The One-Man Behavioral Army: Advice for Practitioners and Managers


As a behavioral scientist at a tech company, I am often asked intriguing questions about how or why the company hired me, what I am expected to do, and what my day-to-day work looks like. It gets more complicated when I tell them I am the only behavioral scientist in a company with a few thousand employees. How does that work? Who do you work with? Which part of the organization do you sit in?

A recent book by the Action Design Network, titled Building Behavioural Science in an Organisation (edited by Zarak Khan and Laurel Newman), is an excellent starting point for answering some of these questions.1 In its pages, many amazing applied behavioral scientists share their experiences and learnings from working in various parts of an organization.  

One crucial aspect covered by the book is the different models of operationalizing behavioral science in an organization. The 3 models they describe are:

  1. The Individual Contributor Model
  2. The Centralized Team Model
  3. The Integrated Model

The book has in-depth chapters on the second and the third models, and I would strongly recommend reading those for some great insights on how you can apply them. However, there’s relatively little information available about the Individual Contributor model. As a living experiment of that model, I decided to write down some of my thoughts.

One caveat: What I share here is based on my experiences and the conversations I have had with other individual behavioral science contributors in large organizations. It is entirely subject to our experiences and may not be scalable for every organization. But for what it’s worth, I believe sharing this might help those who are jumping into this type of role.

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

So, you’re the first behavioral hire in your company

Image courtesy: @preeti_please (Twitter)

Well, first of all, congratulations. You are now officially qualified to be the human insights expert in your company. Get set for a roller coaster ride of a lifetime.

Here’s what to expect in this unique role.

  1. Prepare to educate others. I know you walked in thinking you are the expert and everyone will come to you for guidance, but here’s the kicker: Most people in the organization probably haven’t heard of behavioral science. A large part of your job is going to be evangelizing and advocating for the importance of behavioral science in the organization. Be prepared to give many 101 talks.
  2. It’s on you to carve out a space for yourself. As the lone behavioral scientist in your organization, it will be tempting to adopt the mentality that everything would work better if behavioral science were applied to it. I strongly recommend leaving that attitude at home. The thing is, the organization was probably working perfectly well before you joined. Be prepared to realize that many teams are innately using behavioral science, knowingly or unknowingly, and you are only the latest addition to the team. It will be on you to find the right place for yourself in discussions.
  3. The “Let’s nudge everything” mindset. With absolutely no disrespect to anyone, I think one of the biggest problems with behavioral science lies in how it’s been marketed as a quick-fix solution to everything, using toolkits with cool abbreviations. Your organization may be expecting that when they hire you. Be prepared for a lot of questions on “how can we nudge XYZ…” and have a spiel ready about why a toolkit is not always the right solution.
  4. The Lone Wolf Syndrome. I’ll be honest. It gets lonely being the only behavioral scientist in a large company. You will miss having conversations with other like-minded folks. You will miss geeking out about the latest research shared on Katy Milkman’s podcast. You will miss sharing behavioral valentines with others. Be prepared to spend a lot of time over weekends doing all this with others outside of your organization.

So, what should you do:

  1. Find out why they decided to hire you. The first conversation you have with your hiring manager should be about their reasons for hiring a behavioral scientist. It’s important to make sure they understand the subject, and that they’re hiring you for the right reasons. Do they have a vision for where they think behavioral science fits in the organization? Are you an experiment for them? What happens after 2 years? What does success look like for this role?
  2. Find out career plans for you. I know, it’s an individual contributor model. But what happens next? Will you stay an individual contributor forever? Will this company ever expand the team and promote you to that coveted position of Chief Behavioral Officer? Who makes these decisions? What’s your career path? What happens in your performance cycles? It’s important to have these conversations with your managers early on to set the right expectations.
  3. Get your manager to believe in the vision. In an experimental role like this, it’s important to find the right manager. Find someone who has your back, who believes in your unique skill set, and is willing to stand up for you. Keep sharing your vision with your manager constantly and help them understand the larger implications of applying behavioral science in the organization.
  4. Find low-hanging fruit and score some early wins. This is one of the most important parts of this career path. It is on you to lay to rest any doubts the organization might have about hiring their first behavioral scientist. For the first few months, keep an eye out for quick, easy experiments with wide-reaching implications, to show to the company the importance of this subject. Find your early fans, and do your best to improve their lives with your contributions. They will bat for you when you need them.
  5. Be complementary to everyone’s skill sets. At many points in your career as an individual contributor behavioral scientist, you will find yourself in overlapping Venn diagrams with others: Product design, marketing, user research, data science. There’s nothing wrong with it, but remember, be respectful of their domains. They know best what they are doing. You don’t need to do what they do, you just need to find ways to help them do what they do, better. 

And that’s that. Go forth, spread the joy of behavioral science in your organization, and may you see the day your organization declares you the Chief Behavioral Officer.

But hang on. What about the other side? How should companies manage their first behavioral scientists? I have some early thoughts on that too.

So, you hired your first behavioral scientist in your company

Congratulations to you too! You are now officially on a growing list of companies that have taken a step in the direction of bringing behavioral science into the applied world.

Here’s what to expect from this individual:

  1. Context is king. I know you expected someone to walk in with solutions, but the best part about behavioral science is that it is entirely context-dependent. You can expect your behavioral scientist to say, “I don’t know, but let’s experiment” a lot. Don’t let this make you think that you made the wrong decision. This is exactly what they should be saying.
  2. More frameworks, fewer toolkits. Popular culture around behavioral science is all about toolkits with lots of abbreviations. The behavioral scientist you hire may or may not use those toolkits. They might want to get down and begin research from scratch to understand behavior within the organizational context. And that’s ok. They will find a more customized solution to your problem, and that’s way better than a toolkit.
  3. You’ll need to find the right problem to solve. In an organization, a lot of people will be solving a lot of problems. Where does a behavioral scientist fit in? What can they do without feeling like it’s a repeat of what others are doing? As a manager, figuring this out will be your biggest challenge. Expect the first few months to be full of confusion, for you and for your new hire, unless you actively decide to tackle this early on.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Be their teammate. If you think about it from the behavioral scientist’s point of view, it’s hard being one-of-a-kind in a company. Imagine having no one to talk to about your field of work—the thing you spend the majority of your day doing. And the pressure of having to prove their worth, the importance of the subject, having to convince the organization to keep spending on them as a resource? It’s not easy. Trust me. They probably live in the constant fear that someday, someone will feel they are dispensable.

    The one person who can help them is you, their manager. Be their partner in crime; buy into their vision. If you hired a behavioral scientist, surely you’re already convinced that the subject is important. Make it happen for your hire. Help them showcase their work, talk about them to others in different parts of the organization, back them up. You are their team. Be there for them.
  2. Get them some quick wins early on. Like I said earlier, this will be the biggest challenge. What should the behavioral scientist do? As a behavioral scientist myself, I’m a bit biased: I feel every problem needs a behavioral lens. But as a manager, you know where a behavioral scientist could have the biggest impact in your organization. Keep an eye out for those problems, and jump on opportunities like that, on behalf of your hire.
  3. Think of a career plan for them. If you have a team, you probably plan for their careers. A designer becomes a senior designer, then a design manager, and then senior design manager. You get the point. What happens to the behavioral scientist? When a performance appraisal comes, are you comparing them to others in the team? Or do you have a different set of criteria for them because they have a completely different skill set? Where will they be 2 years from now? How will you help them grow? 
  4. Build the vision with them. I think one thing that managers could really help with, is in building the vision for this function. There are some questions that only they can answer. For instance, what will “success” look like for this individual contributor? What’s the timeline for this success? If in, say, one year, everyone is convinced that behavioral science is crucial to the growth of the organization, what is the next step? Do you want to let this person grow a team? Would it be a centralized team or an integrated team? Which part of the organization best facilitates the growth of this field? Will there be a Chief Behavioral Scientist someday?

