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How Can We Improve Behavioural Science?

Although behavioural science is a beautiful field, it isn’t perfect. I know, shocker. Given their relatively recent entrance into the field, what do our Next Gen’ers think of what’s going on? In this article we’re going to get a bit more critical. I’ve asked the Next Gen’ers what they think the current limits are of behavioural science, and how to improve the field as a whole!


Flora Finamor Pfeifer “I see the biggest limitations as follows:

  1. Coordinated RCTs – the area grows on decentralized RCTs being conducted around the world, usually not comparable between themselves (and sometimes with methodological challenges in their design). It is important to conduct more meta-analysis on the area. A coordinated effort to run global replications could lead us to a higher external validity and more general conclusions.

  2. ·Better understanding the mechanisms and the theory behind the behavior – behavioral economics emerged as a descriptive theory. When we started to use it as a tool, we are talking about a causal theory. Better embedding it in other social sciences that have this as purpose, such as anthropology and psychology, can lead to more efficient interventions. Before jumping to an RCT, qualitative methods may help better defining what mechanisms we need to test and how to best materialize such.

  3. Non-WEIRD applications – case studies mostly focus on US and European countries. Other regions have different priorities and behavioral mechanisms might work different in such. It is crucial to incentivize replications, applications, and collaborations between non-WEIRD countries to apply behavioral interventions.

To improve behavioural science we need to focus on these points.”


Rebecca Amo “Behavioural Science is very homogenous and WEIRD. There is a tendency to over protect proliferation of the practice by individuals out here; because of a logical picture of who a Behavioural Scientist should be. Adam Smith, to me, actually spoke to us about behavioural science & economics in his book…The theory of moral sentiments as far as 1759.It’s taken so long for this profession to establish itself.

I believe this profession is moving toward the expected direction. We can improve it by continuing to create awareness on what Behavioural Science is and how one can either get to practice it at personal or organization level as well as its benefits at large. By continuing conversations on how WEIRD and homogenous Behavioural Science is and intentionally implementing inclusivity to close the gap sooner. And more organizations should intentionally create opportunities for applied Behavioural Science to problem solving and innovation”


Robert Haisfield “The lack of collective sense-making is tragic. Many view practitioners as simply those who apply findings from academia. However, if the practitioner is any good, then they are learning from their practice and updating their understanding of the theory to better fit reality. We shouldn’t look at practitioners as simply being delivery units for academically discovered information —instead they should be thought of as valued contributors to the canon!

That being said, academics and practitioners aren’t talking enough. Practitioners aren’t even talking to other practitioners! We don’t build on each other’s knowledge because of NDAs and misaligned incentives, and what we do share with each other is generally just successful case studies or repetitions of what has already been said in papers. We all know the pitfalls of only sharing positive findings. We don’t need another list of the top ten biases to remember in UX design.

I would love to find a positive-sum incentive scheme and online community to enhance collective sense making among academics, practitioners, and people not traditionally considered to be behavioral scientists.”


Sarah Bowen “We are limited by what we can observe (without violating an individual's right to privacy). A big one for me is, publication bias - the tendency to only publish and disseminate significant results can leave many gaps in our knowledge. Also, if you want to get work published, there is substantial pressure to do the research that has been deemed "of interest" by an elite few... This is a criticism of science in general.

We need to acknowledge the WEIRD bias and the fact that so many people working in and on behavioural science look very similar (white and educated) and have had similar life experiences. We must become actively inclusive and anti-exclusive.”


Gabriella Stuart “Besides more obvious, although critical, challenges such as the replication crisis and interventions with small effect sizes, I have from my own (although limited) work experience witnessed a reluctance towards investing sufficient time and resources when conducting behavioural analyses. This is problematic, as we need to create a representative understanding of the target behaviour before we decide on what the intervention should include. What I have seen, on some occasions, is a preference for an ad-hoc approach towards the analysis of behaviour, which oftentimes implies an exclusive focus on cognitive biases that are used to analyse the empirical material deductively although in a very simplified way. This is unfortunate as behavioural science and behavioural analysis involves so much more than a set of cognitive biases and heuristics. I think our field would be much better off if we considered a broader range of factors that can influence behaviour when analysing a target behaviour. This issue can also be connected to the, in my opinion, importance of using scientific, comprehensive and systematic models and frameworks that ensure a proper code of conduct when working with behaviour change and intervention development. We should be moving away from vague models and frameworks that imply an ad-hoc approach towards the analysis of behaviour, primarily because this could entail a heightened risk of misguided applications that generate results with weak or no effects. I think it is important that we move away from the tendency to over-simplify human behaviour as this can have unintended consequences and might damage the credibility of the field in the long run. Something else that initially can seem pretty basic but nevertheless important is the current lack of consensus regarding what behavioural science is. We should specify and establish a clear definition of what behavioral science entails including sub-fields and also specify what constitutes a ‘good’ behavioural scientist. Additionally, the issue of ethics is critical, and in my opinion, our field needs to establish ethical guidelines and/or best practices that ensure the integrity, protection and well-being of individuals. To me, it is crucial that behavioural science is applied with the objective to create better societies and lives for citizens, why we must protect it from being applied under the influence of more questionable interests. Therefore, I think it is urgent that we develop and decide on an ethical code of conduct, rather sooner than later.”


