Friday, October 2, 2015

Behavioural Humility

Some thoughts I shared at the 2nd Irish Behavioural Science & Policy Network meet-up earlier this week on prospects for behavioural economics and science:

Good evening everyone. My advice to practitioners of behavioural science these days is that you need to be ‘Humble and Ambitious’ – humble about what you know but ambitious about what you can do.

First some reasons for humility:

1. Science doesn’t happen until it happens twice

Take the Reproducibility Project published in August. The project examined 100 prominent psychology research papers and made an exhaustive effort to independently reproduce their findings. What they found was that almost two-thirds of the results they tested didn’t quite hold up. In a few cases, the reproduced experiments gave an opposite result, showing either no effect or an effect in the other direction from the original study. More commonly, the reproduced results were simply smaller than those claimed in the original study, often so small as to not be statistically significant. How sure are we this stuff works? There is no corpus of Behavioural Laws yet - it's still early days and practitioners should admit as much.

2. We are all Bourgeois Gentlemen

There is a famous line in Moliere’s play The Bourgeois Gentleman where the character Monsieur Jourdain discovers ‘I've been speaking prose all my life and I didn't even know it!’ I’ve had similar reactions from marketing managers and advertisers when I tell them that new thinking in economics says people are irrational and often motivated by emotional and subconscious needs, or: ‘I’ve been a behavioural scientist all my life and I didn’t even know it!’ Some disciplines are ahead of others in this respect and the challenge to behavioural scientists is to go beyond the 'we knew that already' reaction they often get.

3. 100 years of psychotherapy and the world is getting worse!

That was the title of a book by James Hillman published in 1992 (so 123 years of psychotherapy...). Sometimes new tools end up over-promising and under-delivering provoking a backlash among users. It’s even worse – to quote Henry David Thoreau: ‘Our inventions are want to be pretty toys, which distract us from serious things. They are an improved means to an unimproved end.’ Behavioural scientists need to be careful they don’t end up as pretty toys, soon discarded in favour of newer ones.

Now for the ambitious stuff:

4. The Age of Ageing

We are culturally, economically and politically (and even personally!) in denial about the ageing of populations in the developed world (and soon the developing world). Ours is a civilisation gripped by Hyperbolic Discounting – we urgently need to create the language, tools and incentives to change our behaviours to help us place more value on the future than we do at present. The pensions and insurance industries will be eternally grateful to behavioural science if you can pull it off!

5. The Leisure-Life Balance

Forget the work-life balance: soon a third or more of us won’t have any work to do anyway thanks to the robots and artificial intelligence (if you believe the forecasts!)  The philosophers have been thinking about this long before behavioural economists, here’s Aristotle: ‘The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end.’ There will be a growing need to equip us to make the right choices, decisions and investments to live a leisurely life well, and behavioural science should be at the forefront of this task.

6. Forget Happiness

Finally, and more controversially, I’d like to see behavioural scientists paying less attention to happiness rather than more. People can tell you if they are happy (we’ve been tracking it for over 6 years), but they can’t really tell you why they are happy. Nor is it simply about pleasure – Aristotle thought that that was for ‘cattle’ – rather real happiness is something we perceive across a lifetime in terms of fulfillment, contentment, meaning and belonging. And an absence of pain ideally. So ignore calls to measure Gross National Happiness, it will be even less revealing (and relevant) than the existing measure of Gross National Product (conceived as it was during the Great Depression). Instead (and you might want to edge closer to the door here!) we should take a leaf out of Nietzsche’s book: he observed that the two emotions/feelings/experiences we want to last forever are Joy and Love. Now there’s an interesting research task: the economics of love or the maximisation of joy!

So be humble and be ambitious – and go make a real difference in a world that needs all the help it can get.


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