Past, present and future_crop

OPINION27 March 2019

New frontiers: the past, present and future of behavioural science

Behavioural science Opinion UK

The first article in a series on new frontiers in behavioural science from Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker looks at how the discipline has gained traction over the years.

In the past decade, behavioural science (BS) has, without question, become mainstream. It’s now over sixteen years since Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 for his work with Amos Tversky founding and developing the field of behavioural science.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the duo fought hard to change established and entrenched thinking in both psychology and economics.  It’s also more than 10 years since Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published their bestselling book Nudge, which revolutionised the way we think about choice and people’s decision-making.

The book ultimately helped to launch the behavioural insights team, established in the UK government in 2010 after the UK’s then Prime minister, David Cameron changed his thinking upon reading the book. 

Since then the momentum behind behavioural science has continued. The field picked up more recognition when Thaler won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017. As psychologist Robert Cialdini, and author of Influence, another BS bestseller, recently said, behavioural science is “no temporary fling”. It’s now not only established as a field in its own right, but is becoming integrated with other disciplines, teams and technology such as machine learning, tech and neuroscience.

The rapid growth of the field can perhaps be explained by its timing; these new insights came at a time when there was a general dissatisfaction and growing frustration that rational models were not explaining behaviour and that attitudinal understanding was not leading to behavioural change.

Behavioural science what is it and what have we learnt

Behavioural science is a scientific model of human behaviour which acknowledges and embraces the inherent cognitive biases and distortions that often characterise human judgement and decision making, recognising that much of what influences our thinking is subconscious.

It recognises the importance of habits in our everyday lives affected by our surrounding, immediate context and by how choices and information are presented to us.

Concepts such as framing and anchoring  illustrate how tiny, subtle, differences in how questions or choices are described, can drastically affect our decisions. Anchoring describes how we fix on a piece of information as a reference point, and then navigate from it to make a choice.

Framing shows how much we are influenced by how information is presented and made salient to us. A simple example is the surgeon asked by his patient about the likely risks of a forthcoming operation. He replies ‘10 out of 100 people who have the operation will die’ rather than the more comforting ‘90 out of 100 people will survive’.

We also rely on mental shortcuts to make decisions. We don’t always have the time or inclination to analyse everything systematically. So, when making judgements we often ignore information, preferring to use simple rules of thumb or heuristics, to help us reach a decision. Some of these are hardwired through evolutionary processes and others are learned via experience.

Other heuristics or shortcuts include concepts such as availability bias or affect bias to help us make decisions (rightly or wrongly). Availability bias – when we believe that whatever most easily comes to mind, is most likely to happen – frequently steers our decision-making, particularly when judging risk as does affect bias – when our decision or choice isn’t based on objective information, but on our emotional response – in terms of whether we instinctively like or dislike something.

We also tend to gravitate towards the status quo and stick with what has already been pre-selected for us. For example, retirement savings enrolment and contributions can be hugely affected by whether employees are automatically enrolled or if they must act themselves and opt-in. Participation rates under ‘opt-in’ systems are almost always lower than rates when people must ‘opt-out’ – typically 30-40% versus 80-90%.

Research has also highlighted how communicating what are known as descriptive social norms – what others are doing – to people can ‘nudge’ their behaviour. We have a tendency to conform – for example, it’s thought the message ‘A record turnout is expected’, implying that a high majority of people intended to vote, and used by the Barack Obama campaign in the US Presidential election in 2008 helped to increase voter turnout by an estimated 5 million from 2004. Turnout rates rose to 57% – the highest turnout since 1968.

How behavioural science is being applied today

For marketers and researchers, behavioural science represented a breakthrough in thinking and approach, giving a structure for what we may have done intuitively along with a robust vocabulary and set of methodological tools to explore consumer behaviour. It has allowed us primarily to better predict and explain behaviour for strategic decision-making.

Secondly, this greater understanding has enabled us to consider how we might nudge or change behaviour.

Today, there are hundreds of applied behavioural science entities around the world involved in the real-world application of behavioural science across countless sectors. For example, Google, Barclays, Prudential, Uber, Morningstar, Lilly and Pepsico are applying insights from behavioural science in what they do, from helping to better understand and influence their consumers to making decision-making among their teams more effective.

In the public sector too, the application of behavioural science is strongly embedded. There are now around 200 behavioural insights teams within governments across the world. Similarly conference, journals, books and research centres have all grown in the discipline.

Experienced behavioural science practitioners have also now developed and honed robust frameworks and models to help apply behavioural science in a rigorous, systematic way. For example, there is the COM-B model developed by University College London and the B=MAT model developed by Stanford Professor and behavioural psychologist BJ Fogg. As applying behavioural science has progressed, process has become ever more important to ensure effectiveness and frameworks such as the Behavioural Design Methodology, developed, tested and applied by the behavioural science consultancy ideas42.

Looking to the future

With the evolution of BS over the past two decades, it has brought new understanding, insights and approaches, applied in all sectors, from healthcare, finance and tech to international aid, regulation and public policy.

As with any other science, the field of behavioural science is about continued learning. Many of the top behavioural scientists and practitioner teams around are building on original learning, bringing further nuance and precision to this powerful science, ultimately enabling even more accurate insight into human behaviour.

This series will reveal what the biggest developments have been over the past few years as well as looking to where the field is headed for the future. 

By The Behavioural Architects’ Crawford Hollingworth and Liz Barker


Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project, 2017, Penguin Random House

Richard Thaler, Misbehaving, 2015, Penguin Random House

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011, Allen Lane

Gerd Gigerenzer, Simple heuristics that make us smart, 2000, OUP