Garrett Meccariello “Actionability, Actionability, Actionability. If a theory or intervention can’t be implemented outside of a publication, what good is it? That last line is delivered with a bit of sarcasm. The field has a great opportunity to make an impact and change behavior at scale. We must make findings and key takeaways actionable. Dare I even say that we should focus more on interventions than theoretical frameworks as those results are often tangible and, hypothetically, deployable in the form of a product or service.

For improving the field I’ll repeat: Actionability, Actionability, Actionability. It’s important that we focus on identifying target behaviors and effective methods to either nudge behavior towards a certain goal or better diagnose what’s going on.”


Kathryn Ambroze “There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the many questions within behavioral science. It is really important to consider the research question first and then choose which technologies, psychological tests, scales, surveys etc. will best help uncover the goals of research.

Ethical conversations about regulation and privacy policies are needed in this emerging field. Technology, such as facial recognition, should be developed with caution and understanding of biases. The misuse or inaccuracies in technology or behavioral approaches may results in truly outlandish claims, which can be harmful. The more education available about behavioral science can help reduce conspiracy theories, while also encouraging insight into best practices in utilizing behavioral science.”


Peter Judodihardjo "I think the lack of maturity in the field is a limiting factor. Right now, it is this messy cloud of biases, heuristics, and unexplained phenomena. Our ‘frameworks’ like MINDSPACE, EAST and COM-B are not really based on any comprehensive gatherings of data. They are just handy acronyms that help us remember a small number of behavioural science tools at our disposal. But there are always so many more than what those cover. We need better tools, based on better evidence, to design effective behavioural intervention more often.

I think the HBCP that Susan Michie is spearheading at UCL is an important project that helps to address the issue I mentioned in the previous question. The discipline needs tidying, so it can be learned and utilized more effectively by practitioners.”


Natasha Oza “I may be wandering into dangerous territory here by touching upon a topic similar to the age-old debate of nature vs nurture, but here goes!

Yes, there are certain inherent behaviours, thought processes, and mental shortcuts that are common across the board. However, that equally important and influential are the behaviours, thought processes, and mental shortcuts we’ve been trained to have: the training that has taken place slowly, over time, by society, culture, region, and religion.

I think one big problem with behavioural science as a field is that it doesn’t take into account or give as much weightage to cultural and regional factors as it should. There is still limited knowledge and, therefore, application of cross-cultural differences and the impact of cultural contexts in decision making and behaviour. Most research comes from western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic (“WEIRD”) countries which house only 12% of the world's population. What about the remaining 88%? What about us? Especially when we talk about behavioural science for good, or behavioural science to achieve impact, it has to be applicable to the places that impact is truly needed and where it will make the biggest difference.

After all, a lit candle shines the brightest in a dark room!

I believe the biggest ways in which this field can be improved is to actively push to be more inclusive of different contexts (cultural, regional, etc). There’s a lot of information about how specific types of people behave on average but not enough on how behaviour differs from one individual to the next. This is a basic requirement to ensure interventions are valid and effective across contexts. It’s also key to designing interventions targeting specific people and situations.

Perhaps as a function of it being a relatively “young” field, there are plenty of experiments that have been designed and carried out - and this number doesn’t seem to be reducing any time soon. However, as someone who is focused on taking insights and scaling them up, a few studies with a small sample size on the other end of the world isn’t very helpful. I think that there can be an immense benefit in broadening the focus from just generating more experiments to looking at how they can be used to achieve impact at scale.”


Sofia Mardiaga “I feel like closer collaboration with governments and institutions could go a long way to facilitate new research and exploration of more interesting problems. With closer collaborations we could also test for how long effects are observed for example or to get access to more diverse populations.

As an improvement, let’s have more female scientists!! With that out of the way, I feel like the field has somehow been using the same cognitive biases in every behaviour change framework or nudge guideline. While I realize that these frameworks focus on what is most robust, I feel like we need to explore more as a field to add some new things to the list.”


I hope you enjoyed this article as much as you did the previous ones. It's great to have so many perspective on where behavioural science is (still) lacking, and how we can improve it. If you'd like to read more about the amazing people from the Next Gen and their thoughts and idea, make sure to read the previous next gen articles! Article 1 introduces the Next Gen, article 2 finds out why they went into behavioural science, article 3 finds out HOW they got into behavioural science, article 4 shows how they actually apply behavioural science, article 5 tells you what our new behavioural scientists actually want from behavioural science article 6 tells you about the skills that make for a great behavioural scientist. And article 7 outlines what the Next Gen thinks the most impressive developments are in behavioural science so far.


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