Optimization glossary

Behavioral science

What is behavioral science?

Behavioral science, also known as behavioral economics and looks at the subject of human actions. It encapsulates multiple fields of study, including cognitive-neuroscience, psychology and economics as well as the behavioral aspects of biology, law, psychiatry and political science. Behavioral science studies human behavior, specifically how humans really make decisions in the real-world.

In particular, behavioral science studies the way that emotions, the environment and social factors influence our decisions. Behavioral science is particularly interested in how heuristics, biases and framing can lead us to make “irrational” decisions.

Behavioral science borrows heavily from the methodologies developed in the social sciences, mainly running experiments using randomized control trials that allow us to make causal inferences about specific mechanisms that drive human behavior. Behavioral scientists run experiments to understand human actions: why people do things, not just observe what they did.

Behavioral science influences better decision making

Even though people can and often do make “irrational” decisions, when it comes to human actions, it turns out there’s a method to the madness of decision making. Because there are “predictable” patterns in our irrationality, once we understand these patterns of human behavior, we can use them to design environments that help people make better decisions. Applied behavioral science can have a positive influence on decision making, whether it be in the realm of public policy, designing products and marketing, or developing personal habits.

Decision making often runs on Autopilot. When studying human behavior, behavioral scientists have found that humans make 95% of their decisions using mental shortcuts or rules of thumb. Anytime you design a space where a human must make a choice, whether it be a marketing landing page or a school cafeteria, you are creating what behavioral scientists call the “choice architecture.” No matter how you design your choice architecture, you will be influencing people’s decision making, intentionally or not.

Influencing decisions through choice architecture

Behavioral science provides you with two significant tools for improving your choice architecture and influencing decision making: Nudges and running experiments.

  • Nudges: Are tried and true solutions behavioral scientists have come up with that shape the choice architecture to help people make the right decision. (Rather famously this concept of behavioral economics was introduced more broadly to the public with the publication of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness)
  • Experiments: Are a controlled way for behavioral scientists to establish baselines, isolate variables that change human behavior and provide evidence that your idea for changing the choice architecture is working.

Using behavioral science to obtain more predictable results in decision making

If you can harness a better understanding of HOW & WHY people make decisions (i.e., what some of these “rules of thumbs” are for decision making), you can design better behavioral science experiments. Applied behavioral science has significant benefits over the traditional “Mad Men” approach of throwing ideas at the wall and praying that something sticks.

Applied behavioral science allows you to deploy solutions that are backed by scientific evidence and helps you to know exactly why your last idea succeeded in influencing decision making as well as quantify the effect on human behavior.

Popular experiments in behavioral science:

There are over 290+ experiments done in the field of behavioral science showcasing the irrationality of human behavior. Below are a few of the most replicated/significant interventions in behavioral science:

  • Loss Aversion: In behavioral science, loss aversion suggests that for individuals the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. Behavioral scientists have used loss aversion in the study of human behavior, showing why penalty frames are sometimes more effective than reward frames in motivating human behavior (Gächter et al., 2009). The website Stickk, for example, influences human behavior by allowing people to commit to a positive behavior change (e.g. give up junk food), which may be coupled with the fear of loss — a cash penalty in the case of noncompliance.
  • Endowment Effect: This bias occurs when we overvalue something that we own, regardless of its objective market value (Kahneman et al., 1991). It is evident when people become relatively reluctant to part with a good they own for its cash equivalent, or if the amount that people are willing to pay for the good is lower than what they are willing to accept when selling it.
  • Choice Overload: Behavioral scientists describe choice overload as a result of too many choices being available to consumers. In applied behavioral science, having too many choices is associated with unhappiness (Schwartz, 2004), decision fatigue, going with the default option, as well as choice deferral — avoiding decision making altogether, such as not buying a product (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000).

When behavioral science backfires

At a glance, behavioral science sounds easy enough — just go to Wikipedia, choose any of the hundreds of behavioral science interventions and you’ll get people to behave just the way you want them to. Wrong. At best, that won’t work; at worst, you’ll sabotage results and your good name.

How is behavioral science different from social science?

Both behavioral science and social science study human behavior. Although the terms behavioral science and social science are often used interchangeably, the areas differ in scope, subject and methodologies. Social science focuses on the social context. There is overlap with behavioral science, but generally, social science explores social processes, organizations and institutions.
Behavior science tries to understand why people do what they do and often seeks to generalize about human behavior as it relates to society. Behavioral science explores the cognitive processes, especially decision making and communication, through systematic analysis of human behavior.

Unlike social scientists, behavioral scientists collect empirical data and use experimental methods, including testing, controls and manipulated settings.

Social science studies human behavior in different social contexts

The social sciences study society as a whole, instead of focusing on individual differences in decision-making or communication. Sociology, for example, explores groups of individuals within social institutions, for example, family, religion, politics, education and economy.
Where behavioral science experiments in order to collect empirical data, social science uses techniques like observation, self-reporting surveys, or interviews. Behavioral scientists manipulate the context to identify and measure the effects of these manipulations on the subject’s decision-making. When something is manipulated and controlled, there is higher confidence that the systematic manipulation and control caused the outcome.

Getting a degree in Behavioral Science

Behavioral science degrees are available from multiple institutions and often encompass social psychology as an integral field of study. People who get Behavioral Science degrees often work in human services or public health and occasionally within the criminal justice system.