a founding coordinator of the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative.

Disclosure: Syon Bhanot is a member of the Behavioral Scientist’s advisory board.


How can behavioral science avoid exacerbating inequality? The field’s success at increasing participation and engagement in government and private sector programs makes us wonder, Are behavioral scientists nudging individuals into systems that are unjust or inequitable as currently designed? How can we rethink systems of finance, justice, or health that may reinforce divisions between social classes, races, and genders? 

Are behavioral scientists nudging individuals into systems that are unjust or inequitable as currently designed?

A behavioral intervention that reduces hassle factors on average could be experienced by some groups as an increased burden. Nudges, often described as “low-hanging fruit,” might prioritize individuals who already have relatively higher resources and need only a small push to get them to the finish line. If we don’t design for the needs of specific races, ethnicities, social classes, genders, and sexual orientations, are we increasing inequality in outcomes? 

In the next decade, behavioral science research can focus on narrowing inequality within systems. At an individual level, this may involve more differentiated and personalized interventions. At a broader level, this may require less nudging/shoving of people, and more redesigning of the context or even mission of programs and organizations. We call on the field to improve systems to better address stark and persistent inequities.

Rekha Balu is a director at the Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS) at MDRC.


With widespread use, positive press coverage, and increased academic interest, the concepts of how to influence decision-making are becoming better understood and more mainstream. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that this is occurring at a time when people are increasingly worried about, and being warned against the perils of “fake news” and nefarious actors trying to sway their opinions though fabricated, inaccurate, or misrepresented data. 

There is a risk that these two trends will combine to create an environment in which behavioral science techniques are seen as just another variant of “fake news,” a way to manipulate weak minds into making unwise decisions and taking improper actions. The public will then arm themselves to identify behavioral science techniques in communications, software tools and apps, and other applications, with the bias that if behavioral science is being used, it must be malicious.

Dave Stahlman is a director at Arc Aspicio, where he focuses on helping government agencies, non-profits, and commercial organizations improve performance and organizational efficiency.



SECTION II: Domains on Our Mind

TECHNOLOGY: NIGHTMARE OR NEW NORM?

Imagine a world where you wake up and a robot automatically puts your workout clothes on your side so you overcome exercise inertia. You enter the kitchen and a suggestion for breakfast with the perfect balance of nutrients is automatically provided, so you avoid unhealthy temptations. Later, when you open your laptop, a list goals, subgoals, and specific tasks are presented with a commitment prompt which will make you more likely to resist distractions. After a certain time of focused work, you receive an alert nudging you to do breathing exercises and drink water. At the next break, you are nudged to socialize with your colleagues, and presented with a list of people whose conversations will maximize creativity. During meetings, a pop-up nudge will question whether you are encouraging everybody’s contribution.

The potential is to help us be who we want to be. The danger is to remove the variability that makes us human.

And so on. Confirmation bias, planning fallacy, overconfidence, loss aversion, sunk cost bias, or any other bias are all potentially covered by behavioral tracking systems that alert us for signs of their occurrence and nudge us to correct them. At night we go to bed with the weird feeling of being “happy,” but not before receiving a text message reminding us about the science-validated benefits of reading to your children.  

These are the promises but also the dangers of a future where technology and behavioral science will be increasingly interconnected. The potential is to help us be who we want to be. The danger is to remove the variability that makes us human. And, although I recognize the tremendous value of both psychology and technology, we need to be the first to discuss the ethical implications of our possibilities.

Tania Ramos is a cognitive and social psychologist currently working as a UX researcher at Outsystems. Previously she was the Executive Director at CLOO Behavioral Insights Unit.


Robots and algorithms will make decisions for us: what we will eat, what we will buy, for whom we will vote, and which people we should meet in our personal and work life. For these reasons, we need to have precise tools (surveys, tests, incentivized experiments) to elicit individual preferences that robots and algorithms can take into account to compute the best decisions for us. We also need to measure how these preferences are affected by the choices of others (peers) and how contagious behavior spreads in networks. Finally, we need to explore the “malleability” of these preferences and understand how algorithms and robots can nudge us to more virtuous choices.

Marco Piovesan is professor MSO at the Department of Economics of the University of Copenhagen.


Algorithms have become prevalent in our daily decision-making. They now help us find our way in a new city via GPS, determine our entertainment choices in streaming services like Spotify, and generally shape our online behavior. These algorithms are designed to facilitate choice by humans. Considering this, it is surprising to discover how little research in human behavior normally goes into their design. 

The result of this is algorithms are more apt to assist a rational agent than a human being. Netflix is a case in point. On their website, Netflix proclaims that their recommendation algorithm strives to help users find a program to enjoy with “minimal effort.” Yet a 2016 study found that it takes the average Netflix user 18 minutes to choose a program to watch. There is a name for this phenomenon in the judgment and decision-making literature: choice overload.

Algorithms are more apt to assist a rational agent than a human being.

Imagine if we would use behavioral science to inform the design of algorithms. Could we then design algorithms that actually improve the decisions real humans make? How happy would they be about the result? If we do, perhaps we will never again have to spend an entire evening choosing something to watch on Netflix.

Nurit Nobel is a Ph.D. candidate at Stockholm School of Economics Center of Economic Psychology.


