What have we learned from communicating behavioural science?

People standing in a queue and waiting - Young people with social distancing and wearing protective face masks - Concept of the new normality and social distancing

The worlds of business and politics are transparently about people. What products will people buy? What rules will they obey or flout? Which parties or policies will they support or oppose?

Yet until relatively recently, practical decision-makers in the private and public sectors have paid relatively little attention to the scientific study of human behaviour. Instead, they have acted on gut intuitions about what other people will do and think.

These intuitions are often perfectly adequate. We don’t need to conduct a scientific study to know that people don’t like price or tax rises, want products to be delivered to be reliably, and, in many cases care deeply about issues of ethics and sustainability.

It might not always be obvious how many people care exactly how much about these and other questions. But the traditional approach is to supplement managerial intuitions with market and polling research, thus sampling from a broader pool of intuitions.

The Behavioural Science Group at WBS was founded in 2010 on the basis that intuition is not always enough. On the contrary, insights from psychology and behavioural economics about how people think and decide can often lead to quite unintuitive, but important, conclusions.

The aims of the group span all the way from contributing to the basic science, to real-world applications in business and public policy, and to communicating insights from behavioural science as widely as possible.

I have spent a lot of time over the last decade on the challenge of communication. This includes two books The Mind is Flat and The Language Game for popular audiences, a massive on-line course (MOOC), the BBC Radio 4 series The Human Zoo, and helping to set up executive education in behavioural science at WBS.

As one might expect perhaps, communicating behavioural science turns out to be a two-way street.

Communicating insights leads to very rapid feedback from a critical audience about what is convincing, what extra research is needed, and which insights are important or merely ‘cute but irrelevant’ to the cut and thrust of practical decision-making.

So what are the insights that matter? I’d like to share three that I think are particularly important at times of upheaval, such the COVID pandemic that caused extraordinary levels of difficulty for business, government, and individual citizens.

In these circumstances, our gut intuitions are particularly untrustworthy because they are based primarily on past experience. However, upheavals often present us with challenges we have never encountered before.

In light of the war in Ukraine, increasing political polarisation in many Western democracies, the challenge of getting to net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and the potentially revolutionary impacts of artificial intelligence, it seems likely that upheaval – both large and small – will be with us for the foreseeable future.

In each of the three insights below, there is, I think, a note of optimism. In various ways, it turns out that nations, businesses, and individuals are often better at coping with change we expect.

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The “power law” of practice

When people do things repeatedly, they get quicker in a very stable and predictable way. Roughly, if you plot the number of times a person has done something against the speed with which they do it on log-log graph paper, we see a straight, downward-sloping line. This relationship is called the power law (for reasons that don’t matter here).

The power law of practice has been observed in tasks as varied as cigar rolling, tracing mirror shapes, and mental arithmetic problems. In fact, it turns out to be extremely closely related to power law ‘learning curves’ in motor manufacturing, and falling cost curves in computer chips, batteries, and solar and wind technology.

So this particular law may not be specific to individual behaviour at all – it seems to apply to individual factories, companies, and indeed whole economies.

Nonetheless, it is crucial for understanding how we deal with disruption.

When we have to radically change the way we work (for example, by shifting to remote working), initially performance will be slow and difficult.

However, the power law tells us that, with practice, we will improve in a highly predictable way. By looking at our initial progress (after a few months, a year, or two into the change), we can make a pretty good guess about how rapidly we will progress in the future.

It often turns out that ways of working that may seem initially too difficult to contemplate, fairly quickly turn out to be at least as good as (or even better) than the way we were working before.

Our preferences and feelings adapt faster than we think

One of the most striking findings in behavioural science is the comparative nature of the mind.

For example, the size of a house, the luxuriousness of our surroundings, or the amount we are able to travel, may not matter to our wellbeing nearly as much as how these compare with what we are used to, and what everyone around us has.

People’s wellbeing can adapt surprisingly well, although not perfectly, to enormous shocks, such as serious accidents or large lottery wins.

On a less dramatic level, we tend to imagine that failing an exam or driving test will lead to days or weeks of devastation; but we adapt to our new circumstances surprisingly quickly.

We saw this during lockdown. People have been astonishingly resilient in the face of changes that seemed unimaginable. But we can’t adapt to everything: the quality of social relationships, for example, seems to be a fundamental driver of human wellbeing (not just whether we have better social relationships than our friends); and commuting seems to be a permanent drag on our wellbeing, even after decades of experience.

The amazing flexibility of social norms

Another area in which we are more adaptable than we might think concerns the social rules by which we live. It is quite remarkable how mask-wearing rapidly transitioned from “bizarre and embarrassing” to “socially required” over a few short weeks.

Policymakers will always tend to see social norms as excessively fixed, and to suppose that people will never tolerate things that are currently not “normal.” But social norms are by no means fixed, but are collectively renegotiated all the time.

This is not confined to pandemics, of course. The big changes we collectively require to reduce carbon emissions, including shifts in heating, transport, and diet, may turn out to be less challenging than we expect if social norms change quickly enough. We’ve seen this already with norms concerning seatbelt use, drink-driving, smoking in public places, and many more.

In summary, behavioural science has taught us that we humans are far more flexible and adaptable than we tend to imagine. This just as well, given the huge changes we have endured in recent years and the enormity of the challenges ahead.

Research with impact

Nick Chater is Professor of Behavioural Science a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society and the British Academy and co-founder of the research consultancy Decision Technology.

With his WBS colleagues, he has helped to increase the use of behavioural science to create better outcomes for people and society. His research underpinned a long-running BBC Radio 4 series, The Human Zoo, and informed the work of the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team, popularly known as the ‘Nudge Unit’.

That work formed the basis of an impact case WBS submitted for the Research and Excellence Framework, the results of which saw WBS ranked fifth in the country for its research by the Times Higher Education.

He teaches on the three-day Behavioural Science in Practice programme that WBS and the Behavioural Insights Team run at the Shard twice a year and the Executive Diploma in Behavioural Science.


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