It's easy to see why more managers are turning to behavioural science to solve business problems, says Dilip Soman, director of Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman (BEAR) and its Behaviourally Informed Organizations initiative.
Professor Dilip Soman
Mainstream behavioural science books like Nudge and Thinking, Fast and Slow gave leaders a glimpse of a world where seemingly simple, cost-effective and scalable tweaks at an organization could influence stakeholders to change their behaviour.
But taking insights from behavioural scientists and applying them in an organization isn’t as simple as it sounds. Why? Context matters, and there is no “one size fits all” approach in behavioural science, according to Soman.
In his role as Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Science and Economics, Soman noticed something time and again — managers and leaders need more tools to translate behavioural research into actionable steps that make sense in their organizations.
“Anyone can use science to become a better person, but in many policy and business settings, the practitioner then needs to make sense of that science and do something about it. There’s an extra link in the chain,” he says.
Now, Soman’s new book — co-edited by Nina Mažar, a professor of marketing at Boston University Questrom School of Business — bridges the gap between the research lab and the real world. Previously, she was a faculty member at Rotman and the co-director of BEAR.
Behavioural Science in the Wild (Rotman-UTP Publishing, 2022) is a compilation of insights from more than 50 leading behavioural scientists around the world. Each chapter takes the reader through a unique series of case studies, from how to create motivational boosts beyond New Year’s Resolutions (the “fresh-start effect”), to how one team used behavioural science insights to increase blood donations through methods centred on ethics.
“The goal of Behavioural Science in the Wild was to develop a nuanced framework for how we should think about translating research, and then scaling it from our labs and from pilot studies into the field,” write Soman and Mažar in the book.
“What prescriptive advice can we give to a practitioner who reads about a research finding in a published paper and is wondering about whether and how they should incorporate that finding into their own behavior change challenge?”
“The goal of Behavioural Science in the Wild was to develop a nuanced framework for how we should think about translating research, and then scaling it from our labs and from pilot studies into the field.”
Canada Research Chair, Behavioural Science and Economics
Director, Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman
One size does not fit all
The biggest reason why behavioural interventions don’t always work out in the field is because they’re often applied in a different situation with a different population than the original study, Soman says.
Take one study based in Mexico where Soman worked with the government to encourage more people to contribute to their pension plans.
“We used all the hacks in the behavioural science playbook — simplify information, make it visual and easy to understand,” he says. “It turned out, it worked beautifully for about half of the group. It backfired for the other half.”
Why did that happen? Soman says it’s something unique to Mexico, where pension providers are required by law to give people a list of the available funds and their performance in the past three months.
“If you see your fund is in the top half, you’re going to contribute more. If it’s in the bottom half, you’ll look for other options,” Soman says.
“That was a wakeup call for me. It’s not just about simplifying things or reminding people to do something. We must better understand how something is done, when and to whom it’s done.”
Change the culture of experimentation
Whatever business you’re in, Soman says behavioural science should be in service of better policy and better organizations. However, he adds it’s common to see a reluctance to experiment with new approaches for fear of time and money lost in an organization.
“I’ve spent too many hours in board meetings where people are deeply debating whether they should have an extra ad or cut the price of their product by 10 cents — let’s just test it and try,” he says.
“The culture needs to change so we don’t view failure as a bad thing. We need to accept that humans are unpredictable, and we genuinely don’t know how people will react to what you’re offering.”
While more demand for experimentation may mean the associated costs — data science, design, operations — may rise, Soman says that’s why managers can benefit from a playbook that outlines when certain behavioural insights will work well, and when they might not.
“At its heart, the book tells us when certain tested interventions work and when they do not,” says Soman. “It allows you to increase the chance of success when translating insights to your context, and better prepare for the potential pitfalls in that process.”