Say goodbye to the days of meeting new friends at coffee shops. Dating app development in the past decade mainstreamed apps as tools for millennials to connect. Diving into the coming decade, these software developers look toward machine learning to predict compatibility with strangers. Some platforms seek to apply this software to relationships outside of romantic ones. In the next few years, younger generations may further turn toward apps to find new friends or potential business connections.

Can machine learning generate strong human connections? If software can learn our preferences, interests, and relationship trends, it may well be able to help us form better relationships than those we establish on our own. Still, the seemingly limitless supply of connections might make it more difficult than ever to forge new sustainable relationships. These rising trends suggest that the coming decade may further fuse our personal lives with the personas we offer online. At the extreme, it could mean a sharp shift from communal meeting spaces to the devices in our pockets.

Karly Ball is a master of public policy graduate student at the University of Virginia.


THE FUTURE OF WORK

Ethical, intelligent nudges will replace existing attempts at driving growth. Despite the billions spent each year on transformation and training, most of these initiatives have little to no impact on business results. In the traditional workplace, you might walk away from a training or an all-hands feeling motivated, but when you go back to your work environment, everything’s the same. And your behavior is not going to change because there’s nothing reinforcing it.

The key is getting prompts when you need them, rather than being reminded of best practices at a retreat or a monthly staff meeting.

The key is getting prompts when you need them, rather than being reminded of best practices at a retreat or a monthly staff meeting. What we find at Humu is that the tiniest intervention, sent to the right person at exactly the right time, often has the biggest result. And when each person in a company makes it a point to do the small things—like speak up as an ally for a colleague or ensure every team member has a voice—the environment changes. People learn faster, teams come up with better solutions, and the organization stays ahead of the competition.

Laszlo Bock is the CEO of Humu, the former senior vice president of people operations at Google, and the author of The New York Times bestseller Work Rules!


How work is done will change. The rise of smarter AI will continue to displace existing jobs and create new but different ones. Those who are “left behind” are often described as having to “upskill” in order to be suitable for these future positions. But there’s a second, less talked about challenge: invigorating these employees’ passion. 

Many of the jobs that AI will replace currently do not afford employees to pursue their passion. Many employees in these jobs have never had the chance to pursue their passion. Here lie both a challenge and an opportunity: passion is one of the attributes that sets humans apart from AI, and the creativity and inspiration it fuels may offer a competitive advantage vis-à-vis AI. More and more, the jobs of the future will require individuals to pursue their passion—or risk being replaced by AI. But we currently don’t know how passion is pursued more effectively. In the 2020s, behavioral scientists will need to be at the forefront of learning how individuals can most effectively pursue their passion so that they are in a position to teach leaders how to create environments where their employees can thrive.

Jon Jachimowicz is an assistant professor of business administration in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School.


The ’20s will reshape how a company’s culture determines their financial success. Millennials and (believe it or not) Generation Z have taken over the talent pool, and they have certain beliefs and expectations beyond money that influence where they decide to work. This revolution is particularly powerful since it’s agnostic to industry, impacts all markets, and difficult to address. 

So, how will Millennial and Gen-Z norms impact the way companies attract/retain talent and stay competitive? How can companies strategically plan to keep up with nebulous things like social norms? What kind of resources should companies devote to properly addressing this?

Leaders would be wise to pay mind to evolving social norms if they expect to remain relevant. Behavioral Science and her practitioners will be VITAL to helping companies navigate this uncertainty. We can help shape environments to be conducive for young people, which will contribute to the firm’s long-term survivability. If organizations don’t know they need us now, hopefully they understand soon.

James O’Flaherty is a behavioral scientist specializing in organizational culture for gothamCulture.


What are the best context-free ways to improve diversity and inclusion in organizations without threatening the employees that belong to majorities? How can we help employees internalize the value of diversity and inclusion and how can be embed it within our systems so that it becomes a strong string in the fabric of organizational culture?

Sandeep Aujla is an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner leading a large HR team in a large municipality in Canada.


BUSINESS, BEHAVIORALLY INFORMED

Behavioral brands will win in the postconsumption age. Being a consumer isn’t what it used to be: social media is coming under fire for encouraging misinformation and mental health concerns. The environmental impact of our consumption of materials is impossible to avoid. It’s becoming increasingly normal to question the role that consumption plays in our lives.

For many brands, this presents a problem: relating to people as consumers, rather than people, makes them favor constant switching from one brand to another, driving people to buy more and more stuff. But research is showing people are tightening their wallets, using social media less, and becoming more environmentally concerned. These behaviors point to a major development over the next 10 years—a postconsumption age. 

Future focused brands need to respond by deploying behavior design principles that engage with people seeking to use products rather than buy them, to fix rather than replace.

Future focused brands need to respond by deploying behavior design principles that engage with people seeking to use products rather than buy them, to fix rather than replace—as evidenced by Patagonia and Eastpak encouraging people to return worn clothing to be fixed, or Toyota launching its car subscription offering, “Kinto” in early 2019. 

Brands in this postconsumption age will focus on driving loyalty by helping people buy less and be more resourceful.

Heleana Blackwell is a customer engagement strategist and cofounder of The New Work.


