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What’s next for behavioural science research?

What’s next for behavioural science research?

Human behaviour is studied across many research fields. Sociologists study it to understand social relationships and social structures, Economists to understand how it affects the economy, and Environmental Scientists to understand where it supports and impedes sustainability.

But what’s next for behavioural science across these and other fields? To explore this question, Nature Human Behaviour collected 22 expert opinions on the future of human behaviour research. Some contributions that piqued our interests included:

  • Kate Crawford calls for behaviour research to understand and address how AI affects society, economies and the environment.
  • Burtil Tungodden highlights a need for economic research about i) how the social environment shapes our moral and selfish preferences, ii) the complexity of moral motivation and iii) the foundations of human behaviour;
  • Jane M. Box-Steffensmeier discusses the importance of having political science researcher work across, disciplines and boundaries, including in government, non-profit organizations and industry; 
  • Yasuko Kameyama’s mentions the importance of understanding human behaviour to achieve the goals of Environmental Science,
  • Andrew Perfors argues that Cognitive Psychology must i) develop better experimentation that produces more results that will replicate outside laboratories, ii) account for social effects rather than examining individuals in isolation and iii) stop treating humans as computers by paying more attention to our emotions, motivations and senses, and;
  • Aysu Okbay calls for careful attention to understand if and how genetic underpin variations in human behaviour.

We recommend reading the full article because the 16 other contributions are very interesting.

We asked our staff what they thought about the future of human behavioural science and here are some of their responses.

What does BWA expect for the future of behavioural science?

Liam Smith, our director, expects that we will better understand synergies between behaviour change and systems change and this understanding will lead to better, more future-focused interventions that help drive changes in systems. For some early work on this, read a paper introducing four lenses on behaviour change in systems and transitions published in Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions and co-authored with BehaviourWorks and MSDI colleagues

Brea Kunstler expects that more will be done to integrate behavioural science into the clinical sciences: deeper studies into patient adherence (ensuring patients are doing their prescribed physical activity) and clinician behaviour change (understanding their ability and motivation to prescribe physical activity, rather than other therapies) and more successful outcomes outside the comforts of a well-designed clinical trial. Why design and test wonderful new treatments and interventions if we cannot deliver them in the ‘real world’ where human behaviour is influenced by so many more variables than we can ever control for in the best experimental studies?

Alexander Saeri suggests that because human decisions and behaviour about how to develop and use AI really matter, behavioural science will become very important for helping humanity to navigate the transition to a world with advanced AI. Check out a poster he presented at the June 2022 AI for Social Good Showcase hosted by the Monash Data Futures Institute.

Morgan Tear foresees behavioural science being included more often in domains that examine complex social dynamics, such as organisational culture change. 

Peter Slattery predicts growth in the use of i) forecasting the impact of interventions, ii) new media for disseminating research, and iii) behavioural science in industry.

Alex Waddell sees behavioural science working alongside implementation science and co-design to aid translation of policy into practice. Ensuring those responsible for implementing policy in the ‘real world’ understand who needs to do what differently and include them meaningfully in the process of designing interventions.

Kien Nguyen-Trung suggests that it is inevitable that behavioural science will have to incorporate the realities of non-Western and emerging cultures into its dominant framework of western and industrialised civilisations. The integration would advance our understanding of the guiding principles governing all human behaviour and shed light on how various social contexts influence people's behaviour in distinctive ways.

Kun Zhao would like to see more attention to the differential impact of behaviour change - to understand, for whom do interventions work best, for whom do they backfire, and how do we go beyond looking at the "average" person to start tailoring these interventions? Expects that interests in different areas of behavioural science will come and go, the methods that we use - rigorous approaches for measuring and testing, drawing on existing evidence, and the self-correcting nature of science, will prevail.

The future of behavioural science is also a question that other people in the behavioural science community have been wrestling with - here are a few recent perspectives that we found interesting.

What do other people think?

Sam Salzar and several others offer opinions on the future of behavioural science in the Behavioral Design 2021 reports, including more representative research (not just Western, educated, industrialised rich democratised (WEIRD) group) and a greater focus on systems change.

More than 100 researchers and practitioners, including our own Liam Smith and Peter Slattery, have predicted how behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years) on Merle’s Van Den Akker’s Money on the mind blog. These interviews are well worth a read. 

Dilip Soman and Nina Mažar recently outlined 6 suggestions for behavioural science going forward, adapted from their book, Behavioral Science in the Wild. Their suggestions include i) not overselling behavioral science, ii) publishing non-significant results and iii) paying more attention to the role of context and tailoring. 


In this article, we discussed perspectives on the future of behavioural science from academic experts, BehaviourWorks staff and behavioural scientists.

If you would like to learn more about our approach to behaviour change, from planning, to implementation, testing and evaluation, then please read our popular free book

For interest or enquiries about our research or training, please email: behaviourworksaustralia@monash.edu

Too learn more about our work, check out our projects, including our health trials with VMIA, Climate Adaption, waste reduction, Scale up and Covid-19 policy research.

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