- Behavioral science is facing challenges that occur amidst major global difficulties and complexities.
- For the field to succeed in contributing to global solutions, it must deal with challenges in 5 areas.
- By tackling challenges, we can drive the field forward and improve behavioral insights.
In just a few years, the world has witnessed major challenges, including the disastrous impact of climate change, political polarization, economic downturns, and violent conflict, as well as a global pandemic. While there have been positive developments in social, cultural, and political domains as well, new technologies, such as medical genetics, renewable energy, the internet, and artificial intelligence, are often hailed as important tools to help tackle global problems. Is there a role for behavioral science in all this?
It’s easy to see how contributions from a “soft” field like behavioral science may seem dwarfed by big problems and solutions from “hard” sciences, technology, and traditional public policy. Indeed, behavioral science has been experiencing its own issues, primarily in the form of interrelated challenges from a replication crisis (difficulty in repeating past studies and finding the same results), research conduct problems (e.g., cases of data fabrication), and a questioning of applied behavioral science effectiveness (primarily, so-called "nudges"). In light of all this, is behavioral science equipped to tackle important global problems? I believe that the field can be part of solutions, but, to do so, it will have to deal with challenges in five broad areas:
- Technology. Just like other fields, behavioral science has benefitted greatly from technological progress, which helps research practices and makes publication cycles more efficient. When it comes to the object and applications of behavioral science, the field also faces technological challenges. The popularity of ChatGPT in places of study and work has made this particularly evident. How do we keep up with emerging technologies, such as AI, particularly with respect to understanding their effects on human behavior? How can we analyze the vast amounts of data that are generated to extract insights? How will new technologies transform the way we work as students, researchers, and practitioners?
- Collaboration. Behavioral science (or the behavioral sciences, if you prefer) does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, it’s an interdisciplinary area to some extent with poorly defined boundaries rather than a “proper” discipline. Some equate it with behavioral economics. Others (the majority) view it as a combination of behavioral economics, social psychology, cognitive science, and related fields. Still others may draw the boundaries even wider. This partly explains why the theories that make up behavioral science are so scattered and are lacking an underlying framework, which is partly to blame for problems with research replication. The interdisciplinary aspect of this has its advantages if it means greater collaboration between fields of research to solve problems. Could better collaboration with experts from other disciplines, such as data science or neuroscience, help us solve the problems faced by behavioral science itself?
- Generalizability. Aside from problems related to publication bias and research conduct, behavioral science studies are also difficult to reproduce if past theories and research relied too much on white students from the Western industrialized world, as has been traditionally the case. Academics increasingly realize that there needs to be more focus on two areas. First, we need to understand more about the interactions between cultural differences and behavioral outcomes that have been captured by existing theories. Second, new theory building needs to be based on more diverse and global samples. These are important steps for behavioral science to catch up with developments in other fields and decades of globalization. If behavioral science is to solve global problems, it also needs to be rooted in a global mindset.
- Application. Behavioral science would be meaningless without areas of application, such as climate change, financial well-being, or public health. Some researchers have questioned whether behavioral science in practice (particularly nudges) actually live up to the hype when it comes to producing behavior change. At best, it’s clear that problems don’t get solved by behavioral science alone. More work will be needed to establish the role of behavioral science alongside other interventions, ranging from financial incentives to education. In addition, while there has been some uptake of behavioral science in governments and corporations, more can be done to foster its adoption (see editorial in the Behavioral Economics Guide 2023). This means that, just like behavioral scientists seek to overcome individuals’ resistance to behavior change, they also need to deal with organizations’ resistance to integrating evidence-based approaches.
- Ethics. A fifth area where behavioral science faces challenges is ethics. Within the field, cases of misconduct in research reinforce the need for guidelines, practices, and policies that reduce cheating and enhance research practices (preregistration, for example). When it comes to applied behavioral science, we need to balance the benefits of behavioral interventions with individual autonomy and consent, particularly among vulnerable populations. Other challenges relate to technology, as it affects people both inside and outside of the field. Within the field, we need to help students, academics, and professionals navigate the complex ethical considerations of new technologies, such as AI. In outward-facing aspects of behavioral science, we need to ensure the privacy and security of personal data, for example, as well as address potential biases in algorithms and AI systems.
Looking ahead, 21st-century behavioral science faces significant challenges. I outlined what I believe to be challenges in five major areas. By tackling these head-on, we can pave the way for a better understanding of human behavior and contribute to solving complex global problems.
Noam Scheiber. Harvard Scholar Who Studies Honesty Is Accused of Fabricating Findings. New York Times. June 24, 2023.
Evidence for behavioural interventions looks increasingly shaky. The Economist. July 27, 2022.
Jeroen Nieboer and Patrick Welsh. Behavioural Data Science: Ushering in a New Age. BehavioralEconomics.com. July 7, 2020.
Tania Lombrozo. Science, Trust and Psychology in Crisis. NPR. June 2, 2014.
Elina Halonen. Does “Irrationality” Travel? BehavioralEconomics.com. January 20, 2020.
Busara Center. Can we have some privacy please? Medium. February 12, 2020.
János Vajda. Do Androids Dream About Biased Judges? BehavioralEconomics.com. April 4, 2023.