    Be an evangelist who will speak to senior management and convince them about the need for this field. Get their buy-in for this vision. Your hire is depending on you for that. And one last point, which is a very real possibility is what to do when the vision comes true and you see this growing…
  5. Be ok if they outgrow your team. It’s unfair to think that the first person who decided to hire a behavioral scientist has the complete wherewithal and the understanding to know exactly where this function should sit in order to maximize the impact. It’s impossible to know this till you have started.

    Once you have established the need for the subject, though, be open to the idea that maybe your team is not the right place for this. One thing you should definitely not do is force yourself to integrate behavioral science into whatever team you are leading, just because of an obligation stemming from hiring this person. Maybe there is a better place in the organization that adds value to both the company, as well as the individual. And here’s the best part: you get to be the person who introduced your organization to this field. That’s something to be proud of. Be their advocate as they try to find the right place for themselves. 

Like anything else in life, behavioral science can only grow in an organization if you find the right match—between contributors and value seekers. Being a great contributor to the organization is symbiotic to having the right environment to show your contributions. And importantly, I have realized, this is true not just for behavioral science, but for any new exciting field we introduce to an organization. That could be People Analytics, or it could be Sustainability Experts. Many young people enter these fields with great ambitions. It’s important for organizations to understand how to best integrate new fields in a way that works best for the organization and the contributors.

Here’s to hoping we inspire more people to take up these unconventional, adventurous career paths, without worrying about where it will end up taking them.

Seeing is Believing: Increasing COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake in Minority Groups

As COVID-19 vaccination programs are rolled out across the world, there have been increasing concerns regarding the lower uptake of vaccinations amongst minority groups. This concern was initially raised late last year, with several studies showing higher vaccine hesitancy amongst minority populations. 

For example, a rapid national assessment in the United States1 found that Black and Hispanic individuals showed high rates of vaccine hesitation, at 34% and 29%, respectively. This was mirrored by a study published in The British Medical Journal in December 2020,2 which showed that vaccine hesitancy was higher amongst minority populations—specifically, Black, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani communities—than those from a white ethnic background.

Unfortunately, this hesitancy has translated into a worrying reality. Emerging data show that ethnic and racial minorities are being vaccinated at lower rates, even when controlling for unequal access to vaccinations.3 By March 11, in the U.K., 90.2% of all those over the age of 70 had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but for several groups in this age range, the rate of vaccination was much lower, as summarized in the figure below from the Office for National Statistics.4 The groups where uptake was the lowest were Black African and Black Caribbean (58.8% and 68.7% respectively), followed by people from Bangladeshi (72.7%) and Pakistani (74.0%) backgrounds.

Chart, bar chart

Description automatically generated
Figure 1: Vaccination rates of adults aged 70 years or over, by self-reported ethnic group, 8 December 2020 to 11 March 2021, England, ONS report4

From popular culture to corporate boardrooms to politics, there has been increasing acknowledgment that minority representation is an extremely powerful tool to encourage and inspire others from the same background. And the evidence in a number of the fields mentioned above is robust. In the world of media and communications, it has been shown that increased visibility of minorities improves self-perception of minority identity and belief in the capabilities of minority people.5 The OECD has also stated that having strong and visible role models from minority populations encourages young people from the same background to achieve success in their education, and in the labor market more broadly.6

The evidence is clear that, in many cases, seeing really is believing. But what about in medicine?  More specifically, when minority-identifying patients speak with and are vaccinated by doctors from minority populations, or they hear and see such physicians talking about vaccinations on the radio or television, what influence could this have on their likelihood of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine? 

A look at the evidence

A working paper from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research7 randomly assigned Black men to treatment by either Black or non-Black medical doctors. They measured their decisions about cardiovascular screening and the flu vaccine before and after meeting their assigned doctor. 

The researchers found that Black men were much more likely to opt in to both interventions after meeting a doctor of the same race, and that this effect was most pronounced in those who did not routinely seek medical care and those who self-reported distrust in the medical system. Specifically, Black patients were 10% more likely to agree to receive the flu shot when they saw a Black doctor compared to those who were assigned a non-Black doctor.

More broadly, this concept is often termed patient-provider concordance (or patient-physician concordance) and refers to the influence of shared characteristics between patient and physician (including gender, race, socioeconomic status, and so on) on the patient’s overall treatment and healthcare utilization. Although initial reviews in the early 2000s were inconclusive,8 in recent years, higher-powered studies with larger sample sizes and randomized designs have shown that in fact, racial concordance is associated with significantly better health outcomes. 

For example, a large study of over 100,000 individuals9 surveyed the race/ethnicity of patients as well as that of their physician, and also asked them about their satisfaction and experience with their physician (on a scale known as the Press Ganey scale). Although gender concordance did not make a significant difference on the Press Ganey Scale, patients with a physician of the same race had Press-Ganey scores that were more than 10% higher. 

Similarly, a review of the literature in this area10 found that concordant patient-physician pairs were likely to have better communication, better partnership building, more information sharing, and longer visits. These patients were also more likely to agree to therapy when it was suggested by their physician.11 

The factors that contribute to this are not well understood, but may include cultural competence and confidence (which can be taught)12 as well as less tangible factors, such as synchrony in non-verbal communication.13

Where does this leave us?

This article is not advocating that we match every patient with a physician of the same race. Not only would this be very difficult pragmatically14 and ethically15 (especially in defining what factors it is reasonable to seek concordance on), it is not applicable in all settings, nor is it a stable long-term solution. However, the truth remains that patients tend to listen more to, and have more positive clinical communications with, physicians of the same background. 

In the short term, this can be harnessed in the communication of vaccine-related information. Having physicians who represent ethnic minorities talking to people about the vaccine, being shown on television, and heard on the radio talking about the importance of vaccination is likely to be of significant value. 

In the long term, it shows us that there are factors, many of which are likely teachable and transferable, that can help all physicians become more adept at communicating with others, and in particular, with minority populations.

But for now, it is absolutely necessary to ensure that minority physicians are heard and seen, for they may hold the key to bridging the gap in vaccination rates.

Who’s In There? A Behavioral Toolkit to Enhance Self-Control

Self-control is associated with many consequential outcomes in our life: the ability to create a network and develop social relations, long-term savings, academic and professional achievement, stable and harmonious relationships, and maintaining healthy habits, among others. Therefore, it represents a key competence to work on.

Common sense has it that self-control can be achieved through sheer willpower. If we are “strong enough”—that is, able to exert effortful actions to inhibit temptations and impulses—we can assume control of our thoughts and actions.

