Myth-Busting with Cynthia: Are Behavioral Science, Psychology, Behavioral Economics, and Nudge Theory the Same?
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On New Year’s Eve, many of us (myself included) set our resolutions for the upcoming year. We tell ourselves that, starting tomorrow, we’ll have a healthier lifestyle, be happier, improve our finances, have better relationships, travel, relax, and exercise more. On New Year’s Eve, we’re ready to be the best version of ourselves – starting the very next morning!
For the next few days or weeks, we seem to stay on track. We trust that perhaps this year will be the year we achieve our resolutions. However, as time goes by, our enthusiasm wanes. Our behavior slips. We miss a day or two at the gym and suddenly it’s been three weeks since a workout. We travel for work for a week, drop our healthy eating regime, and struggle to get back to plates full of vegetables. As the weeks go by, our faith in becoming the best version of ourselves this year grows smaller and smaller.
Does that sound familiar? (It does to me!)
When confronted with a problem like this, there are a number of different ways to approach it. You could ignore the problem and wait for next New Year’s Eve. Alternatively, you could look at the problem from a behavioral science perspective.
“What is behavioral science?” you might ask.
“Isn't behavioral science the same as psychology, behavioral economics, and nudge theory? They’re all interchangeable terms, revolving around understanding human behavior and decision-making. Right?”
Fields, Foci, and Definitions
Each of these terms, while related, have different meanings, come from different fields, and have different areas of focus.
- Behavioral science is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of disciplines, including fields like psychology, sociology, and anthropology, and touches on the behavioral aspects of disciplines like biology, geology, and economics.1 It seeks to understand human cognition and behavior.2
- Psychology, a discipline within behavioral science, focuses on studying the mind and behavior.
- Behavioral economics is the study of how economic decisions are impacted by psychological factors.
- Nudge theory is related to behavioral economics and a subtheory of behavioral science. It entails the intentional design of choice architecture: structuring decision-making contexts to subtly guide individuals towards particular decisions.
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.
Differences in practice
Behavioral science, behavioral economics, psychology, and nudge theory all focus on the power of behavioral strategies. In the scenario above, each could help us overcome the hurdles to keeping our resolutions – but there are distinctions between how each would approach the situation.
When viewing the New Year’s resolution problem from a psychological perspective, we might focus on finding the underlying mental and emotional reasons for abandoning New Year’s resolutions. Do we have a hard time getting up to go to the gym in the morning because we’re depressed? Is binge eating a result of emotional difficulties?
A psychological approach can help us change our emotional and mental relationship with the desired goal. We might use strategies like self-efficacy building, accountability, reinforcement, and planning in order to achieve our goals.
Behavioral economics (and nudge theory)
A behavioral economics lens, in contrast, might focus on understanding how cognitive biases affect our decisions to stick to our resolutions or not.
Maybe due to our hyperbolic discounting we prefer the gratification of sleeping in rather than the long-term benefits of going to the gym. Or maybe loss aversion causes us to associate healthy eating with a loss of our favorite foods – and who’s truly willing to give up chocolate, right?
A behavioral economic approach may focus on the power of defaults and opt-outs to make it easier to keep our resolutions. It may also apply principles of nudge theory, a subtheory of behavioral economics. Using nudges to achieve our resolutions involves restructuring our environment to encourage our desired behavior.
Using a behavioral science approach to solve the New Year’s resolution conundrum would provide the most thorough solution. As behavioral science is an umbrella term that encompasses the other terms, this perspective would take pieces of each of the other approaches to find the most effective and efficient solution, while respecting individual autonomy and individual differences.
A behavioral science approach would focus on helping an individual integrate the day-to-day behavioral changes required to achieve their goals. It would come up with the most adaptive strategies to drive permanent behavioral changes by leveraging what we know about, among others:
Reframing the Myth
Behavioral science, psychology, behavioral economics, and nudge theory all share common ways of understanding human behavior and decision-making – but they each approach behavioral challenges with a particular lens and focus.
Even though behavioral science, psychology, behavioral economics, and nudge theory are related, they’re not the same. Each approaches problems in a different manner, bringing a new lens to behavioral problems.
Each perspective uniquely contributes to decision-making processes, policy design, organizational change, user and client experience, marketing, education, and every other field that incorporates human behavior.
While they can work together in different situations, these perspectives should not be confused with one another or be taken as one and the same. Recognizing the subtle differences between each approach and understanding how they work individually and together allows us to leverage their strengths and avoid their shortcomings to positively and ethically influence behavior.
- Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020). Behavioral Science. Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/science/behavioral-science
- Merriam-Webster. (2023). Behavioral science. Merriam-Webster Incorporated. Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/behavioral%20science
About the Author
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.