Most Read Articles of 2020

We began the year in an optimistic mood by imagining the next decade of behavioral science. As the field celebrated something of a tenth birthday, we asked behavioral scientists to weigh in with their hopes, fears, and questions for the coming decade.

In February, following that predictive flurry, Robert Frank revealed “The Mother of All Cognitive Illusions.” Lee Anne Fennell provided a new perspective on an old problem, with her insights on how to lump and slice your goals. In early March, with impeccable timing, Dan Heath let us in on how to go “upstream” to solve problems before they happen. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, COVID-19’s fingerprints are on the list, though the lessons it inspired are bigger than just this specific situation or year. 

Erik Angner reminded us of the virtue of epistemic humility—that saying “I don’t know” can actually help you get you closer to the truth. An open letter by behavioral scientists to the U.K. government reminded us how transparent decision-making, good communication, and basing policy on evidence is always a good idea. Syon Bhanot helped us understand those who pushed back on early curve-flattening restrictions. Michael Hallsworth reviewed the barriers to handwashing, and Christina Gravert didn’t let us forget that we were in it for the long haul and that we needed to design our choice architecture with that in mind. 

Last, in a year when rhythms were disrupted, Ashley Whillans showed us how to get “time smart” by understanding the time confetti in our lives.

We hope you’ll take a moment to read or re-read the articles that behavioral scientists like you turned to most.

— The Editorial Board

Epistemic Humility—Knowing Your Limits in a Pandemic

By Erik Angner

“Ignorance,” wrote Charles Darwin in 1871, “more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Time Confetti and the Broken Promise of Leisure

By Ashley Whillans

We have more free time than ever before, but it’s so sliced and diced that we feel more time poor than ever. Here’s how to notice and overcome the time confetti in your life.

Why a Group of Behavioral Scientists Penned an Open Letter to the U.K. Government Questioning Its Coronavirus Response

By Ulrike Hahn, Nick Chater, David Lagnado, Magda Osman, and Nichola Raihani

An open letter signed by hundreds of behavioural scientists from across the U.K. calls into question the British government’s decision not to enact social distancing measures.

Imagining the Next Decade of Behavioral Science

By Evan Nesterak

We asked you to share your hopes and fears, predictions and warnings, open questions and big ideas. So, what might the next decade hold?

Why Are People Ignoring Expert Warnings? Psychological Reactance

By Syon Bhanot

While some are heeding the advice of public health experts, not everyone is doing so. From spring breakers to governors, some feel the need to defy orders. This behavioral phenomenon could help explain why.

To Achieve Your Goals, Lump and Slice

By Lee Anne Fennell

Humans are remarkably sensitive to how we bundle and divide tasks and choices. We can use that quirk to help realize our aspirations.

Handwashing Can Stop a Virus—So Why Don’t We Do It?

By Michael Hallsworth

How can behavioral science help us take advantage of one of the most effective measures to prevent the spread of viruses?

The Mother of All Cognitive Illusions

By Robert H. Frank

It’s little wonder that people would believe that higher taxes would make them feel bad. But this is a cognitive error, pure and simple.

To Solve Problems Before They Happen, You Need to Unite the Right People

By Dan Heath

When everyone was telling teenagers to “just say no” to drugs and alcohol, a forward-thinking team in Iceland was figuring out what teenagers could say yes to. The results are nothing short of revolutionary.

Why Triggering Emotions Won’t Lead to Lasting Behavior Change

By Christina Gravert

How can we generate long-term behavior change when compliance isn’t exciting anymore? (Hint: don’t build “Piano Stairs.”)