However, psychologist Kentaro Fujita and colleagues disagree with this approach: when people suggest others “use willpower,” what do they actually mean? What kind of tool or behavior are they referring to? Fujita states that instead of a single, disciplined, and highly effortful response such as willpower, self-control is better conceived as a “toolbox of strategies.” Individuals looking to develop their self-control should look test out the different tools and find the one that works best for them in a given situation. Therefore, “improving self-control is not about becoming stronger, but rather about becoming smarter.”1

A behavioral toolkit for self-control

Different behavioral tools have been identified to help us deal with everyday challenges. Because we tend to overestimate our self-control, Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch suggest making decisions in advance, when our “cooler head” prevails, in order to promote more desirable, long-term decisions.2 This is a way of anticipating the choices that our more restrained, controlled selves would make, and committing ourselves to those decisions before we find ourselves in a more tempting situation. This is particularly helpful for moments where our emotions are running high or we’re under stress.

Another option is self-punishment: once people commit to a decision, they can establish a costly penalty if they fail to make the desired choice. For instance, Ariely & Wertenbroch give the example of making a monetary donation to a political group whose views are completely opposite to yours.2 This kind of punishment, and the emotional burden it imposes, can motivate people to forgo temptations and enhance self-control in certain cases.

Katy Milkman also suggests pairing “should” behaviors, which promote long-term self-controlled goals, with more enjoyable “want to” behaviors, represented by short-term gratification.3 Examples could range from listening to your favorite music only when you go out for a walk, or allowing yourself to have candy after four healthy meals in a row.

Finally, there is choice architecture: modifying the environment so that the desired behaviors are encouraged and easy to perform. Do you want to reduce the time you spend on your phone? Try leaving it in another room or inside a drawer, rather than in your pocket all the time. You need to focus on finishing an academic paper? You’d better take your books to a library or someplace where there are no distractions.

These are all valid strategies to overcome temptation when it comes to making decisions. In specific contexts, they could help you navigate out of a ruminant posture and analyze the facts with an increased learning approach, too. Still, Ethan Kross, Ariana Orvell, Kentaro Fujita, and other researchers believe in a simpler way to achieve that, shifting from the effortful willpower-based methods to a more “mundane” and natural one: one that has to do with our inner voice, and the conversations we have with ourselves.

The voice inside our head

We frequently talk to ourselves. Those inner dialogues represent a powerful tool our brains have evolved to help us make plans for the future, applying a systematic view and determining all the necessary steps to get there. This important shift lets us go beyond “survival mode” to a more strategic approach: Once we’re able to project scenarios long ahead of our time, life suddenly became a little more predictable, a bit less uncertain.

But aside from forecasting the future, our voices also have a rearview mirror function that leads us backward. They recall episodes, conversations, thoughts, feelings, and much more to create scripts and discuss the roles we played then.

Although this is an important feature for self-development, it can also be a double-edged sword, especially in moments of distress. After all, our memories are not so precise,4 and our own interpretations of the world are skewed by biases.

Negative episodes, in particular, can trigger ruminant behaviors, which can contribute to increased distress and, in turn, make a difficult situation even more difficult. Distorted contexts, animosity, judgments based on perception rather than facts—all consequences of a rationale that prioritizes subjectivity over maintaining a more neutral position, where words and actions can be analyzed in a cold state.

Moreover, when individuals are not able to release themselves from those damaging thoughts and conversations, things tend to become harder, as they avoid new experiences and block themselves, even from happiness.

Recent behavioral research,5 however, discovered interesting (and less effortful) strategies we can develop to deal with such harmful dialogues.

Recounting vs. reconstruing

People commonly talk about their own experiences afterward—with friends, family, or someone they feel intimate enough to do it. And this is a good thing: as addressed in several experiments,6,7 venting a negative feeling contributes to emotional adjustment.

Nevertheless, how you do it matters a lot. Research by David Lee and colleagues8 tested people who had gone through unpleasant events. In one experimental group, participants similarly recounted the episode to another person, whereas in the other, they were prompted to reconstrue what had happened to them from a new perspective.

The results demonstrated that members of the first group “experienced an increase in negative affect compared with baseline”—in other words, felt worse—while in the latter participants “were buffered against this increase in negative affect, despite spending just as much time talking about their negative experience as recounting participants. They also reported having more closure.”

Recounting versus reconstruing have different impacts: the former means going over near the same emotions felt before, perhaps even exacerbating one’s feeling of unfairness, or the desire for justice. Reconstruing an experience, on the other hand, “helps people make meaning out of their negative experiences.”8

Although these two approaches can look quite different, there is a very simple strategy we can apply to move from one to the other: the researchers observed that the reconstruing group spontaneously used the word “you” generically more often than the recounting group. That is, reframing your experiences from an external perspective, as you were telling a story about someone else, improves our ability to find significance in past events so that we can learn from them.

Research conducted by experimental psychologist Ethan Kross and colleagues9 indicated that “reflecting on negative personal events using distanced (vs. immersed) self-talk leads people to consider their experiences akin to the perspective of an outside observer,” and that this process promotes emotional regulation. For example: when preparing for an anxiety-eliciting speech, individuals who were cued to use distanced self-talk were more likely to view the upcoming speech as a challenge that they could cope with rather than as a threat over which they had no control. Furthermore, they also reported lower levels of anxiety.9

Creating a distance—in both time and space—between yourself and the negative experience is, therefore, an effective way to perceive those events as further away from the self, and consequently reduce emotional reactivity when trying to make meaning from them.

Curiously enough, this is an embedded mechanism several people already practice unconsciously: it is common that we use the generic “you” to refer to hypothetical situations that require self-control. Studies by Ariana Orvell and colleagues10 found that people are up to five times more likely to use the generic “you” when prompted to make meaning from negative experiences.

Generic “you” enhances self-regulation

Self-regulation, which includes skills such as executive function—working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control—gratification delay, and persistence can be improved through self-distancing.5 As we create a mental space between the stimulus and the response, we are able to step back from the current problem and (re)gain self-control.

Beware, though: this psychological distancing is neither avoidance nor distraction. On the contrary, it helps us reflect on our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors from a different perspective, whilst focusing on why we were feeling what we were feeling.

A study from Kross and colleagues revealed that individuals who are prone to suffering from past negative experiences also benefit more from self-distancing.11 In fact, “the more symptoms of depression individuals had, the more useful they found self-distancing.”

Children also benefit from self-distancing. Recent experiments12 with 4- to 6-year-old kids demonstrate that the greater the distance from the self, the better they perform on self-regulation tasks. In other words, incentivizing children to shift from a self-immersed voice (“What should I do?”) to a third person (“What should ‘you’ do?”) improves self-regulation. Additional tests found successful results when an even more distanced tone was used, i.e. “What would Batman [or any other fictional character the kid admires] do?”

One last voice

Altogether, those studies and experiments improve our understanding of the human brain, especially how inner dialogues can influence our behavior towards learning processes, emotional control, relationships, and ultimately, happiness.

As behavioral science dives deeper into this matter, new findings will emerge shedding light on potentially disruptive approaches. For now, the research suggests that this subtle linguistic device is capable of:

  • Enhancing feelings of connection between people and ideas (framing an idea as applying to people in general rather than to a specific person or moment);13
  • Eating healthier (redirects one’s attention from hedonic temptations toward self-control);14 and
  • Improving outcomes for individuals in therapy.8

This considered we may want to pay more attention to this little “us” inside.

Or is it you?

Are We Innately Selfish? What the Science Has to Say

One of the key reasons for the unparalleled success of our species is our ability to cooperate. In the modern age, we are able to travel to any continent, feed the billions of people on our planet, and negotiate massive international trade agreements—all amazing accomplishments that would not be possible without cooperation on a massive scale.

