Today, many individuals, governments and business are eager to use behavioral sciences to improve lives, happiness and profits. Yet, most people don't have the time to obtain a Ph.D in behavioral sciences. So, how can one get a good handle on behavioral science?
Behavioral science champions how small changes can make big differences. So here are five small steps you can take to become an amateur master of behavioral science. First, a quick refresher on behavioral science.
What is behavioral science? (a quick run down)
Behavioral science, or behavioral economics, applied psychology, business psychology, decision making, or whatever title you prefer, is the study of human irrationality, decision making, self-control, and emotions.
This past year has served as a symbolic victory for the field. Daniel Kahneman, widely considered the founder of the field, released the book Think Fast, Think Slow and won the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in America, to go along with his international Nobel Prize. The United States government also opened a "Behavioral Insights" team with the goal to integrate behavioral research into government policy.
Behavioral science is becoming a staple in the business and public policy. Energy companies use social comparison with neighbors to reduce energy consumption and businesses help people "save more tomorrow" by having them commit to automatic enrollment in the future. Rather than just assuming that people will save energy and manage their retirement with perfectly rationality, behavioral science accepts and defends the idea that people will not always be motivated by rationality or cash alone. Instead it examines what actually motivates people.
Alright, so most likely you don't have time to hire your own private behavioral insights team. So, what can you do? Here's how to become an amateur behavioral scientist in 5 steps.
#1 Accept that humans are irrational.
In his book Critical Decisions behavioral scientist Peter Ubel, concludes that humans are neither completely rational nor completely irrational, but argues far too often people approach others too logically.
For instance, how many times have you tried to logically argue with a friend or co-worker? Did it go well? No. Why? Because logic does not exclusively dictate human behavior. Emotions, self-control, and a person's life history greatly influence behavior.
One big take away from behavioral science is that we must continually consider factors other than rationality that can influence people's behavior. So step one: remember people are irrational and that logic alone will rarely win the day.
#2 Think about your own psychological quirks.
You may have noticed that you tend to be less rational when tired. You may have noticed that you sometimes act with prejudice. For instance, just think of the last time you saw someone wearing a jersey from an opposing sports team. Did you automatically assume negative things of them?
Understanding how you, a good and sane person, can error in judgment allows you to see, understand, and empathize with others' all too human behavior. Starting to understand patterns of irrationality or imperfect decision-making can help you understand people's "predictable irrationalities."
#3 Watch science on TED.com.
TED.com has a collection of behavioral science talks which are great for understanding the mindset of a behavioral scientist. The talks cover topics such as how to think about happiness, memory, honesty, or decision-making.
But don't worry - the talks are not too technical and the talks are not "self-help." Instead the talks are accessible general science pieces. Start with talks by Rory Sutherland and Daniel Kahneman and you will start to get into mindset. From there click the related videos. After a couple hours of those videos it will be time for some reading.
#4 Starting reading. And here's what start with.
Books - To begin start with a hit from the behavioral sciences such as Think Fast, Think Slow or Sway. Books with fantastic prose from authors like Malcolm Gladwell are good to check out, but it is best to start with a book that really focuses on the research. This will help you build a solid foundation.
Online - Next follow a blog or twitter account from at least one of these behavioral experts: @Nudgeblog, @DanTGilbert, or @RorySutherland. By following the experts or the many others out there, you may also have access to occasional live twitter conversations between them -- another entertaining way to learn.
Local - Locate professors at your local university who conduct behavioral science, behavioral economics, social psychology, or decision making research. Follow their blogs, check out their university talks, and even get some face time with them at local events. Academics are generally pretty open.
#5: How to read.
Do not binge and forget. Instead, spread out your reading. Due to the availability bias in human reasoning, things that you learn and even know deep in your memory may not be "top of mind." Just because you learned something once doesn't mean you'll be the state of mind to always use that knowledge.
Reading a little but often keeps behavioral sciences on the top of your mind. So when you encounter a situation where someone is acting odd, the behavioral scientist inside of yourself will always be primed and ready to interpret the situation.
Troy Campbell is a researcher at Duke University's Center for Advanced Hindsight and the Fuqua School of Business. Troy also tries his best to respond to any emails and tweets he receives about behavioral science.