Praescient’s Spring 2022 Intelligence Cell Unit is composed of four students turned research analysts (meet them in this blog post!), who each bring a unique perspective to the team. With two analysts currently engaged in the Forensic Psychology Master’s Program at George Washington University (continuing the forensic psychology legacy of previous interns), behavioral science is often a topic of interest. But what is behavioral science and how does it relate to industry?
Behavioral science is the science of understanding why people do what they do. It includes many disciplines but draws a foundation in psychology and cognition and can be traced back to the work of Kahneman and Tversky, who researched areas such as decision-making processes and biases. More recently, behavioral science gained attention after the 2008 publication of Nudge (later updated in 2021), written by University of Chicago economist/Nobel Laureate, Richard Thaler, and Harvard Law School Professor, Cass Sunstein. Thaler and Sunstein questioned ideas like rational choice theory and proposed that decisions and behaviors can be predictably influenced by minimal interventions, or “nudges.”
The principles, methodologies, and application of behavioral science quickly found its way into various industries, and has been growing over the past 20 years. As of October 2020, over 590 organizations were documented as having dedicated behavioral science teams. These teams investigate how people make decisions, and what factors impact the process. A recent international survey of companies with behavioral science teams found that these groups participate in a variety of activities, such as policy, research, and marketing development.
Given the variety of activities behavioral scientists participate in, it is no surprise that this work can be applied to a range of industries including climate and energy, insurance, technology and AI, health and well-being, and/or education. The government, too, has begun to incorporate behavioral science for a wide range of purposes, resulting in successful outcomes. For example, behavioral science insights helped inform the design of the recently launched covidtests.gov website to improve accessibility, customer experience, and satisfaction with government services. Behavioral science has been specifically highlighted in recent executive orders, the first of which was signed by President Obama in 2015. Ultimately, behavioral science can be leveraged to improve outcomes in a wide range of mission areas.
But… Where do we draw the line? The application of behavioral science can clearly yield positive results, but simultaneously begs the question of ethical implications. Where do we draw the line on influencing outcomes and behavior? Given behavioral science’s foundation in psychology, turning to this discipline may provide a useful framework for examining ethical standards.
The forensic psychology Research Analysts at Praescient have each taken an ethics course that is a core component of their degree’s curriculum. The course, titled Ethics in Forensic Psychology, teaches students the American Psychological Association (APA) Ethical Standards and best practices, as well as how to navigate real-world ethical dilemmas. The APA Ethical Standards are specific to psychologists and are built around teaching, research, and clinical practice. However, the standards do not specifically address each of the various industries that psychologists might find themselves working in, and are only obligatory for members of the APA to follow. Since behavioral scientists can be qualified based on a range of academic and professional training, being a behavioral scientist is not synonymous with being a member of the APA.
Above: a few examples of common cognitive biases that behavioral scientists might work to address and mitigate.
How do we draw the line? With growing opportunities for behavioral scientists to work in a diverse set of industries, how do we go about defining ethical practices in the domain of applied behavioral science? Furthermore, how do we navigate this emerging field in a way that encourages best practices?
At Praescient, we take this as an opportunity to focus on ethical integrity, and ensure that this vital component is maintained throughout our broader services. Praescient has developed and implemented a Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct, which applies to all Praescient employees and serves as the foundational commitment to ethical behavior across all aspects of the company.
Furthermore, Praescient works to follow best practices in all services. For example, something unique to Praescient is our commitment to working with customers to mitigate as much bias as possible. By reducing and addressing bias, we can build better code, which leads to better algorithms and ultimately produces better intelligence products and investigations. Mindfulness of one’s purpose and intended outcome is key when using behavioral science methods; for example, when working in a consumer-driven industry, a positive ethical use case of behavioral science is improving customer experience (NOT customer manipulation). In 2014, Team Praescient wrote a blog post discussing the collection and analysis of customer data in retail, which is a direct example of behavioral science research methods being used in industry to enhance customer experience.
Where do we go from here? As Praescient Research Analysts in the Intelligence Cell complete their ongoing OSINT project, they frequently pull from behavioral science. For example, when creating a quantitative index of recent diplomatic engagements, the Intel Cell team discussed strategies to mitigate the effect of in-group bias, ensuring the integrity and accuracy of all data collected for analysis. Additionally, the Intel Cell was recently introduced to the platform Sintelix for Natural Language Processing. In using this tool, the team fused behavioral science concepts when choosing keywords to pull information from relevant news sources. After all, tools are only tools without applying appropriate tradecraft to their use. This is where behavior science comes in and drives tradecraft and analysis; without it, the data has no meaning.
It is important to remember that in the budding field of behavioral science, there remains plenty of room for interpretation. Each behavioral scientist, and each organization that integrates behavioral science, will do so in a manner that is unique to them. This is an exciting means to continue to build a rich discipline; however, awareness of ethical lines on the rise of any discipline will always be something to continually consider and monitor.