While intra-species cooperation is not a uniquely human ability, one of the reasons why our cooperative behavior is so different from that of other animals is because of our willingness to cooperate with those outside our social group.1 In general, we readily trust strangers for advice, work together with new people, and are willing to look out for and protect people we don’t know—even though there are no incentives for us to do so.

However, while much of our success can be attributed to cooperation, the underlying motivations behind this unique ability are yet to be understood. Although it is clear that we often display cooperative and pro-social tendencies, is cooperation something that we are naturally hardwired to do? Or is it that our first instincts are inherently selfish, and it is only through the conscious repression of our selfish urges that we are able to cooperate with others?

Indeed, these questions have been debated by philosophers for millennia. For the longest time, the pervasive view was one of pessimism towards our species—that is, that we are innately selfish.

Plato compared the human soul to a chariot being pulled by two opposing horses: one horse is majestic, representing our nobility and our pure heartedness, while the other is evil, representing our passions and base desires. Human behavior can be described as an eternal tug-of-war between these two horses, where we desperately try to keep our evil horse under control.2 

The moral philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued for a similar perspective, writing that “Man is at bottom a dreadful wild animal. We know this wild animal only in the tamed state called civilization and we are therefore shocked by occasional outbreaks of its true nature; but if and when the bolts and bars of the legal order once fall apart and anarchy supervenes it reveals itself for what it is.”3

Adam Smith, the father of economics, also echoed this view, famously writing in The Wealth of Nations: “It is not the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”4

These philosophical beliefs about our selfish human nature inspired many of the teachings we encounter in everyday life. For instance, in Christianity, the Seven Deadly Sins and The Golden Rule teach us to repress our innermost selfish desires in order to think about others. Another example is in economics, where the very foundation of neoclassical economics is the idea that we are selfish, rational decision-makers.

You may be inclined to agree with these ideas. Everyone has heard of stories of cheating, lying, and stealing—all of which display the worst of our human nature, where our selfish impulses reveal themselves.

But despite the legacy of these beliefs carrying on into modern times, the idea of our innate selfishness is being increasingly challenged. Insights from the behavioral sciences are beginning to suggest that we have a cooperative instinct, and that our selfish behavior only emerges when we have the time and ability to form strategies about our decisions.

The interaction of System 1 and System 2 

Anyone remotely interested in psychology or economics has probably heard of the dual-systems theory of decision-making: the idea that our decisions are governed by two opposing cognitive “systems.” System 1 is the automatic and emotional part of our brain, and System 2, the slow and deliberative part.5 

These two systems are very much related, and their interaction and relative levels of activation can determine our behavior. This means that certain stimuli can enhance or inhibit the influence of one system’s functioning in the decision-making process. For instance, making a decision when feeling overwhelmed with multiple tasks, time pressure, or mental and physical exhaustion can weaken an individual’s System 2 thinking and make them more reliant on their System 1 judgments.6 

This should be unsurprising: when you’re mentally overwhelmed, you probably aren’t thinking things through, and you’re going to make decisions by impulse! In a similar fashion, facilitating System 2 thinking by giving people time to make decisions, or incentivizing people to think about things deeply, can suppress System 1 and enhance System 2 thinking.

Through this lens of the interaction between System 1 and System 2, researchers in psychology and economics have found a new way to answer this age-old question. By manipulating elements such as time pressure to enhance impulsivity in some subjects and promote deliberation in others, researchers have been able to differentiate the effects of System 1 and System 2 on our behavior to see whether we truly are instinctively selfish or cooperative.

The cooperative instinct

Experiments that require cooperation between participants are used to investigate instinctive versus calculated greed. Take the public goods game, for instance. In this game, players are placed in groups and given an endowment (typically around $10). They are asked to donate a certain amount of their endowment for a “public good,” where their donations will be doubled and subsequently split between the players. You should be able to spot an interesting dynamic in this game: by cooperating and contributing more to the public good, everyone will benefit. But by acting selfishly, you alone will benefit at the expense of the group.

What happens when you are asked to make this contribution to the public good when you are solely under the influence of System 1 (i.e. when System 2 is under stress from some form of cognitive strain)? It turns out, when required to make a decision within 10 seconds, participants in experimental groups acted more cooperatively. Participants who acted on impulse contributed more to the public good than those who had time to think about their contributions.7 

What was also fascinating from this study was that, when participants were given time and encouraged to think about their decisions, participants opted to be greedier. Apparently, when relying on instinct, we are willing to cooperate, but when we are given a chance to think about the costs and benefits of our decisions, we think more about our own outcomes than those of others.

These findings also held true for the prisoner’s dilemma game, another activity that involves a cooperative dynamic (if you’re from the UK, this game is analogous to the “split-or-steal” situation in the game show “Golden Balls”). Similar results were also found when conducting these experiments in person rather than through a computer program.

These findings are certainly fascinating, but you might be thinking that behavior in a lab experiment may not be replicable in real life. Let’s say, for example, someone approached you on the street and asked you to contribute to a charity, and you had no time to make a decision (perhaps you’re late for work). Do you think you would donate? Perhaps more field research is necessary to confirm these findings in real-world scenarios.

Another approach to studying our cooperative instincts is to examine the behavior of babies. Intuitively speaking, babies should represent humankind in our most primal state, where we are most reliant on instincts to make our decisions. From a biological perspective, babies have underdeveloped brains and are extremely helpless at birth, which explains why we take a much longer time to mature in comparison to other animals. (We evolved this way because if our heads got any bigger, we would struggle to get out of our mother’s womb.)8 So, investigating the cooperative/selfish tendencies of babies should theoretically reflect our true human nature.

And indeed, researchers have found that babies display a strong tendency to cooperate. Toddlers as young as 14-18 months are willing to pick up and hand you an object you accidentally dropped without any praise or recognition; they are willing to share with others; and they are also willing to inform others of things that will benefit them, even if it brings no benefit to the toddler themselves.9 This is in contrast to chimpanzee babies, who do not display the same amount of cooperative tendencies at a young age. This showcases that perhaps it is a uniquely human ability to be instinctively cooperative.

Why are we instinctively cooperative?

So it seems that it’s possible the great thinkers of our history may have been wrong—perhaps we are not as selfishly wired as we think. The findings from the public goods game study and infant studies suggest that we may be actually instinctively cooperative rather than selfish. But what are the possible explanations for this?

From an evolutionary biology perspective, it could be that cooperative genes were selected for, because it was the best survival strategy. Those who were more innately cooperative were able to experience more advantageous outcomes and survive long enough to pass on their genes to their offspring.10

But there are also many instances where our first impulse is to not cooperate, and many instances where, after much deliberation, we still decide to cooperate. We’ve all met people who simply seem less trustworthy, and we can all think of times where we ended up trusting somebody after having a long time to think about our decision—for example, after contemplating a business deal, or purchasing something expensive from someone else.

The social-heuristics hypothesis (SHH) aims to tie these ideas together. This theory predicts that variation in our intuitive and cooperative responses largely depends on our individual differences as well as the context we are in.11 

Our intuitive responses are largely shaped by behaviors that proved advantageous in the past. For instance, imagine you’re playing for a basketball team. If you realize that working together with your teammates is advantageous for winning matches, you will gradually start to develop instinctive responses to cooperate with your teammates in order to continue winning games. But if you start to recognize that you are carrying the team and that trusting your teammates is actually hindering the team’s results, you will start to develop more instinctively selfish behaviors and not pass to them as frequently. 

