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BSPA Conference 2021: Shaping the future of sustainable behavior change

21.06.2021

Allie Dautrich, from our multidisciplinary team of behavioral scientists (HRW Shift) was looking forward to attending the BSPA virtual conference, and it did not disappoint! Bringing together behavioral science researchers and practitioners from universities, government agencies, think tanks, non-profit organizations, and private companies – the event fostered connections between constituents, highlighted learnings from the field, and put a spotlight on the need for more conversations about ethics as behavioral scientists continue to evangelize the field…

On May 6th and 7th, the Behavioral Science & Policy Association (BSPA) hosted its 7th annual conference and delivered on this year’s theme of ‘bridging divides and changing minds with behavioral science’. The well-curated, diverse set of speakers shone for both their versatility and their wide-ranging application of behavioral science across settings, industries, and disciplines to inform and improve decision-making.

The kick-off speakers were Sue Gordon, a high-ranking US intelligence officer from the CIA, and Martin Dempsey, the former US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their positions as top government advisors demonstrated the types of unique spaces where behavioral science has stepped in to reinforce the need for and impact of evidence-based decision-making to inform recommendations. As keynote speakers, their perspective on what it means to be in an advisory position with a lot of influence, but minimal authority set an interesting tone for the conference.  Sue Gordon emphasized how important it is to (1) get to the core element of your message so those you are advising have a clear takeaway and (2) be clear on what you can’t allow them to believe so they don’t misuse the information. Gordon’s reflected on her aim to be as useful as possible while also maintaining credibility. This theme was echoed in many other talks, as many speakers could relate in their applications of behavioral science as the field continues to grow and test the limits of potential impact.

 

The value of persistence

One of the speakers that I found to be most useful was Dan Karlan and his research on the influence of different types of messaging on customer saving patterns. In an attempt to better understand why people don’t save, he investigated whether the challenge was a lack of information (tested with educational statements) or a lack of attention (tested with follow-up reminders). Ultimately, he found education and raising awareness had little impact on individual saving whereas persistent reminders activated the most behavior change. In this way, repetition better addressed the root cause of competing priorities and continued to help people pay attention to spending over time.

This finding resonated with much of our recent work at HRW Shift. The concept of cognitive load1 – which takes seriously the finite nature of our brainpower – is one of our top-cited biases when we talk to our clients about capturing the attention of HCPs during their busy, stressful, and tiresome workdays. In fact, the very next day, I referenced this distinction between information vs attention and the results of Karlan’s paper when making recommendations to optimize the impact of messages for a client in the final stages of launch planning.

 

Evolving ethical guidelines and accountability

Multiple speakers echoed Sue Gordon’s sentiment of the importance of maintaining limits and credibility in the role of a behavioral scientist. The BSPA took a clear stance on this issue and capitalized on the opportunity to bring ethics to the forefront of days’ discussions.

In a panel dedicated to practitioners perspectives on ethics and challenges in applied behavioral science, Chiara Varazzani from the OECD created the helpful acronym KANT (knowledge of current best practices in the field, accountability and recognizing heterogeneity in preferences between stakeholders, new challenges – maintaining vigilance in using tools like algorithms, and transparency as we share our results), as a helpful reminder to check the ethical standards of your next nudge. In a similar vein, Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at UPenn talked about the need to go beyond our human tendency to build support networks and develop, in addition, a healthy set of challenge networks. Grant’s insights always have a way of pushing the field of behavioral science forward but also resonating on a personal level as he encouraged everyone to “get a good fight club” as a way to improve accountability in all aspects of life. This was a notion we readily embrace in the HRW Shift team, where we often ask each other for constructive criticism and pressure test our ideas and perspectives with one another.

 

The future of behavioral science: establishing sustainable incorporation rather than a ‘silver bullet’ mentality

It is typical for behavioral science conferences to focus on how the theory can be applied to change the minds of others – particularly non-believers. This year, however, the BSPA offered another angle of debate. As the organization brought together individuals from a variety of backgrounds, it encouraged us all to think more critically about our role and influence. Richard Thaler, the author of the book ‘Nudge’, summed up the unique position we find ourselves in as a bourgeoning field when he shouted with exasperation, “Clients want a silver bullet! It’s a funny criticism to get while traditional economists think there is too much freedom to call this a discipline.”

The BSPA curated a masterful agenda to tackle this tension. Not only did it provide a platform to share fascinating learnings from the randomized controlled tests and the results of robust behavioral field experiments but also carved space to discuss the need for ethical guardrails, greater accountability, and conversations about the share of voice and diversity to help consciously shape a community that fosters trust, accountability, and most importantly sustainable change.

 

Behavioral Science Reading List – Top 5:

As the speakers shared their work and referenced their sources of inspiration throughout the conference, my list of behavioral science content to read, listen to, and digest exploded! Here are the highlights of the content I am most excited to look into:

  1. “Subtract” a book by Leidy Klotz about fighting our innate urge to ‘add’ instead of taking away when solving problems is on the top of my list!
  2. Katy Milkman always impresses with her writing and research and I can’t wait to dig into her latest behavioral change manual “How to Change”
  3. The father of behavioral economics himself Daniel Kahneman introduced his new book “Noise”. I expect to see it on every respectable behavioral scientist’s shelf this summer.
  4. Ashleigh Shelby Rosette shared her most recent research on systemic bias and discrimination against natural hair during job recruitment impacting Black women. I highly recommend a deep dive into her research on negotiations, diversity, and leadership: https://sites.duke.edu/ashleighshelbyrosette/videos/

An opinion piece from organizational psychology wunderkind Adam Grant on “The Science of Reasoning With Unreasonable People” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/31/opinion/change-someones-mind.html

 

References:

  • Sweller, J. (2010). Cognitive load theory: Recent theoretical advances. In J. L. Plass, R. Moreno, & R. Brünken (Eds.), Cognitive load theory (pp. 29-47). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.

 

By Allie Dautrich

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