Regular readers will know I've long championed the new insights into human beings that we've come to know as Behavioral Economics. Indeed, you could suggest that my mission has been to challenge the received wisdom about human behaviour – to unpick the assumptions embedded in our practices in marketing, management and public policy.
For example, back in 2005 I wrote a paper (anyone got a copy?) which discussed – at some length – the cluster of cognitive biases which together make up much of BE's armoury (see this Cabinet Office paper for a full description Download MINDSPACE-full).
Again and again, In various contexts, I've returned repeatedly to the practical argument for BE – the real difficulties in bringing about actual behavior change (from the original HERD paper to the various iterations of the thinking) and the need to bring cognitive and behavioural science to bear on how we think about it. And of course, I've been a big supporter of both the IPA's BE initiative and the RSA's Social Brain project which deals with much the same set of issues. And I'm delighted that politicians and policy makers of all hues are embracing it.
But I'm beginning to think that maybe the success of BE is making us feel complacent. Maybe it's stopping us really pressing on.
Think of it this way:
Behavioural Economics is a response – a step on – from the old rational agent model of human behaviour. It conceptualises humans not as rational agents who accurately perceive the world around them and act appropriately but as faulty agents, with lazy minds (as Kahnemann puts it) – with built-in quirks and biases in our perceptional machinery.
But – and here's the big thing – it still views humans as at heart independent agents; human behaviour as grounded fundamentally at the level of individuals.
Of course, BE represents a big improvement on the old model and we'd all do well to get a grip on the insights it offers and I can see how much easier it is to slip from rational agent models to the kind of faulty agent models implied by BE…but let's be honest: it's only half way to a proper rethink.
The real breakthrough is likely to come from starting to conceptualie humans and human behaviour as fundamentally social (not individual).
Try this: is thinking an individual or social function?