On returning home to from the Trojan War, the legendary Greek hero Odysseus was forced to sail past the Sirens.
This group of beautiful maidens were renowned for beguiling sailors with their angelic voices, inducing such delirium that their victims succumb and dash their vessels against the rocks. However, Odysseus had been warned about the Sirens and had consulted his behavioural insights team on how best to respond.
As a result, on approaching the feared maidens, he issued bee’s wax to his crew to plug their ears and commanded them to bind him to the ship’s mast with strong ropes. Sure enough, despite their serenading, Odysseus and his crew sailed past the Sirens and went safely on their way.
The future of behavioural insights?
The Behavioural Insights Team at work in New South Wales, Australia is investigating how the application of behavioural insights (BI) could impact on more complex challenges, such as Domestic Violence.
It’s early days, but it seems the work they’re planning to do will focus around implementation intentions, increasing self-awareness and some elements of affective forecasting. Essentially, working with perpetrators to help them identify the triggers of undesirable behaviours, as a foundation for helping them avoid situations that contain them or build routines to help them deal with them.
The work the NSW team are considering points to the huge, untapped potential that BI has for wider mainstream impact.
The work the NSW team are considering points to the huge, untapped potential that BI has for wider mainstream impact. At the core of the behavioural economic literature that drives much of the BI movement, is the fact, as human beings, we often behave counter to our own self interests. This is often framed in terms of ‘irrationality’, but we needn’t open that can of worms here.
The point is that we have limitations that result in behaviours that are counter-productive to our own well-being. As we are finding out in more and more detail, these limitations tend to relate to information processing and will power (consult the latest catalogue of heuristics and biases to discover truly how limited we are!). Hence the contrast between HomoEconomicus and Homer Economicus (Simpson, not poet) as illustrative of the difference between the classical and behavioural economic traditions.
We are finding out the extent to which some of these limitations are inherent to the human condition.
We are also finding out the extent to which some of these limitations are inherent to the human condition. Yes, we may be able to extend our information processing capabilities through brain-training and build the will power muscle with Dry January, but these are incremental improvements that will never address fundamental limitations: the boundaries of the human condition.
One way of understanding the future of behavioural insights lies simply in the extension of this tendency; more specifically by applying it to the fundamental gap between our intentions and actions.
In most domains, when faced with these boundaries, human beings leverage their advanced intellect to bolster their physical abilities – coming close to the definition of ‘technology’. Birds fly, humans don’t – humans build aeroplanes. Cheetahs travel at 70mph, humans don’t – humans invent cars. One way of understanding the future of behavioural insights lies simply in the extension of this tendency; more specifically by applying it to the fundamental gap between our intentions and actions.
Deeper knowledge of the limiting factors of intent is the springboard for innovations that helps us overcome them: communications, technologies, policies, services, physical environments. Homer (poet, not Simpson) knew this 3000 years ago: Odysseus understood the limiting factors preventing his intent being translated into behaviour. So he designed a situation that would ensure he behaved in his own self-interest, despite himself.