People enjoying snow

Behavioral Science 101: The Next Frontier Of Social Progress

read time - icon

0 min read

May 21, 2017

This article has been adapted from and belongs to its creator(s). 

Ever since Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted his notorious experiment in the early 1960s, in which he asked participants to obediently administer a high-voltage “shock” to a victim, researchers have uncovered a wealth of fascinating insights into the human mind. But much of this study has been confined to laboratories and academia. Our aim as a behavioral science non-profit is to buck that trend by applying the lessons from behavioral science to the social sector.

What is behavioral science, and why is it so important for policymakers to understand?

Behavioral sciences are really pulling together all the research in social psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics. This field is so important because people often behave in ways that are strange and peculiar. You want to go to the gym five times a week, you want to stay on this diet and you want to save more for retirement. Why isn’t that happening? We all tell ourselves what we want to do, then it doesn’t quite happen. Why not? We as human beings struggle to follow through on certain decisions, particularly things that are very important to us. But programs and policies in the social sector are often created in ways that don’t account for this fundamental aspect, how we behave as humans.

What’s an example of how this looks in practice?

One thing that has been looked at is how to help students complete college. There’s been a lot of great work in this area, but behavioral science dictates a different approach, which is the holistic student experience. How do we take the pulse of a student as they go through the process, day-to-day and semester-to-semester? How do we understand their various decisions, actions, habits? Knowing that there are constant hurdles a student needs to jump over — “Did I apply? Did I matriculate? Did I get my aid? Did I study? Did I pass?” — even a small one can trip them up. The solution isn’t any one piece; it’s creating a system that supports them throughout all of their college years.

It can be very simple, like reminders to complete the FAFSA. With something that small, the rate of those applying to university has been shown to almost double. Behavioral science can also be applied to tougher, more complex problems, like working with a college to figure out how to keep students from dropping out in the first year. A big part of the problem for students was feeling like they didn’t belong on campus. To target this, a video was embedded into orientation showing how lots of other students went through similar challenges, the way they overcame them and how thrilled they are now to be there. Through this approach, the retention rate rose from 83 to 91 percent, which is pretty amazing, just by understanding what these students experienced.

Addressing ethical dilemmas in applying behavioral science research to policy

No matter how you design anything, consciously or unconsciously, you create an outcome. The way anything is built, just in its structure, is nudging people one way or another. Our aim is to try to de-bias that and help people make the decision they want to be making. In the social sector, the main focus is on how we help people move from intention to action. In other words, the goal is not to tell people, “Now, do this,” but rather, helping them follow through.

Behavioral Science, Democratized

We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

More about our services
The AI Governance Challenge book

The AI Governance Challenge

Applying behavioral science in our lives

We don’t realize everything else that’s going on in the lives of others; we don’t see the full picture of anyone’s environment. It’s easy to say, “I can’t believe you didn’t make it to the gym five times,” but then you don’t either. I can make these assumptions like, “Oh, she doesn’t have discipline,” but then come up with an excuse for my own lack of discipline. Understanding human behavior makes us more generous about others and ourselves. I’ve become much more forgiving of myself, knowing that lots of these things are funny quirks about human behavior.

Read Next

Notes illustration

Eager to learn about how behavioral science can help your organization?