All too often, people use intuition, along with trial and error, to devise social programs. Sometimes they guess right and the programs are effective. But many times they guess wrong and the programs fail to meet their goals.
Some fields, such as education, are fairly advanced in their knowledge about human behavior and have devised ways to incorporate that knowledge into their work (think schools and teacher education).
But most fields are not as sophisticated. They either haven’t taken the time to understand how knowledge of human behavior might impact their work. Or they are sloppy and inconsistent in applying that knowledge in the programs that they run. Consider some anti-drug campaigns. If it were really as easy as getting people to “Just Say No,” the United States wouldn’t have the opioid epidemic that it now has.
In recent years, however, the behavioral sciences—psychology, cognitive science, neurology, behavioral economics, and other disciplines—have advanced significantly. We now have a large and growing body of knowledge about how people interact with their environment and with each other in a wide variety of settings. And it’s time we begin applying that knowledge more consistently in the social sector.
The spring 2017 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review has several feature articles that do just that. The first is our cover story, “The New Science of Designing for Humans,” by Piyush Tantia, the co-executive director of ideas42, arguably the leading consultancy on how to use behavioral economics to solve social problems. Tantia argues that organizations should adopt a scientific approach to designing social programs. “By putting behavioral science and impact evaluation together … we can design more like engineers than like artists,” writes Tantia. He goes on to propose an approach—dubbed behavioral design—to help create programs in a variety of settings.
The second feature article on behavioral science is “Stop Raising Awareness Already,” written by two University of Florida scholars. The authors argue that all too often organizations focus their eff orts on raising awareness about an issue, with little thought about how to get people to then act on that awareness. “If … the goal were to raise awareness among new parents of the importance of immunizing children, you wouldn’t be satisfied if parents were simply aware,” write the authors. “You’d want to be sure that they were also having their children immunized for the right diseases at the right age.”
The third article that addresses this subject is “Embedding Education in Everyday Life,” by three Harvard University scholars. They propose embedding education in everyday experiences, such as having barbers who cater to African-American men provide customers with information on hypertension. Embedded education, they argue, is a more reliable way to reach certain groups of people, and it’s more effective because the education takes place between people who have a pre-existing relationship and “capitalizes on what we know about lifelong learning and behavior change.”
But it takes time to learn about behavioral science and then more time to incorporate that knowledge into a program. It’s hard work, and not as fun as brainstorming with Post-it Notes. But it is time well spent because the difference between a program that is well-designed and one that isn’t can be significant.