Download PDF

Fundamentally BE is a branch of applied social psychology. Typically experiments are conducted on undergraduate groups in which behaviour is observed under experimental conditions and hypotheses and conclusions are drawn about the processes involved in and driving that behaviour.

There is a long tradition of this experimental method in social psychology, from Milgram’s studies of the influence of authority, through Zimbardo’s prison experiments to the work of Tversky and Kahneman. Over the years ethical issues have inhibited the freedom of experimenters to set up tests in circumstances that cause distress or upset participants. That could certainly be said of the Milgram experiments where subjects were asked to deliver electric shocks to other participants based on their performance  on a task. Despite their distress a surprising number of subjects were willing to ‘shock’ strangers following instructions to do so from the experimenters.

Here are some of the instructions from those infamous experiments:

“If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:

  1. Please continue.
  1. The experiment requires that you continue.
  2. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  3. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.”

It’s important to remember that none of the shocks were real, actors played the part of those receiving shocks and were briefed to shout, scream, plead for relief or cessation. But the subjects didn’t know this: they were led to believe they were giving real shocks.

In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40)of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock, though many were very uncomfortable doing so! Generally this voltage of shock might easily prove lethal.

These results relate to one of the foundations of BE theory. A key theoretical idea in BE, supported by much evidence, is that humans will act with economy of effort in a majority of circumstances. Faced with most situations, people will use responses they’ve used before, feelings and emotions or short-cuts to create a response. The ‘ecomony’ in behavioural economics really refers to the economy of effort that all of us use to drive our behaviour. BE has made an effort to identify many of these short-cuts, which it calls heuristics.

The heuristic driving the results in the Milgram experiments was ‘obedience to authority’ and the authors of the research pointed out the parallels between these experimental results and the pain inflicted on many innocents by the administrators of the Nazi policies in 1940’s Germany. Were Eichmann and his like just following orders as any of us might have done as the Milgram experiments demonstrate.

In his book ‘Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow’, Kahneman calls the use of short cuts, emotional drivers and pre-prepared responses System One thinking, while serious thinking in which we consider the problem, generate a range of solutions and then logically choose the best, is called System Two thinking. This is deemed to be hard work and so we use System One in 90% of circumstances – and most times it works just fine.
Except when it doesn’t. We are, for example, very prone to poor estimations of probabillity. We are much more loss averse than profit motivated – we fear loss more than we anticipate gain. We also massively prefer responses and routines that are familiar to us and which can be done on auto-pilot and prefer to pick from a small set of known alternatives than from a large range. The consequences of these last two is that we often ignore or discount options that would lead to new, sometimes better, experiences. This is encapsulated by Caroline Whitehill Hayter in her excellent IMJR ‘Viewpoint’ article as the ‘Better the Devil You Know’ strategy.

One of the most interesting, unmapped territories of BE is how emotional markers (Damasio) are involved in generating so many of our responses – particularly to brands. Damasio calls this the ‘Feeling of what Happens’ and creates a compelling argument for the role of emotion in rational thinking in his book of that name. On my workshops I often play a short tape of the ‘Flower Duet’ from Léo Delibes‘ opera Lakmé. I ask people to close their eyes and listen – and to notice if any brand comes to mind. Very often people say ‘British Airways’ and indeed that music is still used to welcome passengers aboard the majority of BA flights. It originated in a celebrated TV commercial for BA.

Originally screened in 1989, the ad was made using thousands of extras in the US state of Utah. Considered one of the greatest TV commercials of all time (62/100 in the Greatest TV Ads from Channel 4) in spite of being dropped by BA, the music remains a powerful emotional marker and evokes the brand for many.

You can view the original commercial here:

And a short audio of the actual Duet from the opera here:

An important consideration, and the place where I diverge from Caroline’s depiction of BE is in the value of asking people about their experiences. I believe that a lot of extremely useful biographical experiences can be elicited by asking: ‘how was that experience for you?’ ‘what did you notice?’ and ‘what did you feel?’ When doing this I help people to stay as close to a description of what happened as possible – before they get on to what they made it mean! It is in the arena of interpretations that we need to watch out for confabulation.