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  • 4th Jan 2024

Three Challenges for Applied Behavioral Science: Overcoming the Hurdles to Private Sector Adoption

In this two part series, Scott Young considers the opportunities for applied behavioural science in the private and corporate sector, and the hurdles that need to be overcome. This is blog 2 of 2. 

In a recent article, I identified Compliance, Cybersecurity and Human Resources as three areas of opportunity for applied Behavioral Science in the private sector.  I spoke to several important commonalities among these business functions – and argued that applying a “Behavioral Science lens” held the potential to drive positive changes in employee behavior.  

To realize this potential, however, the field must overcome several familiar hurdles. While some of these challenges are common to introducing any new approach, others are more specific to Behavioral Science. And in fact, some barriers and push backs are arguably self-inflicted, as they are linked to how we (as advocates and practitioners) introduce and frame our work and value to business leaders. 

Below, I’ve outlined three interrelated challenges that I’ve encountered personally in my experience introducing behavioral science to organizations, along with potential strategies to help mitigate or overcome them. 

An Implied Threat or Challenge 

While we like to think of ourselves as open to new ideas, the reality is that encountering a new framework or way of thinking is also somewhat threatening. Whether intended or not, the implied message is that our existing approach is misguided, outdated or sub-optimal in some way. So it should not surprise us when business leaders react somewhat defensively when first hearing of Choice Architecture, System 1 Thinking or Confirmation Bias. 

Of course, we are more likely to encounter nodding and passive agreement (and a lack of follow-up) than direct push backs and challenges. And in fact, my experience has been that passive resistance is most pronounced in functions explicitly defined or charged with understanding and influencing human behavior, such as human resources, research/insights and marketing. Often, I find that Operations and IT people are more open to receiving help and thinking differently. 

How can we make leaders more open and receptive to Behavioral Science?  I believe that it begins by positioning the field as a complement to (rather than a replacement for) their current efforts. Rather than being critical or dismissive of an organization’s existing practices (in training, communications, etc.), we should start by acknowledging their value – and positioning behavioral science as an “added dimension” that can take these efforts to the next level. For example, on a recent BIT project focused on adoption of employee benefits, we pointed out that the company’s current communication efforts spoke almost exclusively to “System 2” (rational) thinking. We then highlighted an opportunity to make further progress by complementing these rational appeals with efforts to remove frictions (such as complexity and confusion) and make the retirement savings process easier. 

Lack of Definition 

A second hurdle is that Behavioral Science can be applied to such a broad range of issues, from managerial decision making to customer segmentation. Of course, it makes intuitive sense that the study of human decision making would have relevant insights to offer across nearly all issues. After all, most business objectives and decisions ultimately involve influencing customer or employee behavior. 

Yet I’ve found that the broad applicability of behavioral science to be a double-edged sword. On a structural level, it means that the field lacks a clear and consistent “home” within many organizations. In fact, I’ve encountered BeSci professionals and/or “nudge units” based everywhere from risk management to product or service design.  While this flexibility can be viewed as a positive, it can also make it easy for leaders to look to other teams or departments to fund and support efforts (“Yes, but not on my budget…”). 

On another level, it leads business people to think (and claim) that they “already do behavioral science.” In most cases, this means that they’ve picked up an idea (such as Social Norms or Present Bias) from a book and worked it into an advertisement or product offer.  In fact, I perceive this to be a significant threat to the field, as the haphazard application of ideas (without measurement and evidence) can easily lead to disappointment and ultimately dismissal (“We already tried behavioral science and it didn’t work”).

How can we define behavioral science in a way that positions it for success? I believe that the key is to prioritize several highly-visible “use cases” within the organization. Clearly, there’s no single formula for selecting these opportunities, which will vary by company or business sector. I’ve found it best to start with the challenges that are already taking up considerable time, energy and effort at the organization. If behavioral science can be presented as a new way to address these high-profile issues, it is likely to receive both funding and attention. From there, I’ve applied a relatively simple rubric to screen individual projects, which takes into account the potential business value/ROI of a desired behavior change, the anticipated likelihood of success, the difficulty of implementation and ethical considerations. Regardless of the exact criteria employed, the most important objective is to position behavioral science as a vehicle to help address the company’s primary business challenges, such as employee retention

In addition to linking Behavioral Science with highly-visible business issues, I’ve also found it important to emphasize the science within the practice. By highlighting and illustrating a multi-step process, from problem definition through research, design and testing, I’ve been able to counter multiple mis-perceptions of the field (as “just nudging” or perhaps the blind application of academic theory). 

Lack of Budget  

Finally, we come to the most telling and daunting hurdle, which is a lack of funding available to pursue Behavioral Science initiatives. Of course, this pushback is often driven by the two items I’ve mentioned above. However, there are certainly cases in which business leaders have genuine interest and positive intent, yet ultimately perceive Behavioral Science as a “nice to have” that can ultimately be sacrificed, when budgets are tight. To overturn and break through this dynamic, it’s important to change the narrative of behavioral science projects competing for funding and resources against well-established projects and priorities. Because that’s simply not a battle that we’re likely to win.  

How can we access budgets more consistently? As a starting point, I’d recommend positioning Behavioral Science as a way to make existing investments more efficient and effective. For example, London’s Metropolitan Police was already investing significantly to help protect its employees from cyber attacks. BIT was then able to apply a “behavioral science lens” to these training efforts, in order to create a more visceral experience that proved more effective in reducing the number of officers who inadvertently (and mistakenly) shared their login credentials.  Another strategy, advocated by my BIT colleague Michael Hallsworth in his recent Manifesto for Applied Behavioral Science, is to focus on building in behavioral science to core business processes, such as budgeting, hiring and performance reviews.  A third parallel path is to simply start small, by identifying small opportunities, which lend themselves to simple, low-cost interventions, small experiments and measurable outcomes. For example, modifying the way that an employee or customer survey is presented – and measuring the impact of these changes on engagement and completion rates. While these more incremental approaches may be less immediately satisfying and rewarding than securing large dedicated Behavioral Science projects – or building dedicated teams or units – I believe that they are ultimately the most promising path to embedding behavioral science within organizations. 

Conclusion: Overcoming the Hurdles to Adoption  

Despite the field’s growth over the past decade, I believe that we’re still in the early days of behavioral science in the private sector. While there are a growing number of Behavioral teams and “enthusiasts” within organizations, these early adopters will continue to encounter resistance (and institutional inertia) in their efforts to make things happen.   

In order to succeed, they will need to know more than the science: They will need to anticipate institutional barriers, to focus their efforts appropriately – and to “make their case” effectively to senior management. They will also need the support of the broader Behavioral Science community. That’s where organizations (such as Action Design Network, GAABS and BSPA) and publications (such as Behavioral Scientist and Habit Weekly) can play a positive role, by sharing success stories and creating forums to help leaders connect and learn from each other. 

Given this support – and employing several of the strategies cited above – I’m optimistic that behavioral science leaders can overcome these familiar hurdles and accelerate the growth of the field within and across the private sector.  

If you’re looking to improve the way your organisation makes decisions and meets its people goals, BIT’s #executiveeducation program offers tangible solutions informed by real behavioural science: 

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