With this perspective, our instinctive responses all depend on which strategy—cooperation or selfishness—worked for us in the past. This can explain why most participants in the public goods game chose to cooperate: cooperative behaviors are typically advantageous in our daily lives.12

In our modern age, our lives are more interconnected than ever. There are over 7 billion of us now, where our experiences are easily shareable on social media and our businesses require close collaboration with partners in order to mutually benefit. Behaving in accordance with social norms13 is more important than ever, where we frequently require cooperation with others in our daily life and any self-serving behavior often leads to social criticism and damage to one’s reputation. We quickly learn to cooperate and adapt to these social norms, and this, in turn, hardwires our instincts towards more cooperative behaviors.

On the other hand, deliberation allows us to adjust to specific situations and override our intuitive responses if that intuitive response is not actually beneficial in the present context. In other words, deliberation allows us to strategize and suppress our individual instinctive desires in order to choose the most optimal choice, whether this be cooperation or noncooperation. When there are no future consequences, such as in the public goods game experiment, even though our instincts may be cooperative, deliberation will likely skew towards selfish behavior as we realize that strategic selfishness will make us better off and that we won’t be punished for free-riding. 

However, when there are future consequences, deliberation will favor cooperation or noncooperation depending on the individual’s beliefs about which behavior will be more strategically advantageous. Take the star basketball player example again: although his instinctive response is to go at it alone, given that his selfish behavior could lead to potential future consequences (e.g. unhappiness from his teammates, criticism from observers, being dropped by the coach), he may override his initial impulses and work with his team, since it would be strategically advantageous to do so. Our System 2 processes allow us to stop and think about our intuitions, and strategize accordingly.

Concluding remarks

So, there is compelling evidence against an idea that has shaped our teachings for millennia. The evidence seems to point to the conclusion that, in general, we have an innate desire to cooperate, and in fact, it is only when there are opportunities to be strategically selfish that we reveal our more undesirable tendencies. 

Understanding our instinctive human tendencies will be essential as our species encounters some of the biggest challenges that we will have ever encountered. Climate change, political tensions, and inequality are issues that threaten the very existence of our species, and can only be resolved through cooperation on a global scale. Within us, there lies an instinctive desire to cooperate. Knowledge of this fact could inspire new and creative solutions, in order to rally people into tackling these challenges together.

Why We’re More Afraid of Vaccine-Related Blood Clots Than We Are of COVID-19

The end of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be near. At the time of writing, over 211 million doses of the vaccine have been administered.1 Vaccines play a crucial role in achieving herd immunity and stopping the spread of the virus. 

However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. On April 13th, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended a pause for the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine.2,3 This decision was made after the discovery of 6 cases where women who had received the J&J vaccine developed a severe blood-clotting condition. To put these 6 cases in perspective, to date, over 6.8 million J&J doses have been administered.3,4

The J&J vaccine is essential in our efforts to mitigate the pandemic. It is widely considered ideal for harder-to-reach populations because it only requires one dose.4 It is thus understandable why the decision to pause its distribution has been met with controversy. With COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy already hampering public health efforts, some experts, such as NYU bioethics professor Dr. Arthur Caplan, are arguing that pausing the vaccine can spur unnecessary anxiety and fear about getting vaccinated, especially given the extremely low risk of severe side effects.5 Others, like GWU Health Policy and Management professor Dr. Leana Wen, argue that the pause demonstrates the high level of cautiousness with which the FDA and CDC are approaching vaccine distribution, and that this decision is proper due diligence.6 

The risk in numbers

From a purely numerical perspective, the J&J pause doesn’t appear to be an entirely rational decision. Out of over 6.8 million doses administered, only 6 cases of blood clotting have been reported—a risk of 0.000086%. Meanwhile, the risk of blood clots resulting from COVID-19 infection is 16.5%.7

To make these percentages more tangible: while blood clotting occurred in 6 people out of the 6,800,000 who received the J&J vaccine, if those 6,800,000 people had all caught COVID-19, about 1,122,000 of them would have ended up with blood clots. On top of that, the worldwide mortality rate of COVID-19 of 2.4%.8 Comparatively, the risks associated with the J&J vaccine are extremely small. 

A common comparison that has been raised during this debate is with hormonal contraception. For people taking birth control pills, the risk of developing a blood clot is between 3–9 out of 10,000, or 0.09%—nearly 1000x the risk associated with the J&J vaccine.9 Yet, millions of Americans take birth control pills without a second thought. 

Regret aversion and the status quo bias

So, even after taking an objective look at the numbers and performing a high-level risk-benefit analysis, why did the FDA and CDC deem it morally acceptable to pause the vaccine? Part of it may be due to a phenomenon known as regret aversion, as well as another called the status quo bias.

Our emotional selves seek to minimize regret, and previous studies have found that we’re more likely to feel regret after taking action, rather than passively accepting the status quo. Taking action shifts the responsibility towards the individual, while inaction shifts it towards uncontrollable factors, such as luck or probability. In essence, if both action and inaction result in the same poor outcome, we tend to prefer the route of inaction.9,10

In the context of the current topic, the COVID-19 pandemic can very well be described as the new status quo, while the introduction of the vaccine is quite recent. Moreover, the decision to administer and receive a vaccine is a deliberate action, while being infected by COVID-19 is more in the hands of chance. As a result, we can anticipate more regret in the event of blood clots caused by the vaccine than blood clots caused by COVID-19 infection, the probability of the latter being far greater. Our fear of regret that comes with the risk of the vaccine overshadows the vaccine’s benefits, especially because negative events are more salient than positive ones.11 

I don’t intend to undermine the decision-making of public health officials. Rather, I believe that understanding why we are inclined to be extra cautious can shed clarity on health policy decisions, and improve public health communication to better address vaccine hesitancy.

Moving the Mental Goalposts: Why Aiming for the “Best” Isn’t Always The Best Strategy

When we make our New Year’s resolutions or set ourselves a list of personal goals, we often think in terms of maximums; we phrase them along the lines of “I want to be as fit as I can be,” “I want to make as much money as possible,” or “I want to give as much back to charity as I can.” Our governments often do the same; for example, in many countries, the rhetoric surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has been to reduce the transmission and hospitalizations from the virus as much as possible before, for example, opening up shops or allowing mass gatherings.

These types of goals are known as “maximizing” goals. By that, we mean that they don’t have a particular end target; the aim is simply to become the best, or do as much, as we possibly can. Cognitively, it requires constant exploration and analysis to ensure the “best” option hasn’t been overlooked, and that we are always optimizing our decisions and actions to achieve this target.

One issue that arises from maximizing goals is that they are, by their very nature, extremely difficult to reach and complete. At what point can we say that we are the “fittest” we can be? What does that even mean? Surely we can always be a little bit more fit? Similarly, at what point have we done enough to stem the transmission of COVID-19 before opening up hairdressers?

Without a clear, reality-oriented goalpost, but rather a vague determination to improve or maximize our ability in an area, we are not only setting ourselves up for disappointment, but we are also potentially wasting time and energy. Without properly interrogating whether or not a particular ambition needs to be maximized or not, we may spend needless resources becoming the best at something that we would be happy simply being pretty good at.

In light of this, behavioral economics suggests that there is a different type of goal that we can, and should, be routinely setting for ourselves: satisficing goals. Satisficing goals are those where we seek an option or goal that is “good enough.” It is particularly useful when we have incomplete information, when we’re dealing with systems that involve high levels of uncertainty, or when we do not have the resources to invest in searching for all potential alternatives in aid of maximizing. 