Behavioral economics mandates will grow more complex, more ambitious. The low-hanging fruit—such as optimizing emails to increase click through rates—will give way to multifaceted programs that address the urgent environmental, political, and economic challenges facing our world. Shareholder value has traditionally served as the crucial measure of a company’s success. This was enabled by data on financial measures and electronic systems, including reporting and trading, to facilitate that evaluation and action. But big data can now be available on a number of other measures, making the aspirations of reporting on stakeholder value more tenable. That is, now companies can have an array of measures, such as value to employees, customers, and society. 

Behavioral economics is well suited to develop those measures of behavior, and furthermore, to develop strategies to help firms achieve success in gaining momentum and achieving those goals. Behavioral economics is well suited to help with the design of these measures, but also with creating the strategies to help organizations be a greater force for good and adopt business practices that advance a stakeholder model of capitalism.

Kelly Peters is the CEO of BEworks and a faculty lecturer of applied behavioral science at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.


CLIMATE CHANGE: TARGETING INDIVIDUALS AND SYSTEMS

Australia’s fires provide a salient reminder: climate change is a real and pressing concern. And travel decisions—such as whether we drive alone in our cars to work and how much we fly—play a nontrivial role. We know that nudges work well for behaviors that we can “set and forget” like being defaulted in to retirement savings. Yet, asking people to engage in sustainable behaviors requires us to change our habits. 

In the next 10 years, behavioral scientists need to start throwing every tool they have at climate change—nudges and shoves—alike.

In a recent set of experiments, Ph.D. student Ariella Kristal and I found that common behaviorally informed nudges failed to shift commuters’ behavior. Most people think that switching to sustainable modes of transportation isn’t necessary. And we only reap the benefits of fewer cars on the road if most people change their behavior. So, nudging people to buy more environmentally friendly vehicles or defaulting them into work-from-home schedules might be more effective. 

If organizations and policymakers are serious about increasing sustainable behavior, we may need to impose heavier-handed interventions, like fines. In the next 10 years, behavioral scientists need to start throwing every tool they have at climate change—nudges and shoves—alike.

Ashley Whillans is an assistant professor in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School.


I recommend two related areas for research on connecting the problem of climate change with people and solutions.

1. Decreasing psychological distance for climate change by compressing space and time 

How can we make people more connected with distant futures and climate impacts in different locations? Our data show that climate change is viewed as an important problem for the world today and for the U.S. and the world in the future, but is not viewed as an important problem for the U.S. today. How do we more deeply connect people with locations they have never been to, whether it be wildfire-ravaged Australia or the melting ice caps? One possibility is using stories to deeply connect us to these potential distant times and spaces (e.g., the books New York 2140 and The Overstory).

2. Bridging the growing ideological gap on policy solutions to address climate change

There has been a growing divide on how to address climate change, with liberals being far more likely to support climate policies than conservatives. The solution aversion that conservatives have for climate policies needs to be studied more clearly to understand the mechanisms at play (e.g., strangers in their own land) and then test interventions that can foster more support for needed climate policies to drive global greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

Shahzeen Z. Attari is an assistant professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington.


In the next decade, the climate crisis will become the defining issue of our era. This existential threat demands that behavioral science focus on creating meaningful behavioral change to mitigate the worst effects and adapt to what is already unavoidable. Historically, behavioral science’s role in combating climate change has been limited to individual behavior change to, for example, improve recycling rates or reduce electricity use. While this is no doubt a worthwhile effort, it is simply not enough to save the planet.

The landmark 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes it clear: if we want a habitable planet then rapid change is needed of individuals, countries, cities, and private business. 

We cannot let the nudging of low-impact individual actions diminish support for more impactful policy changes. Instead behavioral science should focus on encouraging behavior change that leads to large-scale, world-saving action.

In the 2020s behavioral scientists interested in fighting the climate crisis should focus on opportunities to spur behavior change among the worst polluting cities, countries, private businesses, and, yes, some individuals. But as Hagman, Ho, and Lowenstein (2019) forewarned, we cannot let the nudging of low-impact individual actions diminish support for more impactful policy changes. Instead behavioral science should focus on encouraging behavior change that leads to large-scale, world-saving action.

Stephen Perrotti is a master of behavioral and decision science candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.


With 80 percent of the population in developed nations recognizing the threat of climate change, climate change represents a terrifying failure of collective intention leading to action. Despite the emergency status of what is now commonly called climate chaos, climate scientists largely believe we have the technology to avert the worst effects of climate change. How can behavioral science step in and expedite the transition to net zero carbon? The answer may lie in guiding the already motivated to both individual and collective action. Recent research on connection with advocacy groups as a form of climate change adaptation and scalable methods to close the intention-action gap create a framework for behavioral scientists to meaningfully step in and aid the catalyst for global action on climate change. 

Jason Wessel is a Ph.D. candidate at Griffith University in Australia. Graham Bradley is an associate professor of applied psychology at Griffith University. Joseph Reser is a professor of applied psychology at Griffith University.


