Behavioral science: Another set of tools to draw on

Kristine Scott runs Seattle Conflict Resolution. She is focused on how to reduce conflict through a proven non-violent response that works with even the most hostile people. Kristine reduces violence through a robust training program, and she wants to make sure her trainings are effective over time.

Recently Kristine shared a challenge with me. After a learning event, some people stall out. They don’t step into the power that they have practiced in her session. What they know doesn’t necessarily transfer back into the actions they take.

Kristine had already immersed herself in adult learning and the design and delivery of excellent learning experiences. Beyond that, what tools can she draw on?

Behavioral economics is the study of psychology as it relates to how people make decisions. As an economics major back in the day when all people were considered rational, I see behavioral economics– and behavioral sciences in general– as a second set of tools for teachers and trainers to draw on. People aren’t rational for really good reasons. We step it up a notch as trainers when we honor their humanity and draw on what we know about why people do what they do.

Here are some behavioral science ideas that I draw on:

  • Fast thinking/slow thinking. Let’s start with Daniel Kahneman’s invitation to slow down and bring reflection into our practice. We’ve put so much of our behavior on auto-pilot. By inviting people to walk through a conflict situation, they may notice assumptions, reactions, and habits that happened under the surface before. They can slo-mo walk through scenarios to make sure their actions align with their intention.
  • Prime positive identities. We can assume people want to be their best selves. We can invite people to step into an identity that they hold for themselves, such as being courageous, curious, or a peacemaker. When we remind them of this identity and give them opportunities to show their courage, curiosity, or peacemaking, they experience success.
  • Frame choices around gains and losses. People feel the pain of losing something more than they experience the benefit of gaining something. We experience more (negative) emotion when we lose the $20 dollars we had than the (happy) emotion we experience when finding $20 on the street. That tells us to emphasize what our participants will lose if they fail to act over potential benefits if they do.
  • Use social proof and social influence. We look to others to know how we are supposed to behave. When we share how others are behaving in the face of a decision or challenge, we give people the chance to anchor their behavior to that.
  • Use public and private commitments. When we verbalize that we are going to do something, we are more likely to do it. Personal commitment contracts in health programs have shown an increase in completion rates. We can encourage people to state what they are going to do when faced with a particular situation. One step further, encourage them to make that commitment within a team to hold each other accountable.

I shared some of these ideas at a board conference five years ago. Attendees wanted to know how to get board members to do what they needed them to do. One person challenged the use of behavioral science, voicing the concern that we are manipulating people when we draw on psychology and behavioral science, etc. The cardinal rule is always do no harm and always work in the best interest of our mission and the people who serve our missions. But by ignoring the research, we fail our mission and the people we serve by making this work harder on everyone.  

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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