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Myth-Busting with Cynthia: Is Behavioral Science Manipulative?

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Oct 20, 2023

After a long day at work, you sit in your living room scrolling through social media with a Netflix show on in the background. All of a sudden your mind starts to wander, thinking about all your “smart” technologies. 

You have a watch that reminds you to get up and walk every hour. Your phone blocks incoming notifications after 11 p.m. and reminds you of bedtime with a few notes of an irresistible lullaby. You have an app that analyses your sleep and, after a night of tossing and turning, reminds you to “Take it easy, drink lots of water, and eat healthy to feel more energized.” You use a language-learning app that adapts its content based on your individual needs and progress. (Full disclosure: I have and love all of these!)

As your mind goes off on this tangent, your phone screen shuts off. Your Netflix show stops playing. You see a pop-up asking if you’re still watching.

And then you think to yourself: I did not ask my phone screen to shut off. I was, in fact, ready to keep scrolling. And I did not ask Netflix to stop playing the show. I was still listening to (not watching) the show!

So you wonder, am I being manipulated by these apps, technologies, algorithms, and wearables? Are they undermining my personal agency and freedom? What about all the other spaces in my life where my behavior is being influenced by how things are designed, such as the park, the street, the supermarket, and my office? Are they designed to manipulate me?

The Myth

“Aren’t behavioral science interventions all about manipulation? They clearly undermine personal agency and restrict personal freedom. Right?”

The Rebuttal

Ethical considerations are at the core of responsibly applied behavioral science

Behavioral science practitioners are guided by the adage from Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility." 

The knowledge that we have as behavioral scientists gives us great power (which in and of itself is neither positive nor negative). This power carries with it just as great of a responsibility to act ethically and responsibly.

A behavioral scientist with knowledge of the anchoring bias, for example, might recommend a company display the original price of a product before the discounted price, knowing that the non-discounted price becomes a cognitive point of reference for purchase decision-making.

But if a company falsely inflates the original price knowing that customers will anchor to the higher number, they are deliberately using a deceptive strategy based on behavioral science knowledge.

Behavioral science is about understanding human behavior, not manipulating it

Behavioral science seeks to understand human behavior. When an intervention is designed leveraging this approach, it does not attempt to control people’s behavior, but to create conditions that maximize their potential and optimize their experience.

Behavioral science helps us understand why people make certain choices or behave in particular ways. Once we understand, we’re able to enhance their decision-making to make sure their choices match their goals and objectives.
Behavioral science helps us understand why people make certain choices or behave in particular ways. Once we understand, we’re able to enhance their decision-making to make sure their choices match their goals and objectives.

Using a behavioral science approach, for instance, may help an educational organization understand why district officials make particular choices around learning material purchases. The organization can then map out its purchasing journey and determine the barriers and biases that lead to choosing subpar materials.

In this case, behavioral science isn’t telling school districts which textbooks to buy. It’s supporting decision-makers to make an evidence-based choice that aligns with the needs of their own teachers and students. 

Behavioral science is about empowering individuals to take action, not forcing them to 

Behavioral science aims to empower (not force) individuals or communities to take certain actions (or eliminate particular behaviors) where it could be beneficial to them.

This approach involves identifying factors that may help achieve a desired outcome (“drivers”) or that are obstacles (“barriers”) to doing so. Rather than making decisions for people about engaging in particular behaviors, a behavioral scientist might find strategies to reduce the barriers that lead someone to resist a desired behavior and/or increase the drivers to do so. A behavioral science intervention would not push people to make certain decisions; rather, it would help them to make and execute the decisions they want to make.

Behavioral science can leverage factors that may help “drive” a behavior, including: 

  • Motivators
  • Incentives
  • Cognitive processes
  • Contextual factors

It can also target “barriers” or impediments that prevent the individual from engaging in a particular behavior, including:

  • Emotional barriers 
  • Cognitive barriers 
  • Social barriers 
  • Information barriers 
  • Access barriers 

By using a behavioral science approach, a city can reconsider how its messages to citizens are framed in order to increase citizen engagement in participatory budgeting processes. Revamping a communication strategy doesn’t force individuals to participate; it encourages them to.

Similarly, this approach can help identify the barriers to seeking psychological treatment so that an organization can design targeted interventions to increase the number of individuals who seek treatment when needed. These interventions do not increase the number of individuals who require psychological treatment, but only reduce the obstacles for those that do.

In these cases, behavioral science is being leveraged to empower individuals with the resources, opportunities, tools, skills, and knowledge that they need to change their behavior. 

Behavioral science allows individuals to leverage personalized experiences

Behavioral science seeks to provide users with relevant, functional, personalized experiences designed to meet their individual wants, needs, context, preferences, and reality, equipping individuals to exercise their personal agency effectively.

This does not mean that behavioral science interventions are always completely unique for every individual. In fact, they use cognitive and behavioral patterns that help place an individual into a group with shared characteristics. 

However, this grouping of individuals is meant to provide each person with tailored experiences that give the individual the resources, opportunities, and knowledge that they need to be empowered in a particular situation, as opposed to providing them with what others might need, but that might be of no benefit to them.

A smoking cessation intervention, for example, that uses a behavioral science approach may seek to identify social, behavioral, cognitive, and motivational patterns in a population of smokers. Using this information, individuals can be categorized into groups with shared characteristics in order to develop personalized, tailored interventions based on their group membership. While smokers with high social support might benefit from strategies to increase their internal motivation, those who lack social support may be better empowered when provided with access to social support.

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

Reframing the Myth

Behavioral science seeks to understand human behavior in order to create the necessary conditions to empower individuals to take action. It looks to personalize and optimize personal experience while maintaining agency and personal freedom in its ethical core.

Conclusion: Don’t throw your smartphone away just yet! Unless…

When an intervention follows a behavioral science approach, it’s guided by a deep understanding of human behavior, cognition, emotions, motivation, interactions, and decision-making. Although behavioral science interventions aim to change behavior, responsible interventions don’t manipulate individuals, ignore their personal agency, or undermine their freedom.

The next time you worry about being manipulated, pause for a moment. Ask yourself what change you see in your behavior and how it’s being driven. 

Is the strategy helping you achieve something you want to achieve? Is it providing you with a better, more personalized experience? Are your choices being respected? If so, great! 

Alternatively, is it getting you to do something that is undesirable to you? Is it putting undue pressure on you to make a choice? Is it fitting you into a mold and disregarding your personal agency? Is it deceptive? If so, you may have encountered an instance where the great power of behavioral science is being put to a not-so-positive use. Quickly, change that setting, delete that app, run away, or call your friendly neighborhood behavioral scientist!

About the Author

Cynthia Borja

Cynthia is an Associate Project Leader at The Decision Lab. She holds a doctorate in Psychology from Capella University, a Master’s in Psychology from Boston University, and a Bachelor’s in Neuroscience and Behavior from Vassar College. Her mission is to promote the application of the principles of brain, behavioral, and learning sciences to the real world.

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