BUILDING BETTER GOVERNMENTS

People have good intentions and important plans, but they get distracted and can’t find the time to act on them. Registering as an organ donor never feels urgent, and it’s hard to save for the future with all those expenses piling up now. Behavioral policy’s greatest successes have promoted people’s intentions while requiring of them very little. Altered defaults and subtle commitments, programs like Save More Tomorrow, have fostered donor registration and increased savings while allowing people to continue watching TV. But that’s unlikely to solve society’s big challenges—climate change, inequality, infrastructure. With the help of government accountants and planners, we should apply insights from individual behavior to shape the collective. 

Like people, governments are inconsistent planners, with short horizons, and limited attention spans.

Like people, governments are inconsistent planners, with short horizons, and limited attention spans. When governments contemplate consumer protection, infrastructure, or green policies, steps should be taken to ensure intentions are implemented long after attention has been deflected and monies needed elsewhere. Highly inflexible spending rules can be imposed that enforce best intentions (of course, there can be careful procedures to change plans in emergencies), and committees appointed to be vigilant, remind, and alert.

There are instances of this—in the U.S., the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is not subject to congressional appropriations (although currently weakened, its existence persists!), and in the U.K. the Committee on Climate Change owes the government periodic reports, to which the government responds. Like automatic deductions into 401(k)s, we need automatic deductions for fixing bridges; like a reminder to take one’s meds, we need committees persistently alerting government about climate change. Although people and governments are different, both may benefit from the right reminders, commitments, and other behaviorally informed interventions.

Eldar Shafir is a professor of behavioral science and public policy and the Inaugural Director of the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science and Public Policy at Princeton University. He is also the co-author of Scarcity (with Sendhil Mullainathan).


For behavioral scientists in government, the next decade is going to be tougher than the last. We are starting the 2020s with large, well-resourced behavioural units established in governments all around the world. If we’re going to end it that way, the scale of impact will need to keep up with the growth in headcount.

In the 2020s, it won’t be enough just to have “behavioral” in the team name. Discerning executives will demand concrete results of their behavioral insights units: a steady stream of new insights, grounded in evidence, tailored to actual systems, executed with tempo, tested empirically. This is a high bar, but the alternative is complacency, and “behavioural insights in name only.”

For teams that can hold the pace, the opportunities this decade will be greater than ever. Just this month, Dominic Cummings, senior advisor to the U.K. prime minister, has argued that there are “trillion dollar bills lying on the street” in the science of elite teams, prediction, cognitive technologies, communication, and decision-making. Behavioral units are well placed to start picking them up—but we’ll need to be at the top of our game to do it.

Ed Bradon is head of policy, Asia Pacific at the BIT.


HEALTH CARE: AT THE DIGITAL FRONTIER AND THE LAST MILE

Behavioral science has barely scratched the surface of health care. Fortunately, this is already beginning to change; in the next ten years, traditionally risk-averse health care systems will come to terms with the emerging era of consumer-driven health care (including newfound competition from nontraditional care providers like Walmart and Amazon), value-based care will replace fee-for-service systems to better align incentives with patient health, and technology platforms will mature to foster much-needed innovation within health care systems.

The next decade will see health care begin to embrace behavioral science findings and methodologies, moving beyond the transactional one-size-fits-all delivery of care.

Digital health, in particular, is ripe for the opportunity to apply behavioral science—technologies that enable people to track and aggregate data from wearables and smart devices, combined with the ability for caretakers to reach patients through their smartphones, holds promise for more targeted interventions that reach people at the right time and place. The next decade will see health care begin to embrace behavioral science findings and methodologies, moving beyond the transactional one-size-fits-all delivery of care to a personalized model designed for the humans who move through it.

Aline Holzwarth is the head of behavioral science at Pattern Health, where she specializes in digital health research and scientifically informed product design.


South Africa has the world’s largest HIV epidemic, with 7.2 million HIV-positive people, 19 percent HIV prevalence, and 740 new infections every day. Scientific breakthroughs and widely available prevention and treatment services have made it possible to end the epidemic, but success is hindered by the “last mile” challenge of human behavior. Due to common psychological barriers, decision-making factors, and information gaps, many people do not utilize available health services. Nearly one in three HIV-positive people are unaware of their status or not taking treatment regularly. 

We believe behavioral insights can generate durable and disruptive solutions that will motivate people to use HIV prevention and treatment services and end the epidemic in South Africa. Working with implementing partners countrywide, we envision comprehensive behavioral interventions that: (1) address inertia, procrastination, and other behavioral barriers with strategically-designed rewards; (2) leverage social influence and social networks to persuade those hardest-to-reach and at highest risk to test and link to care; and (3) reframe HIV prevention messages to make salient the transformative potential of treatment and prevention. If we deploy these low-cost solutions now, at scale, we can end the world’s largest HIV epidemic while creating a model that could be replicated in other countries.

Alison Buttenheim is an associate professor of nursing and health policy, and the associate director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE) at the University of Pennsylvania. Harsha Thirumurthy is an associate professor of medical ethics & health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine and the associate director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE) at the University of Pennsylvania.


The 2010s saw a growing recognition of the role of implicit bias in exacerbating racial and ethnic disparities in health care. The 2020s provide an opportunity to do something about it. In particular, incorporating insights about implicit bias into behavioral economics can target these health care disparities directly. 