To help understand the difference between a maximizing and satisficing goal, let us take the example of fitness.

Maximizing: I want to be as fit as I can be.

Satisficing: I want to be fit enough to run a 5k without stopping.

For another example, this time related to writing:

Maximizing: I want to write more this year.

Satisficing: I want to write an article every month this year.

The debate between maximizing and satisficing goals in economic theory

The controversy between maximizing and satisficing is deep-seated within economics. The debate was first introduced by Simon in 19551 and popularised by Schwartz in 2002,2 and it can mean different things within different contexts. For this article, we will simply look at it within the context of goal-setting. 

Research has shown that those who satisfice enjoy their choices more. They also spend less time and create less stress for themselves while making choices. A landmark paper, published in 2002 by Barry Schwartz and colleagues,2 investigated the decision-making of undergraduate university students. In the first stage of their study, they gave the students a questionnaire to determine firstly whether the students were had more “maximizing” or “satisficing” personalities, and secondly to evaluate their well-being across a number of domains: life satisfaction, happiness, optimism, and self-esteem. 

They found that those who maximized their choices and goals were less happy and had lower self-esteem and life satisfaction. Further, maximizers were more likely to experience depression and perfectionism. In further arms of the study, they found that maximizers were more likely to compare themselves to others socially, and they were more likely to experience regret.

These results have been echoed and extended over the last two decades. In 2013, Peng3 showed that within a professional context, teams that had satisficing tendencies had higher levels of morale, satisfaction, and better long-term outcomes compared to those with maximizing tendencies. In 2012, Sparks et al. showed that those who attempted to maximize their goals were not only less happy, but were also more reluctant to commit to their choices and goals.4 It is thought that these effects are amplified in digital environments, where the range of options and potential comparisons are multiplied.5

Is maximizing always bad?

Omitted in the previous section of this discussion is an important metric: outcomes. Although the literature seems to fairly consistently show that satisficers show greater well-being and self-esteem at the individual level, the data comparing performance and outcomes paints a slightly different picture. 

Iyengar et al.6 studied university students in the fall of their final year in school. They administered a scale that measured their maximizing tendencies, and subsequently followed them over the course of the year as they searched for jobs. Students with maximizing tendencies secured jobs with 20% higher salaries than those with satisficing tendencies, although maximizers were less satisfied and had a more negative outlook throughout the job-search process than satisficers. 

This result is reproduced in other studies, which show that despite being more indecisive and having worse psychological outcomes, maximizers perform equally well, if not better, than their satisficing peers.

Towards a sustainable mental model

The solution here is not to abandon all our maximizing goals—whether they be in our personal or professional lives or in the context of public policy—and replace them with satisficing ones. Rather, we should get into the habit of interrogating our ambitions, assessing their importance, and making a rational decision about whether or not they should be satisficed or maximized. In fact, this is something we can even attempt to mathematically model if we are so inclined.7 Doing this will not only remove the cognitive stress and load of an excess of maximizing goals, but it will also clear up space for the ones we care most about.

Holding the Line: Social Norms and Party-Line Voting

Earlier this year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted to acquit former President Donald Trump on a single article of impeachment, charging him for “incitement of insurrection” over the January 6 riot at the Capitol. Although he voted to acquit Trump, McConnell harshly criticized him shortly after the impeachment trial, saying that rioters had been “fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth.” McConnell also added, “Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”1

Like McConnell, many Republican senators criticized Trump for his actions but voted to acquit him anyway.1a Ultimately, Trump was found not guilty in a 57-43 vote, 10 votes short of the supermajority needed to convict him. 

It is not surprising that a majority of Democratic senators voted to convict, while a majority of Republican senators voted to acquit. The degree of party-line voting in the United States has increased substantially over the last few decades.2 The percentage of party unity votes for both the Senate and the House of Representatives rose from 32% in 1970 to 70% in 2020.3,4

There are many reasons why parting-line voting has increased substantially over the last few decades. From a behavioral science perspective, social norms are one major explanation for the increasingly distinct voting records of Democrats and Republicans in Congress. 

Social norms

Voting along party lines may have become a social norm for many Democrats and Republicans in Congress. A social norm is a rule of behavior to which individuals tend to conform, on condition that they believe that:

(a) most people in their reference network conform to it (empirical expectation); and

(b) that most people in their reference network believe they ought to conform to it (normative expectation).5

People’s reference networks include people they care about when making particular decisions. In McConnell’s case, his reference network may have included his fellow Republican senators and his constituents. 

If voting along party lines has become a social norm for McConnell, then he preferred to acquit Trump because:

(a) he saw other Republican senators acquit Trump or believed that other Republican senators would  acquit Trump; and

(b) he believed that most of his fellow Republican senators and constituents expected him to acquit Trump. 

Note that preference does not equal “liking better.” For instance, I love pineapple pizza, but I am allergic to pineapples. So, all things considered, I would prefer plain pizza when given the choice. Similarly, McConnell probably did not want to acquit Trump given his harsh criticism of Trump after the impeachment trial, but all things considered, he preferred to acquit Trump because normative expectations play a critical role in compliance.5 If others believe one ought to conform to a norm, nonconformity could result in ostracization or even punishment from those who conform to or support the norm.5 

Consequences of norm violations 

Although some studies suggest that violating a norm can make the transgressor feel good, most studies agree that transgressors experience negative emotional consequences, such as feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment in the self.6,7,8,9 Given that feelings of guilt and related emotions foster compliance, these feelings prevent the transgressor from violating the norm in the future.10,11

Interpersonally, norm violations often trigger negative affective reactions in observers. Some of the most common reactions are anger and blame.12,13,14 If McConnell had voted to convict, most of the anger and blame would come from his fellow Republicans (i.e., his in-group members). 

Researcher Saaid Mendoza and colleagues investigated whether individuals would punish violations of fairness norms more strictly when they were committed by an in-group member than by an out-group member, even if it is costly to the individual.14a To do this, the researchers recruited 115 undergraduates and told them that the study was a collaborative project between their college (Amherst College) and a nearby rival college. Thus, group membership was defined by college affiliation. Participants were seated in private computer cubicles and assigned an avatar based on their college affiliation. 

Prior to the experiment, the researchers assessed how strongly the participants identified with their college. For the experiment, participants played an ultimatum game in which one player (the proposer) divided $20 between themselves and another player, who had the choice of accepting or rejecting the offer (the responder). If the responder accepted the offer, then both players received the proposed amount—but if they rejected it, both players received nothing. Unfair offers (e.g., 70:30 splits) were often rejected, since fairness is strongly valued by most people.14b

After a practice trial, the participants considered offers (e.g., $4, $6, $7, $8, or $10) from avatars similar to their own (i.e., in-group members) and avatars different from their own (i.e., out-group members). After the experiment, participants then reported the average amount of money they expected to receive from in-group versus out-group members.

Results showed that participants did not differ in their tendency to accept fair offers (i.e., $10) from in-group members and out-group members. However, participants were more likely to reject an $8 offer from in-group members than from out-group members. ($8 is a meaningful threshold for fairness, since on average, participants expected to receive $8.61 from in-group members and $7.52 from out-group members.)

In addition, if the participants identified strongly with their college (i.e., the in-group), then they were more likely to enforce fairness norms by rejecting unfair offers from other in-group members.


The seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump faced backlash almost immediately from their in-group members after the impeachment trial. For example, Republican Senator Pat Toomey was censured by a handful of county-level Republican parties for his vote to convict Trump.15 Washington County Republican Chairman Dave Ball said, “We did not send him there to vote his conscience or to do the right thing, we sent him there to represent us.”15 This statement clearly demonstrates the normative expectation that Toomey’s reference network had for him: to acquit Trump. Perhaps if Toomey were seeking reelection, he would have succumbed to the social norm of voting along party lines.  

If most politicians in Congress subscribe to the social norm of voting along party lines, then there is another reason to question the integrity of the U.S. government. Politicians being influenced by voting norms likely means that a large percentage of laws are passed based on which party sponsors them, rather than the benefits or protections they could provide to citizens. The impact of voting norms also potentially means that when making decisions, politicians do not consider what’s right or wrong, but rather, what will make their reference network happy. 

Creating a Superfan: The Behavioral Power of Online Communities

“I love this site. So many wonderful people who have never met me, and most never will, offering fantastic advice and encouragement. Thank you everyone.”

“You will be fine. [J]ust keep yourself busy and don’t worry about it.” 1

These are comments from real online communities. What kind of group do you think would inspire this kind of emotion and connection? While you may assume that these must be sourced from some kind of online support forum, they are, in reality, messages from an online branded community—for a cruise line.

Online branded communities, while not a new concept, are becoming a popular marketing tool. Through the use of social media and online capabilities, brands are curating online spaces for their customers. If you visit the websites of many brands, you will likely find a “community” section where users can talk and connect with each other. Prime examples of these communities include Sephora’s community for makeup connoisseurs, or Lego’s community for creative builders.

As these communities increase in popularity, behavioral science can inform best practices in creating and capitalizing on online brand communities.

The passion economy and social commerce

The growth of online communities coincides with the growth of social commerce, which combines word-of-mouth marketing (usually on social media) with online shopping.2 Brands leverage social networks and allow customers to be brand advocates, using online platforms to reference and promote products.

Yet another driver of this community movement is the shift towards what’s known as the “passion economy.” While the past decade has been defined largely by the “gig economy” (spurred by the rise of precarious contract work through services such as Uber and SkipTheDishes), the passion economy refers to the influx of creative individuals who are turning their passion into a livelihood by building and scaling an audience. These hobbies include anything from artwork to video game streaming. Take, for example, the Twitch streamer Ninja (the username of Richard Tyler Blevins), a 29-year-old who makes $6m per year streaming the popular game Fortnite.3,4

The success of these individuals, and the ascendancy of the passion economy, are testaments to the power of community as a marketing tool. Sure, creators like Ninja attract an audience through showcasing their talents, but they’re also building a close-knit community of like-minded individuals. On Patreon, where users can pay a monthly membership fee to their favorite content creators in exchange for various rewards, it’s not uncommon for membership benefits to include access to private Discord servers or other community spaces that are open exclusively to dues-paying fans. For many people, the chance to participate in these groups seems to be a major reason that they continue to support content creators financially.

Based on the Pareto Principle (which dictates that 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your customers), brands recognize the need to curate and retain loyal customers who are particularly committed to the brand. Online communities help them achieve this, driving increased customer loyalty and purchase intentions. Given this shift, many online creators and community platforms have emerged to help users curate online communities, including companies such as Mighty Networks and Tribe. And as the movement grows, more creators are attracting “superfans” who will pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for extra or bespoke content. On Patreon, the number of users paying more than $1200 a year for content has grown by 21 percent.3,4,5

Paradoxically, this shift towards more curated community content is arriving at a time when more users are hoping to disengage from social media. A report on social media engagement during the pandemic found that 60% of users don’t trust media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and 52% are ready to “cut the cord” from social media.6,7

Enter: niche communities. The same study found that 50% of participants would join a new social platform if it were dedicated to their personal interests. During the pandemic, audiences have been more engaged with their hobbies and passions—not surprising, given that social distancing restrictions have rendered many of our previous pastimes impossible. The rise of the passion economy, and people’s changing social media preferences, demonstrate the shift in consumer culture towards curated communities, something brands can utilize to further connect with their customers.

Hidden benefits of online communities

The last decade has seen key changes in consumer behavior trends that highlight the increased utility of branded communities.

First, the traditional model of the “customer journey funnel,” where customers narrow down their choices from a set of options, is outdated. Instead, the customer journey is a circular process, in which customers cycle between considering a product, buying it, using it, and again considering the product for repurchase. However, successful brands will establish a “loyalty loop,” in which satisfied customers skip the continuous “consideration” stage and instead further bond with (and advocate for) the brand. Communities have the opportunity to expedite this process.8,9

Source: Competing on customer journeys. (2015, November 1). Harvard Business Review.

To see how online communities can affect this process, let’s look at the consideration step. One report found that customers rely less on “pushed” information (for example, brand advertisements) and instead actively “pull” information to aid their decision-making, relying on word-of-mouth recommendations and online reviews. Online communities allow companies to monitor online discussions around their products and potentially help curate these major touch-points as consumers consider a brand.10

In addition to the loyalty (and subsequent purchase intention) that online branded communities generate, brands are turning to these outlets for other unique benefits, including:

  • Gaining personalized information about customers: In a study on banks, researchers found that 90% of all online conversations about a banks’ products occurred on forums and message boards.11
  • Providing better customer relationships and support: Online communities are cost-effective ways to connect with customers and solve customer issues.
  • Idea generation: Through online communities, businesses can gain user feedback and curate new ideas. Both Lego (with Lego Ideas) and Starbucks (with Starbucks Ideas) use this tactic to generate new ideas for their products.

Using behavioral science to improve online branded communities

Behavioral science is incredibly useful in understanding why these online communities work so well and how practitioners can better curate these communities for their users.

Showcase the benefits

The scientific literature agrees that brands can best improve online community participation by maximizing the benefits and reducing users’ costs. This insight can be explained through social exchange theory, which holds that humans tend to maximize benefits and minimize costs wherever possible, especially in social networks.

With this insight, brands should work to showcase the benefits of online community participation. Providing rewards for participation, discounts, exclusive information, and ensuring that users find quality content on brands’ websites can help nudge users towards increased participation.

Additionally, users also participate in brand communities to fulfill hedonistic needs. Brands can better engage users by providing entertaining content and encouraging fun interactions that benefit users. Branded Twitter accounts, which often use memes and colloquial Internet-speak to engage users and create viral content, are one famous example of this.

On the other hand, brands should work to reduce the costs by allowing communities to be free to join, and streamline the process of joining to allow for easy access.2,12

Encourage identification with the brand

Our participation in online communities is rooted in social identity. Typically, customers consider the brands they use to be a part of their identity, and psychologists have theorized that the performance of customers’ favorite brands is relevant to their self-esteem.13 Research has shown that participating in brand-related groups can increase customers’ feelings of loyalty, and their intentions to purchase from the brand.14

Promote knowledge-sharing and customer feedback

Researchers from Griffith University in Australia found that a firm-sponsored brand community’s primary use was for knowledge-sharing purposes (compared to user-generated communities typically driven by emotions).1

Users engage in online communities for both self-promotion and altruistic reasons. Brand “experts” can showcase their knowledge by advising other community members on brand products or services, or demonstrating their talents by using the products (see Lego Club). Brands can leverage this insight by recognizing users who actively engage and help other community members (such as through providing “expert” status).15

While users benefit from altruistic and self-esteem purposes, brands also benefit from encouraging user feedback and knowledge sharing. More organizations are using a “lean” strategy, prioritizing customer feedback for innovative product generation.16 Online brand communities are a streamlined method to gain customer insight while simultaneously increasing customer loyalty and acknowledging customers for their expertise.

