A Tale of Two Summits - Trends in Behavioral Sciences

Several behavioral science events occurred during October and I attended two of them for learning and networking purposes. The following is shared because each conference offered tremendous insights and those insights ought not be left behind!

Context Matters

The overarching theme between the Behavioral Marketing Summit in San Francisco and the ideas42 Summit in New York City was context matters. The primary terminology was that of ‘environment’ and ‘situation’ but the overall impact of the discussions was that our decisions are heavily influenced by the context in which we make them.

The Replication Crisis

To illuminate the point that context is critical in our lives, researchers discussed how some studies or aspects of some studies did not replicate to other situations. In other words, following the recipe or outline for any given study in a subsequent run by a different researcher at a different time, didn’t always yield the same results.

For example, a study was conducted on Asian American women to determine if priming them prior to a math test would make a difference on their score. One group was primed with words that reminded them of being female, another group was primed with reminders of being Asian. The original study found that priming the participants with reminders of their Asian descent had a powerful and positive effect on math tests. However, when the study was replicated in two areas (Atlanta and San Francisco), the researchers replicated the original study’s results in Atlanta but not in San Francisco. The women who were reminded of being female performed at the same rate as those reminded of being of Asian descent in the San Francisco study, but Atlanta participants performed like the original group (the Asian priming caused higher scores on the math test). Context matters.

In another example, researcher Michael Hallsworth noted that his testing of different styles of tax collection letters in London led him to conclude that less formality and greater emphasis on the way the amount to be collected was presented in the letter improved results. However, when he used the same approach in Albuquerque when trying to get small businesses to self-report their status, the lack of formality failed. Not every good idea is a good idea, as they say.

Constantly Testing

In conversations with the lead behavioral scientists from Uber and Airbnb, it became clear that these organizations are making tremendous use of behavioral sciences in their businesses. They are running tests constantly. They also shared their thoughts on how shared resources (Uber uses other people’s cars, Airbnb uses other people’s dwellings) in sharing economies are evolving and growing at a rapid pace.  And in order to take advantage of the dynamics of these shared resources and shared markets, behavioral sciences will become more and more integral in the communication and relationships we all share.

Trust & Deadweight Loss

Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational and other best-sellers, called attention to the deadweight loss that comes from business that operate in environments of low trust. He gave an example of purchasing a pen in a shop in Argentina, where corruption is high. The pen buyer (Dan) goes to one clerk and decides on which pen to buy. That clerk sends Dan to another clerk to pay for the pen. Once paid for, that clerk gives Dan a receipt indicating he can visit the third clerk and actually pick up his pen. This is a terribly inefficient way to conduct business and it’s all because of the lack of trust in the context in which they’re doing business.

For Marketers

The global consulting behemoth, Ipsos, was represented by Namika Sagara who spoke of ways we view things from a promotion mindset or a prevention mindset. These come from regulatory focus, or the nature of the mental context in which we make decisions. I was reminded of a survey I conducted on a busy mall in Minneapolis several years ago on a beautiful summer’s (week)day. I noticed that business people out for lunch were eager to participate, even if it required them to run a little late in getting back to work. But vacationers had no interest in my survey – they were quite busy with being on vacation. The business men and women were in a promotion mindset – they were almost eager to spend their company’s time doing something fun. But the vacationers were in a prevention mindset – they wanted nothing to do with a guy who was going to interrupt their personal time. The context in which people are living and how we approach them makes a huge difference.

This matters in how consumer packaged goods are promoted: do you sell the toothpaste as a whitener for looking better when you meet new people (promotion mindset) or as a way to keep your teeth healthy to reduce cavities and dental bills (prevention mindset)? It’s a challenge unless you can identify which group of people are more likely to purchase your toothpaste.  Context matters to the way a marketing message is going to be received.

Robert Cialdini, the author of best-selling Influence, and Dan Pink, best-selling author of Drive, shared the stage in New York to talk about primes and how priming at the right time can make a huge difference in how decisions are made.  They shared research examples from their new books that brought context into the forefront. Having an app that reminds us to exercise first thing in the morning is more successful than one that reminds us at 10:15am. Duh. Yet, product developers who have timing at their fingertips are still slow to apply these powerful tools.

A Happy Life

Lastly, living a happy life is something that nearly all of us strive for. We all value happiness, but it is too often in short supply. How can we get happier? Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale created a course that is voluntarily taken by 25% of all Yale students. Here are five tips that she shared from her course on living a happier life:

1.     Your mind lies to you about what will make you happy (and what will motivate you)

2.     You need to create social connections, even if you don’t want to

3.     You need to help others, even when you don’t feel like it

4.     You need to focus on the present and not the past

5.     You need to express gratitude


Books & Papers & YouTube Recommended

There were a bunch of resources brought up at these conferences that I wanted to share with you. I hope you find them of value.

§  Idleness – Christopher Hsee explores a scientific rationale for why we don’t like to be idle. A great example of this is how easily we’re frustrated when stuck in traffic on the freeway and would prefer to use an alternative route that brings us to our destination at the same time, but with more forward motion.

§  Urgency – Hsee 2018, and Swain 2014 speak to how we value urgent vs. important matters and too often put value on urgent rather than on important matters.

§  “Peak: the new science of expertise” – Anders Ericsson’s book was highly recommended on understanding the hidden values of expertise.

§  “Learning how to learn” – Coursera course by Barbara Oakley was noted for its relationship to how important lifelong learning is for both personal and professional development.

§  “The Lifechanging Magic of the Art of Tidying Up” – Kondo’s best seller still gets kudos from the academic community for speaking to very actionable techniques for improving your life in very small increments.

§  “Why politics makes us stupid” – Ezra Klein’s book was noted for its deep dive into the psychology of politics and identity.

§  Uncivil Agreement – Liliana Mason was praised for her work in revealing the huge disparities among different classes of citizens in the United States.