Robust research demonstrates that health care providers’ implicit biases, or unconscious and involuntary attitudes that can influence behavior, can result in variation in the care they provide. Newer strategies, such as mindfulness and stereotype replacement, have shown promise in reducing the effect of implicit biases on decision-making. 

By incorporating implicit bias as a recognized cognitive bias (such as those in the “cognitive bias codex”), we can add implicit bias–reduction strategies into the toolbox of behavioral-economics approaches to address clinical decision-making. For example, health care providers may rely on unconscious racial biases to make decisions about the likelihood of a particular diagnosis in a given patient. We can counter this inaccurate statistical discrimination by teaching clinicians to reimagine their prototypical patient with that condition as someone from a traditionally under-recognized group.

The 2020s can be the decade we move beyond diagnosing the biases underlying health care disparities, to making headway to achieve health equity.

Kate Wallis is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, and a health disparities researcher in PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Alison Buttenheim is an associate professor of nursing and health policy, and the associate director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE) at the University of Pennsylvania.


EDUCATION: WHERE DO WE GO NEXT?

How can we reach our highest potential as individuals, operate most effectively in society, and push the bounds of human capability if we are not able to consciously manage our own bodies, thoughts, and emotions? In the field of education, we need to shift our focus toward cultivating self-awareness in youth and teaching them how to effectively manage their internal worlds as much as their outer worlds. To do this, we must help teachers first. Teachers need to hone the skills of self-inquiry, self-awareness, and self-management, as well as learn strategies for instilling these capacities in students.

We need to revolutionize the way we prepare and support teachers.

We need to revolutionize the way we prepare and support teachers. I foresee a future where we develop and implement novel approaches for imparting contemplative insights (e.g., self- compassion, mindful awareness) during teacher preparation and development to foster adaptive beliefs, well-being, and motivation in teachers. These approaches will draw upon insights from behavioral science, wise social-psychological interventions, and contemplative trainings (e.g., mindfulness trainings). Tailored to teachers’ contexts and rigorously tested, these brief and innovative interventions can serve as a promising path for supporting teachers and ultimately students.

Rebecca Nyquist Baelen is a Ph.D. candidate in education policy at the University of Pennsylvania.


Good education is a fundamental human right. Still, it’s a distant dream in many parts of the world. Education for all, then, is a big goal for the decade. The outlook for democratizing education is positive if we turn to new solutions: online learning.

Our sensibilities, however, aren’t primed for new modalities of pedagogy. Human history has been one of brick-and-mortar learning, in real classrooms. To adapt, we need new habits. Some will be digital, and work to counter the attention deficit crisis—ironically, a byproduct of the digital revolution. The prognosis: we need behavioral interventions not imagined before.

Multidisciplinary data will help us design the right strategies to architect learning habits. These interventions will catalyze digital learning, and let us track, analyze, and predict actions to continuously evolve our approach, revolutionizing the way humans learn. This is the future of behavioral science.

Changes are afoot; online learning is gaining momentum. The question now isn’t if we need behavioral interventions to help online learners learn better, but when they will take root. We look forward to an exciting new decade—hopefully, one where the right to education, opportunity, and equality is actionable.

Rachika Komal is a behavioral researcher, graduate of Christ University, Bangalore (India). Soumya Bahuguna is a communications strategist and an economics major from the Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi (India).


There is no doubt that in the next decade, behavioral science will be used more and more by governments and private organizations to change behavior. To ensure ethical use behavioral science needs to be taught more at schools and colleges, for two main reasons. Firstly, because it will help each of us decode when and why behavioral science may be influencing us as consumers and citizens. Secondly, because we should all be able to apply behavioral science, for good, in our professional life, either ourselves or with the help of behavioral scientists. The challenge for behavioral scientists in the next decade: create a generation of young adults that are aware of behavioral science bases.

Étienne Bressoud is co-founder and deputy CEO of the BVA Nudge Unit.



SECTION III: Methods, Research and Application Ideas, Intervention Design

RESEARCH: NEW OPPORTUNITIES…AND OBLIGATIONS

Herbert Simon, the Nobel-winning psychologist at Carnegie Mellon, noted in the 1960s that attention is becoming the most significant scarce resource in an increasingly information-rich world. I believe that the next decade will be the period in which the behavioral and social sciences finally embrace Simon’s insight, at both a theoretical and empirical level. This will involve, for example, understanding the function and operation of motivational feeling-states such as boredom, flow, and curiosity that evolved to allocate attention efficiently.

These motives—e.g., boredom, flow, and curiosity—increasingly drive economic activity because more and more work is intellective, not physical, and because most internet business models involve directing users’ attention toward targeted content such as advertising. Attention is also directed by hedonic motivations, such as the desire to not think about things that make us feel bad and to pay attention to information that fits with what we currently believe and want to believe, and these motivations play a central role in phenomena such as political polarization. 

Most of what matters to people “happens in the head,” and the economic importance of cognitive resources relative to material ones will only grow.

For hundreds of years, economics has focused on material resources (land, labor, capital) and time because they carry prices and can easily be measured. But, except for those living at subsistence, most of what matters to people “happens in the head,” and the economic importance of cognitive resources relative to material ones will only grow with predictable advancements in information technologies. Accordingly, the social and behavioral sciences need to develop a better understanding of the constraints and tradeoffs facing the brain, and their consequences for the rapidly evolving age of information.

