Behavioural science is the study of how humans really behave, as opposed to how we expect them to behave. It is an evidence-based approach to understanding what people really do, and why, to improve our ability to predict how they might behave under particular circumstances and so design programmes and strategies to enhance and improve people’s behaviour.
Some examples of when these kinds of behavioural programmes can be helpful include:
- Change management in the workplace
- Driving important behaviour changes in society, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic when governments had to encourage people to isolate themselves almost overnight to prevent deaths.
- Encouraging people to make better life choices, such as saving for their retirement or eating more healthily.
Behavioural Scientists recognise that human beings often make decisions based on hard-coded biases rather than rational thought. These biases have evolved to be focused on self-preservation and self-protection. For example, all human beings have a bias towards being extremely focused on the present (‘present biased’). Because of this, saving money for the future is much more difficult for most people, than spending what they have on something nice now. This happens even though most people know, rationally, that they should be saving money for their future.
Some of the things we have biases about may still be useful, but others no longer serve us well either as individuals or in society. The Cognitive Bias Codex is one tool that demonstrates some of these biases. Behavioural Scientists work with governments and organisations to find ways to help people make better decisions.
Behavioural science is an emerging career, and as a result its applications are developing and evolving across a wide variety of industries. Many of the pioneers of behavioural science were economists and psychologists, and applications for behavioural science in these areas are more advanced. Other areas that are developing rapidly include human resources, marketing, learning and development and public service.
As a Behavioural Scientist, you will use your knowledge of human behaviour combined with your ability to analyse and interpret data to design and develop programmes that will help to drive behaviour change.
Depending on your personal preferences and strengths, you can enter the field of behavioural science from a very rational, analytical starting point – such as economics and data science – or from a from a more humanistic starting point – such as psychology, marketing and even language studies.
The most critical element of a Behavioural Scientist’s work is an interest in human behaviour, and you will spend a lot of your time analysing data pertaining to how people behave. You will also spend time designing and developing interventions to encourage people to change their behaviour in a way that better serves their individual needs, as well as the needs of society and/or the organisation for which you are working. Depending on the sector you join this could include marketing and communications campaigns, workplace training initiatives and public policy campaigns and initiatives. Critical thinking and creativity will be an important part of your daily work activity. You will be required to work with a wide variety of specialists in different fields, so your ability to communicate and collaborate will also be important.
Because there are so many industries that offer opportunities for Behavioural Scientists, your workday could take many forms. Some employers will have a traditional, office-based way of working, while others with have a hybrid approach that includes office-based and home-based work. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you could even consider starting your own consulting business.
The potential applications of behavioural science are almost endless. However, some of the more prevalent areas of specialisation include:
- Behavioural Economics
- Change management and/ or organisational development
- Learning & Development
- Marketing & Communications
It’s also important to note that not all jobs that require behavioural science skills and knowledge have “Behavioural Scientist” in their title. Other possible titles include Research Assistant, Behaviour Technician, Intervention Specialist, Human Resources Specialist, Market Researcher, Mental Health Counsellor, Crime Analyst, Social Worker and others
Getting into behavioural science has a wide variety of routes to entry because it still an emerging field. In South Africa, NMU and UCT have schools of Behavioural Science which offer degrees from undergraduate through to PHD. You could also start with an undergraduate degree in psychology, economics, sociology, data science or even neuroscience before doing your Honours, Masters or PHD in Behavioural Science or Behavioural Economics.
Learn more about the graduate opportunities for Behavioural Scientists at www.quantifyyourfuture.co.za
Learn more about the bursary and scholarship opportunities for Behavioural Scientists at www.quantifyyourfuture.co.za
Though this is a new specialisation, the field is becoming more rigorous in terms of defining what qualifications, experience and other criteria are needed to be considered a professional practitioner. At the moment the most respected international professional body is The Global Association of Applied Behavioural Scientists (GAABS).