In this post, PBS Executive MSc Behavioural Science alum Maddie Quinlan writes about a trip to the Behavioural Exchange (#BX2019) conference, hosted by the Behavioural Insights Team. Hailed as the world’s first ‘Nudge Unit’, the Behavioural Insights Team in collaboration with several sponsors and partners – including the London School of Economics – brought together some of the most brilliant minds in the field to demonstrate new frontiers being reached by behavioural science in academia and its application to public policy.
As a field of study and practice, behavioural science has been plucked from obscurity and launched into popularity at an increasing rate over the last several decades. Academics and practitioners are now applying its insights the world over, and a plethora of behavioural science units are being established in governments who are increasingly prioritising the application of the science to public policy. I was looking forward to this evening all year! As a recent EMSc graduate from LSE’s Behavioural Science programme, and a practising behavioural scientist at Salient, I was blown away by the breadth and depth of expertise across the programme of BX. The two-day programme promised topics spanning from machine learning to the prevention of sexual violence, and narrative economics to vegetarianism, all in the context of what we are continuing to learn about human behaviour and our own minds.
David Halpern’s opening presentation reflected on some of the major behavioural science policy application success stories, including six examples of billion-dollar intervention triumphs. He was clear to point out that while we can hang our hats on substantial, measurable wins for behavioural science in policy, the failures required to get there need attention as well. It’s by fearlessly addressing those failures head-on that the iterative learnings of rigorous experimentation are fully utilised.
One of the most unforgettable moments of the conference came during a keynote address by Cass Sunstein. His talk covered topical discussion around polarisation of groups, the social interactions that define behaviour, the distribution of thresholds in our incidence to take action, and the false narratives we display to others. Each time I’ve had the chance to hear Cass speak, it has confirmed to me just how deeply he engages in his work, and with the work of others, with a wealth of knowledge that physically brings an audience to the edge of their seats. In an incredibly salient moment, Cass shared an anecdote about an interaction he had with his mother – you could have heard a pin drop in the room. A video recording of Cass’s keynote address is available on the BI website here.
Dan Ariely, Friday’s keynote, led attendees through the issues within contexts of choice and behaviour, namely the limitations imposed by choice architecture and the less-visible limitations of cognitive capacity. Dan pointed to the great developments in the physical world as a juxtaposition to the call for more concrete steps needed to measure and enhance our cognitive development, through his framework of steps: Discovery, Friction, Fuel, Scale, Trade-offs and Retest.
‘The world can be much better! We can close the gap between where we are and where we could be. This is where behavioural science can help.’
Social norms and their impact on our interactions was a common thread at BX, and with staggering statistics on sexual harassment, Thursday’s session was fully subscribed and resonant. Three outstanding presenters, Dr Tiina Likki, Professor Betsy Levy, and Dr Iseult Cremen
shared perspectives and evidence in combatting sexual violence with behavioural science, including brand-new, unpublished research from university campuses in Australia.
With strides being made in behavioural forecasting, the data we collect provides a foundation for self-analysis, allowing us to gain an understanding of ourselves better than ever before. In a highly insightful and entertaining presentation of his work, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz shared with attendees that if you can’t trust what people tell you about their beliefs, look no further than their Google search history – it provides much more powerful intel for the understanding of motivations and behaviours. (It also tells us that the British are one of the only populations that search for the weather forecast more than pornography!). Nick Chater shared just how poor of an understanding we truly have of our own minds and motives, but that the observation of our ongoing behaviour is an iterative practice in that understanding.
The BX2019 conference also played host to a live podcast recording of Freakonomics radio with host Stephen Dubner. For any podcast or behavioural science fanatic, it was a great treat to attend and a highlight of the conference.
Trends to takeaway
Through my work as a consultant at Salient, I aim to bridge the gap between the academic insights of the field and apply it to the policy and organisations that need it. BX 2019 boosted the spark of our purpose and exposed some of the newest developments in the space. Though there were speakers and sessions spanning every imaginable field, some common threads and key themes emerged.
- Narratives are ‘in’. Socially normative messaging, both implicit and explicit norms, and the impact of social media and social narratives have translated and been adopted by multiple arms of economics. From medical no-shows to problematic polarisation, narratives are a mediator of behaviour science intervention we are only beginning to understand, with potentially massive implications.
- Practice should be imperfect. Behavioural science adoption continues to take off – we are in an accelerator of growth. Bold ideas and opinions have a home in behavioural science, and stretching our legs beyond Nudge will be what differentiates between marginal impact and runaway successes. However, stepping outside the boundaries of familiar frameworks, as David Halpern aptly pointed out: ‘Lots of good ideas won’t work and that’s okay’. In research and in practice we are constantly testing, failing, iterating, and there is enormous value in the understanding of tools and interventions which have little-to-no merit alongside our landmark successes.
- Understand, and communicate, your ‘why’. The passion and stories that inspire us to spur change across fields is something we shouldn’t lose sight of. Watching Robert Shiller and others beam as they discussed his work and other presenters share their passion continues to inspire new incumbents into the behavioural space … and I know I was not the only one who left feeling rejuvenated and energised, eager and excited to get back into the field post conference.
At the close of this year’s conference, BX2020 was announced (and as a Canadian I am happy to report) that it will come to Toronto next July, hosted by Dilip Soman and the rest of the team at BEAR (at Rotman at the University of Toronto). A great thanks to BIT for putting on such a well-run, energising and thought-provoking conference. The speakers and partners inspired the attendees to continue to take this work forward and I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what progresses between now and next year.