From me to we behavioural science
Why it may be time to rethink the focus on the individual and look more at the social nature of human behaviour
It is well known that humans are ‘social creatures’: much is written about the way in which we rely on other people for our health, happiness and general wellbeing. Yet despite a groaning literature from social psychology, the shelves of popular behavioural science remain solidly individualistic. The notion of information processing, as set out in Kahneman’s books (or indeed any of the many other such luminaries) seem to show the individual as a solitary sole decision maker, albeit they may at times be influenced by others.
The notion that this is the sole location at which decisions get made is so deeply embedded that it is hard to consider alternatives. But perhaps we need to consider the evidence pointing to our beliefs not simply being the product of individual processing of the world but are in fact the result of the way we operate collectively.
Fundamentally, one person can only do so much – for complex behaviour we really need people to work together. As we all can see from our everyday experiences, the intellectual capability of a group goes beyond what any one individual is capable of. As Sloman and Fernbach put it: “Humans are the most complex and powerful species ever, not just because of what happens in individual brains, but because of how communities of brains work together.”
They make a good case that we do this by dividing up ‘cognitive labour’. If a work colleague, neighbour or friend is the expert then why not rely on them? Operating like this is hugely efficient and effective but the boundary between one person’s ideas and knowledge and that of the team can be hard to distinguish. We all supply different things but may not really know where they came from. Hence the title of their book, The knowledge Illusion: we make the mistake that we were responsible for the idea when in fact it was something that was generated ‘between us’.
Applying we-behavioural science to risk perception
An example of how we go about making decisions together is the topic risk perception. It is tempting to think that the way we evaluate risk is to make a decision with all the relevant information on hand. All the alternatives are calmly considered, along with various consequences and their probabilities. A judgment of whether a behaviour or decision is risky is then simply a matter of weighing out these alternatives and applying some cool and calm statistical thinking. Of course, we hardly ever have all the necessary information at hand and individuals are influenced by more than the statistics of a problem.
Work by Paul Slovic has focused on the way we estimate probabilities with our judgements being vulnerable to heuristics and biases (mental shortcuts and rules of thumb) that can lead to seemingly irrational outcomes. One example of this is the availability bias. We can easily recall very vivid dangerous events such as airplane crashes, but we tend not to so easily recall less vivid car crashes. And despite being much more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash we often overestimate the dangers of flying. This account then of how we evaluate risk very much has the individual front and centre.
However, much research is now pointing to the way that the way we evaluate risk is not simply the result of the way an individual processes information, however well or poorly. We are now starting to recognise that social, institutional and cultural processes significantly influence the way we perceive risk and as a result shape our behaviour. In other words, risk is not just about the way we individually evaluate the characteristics of the issue but is also socially constructed.
One theory that explores this is the ‘Social Amplification of Risk Framework’. This framework, again developed by Paul Slovic and others, suggests that information about risk does not get communicated in a straightforward manner. Rather, it is interpreted and understood based on social processes. When we see an event or issue we will pay more attention to certain features than others. The features that are given more attention depends on a wide range of pre-existing motivations, knowledge, emotional associations. In other words, our initial collection of the information is far from uniform and ‘objective’.
The important difference to individual level explanations of behaviour is that we then re-form this information into messages that we communicate to others who then in turn are collecting information in the same way. If they have similar preconceptions, motivations, knowledge, emotional responses and so on then they will reflect onwards to others the same messages, but maybe with a slight twist. The point is that we do not individually evaluate risk, we are social creatures and we collectively respond and amplify different features of the risk.
Applying we-behavioural science to information evaluation
In a similar way, the way we evaluate information is laid out in a paper by Tamara Ansons on the way in which people assess the truth value of a claim (‘truthiness’) by asking themselves a range of questions including:
Do others in my environment believe this claim? Checking for social consensus can sometimes mean referring to public knowledge, but fundamentally people are influenced by how often they themselves have heard the claim. Familiarity gives the impression that a view is widely held.
Is there a lot of evidence for the claim? Some will take a speedier route to a judgment, based on how easy it is to recall pieces of evidence from their own memory – which means simple and memorable claims will trump more complex views of reality. In today’s society, social media content could be very easily brought to mind when making vaccine decisions.
Does the claim come from a credible source? A source can be perceived as credible based on its expertise, past behaviour or perceived motive – or, at its simplest, how a person feels about the source. This may mean that views from a close friend are difficult to overcome even if they diverge from the views of, for example, a healthcare professional who has expertise but lacks the interpersonal credibility.
In other words, risk perceptions do not form in a social vacuum. Not only do people prefer to socialise with others who share their opinions, they often prefer to consume media that confirm their own beliefs. In other words, we build our beliefs together, the notion that we do this individually is, Sloman & Fernbach suggest, illusory.
It is steadily becoming ever more apparent that we can make better sense of human behaviour by moving away from a highly individualist ‘perception’ approach to one which centres around our ‘social representation’ of the world. We often see in our work how this seems to better reflect the way in which particular evaluation of a risk evolves and why it is created and accepted.
Stephen Reicher, a long time supporter of this perspective would point out that we are constructive in the sense that we work together as groups to make sense of our world and together find ways to cope with the challenges we face in the world. This suggests that finding solutions to the many long-standing challenges we face as policy makers and marketers means we need to loosen our attachment to what can be at times an over-narrow conception of behavioural science that fails to properly reflect social based explanations of behaviour.