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The Future of Behavioural Science | Sam Tatam

Wednesday 25, Oct 2017


While there’s been a recent spike in curiosity surrounding behavioural economics, I think it’s important to acknowledge that much of this thinking, or at least its output, is not so new.  Brands have long been exploiting cognitive biases to ‘nudge’ human behaviour, even if intuitively.

What’s more recent and I think more likely to influence the future application of human biases for brands and businesses, is the effort of marketers, academia and governments to better explain and codify these phenomena.  It’s this codification that I find most exciting because it helps us to more clearly understand why past practices worked (or didn’t work), replicate past success, and produce effective behavioural ideas more regularly and creatively.  

This codification of the behavioural sciences is taking us behind the curtain of what might otherwise have been considered a mysterious ‘dark art’, to one more closely resembling the structured notes and chords of musical composition.  More like writing a song than conjuring magic.  

Let me explain.

Practitioners should start with the basics established by the ‘masters’:

While I’ve never written a song in my life, trawl the web for tips on how to get started and you’ll be met with a consistent response, to “start with the basics”.  You should start with a common structure, a collection of A’s and B’s, throw in some C’s if you’re adventurous - and see how it sounds.

I tend to think this analogy holds true in applying behavioural science.  The good news for brands is that what can crudely be considered the A’s, B’s, C’s of behavioural science, have already been established.  Two such frameworks developed in partnership with the UK Government are EAST (if you want to create behavioural change then make something: Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely) and MINDSPACE (consider the role of the; Messenger, Incentive, Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitment, Ego).

Although any model of predicting behaviour must only be considered a starting point, these two frameworks provide a solid foundation for creating behavioural interventions.  Before you worry that they’re too simplistic, let’s not forget - even the violin has only four strings!

Seek inspiration from ‘naturals’ in the world around us:  

Saul Hudson wasn’t born Slash just as Robert Zimmerman wouldn’t be Bob Dylan without the influence of a lesser-known folk musician called Woodie Guthrie.  While both are iconic artists, it would be wrong to think of them as masters who perfected their craft in isolation.  

I believe the same should be true for behavioural practitioners.  Just as there’s an A-sharp, an A-minor and A-flat, so too are there variants of the Messenger effect (the M in MINDSPACE; ‘authority effect’, ‘like-me bias’, ‘attractiveness bias’). Similar to our greatest musicians, a free and vast source of inspiration is in the world around us, too.  As I mentioned, we’ve long been exploiting cognitive biases to ‘nudge’ human behaviour, even if intuitively.

It’s this inspiration, I believe, that will enable brands to elevate the quality and variety of their behavioural ideas and interventions beyond those explicitly referenced in academic literature.

Here are a few examples:

  • Loss aversion in Aldi: We are roughly twice as motivated to avoid a loss than pursue a gain – in this example at Aldi, it could be argued that $1 coin is worth more than a $100 trolley
  • Social Norming through littering: We’re heavily influenced by the behaviour of those around us, tending to follow what other people do. This collection of cigarettes is a signal of where “most people smoke
  • Salient feedback’ on Sydney Buses: We attend to what’s novel or provides a sense of feedback. In this example, might removing the pleasurable ‘feedback’ of graffiti be helping to stop vandalism?

‘Jam’ to make music:

The best music, like other creative pursuits, doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  I’m a huge believer in the power of ‘question thinking’ to unlock creative solutions, triggering our subconscious to elicit an answer that may otherwise have remained latent.  

A few years ago, a family member was pregnant with her second baby. Only herself, her husband and their young daughter knew the sex.  Despite months of interrogation, her daughter remained, admirably, tight-lipped. This continued until someone asked a slightly different question, “what will the baby’s name be?” To this she proudly replied, “Sophia”.  

I think we need more of these questions in our business.

By probing behavioural challenges with lateral enquiries, questions stemming from our ‘master’ behavioural frameworks and ‘natural’ examples of behavioural science, I think we can continue to push the quantity and quality of our solutions.

For example, when faced with a behavioural challenge, rather than asking “how might we illustrate what people stand to lose?” (a question that may directly tap into loss aversion), our Aldi example might lead us to ask a slightly different question, “how might we ensure the ‘sunk cost’ remains evident throughout the experience?” Similarly, rather than asking “how might we make the destructive impacts of someone’s behaviour more visible or obvious?” (Salience), we might alternatively ask “how might we remove existing positive feedback that vandals receive?” (e.g. Sydney Bus seats). While slightly different questions, they’re both founded on what can be considered the same behavioural principle (loss aversion and salience).

Ask a different question, get a different answer.

At Ogilvy Change we use behavioural frameworks established by the ‘masters’ and the nuances of ‘natural’ applications in the world around us, to interrogate our clients’ behavioural and business challenges and to develop solutions.  While having a clearer ‘codification’ of human behaviour doesn’t guarantee we’ll create hit after hit, it does provide us with an incredible platform to develop and experiment with, powerful, behaviourally informed ideas.   

Psychologist and former Head of Behavioural Science for Ogilvy Australia, Sam Tatam is Behavioural Strategy Director at Ogilvy Change in London, a practice that combines the gravitas of leading research in cognitive psychology and behavioural economics with the creative expertise of the Ogilvy Group. Tweet him @s_tatam.                                                                                                                                 

Sam will be presenting at this year’s PRIA National Conference.