George Lowenstein is the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology and the co-director of the Center for Behavioral Decision Research at Carnegie Mellon University.


The twenty-first century is pushing us toward an ever more digital, information-driven, persuasion-based global economy—just as a new set of tools are emerging in neuroscience and psychology that offer the power to understand these phenomena in a new way. Cognitive economics is a new field rooted in behavioral economics, paralleling the shift from behavioral to cognitive psychology. Rather than focusing on biases in choices between material goods, cognitive economists explore how people consume intangible products with their minds.

Consumers no longer strive to acquire only material goods or earn the most money. Instead, they seek purpose, symbolic value, intense experiences and convenience: all things consumed inside their heads.

The old economics cannot explain the huge value consumers place on these symbolic goods, mental states, thoughts, and beliefs. Although behavioural economics explores some of the psychology behind economic decisions, it still mainly deals in money and physical goods.

Cognitive economics considers our emotions, hopes, beliefs, fears, and ideas, asking how much does your internal mental experience matter to you? How much are they worth? And the biggest economic question of all: How can society deliver all of us the best possible outcomes?

Leigh Caldwell is a behavioural economist and mathematician, as well as the founder of Inon and the Irrational Agency. He is also the author of the book The Psychology of Price.


I predict that we’ll enter a three-system world. And this is long overdue. Plato’s original description of the self involved not only System 1 and 2 (the irrational and rational) but also “thumos,” often translated as the drive for dignity. While researchers in identity, emotion, and culture have taken this seriously, behavioral scientists and economists have largely only hand-waved at System 3. If we want to advance, we’re going to have to wrestle with the messiness of System 3, and work to systematize its relationship to the dual system models that have driven much of our work to the present point.

Cait Lamberton is Alberto I. Duran President’s Distinguished Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.


Conventional and behavioral economics pay much attention to money and material wealth (as a scarce resource) when studying behaviour and decision-making. While this is understandable (much economic activity does involve money, directly and indirectly) and makes sense to a certain point, it is fraught with difficulties. Money is a scarce resource, but its value is very context-dependent.

Instead, I wonder to what extent another scarce resource, time, might merit more attention. We are all equal: everybody starts every day with 86,400 seconds, all gone one day later. We tend to see time as something we exchange for money and material goods (through our job), but we also exchange money for time, by buying time-saving machines or by paying other people to do work for us. Are we utilizing our time well? We can offer our time to others or take it away from them (by wasting it). Are we as loss averse with time as we are (or seem to be) with money or material items?

This is not an entirely new idea, but I would recommend more study in this corner of human behavior. I expect it will clarify many current insights, and produce many new ones.

Koen Smets is an organization development adviser, where he specializes in applying behavioral economics. He writes frequently about human behavior in all its aspects.


Autonomous and semi-autonomous systems with artificial intelligence have rapidly become an integral part of our lives, and there is no plausible expectation for its emerging trend to reverse. Two aspects of this development pertain to behavior. First is related to the interactions of humans and machines. From medical AI diagnostics to financial forecasting, humans make important decisions with the aid of machine learning. Developments in autonomous vehicles and appliances led to substantial concerns about how humans perceive these systems and how their decision-making processes are affected. Thus, human behavior in machine interaction should be prioritized in behavioral research. 

“Machine behavior” is worthy by itself to be prioritized in behavioral research.

The second aspect is related more to fully autonomous systems. In many instances, such as algorithmic trading and robotics, the machines are designed to be the sole decision-maker, mostly for efficiency and speed considerations. However, it is not always possible to predict all possible outcomes of these processes in complex environments, particularly in relation to “black-boxes” they might entail. One major concern in this line refers to the extent these systems can be constructed to stay within moral and ethical limits all the time. Thus, “machine behavior” is worthy by itself to be prioritized in behavioral research.

Ali Ozkes is an assistant professor in economics at WU Vienna, working in the fields of behavioral and experimental economics, social choice theory, and political economy.


Behavioral scientists should democratize their laboratories. Labs ought to have collective decision-making that is consensus-based and empowers all lab members (RAs, graduate students, postdocs, etc.) to exercise power over the scientific process. Decoupling hierarchies of expertise from hierarchies of formal power will help to address concerns raised by reformers in the behavioral sciences over the past decade. 

Democratic labs will engender greater transparency and accountability in the research process, which open science advocates rightfully argue is necessary to overcome legacy practices that are scientifically questionable and contribute to the replicability crisis. Democratic labs will promote and foster viewpoint diversity by enshrining the rights of all members of a lab to contribute intellectually. And democratic labs will empower those who are subject to hostile work environments, exploitation, and harassment to seek restitution, change their lab’s culture, and confront bad actors. 

Democratic principles of transparency, power-sharing, egalitarianism and consensus decision-making are already hallmarks of how we structure behavioral science outside of labs, from scientific societies to the peer review process. We recognize that these values contribute to better science, yet within our labs we still operate under a model of benevolent (hopefully) dictatorship. That should change. Laboratories should democratize.

Jeffrey Lees is a Ph.D. candidate in organizational behavior and psychology at Harvard Business School.


