Imagining the Next Decade of Behavioral Science

Evan Nesterak at the Behavioral Scientist: “If you asked Richard Thaler in 2010, what he thought would become of the then very new field of behavioral science over the next decade, he would have been wrong, at least for the most part. Could he have predicted the expansion of behavioral economics research? Probably. The Nobel Prize? Maybe. The nearly 300 and counting behavioral teams in governments, businesses, and other organizations around the world? Not a chance. 

When we asked him a year and a half ago to sum up the 10 years since the publication of Nudgehe replied “Am I too old to just say OMG? … [Cass Sunstein and I] would never have anticipated one “nudge unit” much less 200….Every once in a while, one of us will send the other an email that amounts to just ‘wow.’”

As we closed last year (and the last decade), we put out a call to help us imagine the next decade of behavioral science. We asked you to share your hopes and fears, predictions and warnings, open questions and big ideas. 

We received over 120 submissions from behavioral scientists around the world. We picked the most thought-provoking submissions and curated them below.

We’ve organized the responses into three sections. The first section, Promises and Pitfalls, houses the responses about the field as whole—its identity, purpose, values. In that section, you’ll find authors challenging the field to be bolder. You’ll also find ideas to unite the field, which in its growth has felt for some like the “Wild West.” Ethical concerns are also top of mind. “Behavioral science has confronted ethical dilemmas before … but never before has the essence of the field been so squarely in the wheelhouse of corporate interests,” writes Phillip Goff.

In the second section, we’ve placed the ideas about specific domains. This includes “Technology: Nightmare or New Norm,” where Tania Ramos considers the possibility of a behaviorally optimized tech dystopia. In “The Future of Work,” Lazslo Bock imagines that well-timed, intelligent nudges will foster healthier company cultures, and Jon Jachomiwcz emphasizes the importance of passion in an economy increasingly dominated by A.I. In “Climate Change: Targeting Individuals and Systems” behavioral scientists grapple with how the field can pull its weight in this existential fight. You’ll also find sections on building better governments, health care at the digital frontier and final mile, and the next steps for education. 

The third and final section gets the most specific of all. Here you’ll find commentary on the opportunities (and obligations) for research and application. For instance, George Lowenstein suggests we pay more attention to attention—an increasingly scarce resource. Others, on the application side, ponder how behavioral science will influence the design of our neighborhoods and wonder what it will take to bring behavioral science into the courtroom. The section closes with ideas on the future of intervention design and ways we can continue to master our methods….(More)”.