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The Science of Behavioral Science

As businesses seek to make better decisions, market researchers are increasingly turning their attention to behavioral science. There is good reason for this focus. Behavioral science has been instrumental in realigning how market researchers approach the study of human behavior and by that has been able to develop better insights. However, as principles of behavioral science are applied more broadly to enable better business decisions, there seems to be some confusion as to what behavioral science really is.


As the term science implies, behavioral science is first and foremost a body of knowledge systematically developed by behavioral scholars. The behavioral science literature consists of theories and conceptualizations of how people think and make decisions. As such, it challenges a cornerstone of economic theory, homo economicus, by showing how human behavior isn’t as rational and linear as traditional economic theory assumes.


A key tenet of behavioral science is the recognition of the non-conscious and the conscious mind. These are commonly known as System 1 and System 2, thanks to Daniel Kahneman and his bestselling book: “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Kahneman’s work has been instrumental in helping popularize the distinction between the automatic and deliberate thought processes. This distinction between System 1 and System 2 has major implications for the design of market research studies.


It’s important to recognize that Behavioral Science is not a method, per se. It doesn’t favor qualitative over quantitative or observational research from experimental research. Instead, behavioral science changes what we understand about how humans think and make decisions, which helps us frame better research questions and develop additional ways of measuring them.


Let me address the point about asking questions first. In market research, there are only two ways in which we can gather data. We either observe or ask questions. Any research study can make use of either method or a combination of the two. When it comes to asking questions, it’s clear that behavioral science brings a lot to the table. Traditionally, market researchers have been fairly mediocre at formulating insightful questions for research. Too often it seems that the business objective behind the research study becomes the basis for the questions being asked. For example, when a company is wondering why they are not selling incontinence pants to people with incontinence, they would simply ask respondents why don’t you buy incontinence pants? This is precisely the wrong question to ask because respondents are not able to provide an answer to the underlying reasons why they don’t. This is why we turn to behavioral science because it recognizes that people’s motivations are not as straightforward or obvious. Instead of asking why people buy or don’t buy a particular product we need to start asking questions that reveal the role the product or the brand plays in people’s lives. A better question to ask a person with incontinence would be what they think about other people who use incontinence pants. This question makes it possible for the respondent to articulate potential barriers to product adoption and can help the business understand why people are reluctant to buy incontinence pants.


The second point where behavioral science has considerable impact is the measurement techniques that we use in research. When it comes to research that is conducted with surveys, most studies are still designed with the five-point Likert scale or some modification of this scale. The Likert scale, introduced in 1932 by Rensis Likert, was designed to measure people’s attitudes. We now know that with the distinction between the automatic and deliberate through processes, the Likert scale is only capable of measuring the conscious System 2 thought processes. This leaves market researchers with an incomplete picture of the factors driving behavior. To capture a more complete understanding, it’s imperative to augment with additional measurements such as response latency techniques, to enable collection of System 1 data.


The key takeaway from this is that behavioral science has a lot to offer to market research to make insights more actionable. If you embrace the thinking of behavioral science you can augment the learning you get from your current research design and ultimately enable better business decisions.