New frontiers of human behaviour

New understanding of human behaviour is slowly reaching the citadels of policymaking


Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Despite having a toilet at home, why does a person defecate in the open? As employees become more experienced, why do they become progressively lax in following standard safety procedures? Despite billions of dollars spent on market research, why do the failure rates of new products continue to hover around 90%? These and other discordant human behaviours have remained an enigma for most policymakers and corporate strategists.

As compared to other fields of study, the study of human behaviour is a babe in the woods. The study of physical sciences like physics, chemistry and biology has been in existence for several centuries. In comparison, psychology, the science of human behaviour, saw its impact only during the early 20th century. Theories such as behaviourism, psychoanalysis, humanism, cognitive science, etc., tried unsuccessfully to provide a comprehensive explanation for all human behaviour. Even if one kept aside some of the inherent contradictions between these theories, a combination of all of them still did not provide a coherent understanding of human behaviour. Human behaviour, unlike other sciences, lacked a fundamental theory.

The theory of human behaviour which has had the most influence on government policies and corporate strategies did not come from a psychologist but from an economist. Adam Smith’s observation about the self-interested nature of the baker who pursues well thought-out strategies to achieve optimum utility, established the rational paradigm of human nature. With the backing of René Descartes and the Catholic church, the philosophy of consciousness (knowing that one knows) became an unquestioned axiom of human behaviour. The assumption of the rational, conscious man became the foundation on which “Homo economicus”, the economic man, was built. This assumption has guided government policy decisions and corporate strategies for centuries now. The proclivity of leading economists to add mathematics to their explanations of behaviour, and the confidence one derives from the surety of numbers, strengthened belief in the rational, conscious man.

However, the 21st century began with the winds of change. The 2002 Nobel Prize in economics to Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, heralded a new direction in perceiving human behaviour. At last, a psychologist undid the centuries of damage done by an economist. Theories of behavioural economics, particularly the irrational nature of human behaviour put forward by Richard Thaler and Kahneman, run contrary to the concept of Adam Smith’s rational man. According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.

A larger revolution in the study of human behaviour was brought about by the field of cognitive neuroscience. The advent of electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technologies, which provided capabilities to peep deep into the recesses of the human brain, revolutionized our perceptions of human behaviour. As written in Scientific American, “In the last 10 years, our understanding of this mysterious organ (human brain) has exploded.” The assumption that the brain is the organ of human behaviour is now clearly established. The commonalities unearthed in the functioning of brains of various animals, from worms to fishes to rats to humans, has established neuroscience as a fundamental theory of behaviour.

George H.W. Bush’s declaration of the 1990s as the Decade of the Brain, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative announced by the Barack Obama administration in 2013, and the European Union’s Human Brain Project announced in 2013 are clear indications that the study of the human brain has gone beyond university laboratories. Progressive policymakers are gradually realizing the value of investing in human behaviour studies for policy matters. The government-affiliated Behavioural Insights Team in the UK and the Social and Behavioural Sciences Team in the White House are demonstrative of this direction. New understanding of human behaviour is slowly reaching the citadels of policymaking.

But the big question is whether these new learnings from cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics will be widely accepted by policymakers and corporate strategists. The answer is no. The human brain prefers status quo. It finds it difficult to embrace new learnings even in linear improvements of an existing paradigm. But the knowledge cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics bring to the table is the opposite of existing paradigms. For example, the discovery that a very large part of human brain processes, possibly close to 99%, occurs at a non-conscious level is going to be a shock for those of us who believed so much in the conscious nature of humans.

My column will provide an explanation of human behaviour from these new learnings. Through this column, I hope to spark fresh conversations among policymakers and corporate leaders on how these new sciences can help mitigate some of the most significant behavioural challenges in business and society.

Biju Dominic is chief executive officer, Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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