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A Paradigm of Behavioural Science

There are people who promote the drive for behavioural science, and even behavioural economics, to become a science. Not a social science, but a science. To study and measure the objective, to hold to rigorous methodology including isolated manipulation, and to fit it all to a grand theory and paradigm. You know, something like physics. Not too long ago I had a chat with the always amazing Jo Evershed. We talked about many things, but also about behavioural science being pushed in the direction of physics: objective and science-esque. Now there is nothing wrong with being science-esque, but there are some serious assumptions and implications that we might have to consider before packing everything else up. However, that might be a debate for a different post. What Jo and I ended up with was a discussion on splitting behavioural science just like physics has been: into theoretical and applied.


Theoretical vs. applied. The field, like many others, might seem to naturally fall into these two categories anyway, as we have academia vs. industry. Academics vs. Practitioners. One studies why, and the other focuses more on how and how to maximise impact. Both are valid points of study, but not what seems to be going on in physics. In physics, both theoretical and applied are academic subjects. Within the applied domain, things look very much the same as within behavioural science (you know what I mean…), as it’s the study of mechanisms. There is clear practical impact (on sometimes a rather incomprehensible level) and we can see effect. The study of theoretical physics is figuring out what might be going on in the universe. Having produced string theory, and theories beyond string theory. No I don’t understand string theory either.


Within physics there have been paradigms and paradigm shifts. If you’re not familiar with philosophy of science (I have done one module in it), a paradigm is defined as "universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners, i.e., what is to be observed and scrutinized.” If you need something more concrete, it’s essentially a bubble created by belief in an overarching theory, and everything else needs to fit that theory. If there are too many theories/models/findings that reject or are counter the “main” theory, that theory needs to be rejected and there needs to be a new grand theory with which the new findings do fit. This is what essentially constitutes a paradigm shift as proposed by Kuhn, and follows the scientific method as proposed by philosophers such as Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos. Given that this is not the easiest of stuff to casually wrap your head around, let me exemplify this. We once had the paradigm that the earth was in the middle of our universe and everything else revolved around it, literally. Now, you might remember that some people (enter Copernicus), weren’t exactly convinced by this. He, and others (!!!), built models, showed proof and built a new theory indicating that the sun was in the middle, and all the other planets revolved around it. Now it took a long time before this became widely accepted, but in the end the paradigm shifted to a sun-centric system. Now we know that our galaxy isn’t even the only one in the universe, it’s all expanding and that you better stay away from black holes. Unless it’s supermassive and sung by Muse, then it’s all fine. All in all, you’re really not too far off saying that a paradigm is a set of beliefs or a belief-system, albeit one that needs a lot of proof.


So I’m sure you thoroughly enjoyed me trying to butcher philosophy of science, or at least the parts I still remember, but you might also be wondering: where is this going? And that is a very good question, because Jo and I hadn’t got their either. We left things at either of us trying to imagine a grand theory of human behaviour. An overarching model that needs to fit every quirk and complex cognition we know. An entire paradigm for all behaviours across all the world. Given how many bloody biases we already have, coming up with a system that fits all is going to be no small feat… But let’s backtrack this a bit. Is this where we are going? I’ve heard some people talk about a grand universal theory of behaviour before, this isn’t falling out of the sky at random so I can write a post about it. There has actually been talk of this, I promise! But to what avail? What are we expecting a grand theory of behaviour to do? Fix the failures of the replication crisis?


After the scientific development we have seen throughout the re-creation of behavioural economics (it was very much around before 1920, thanks Pareto…), the re-entering of psychology into the field, the creation of hundreds of biases and other deviations from “rationality” etc. etc., I’m cautious to say that the new revolution is going to come from academic, or more theoretically grounded research. Because I don’t think it is. I’m not holding my breath for this universal theory. I do think the field needs a kick up the ass. I think it has become stagnant, and has reached, as David Perrott has referred to it before, a local maximum, which is not beneficial, trust me. We come up with bias after bias, but after a while they all look the same, and their application and manipulation in the field (almost) works the same. We are endlessly debating definitions that don’t matter. And are rejecting research that really does matter on grounds of things that matter even more: sample and sample size. This field seems more like turf wars than the application of the scientific method. Or you know, common sense.


To wrap up this philosophical thought experiment: I think the replication crisis has shown us the state of the field. The lies that have been told for status and fail to replicate. Now the rest of us are scrambling to fit the pieces back together to see the bigger picture we think we’re aiming for once more. Who said it was one big picture? In my case, I hope the revolution comes from the practitioner side of it all.


Behavioural Science

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