APPLICATION: NEW OPPORTUNITIES…AND OBLIGATIONS

Nudge the judge. The legal system moves slowly. Bound by rules of precedent, judges and case law are, by their very nature, backward looking. And so it is that regulators face an uphill battle introducing new forms of evidence about human behaviour. Economic evidence already plays a role in competition and consumer cases, but this evidence mostly comes in the form of theory or models. Other insights—about how consumers may react or respond to an offer—are deemed questions of fact. They are for the court, and not for any witness to decide.

As the weight of evidence about human decision making continues to grow, judges may find themselves increasingly presented with expert witnesses from the field of behavioral science. I hope and predict that judges will start to heed this expertise. The old model of the “rational consumer who reads the fine print” should rightly fade away over the next decade. It will take time to convince the legal fraternity to give weight to this type of evidence. But it’s a great time to start that journey. It’s time to nudge the judge.

Janine Bialecki is a principal economist at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, where applies both behavioural and more traditional economic analysis to mergers, adjudication, and enforcement matters.


Globally, there has been an observable drop in the social capital provided by our communities. In the U.K. a recent report found that a fifth of people have never spoken to their neighbour. While in the U.S., Robert Putman, the author of the influential paper Bowling Alone, argued that civil society in America has declined in recent decades. Ultimately, feelings of isolation and loneliness are dominating headlines around the Western world, leaving many searching for an answer. 

We can help craft a built environment that eliminates inhibitory social norms, encouraging frequent social interactions that foster a communal sense of belonging.

One way of alleviating this issue is by building communities that foster prosocial behaviors and, in turn, increase social capital. Research from fields such as environmental psychology and other behavioural science disciplines will soon become the key drivers needed to push innovations in urban design and real estate development. For example, we can help property professionals craft a built environment that eliminates inhibitory social norms, encouraging frequent social interactions that foster a communal sense of belonging. Merging behavioral science and urban design can create destinations that provide function and form in a way that provides tangible social benefits to their citizens.

Jamie Samson is head of data science and insights at MindFolio, a real estate management consultancy based in the U.K.


A friend once discoursed on marine plastic pollution: “It’s essential to clean the oceans, but I don’t know how you get people to do that—you need to create a market somehow.” As a behavioral scientist, this remark sparked emotions. Not least because it followed a nearly identical script as a recent conversation with a fellow civil servant. That colleague also believed that unless we create markets financially rewarding people for providing public goods, they will not engage in prosocial behaviors, and public goods will be under-provided. 

We need to make the terms reciprocity, fairness, and relatedness as embedded in public discourse as the terms rewards, incentives, and markets.

So, what should behavioral scientists prioritize in the next decade? A correction of this widespread misconception of what motivates people. We need to make the terms reciprocity, fairness, and relatedness as embedded in public discourse as the terms rewards, incentives, and markets. As behavioral scientists working in public policy, we particularly need to entrench new go-to ideas for policy makers considering options to stimulate prosocial behavior. While the question of what’s in it for the individual is relevant, we need to expand the discussion to also cover intrinsic and contextual influences. My response to these conversations was, and remains: “Markets are not the only option—it is literally my job to find others.”

Ksenia Shagabutdinova is a behavioral insights specialist in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in England.


As we head into the 2020s, political and cultural polarization is perhaps the single greatest challenge facing society. In the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere, all trends point to the growth of “affective polarization,” as people increasingly divide into opposing teams (and ignore their commonalities, along with the basic facts underlying issues).

As behavioral scientists, we have an opportunity (and responsibility) to help counter this trend in the decade ahead. To date, our field has helped define the many forces driving people apart (social media bubbles, confirmation bias, demographics, etc.). And recently, we’ve heard of promising efforts to “inoculate” people against fake news (at BX2019) and to encourage them to pause and think through their beliefs (in Behavioral Scientist).  

Yet clearly, fake news is a symptom of a broader problem. As a society, we need to treat the source. As a behavioral science community, we need to apply our efforts (and resources) to develop and test interventions that nudge individuals and society in a positive direction, which counters polarization, promotes respectful dialogue, and rewards compromise. This will be a core challenge in the coming decade and one that we should prioritize moving forward.  

Scott Young is the CEO of the BVA Nudge Unit—UK and a senior vice president of the BVA Group.


As well as looking outwards to consumers, organizations should also look inwards, towards their own people and processes. This is especially true within IT, where so many projects are delivered late, over budget, or fail to deliver at all.

The cognitive biases that behavioral scientists encounter when helping people eat better or save more are the same biases that cause IT projects to deliver late, build unmaintainable systems, make poor decisions, or take unwarranted risks. 

The IT industry is aware of its problems and has tried to address them with new processes, such as Agile and DevOps. However, IT has not understood the behavioral factors contributing to these problems, with the result that new processes are implemented but the problems remain.

Given that IT is critical for most organizations and that many of IT’s problems are not just obvious but can be linked to biases, is it time that organizations using behavioral sciences looked beyond altering just their consumers’ behaviour and also looked at altering their own?

Andrew Brown is a principal consultant at Expleo.


THE FUTURE OF INTERVENTION DESIGN

The story of the 2010s is the story of caution—of learning that many old truisms don’t hold up to the scrutiny of replication and that even most real effects are smaller than we think. It is also the story of fragmentation, of recognizing that the same technological devices that give us unprecedented access to people’s lives bombard them with continual stimulation.