Promote product advocates

Researchers found that customer “citizen behaviors” (behaviors outside of purchasing a product, such as promoting the brand) are contagious. That is, customers will imitate other customers who are engaging in customer citizen behaviors. Therefore, brands should recognize credible customers, share their content, and provide rewards for promotion and knowledge-sharing.17

Trust is key

Beyond social identity and social exchange, a key driver in online community participation is trust. Trust is a prerequisite for online purchases due to the uncertainty a first-time user feels when considering a product online. Branded online communities can help curate this trust by allowing customers to engage with current users.

Beyond helping customers buy a product, trust is essential for users to commit to and engage in a branded community. Researchers found that user trust predominantly influences the relationship between social presence and commitment and loyalty in online brand communities.18

To commit, users need to feel safe using the community, and brands play a key role in this. Brands can increase trust by clearly demonstrating the community’s purpose, acknowledging and supporting engagement, or even modifying the website’s design to be more visually appealing and elicit trust.19,20,21

Build customer relationships

Research shows that relationship quality with the brand in online brand communities is a key determinant of brand loyalty. Brands that build relationships with users survive longer and have improved user loyalty and commitment. By actively facilitating customers’ social interactions, brands can directly engage with users and form stronger relationships to enhance loyalty.21,22


To conclude, with the growth of technology and social media, more users and brands are turning to online communities to promote their products. Behavioral science is essential to understanding how these communities work and implementing insights to improve connection, increase engagement, create trust, and boost loyalty.

Join the Club: The Science Behind the Rise of Clubhouse

There’s a new social media app on the block, and it’s exploding in popularity. Clubhouse, an audio-only social network, has amassed over 10 million users in just a few months. The app allows users to listen to conversations, whether it’s in a small chatroom or a large event hosted by a celebrity. It’s essentially a live podcast with the option to drop in and share your thoughts as well. The one catch: to join Clubhouse, you must receive an invitation from an existing user.

Clubhouse demonstrates how innovation can leverage trends in human behavior to increase user appeal, to great effect: it’s been reported that invites to join the app have been sold on eBay for hundreds of dollars.1 In this article, we explore Clubhouse’s appeal from a behavioral lens.

Video chats can be draining

One of Clubhouse’s biggest draws can be summed up in one sentence: Zoom fatigue is real. While many have proclaimed video chat to be the future of communication and productivity, the ubiquity that this medium has attained over the past twelve months has also made us keenly aware of how exhausting it can be. This can be explained by a variety of phenomena, a few of which are listed below.

The spotlight effect

Humans are naturally egocentric. The spotlight effect describes our egocentric tendency to overestimate how much attention others are paying to us. For example, research shows that a person may believe he or she is having a “bad hair day,” while others do not notice a difference. Video chats accentuate the spotlight effect because (in most apps) we are constantly seeing our own image reflected back at us, which contributes to the perception that others are watching us more keenly than they really are. In fact, research demonstrates that during video meetings, people are looking at themselves more than half of the time.2

With the pandemic still ongoing, the inescapable trap of the spotlight effect can have detrimental mental health effects, including increased social anxiety. Clubhouse offers the opportunity to participate in conversations without this added pressure.

Close-distance eye contact

When on video chat, we engage in interpersonal communication that would ordinarily violate in-person social norms. For example, on Zoom, we maintain long stretches of eye contact with our friends or coworkers while sitting in close proximity to them (or at least to our laptop cameras). While this is conventional over Zoom, even with strangers or professional colleagues, imagine this with someone you just met. Uncomfortable, right? 

While we may not be explicitly aware of it, persistent close-distance eye contact can drain our cognitive resources.3 It signals to our brain the need to pay closer attention, as such close distance is often reserved for those treated with intimacy like family or loved ones. This contributes to feelings of exhaustion, and may also explain shorter attention spans during online calls.

Increased cognitive load

During face-to-face interactions, we naturally send and receive nonverbal cues. We typically don’t consciously process body language. Instead, it’s quite effortless. When on Zoom, however, there is an overload of unnatural nonverbal cues that place stress on our System 1, which is responsible for fast, intuitive, and unconscious thought processes. This is due to ambiguity: we must attend to various disparate elements of the conversation, including image, audio, and so on.3

Unlike in-person conversations, virtual meetings also leave us with limited information about other people’s surrounding environments, as we are confined to what’s visible on-screen. This makes it more difficult to interpret head and eye movements that are traditionally very important during in-person conversations. For example, people may be using two monitors or taking notes, but because we can’t see what’s going on out-of-frame, we waste cognitive energy filling these gaps. 

Clubhouse’s audio-only platform is a stark contrast with the lifestyle we have endured for the last year. Here, we are able to reap all the benefits of social participation without the aforementioned pressures. Hence, we naturally gravitate towards it. 

Many of us can also relate to the lingering nervousness that precedes clicking the “unmute” button. We may feel less inhibited when we are not on camera, especially in a room of strangers. This increased confidence allows us to liberate our thoughts and ideas, and talk more freely. 

FOMO: Fear of Missing Out

In-group bias

Clubhouse is entirely live: you have to be there, or else you miss it. But the FOMO kicks in even before one downloads the app, because of the fact that it is invite-only. This exclusivity makes users feel special, which can be explained by in-group bias. In-group bias (also known as in-group favoritism) is the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others who belong to the same group that they do. 

What’s surprising is that this bias shows up even when people are put into groups randomly, making group membership effectively meaningless. This is referred to as the minimal group paradigm (MGP). In one study, participants were randomly assigned to groups and were explicitly made aware of the fact that these groups were not based on any shared characteristics (i.e. they were meaningless). The results showed that the participants were more generous to those in their in-groups, as measured by financial donations.4 The conclusion: it takes very little for people to establish a group and attach their identity to it. 

This in-group feeling was further amplified when celebrities like Elon Musk, Kevin Hart, and Drake joined and began using the platform to share their thoughts and perspectives. Clubhouse suddenly became cool—almost like a VIP room. 

The bandwagon effect

The bandwagon effect refers to our tendency to adopt behaviors and beliefs because others are doing so. We see people rushing to download Clubhouse, so we also want to join Clubhouse. It’s a fancy way of describing the app’s “hype.”

More deeply, this bias in our context can be traced back to the phenomenon of network effects in economics, which explains how the utility a user derives from some goods and services is contingent on the number of users on it. As more people join, especially those in our social circle, the social and opportunity costs of not being on the app increase. 

A passing fad?

Clubhouse’s fast traction is impressive. It’s also quite counterintuitive because the product is a regression to audio. Perhaps it’s a way of compensating for the excess of video chats over the last year. Or perhaps it’s a way for people to carve out their identity by rejecting social norms, especially in a time when numerous public policies are setting limitations on how we live.

The biggest question remaining is, will Clubhouse remain popular post-COVID? Undoubtedly, social isolation during the quarantine era contributed to its initial uptake and adoption. However, once people can set foot into bars, go to parties, and attend live events again, will there still be the same hype around Clubhouse? Will the improved external environment outweigh the social costs? Only time will tell.