What BE’s missing? Missing the point

There's an awful lot of noise around Behavioural Economics in UK marketing circles at the moment, not least in from my old colleague Crawford Hollingsworth.

Much of this is a good thing: too much of the time, we've relied on dodgy assumptions about the uman behaviour we seek to understand and/or shape. The wonderful Wendy Gordon puts it brilliantly in this series of videos.

The gap between our default assumptions about behaviour (e.g. that people are calculating machines or that they see the world cleanly and uniformly) and what e.g. behavioural economics suggests is indeed real and represents a huge opportunity for marketers, managers and policy makers.

Many of these truths seem to offer good simple insights into the kinds of problems we all struggle with. And in doing so, breathe new life into many old tools and practices, such as market research or service design. As well as bringing us closer to reality in more general terms.

But is BE the whole answer?

No. Clearly not.

But why? Well, there are those that point to the fact that BE represents a re-badging of widely published work on perception and decision-making. It's not new, in that sense – even if the re-badging has got lots of people to (re-)engage.

Others point to the very poor record in proper scientific literature of BE-led interventions actually changing behaviour. Sure, there are lots of anecdotes – popular texts are full of anecdotes (not least because anecdotes are easy to understand) but as Dr Ben Goldacre recently tweeted "the plural of anecdote is not data".[tip: when you feel overwhemled with anecdote, ask to see the peer-reviewed stuff]

No, there's something missing from BE. Something important.

I've tried to articulate why this is in the past by talking about BE as essentially a revision of traditional models of human behaviour (with added irrationality). They are part of a tradition of essentially individualist models of behaviour and ignore the fundamentally social aspects of human behaviour. In our recent book, we take a similar line, arguing that 

"humans are, first and foremost, social creatures. Yes we can be lazy thinkers, and yes, we have Pleistocene brains, but a large part of our success during the Pleistocene ans since then is attributable to our doing what we do with those around us, to learn from and influence each other so naturally that we hardly notice it"

In a recent very entertaining blog post for the Marketing Society, Crawford counters that BE does cover the social aspect of humanity but then makes our point entirely for us by only citing examples of individual-level insights. "Social" here is reduced to 'what other people say and do'.

If you needed proof of how individualist this thinking remains, then consider the key visual figure in the article. Note the individual at the heart of the concentric circles.


To be fair, Crawford's error is a common one, one embedded in those who've studied Social Psychology. As I discuss (following Farr) in HERD, the fathers of this discipline in the Anglo Saxon world (the Allport brothers) were hardline individualists.

"Social Psychology is part of the study of the individual, whose behaviour it studies in relation to that sector of his environment comprised by his fellows" [GHA]

"There is no psychology of groups which is not essentially and entirely a psychology of individuals. . . . There is likewise no consciousness except that belonging to individuals" [GHA}

This – like so many others (including the Cabinet Office's own Mindspace report) – is a fundamental mistake.

Social is not just how an individual is influenced by others in their "behavioural landscape"; Social is about understanding human behaviour at a different scale. Our book again:

"We use the brains of others to think for us and as a place to store knowledge about the world; almost everything we know and do involves shared knowledge from past and present people – billions of them by now. To understand human behaviour, we need to move from the "me" perspective to the "we" perspective"

There are of course examples of behaviour that are best understood at the level of the individual (our book shows how to spot the patterns in data which point this up) but these cases are much rarer than most people think. Most of the time, most of us live in a world where the patterns reveal a fundamentally social world and our behaviour is best considered not in terms of the cognitive quirks or otherwise of individuals but in terms of e.g. networks and populations. Behaviour is not just – not even mostly – an individual phenomenon.

That's where it's BE is largely missing the point, as far as I'm concerned