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  • Writer's pictureElina Halonen

My thoughts on the state of behavioural design in 2021

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

I had an opportunity to contribute to the state of the field report for behavioural design compiled by Samuel Salzer and Silja Voolma. There were lots of things in the report that resonated with me so I thought I'd expand on them in a post!

One of the things we were asked to comment on was what we learned about human behaviour during 2020 - a tough one, because there were so many lessons to choose from. After much deliberation, I realised it had to be about the global response to COVID-19:

This was the first time everyone on the planet faced the same problem at the same time which allowed us to see the influence of cultural context played out in the widely varying government solutions and citizen reactions to COVID-19. This made it clearer than ever that we should always factor in the wider environment and strive to understand the role of cultural context in human behaviour. We have known for a decade that psychological science is predominantly WEIRD but it was 2020 that highlighted that is also fundamentally… white. To me, that shows just how much work we have ahead of us to understand the full range of human behaviour.

When I read the report, I realised I wasn't alone - others had also noticed the lack of diversity in psychological science and how it challenges the limits of our knowledge and how we engage in behaviour change:

Seemingly neutral actions like “wear a mask” or the behest to work from home carried wildly different meanings depending on the audience, reminding us that sometimes what looks like a simple need to overcome irrational decision-making is actually grounded in deeply rooted, systemic realities of class and identity. – Ruth Schmidt

Coincidentally, I've previously written about how our ideas about sustainability are often coloured by privilege and social status, and the challenge that poses to effective behaviour change.

I absolutely loved Neela Saldanha's comment on the risks of ignoring the larger, real world context that takes into account culture - and the irony as context has been the buzzword of behaviour change since the beginning:

Context is king, we preach. There is no one-size-fits-all, we argue. Human beings are complicated, we pronounce. And yet, we set up expectations on projects around large effects across populations. We focus on a few interventions and test them in isolation. Naturally, when interventions produce small or no impacts in real life or those impacts don’t sustain when combined with other interventions, our partners are disappointed. We move out of comfortably WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democractic) environments that dominate current psychological research and test the universality of our assumptions in new contexts. We design and test portfolios of interventions in an adaptive fashion.– Neela A. Saldanha

And I can't disagree with Ruth Schmidt's suggestion for how we should move forward - human beings should always be the starting point in behaviour and system design:

-- maybe the goal of generalizing behaviors and interventions to address them across contexts gets it backwards, and that we should instead start with the human beings and system context that we’re planning to design for. – Ruth Schmidt

The other question we addressed was what role should behavioral science and design have in 2021 - for me, one of the key opportunities in the commercial sector is integrating behavioural design into adjacent disciplines:

There are adjacent disciplines such as service design and customer experience (CX) that could hugely benefit from the expertise of behavioural scientists. I find it is surprising anyone would even try to design services and experiences without a solid and nuanced understanding of human behaviour — yet hardly any applied behavioural scientists seem to work in those fields! It seems like an exciting opportunity for real-world impact and sustainable long-term growth for our profession, so I hope to see that happen in 2021.

I also completely agree with the contributions of Neela Saldanha and Faisal Naru - we need more multidisciplinary teams and learning about the effectiveness of interventions:

We need to share more information about the design and implementation details of our interventions so that we can learn what really matters. And we do this as truly multi-disciplinary teams of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, designers & data scientists. – Neela A. Saldanha
But understanding and making sense of the data, with an actual human perspective, is the first step in designing behavioural interventions. This involves a multi-disciplinary approach, and critical judgement, to defining THE problem within a set of many problems. – Faisal Naru

This kind of multidisciplinary future would go a long way in countering the risk identified by Richard Bordenave:

Self-recognized communities promoting methodological rigor and scientific standards to distinguish true behavioural science from the rest. But I see there is a risk to amplify a self-centred view and to freeze look-alike practices. We should take care of not creating a small world looking at his self-reflection. – Richard Bordenave

There were of course many other insightful and thought-provoking contributions to in this report - I highly encourage you to read it!

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