The story of the 2020s will have to be the story of precision.

In response, the story of the 2020s will have to be the story of precision. Meaningful behavioral change in an era of constant sensory input will only happen through targeted strategies like just-in-time interventions. Conventional messaging interventions are elegant, appealing, and sometimes successful—but they will no longer be enough to cut through the sea of chaos.

Jenna Clark is a senior behavioral researcher at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight where she works to help people make healthy decisions in spite of themselves.


The future of applied behavioral science will be hyperlocal. Watching the field evolve over the past six years, I’ve noticed a slow but certain trend towards interventions that accommodate the idiosyncrasies that exist within a market or citizen population. We are quickly approaching a time where the idea of an entire population receiving the same nudge, at the same time, in the same way, will seem outdated.

One of the emerging paths away from this one-nudge-fits-all approach comes through a better use of machine learning, segmentation, and personalisation. However, my concern is that most of the innovation here is still directed from centralised points, which seem to be reaching a sort of local maximum, both technically and ethically.  

An alternative path is the emergence of digital tools that focus on customisation. On this path, technology enables individuals to be the self-directed designers of their choice environments.

David Perrott is an independent consultant based in Cape Town, South Africa.


The future of behavioral science will, and must, be more creative and more technologically advanced to rise to the challenges that await. Many nudges and changes to choice architectures to date are simple alterations to the framing of options or changes to wording. While such changes have been successful in many settings, perhaps remarkably so given the subtlety of many interventions, for the full potential of behavioral science to be realized, the field must embrace the full potential of creative and technological mediums. 

Animation, illustration, film, and virtual reality have the power to bring immersive and multisensory experiences to behavioral interventions.

Animation, illustration, film, and virtual reality have the power to bring immersive and multisensory experiences to behavioral interventions. Smartphone technology, artificial intelligence, and big data hold promise in allowing practitioners to target specific demographic and psychographic cohorts, enabling the delivery of personalized interventions attuned to individual differences.

In the Anthropocene, an epoch in which our planet is defined by human impact, and as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an era in which industry and daily life are being transformed by technological advances, the challenges we face are severe, with some existential. The future is coming fast, and humanity needs a creative, technologically advanced behavioral science, to help ensure the prosperity and security of our species.

Nathaniel Barr is a professor of creativity and creative thinking at Sheridan College and a scientific advisor at BEworks.


MASTERING OUR METHODS

At its core, behavioral science is about people and incorporating the nature of our irrationality into the design of interventions and policies meant to improve society. Just like the BIT had a sunset clause, we should also have an iteration clause on policies we’ve already passed, because ultimately, people change. Let’s keep track of what worked and then ask ourselves five years later, Can it be better? Chapters never close in behavioral science interventions, they only get better.

Irene Frohlich is vice president of Population Health at Sound Physicians.


This last decade has seen nudging proliferate as a practical, low-cost, politically palatable way to motivate a range of desired behaviors, from paying taxes to riding the bus. But recent research has called the effectiveness of nudges into question, with field tests often yielding weak or impersistent results. This is the direct and natural result of attempting to use nudges without a solid theoretical perspective on why nudges work and, thus, when they will work best and persist; if you throw spaghetti at the wall without any idea of when it is done, it usually won’t stick. 

We hope for—and optimistically forecast—a shift from relying on researcher intuition and unreliable effects to solid theory in nudge development.

However, an alternative approach exists: we can build nudges based on theory. For example, a solid understanding of the origin of social preferences allows for specific predictions about how subconscious “reputational returns” of good deeds can drive behavior. Recent work by us and others has shown how this theoretically informed insight can be used to successfully nudge prosocial behavior across situations as different as overfishing to antibiotic adherence. For the upcoming decade, we hope for—and optimistically forecast—a shift from relying on researcher intuition and unreliable effects to solid theory in nudge development, making them a far more powerful and reliable tool.

Erik Thulin is the behavioral science lead in the Center for Behavior and Environment at Rare, working on driving green behavior across the globe. Erez Yoeli and Moshe Hoffman are research scientists at MIT, focused on the hidden role of incentives in shaping our tastes and beliefs.


Imagine a company of 1,000 people. The behavioral science unit of that company creates a low-cost intervention to decrease the rate of employee tardiness and conducts A/B testing to evaluate the intervention. The control and treatment groups each have a limited sample size of 20 due to constraints from upper management. The results show that the treatment group had a 10 percent lower rate of tardiness than the control group.

In this scenario, the chance that the testing reveals evidence of an effect is low because of the low sample size. Some practitioners may present the intervention as a success because there is an observed difference from a low-cost investment. Others may say that there is no evidence of an effect and that another study would need to be run, as the test was low on power. 

As many interventions will be implemented and measured in nonideal scenarios (be it limited time, small populations, etc.), where is the line between operational efficiency and methodological soundness? The last decade witnessed both a replication crisis and the explosion of behavioral science. This decade, the field may be required to introspect and refine its goals. These are natural growing pains. Better for behavioral science to go through them sooner than later.

Paul Choi is a master of public policy student at the University of Virginia.


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