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BSPA 2020: Applications and Experimentation in the Evolving Field of Behavioral Science

19.06.2020

Allie Dautrich, from our multidisciplinary team of behavioral scientists (HRW Shift), had looked forward to meeting and mingling with fellow economists as well as psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists at this year’s BSPA 2020 Conference in person in Washington DC, but COVID-19 had other plans. Fortunately, the organizers were able to pivot to a virtual program and provide behavioral scientists around the world the opportunity to share, listen, and discuss lab experiments, real time reactions to the global pandemic, and the ever-growing field of behavioral science that all attendees are so passionate about…

The Behavioral Science Policy Association (BSPA) aims to promote rigorous application of behavioral science, facilitate information sharing, and foster connections between academic scientists, public policy officials, and private sector practitioners.  This year’s BSPA 2020 virtual conference held on May 27th and 28th showcased the wide-ranging applicability of behavioral science through an impressive and diverse collection of speakers across backgrounds. Participants discussed the practice of leveraging academic theory to make sense of real-world situations, insights from research experiments, and importance of environmental nuances that impact decision making.

The 2-day lineup of presentations, panels, and breakout sessions kicked off with infamous keynote speaker Dan Ariely. As an expert storyteller, author, and leading behavioral science practitioner who has led the charge in bringing theory to life, Ariely offered his thoughts on perceptions of risk as pandemic restrictions start to relax and people begin to leave their homes for non-essential travel again. He wisely reminded his audience that we are intuitively bad statisticians and that, “People are not good at learning from description. We learn better from experience.” Ariely emphasized the importance of working together and applying behavioral science – such as posting images of elders in communities and continued communications of risk for vulnerable populations to address the gap between perceptions of anxiety, overconfidence and mental calculations of risk vs the statistical reality.

The sessions that followed emphasized a two key themes:

  1. The importance of continuous experimentation and testing of behavior change tactics, especially through robust randomized control trials (RTCs) as the academic gold standard. As the agenda shifted to focus on the practitioner side of behavioral science, the reality of time constraints came to the forefront. Interestingly, only a couple of presentations touched on the use qualitative research; but those that did spoke to its power to evaluate behavior change interventions and the applicability of general behavioral theory to critical business questions in a timely manner.

One example was at an elite academic institution in the US, where the financial director was looking to ‘nudge’ an increase in engagement with financial package options available to students. In an attempt to connect with students’ and capture their attention, the director tested the use of less formal language in his email communications. In the qualitative testing however, students expressed a higher likelihood of dismissing the email with the colloquial language as they believed the email sounded like a scam as their financial director would never send important content in that tone. Not only does our HRW Shift behavioral science team consistently encourage the best practice of testing prototype nudges, but we commonly rely on qualitative research and projective techniques. In our experience, we have found that qualitative research in particular enables us to dig deep and extract key insights around the target audience reactions to the theoretically backed nudges at a relatively quick pace.

  1. Specialization to appropriately apply behavioral science given the specific context. As behavioral science considerations continue to expand across industries, practitioners highlighted the need to consider the nuances of each decision-making environment and recognized the value of leveraging specialist input. As many practitioners emphasized, behavioral science can be leveraged as a powerful tool but it is equally important to have a fundamental understanding of the field you are conducting your experiments in as we translate general theory to specific contexts. As Michael Hallsworth from the Behavioral Insights Team astutely noted, “As a field, we’re getting better as we try things in new contexts. We don’t really know, but we’re getting better at that.” Our HRW Shift team can relate to this sentiment as our team organically grew out of a collection of researchers already specializing in healthcare market research, who were interested in applying academic behavioural science usually collected in other contexts. We’re also reminded of this every time our insights and recommendations are enhanced through research collaborations with members of HRW’s OR:BIT (Oncology Research: Business Intelligence Team).

True to its mission, the BSPA conference provided a balanced platform for enthusiastic voices across sectors to foster discussions of best practices. Akin to HRW Shift’s multidisciplinary approach to applying behavioral in our healthcare market research projects, the BSPA balanced the perspective of across leading behavioral scientists ranging from researchers to practitioners to policy makers. There was a clear respect both for robust academic validation as well as the need to test in our own worlds as applications of behavioral science expand and the importance of continued sharing and collaboration in the relatively new, exciting, and evolving field of behavioral science.

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