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The Curse of Behavioral Science

Haggai Elkayam Shalem, PhD
November 9, 2021

“Oh, that’s obvious!”

This exclamation is a dreadful familiarity for anyone who has ever taught a social psychology class. You present a seminal paper which revolutionized an entire field - and everyone in class just yawns. I even have to admit that while taking my freshman social psychology class, I summed it up to my friends as “the art of the obvious.”

For us, on the research side of things, it is clear that behavioral science findings are far from obvious. While any research paper demonstrates merely a miraculous, obvious path from hypothesis to result, the research behind the paper is mostly a meandering, unpredictable path, in which findings mostly do not fit in with early hypotheses, common sense, or even previous research findings (sometimes even one’s own).

But when a finding does emerge, it is presented as a perfect, “just so” story. A perfect tale of discovery, that usually  “clicks” well with everyone’s model of the world. It makes sense. It explains things. And it does this so well that it seems, well, obvious. We live through thousands and thousands of social interactions, make millions of decisions, evaluate countless features - so we should be experts in human behavior.

And yet, we’re not.

As many “obvious” behavioral science findings demonstrate, we are not very good at understanding our own behavior. We are ridden with biases, misconceptions, and are motivated reasoners. We are also biased towards believing that we understand more than we do, and it is important to us - to our sense of self-worth, to our social status, to our feeling of control - to downplay any possibility that we weren’t aware, that we didn’t understand, that it wasn’t clear. So, of course, we knew it; of course it’s obvious. We can’t let ourselves think otherwise.

And while in a social psychology class this may not be a big deal - just several dozen students whining about wanting to study something else - this may be a bigger issue when harnessing behavioral science to help organizations and people discover new, helpful insights. What happens when you conduct a big field study for a client and they underestimate the results because they are “obvious”? It may even be the case that they don’t appreciate the hard work put in to arrive at these results, after you’ve had to navigate out of many dead-ends, red herrings, and debunked hypotheses.

But social psychologists with at least some experience in teaching classes know that there is a way out: just make the audience bet on the results.

Seriously. Before telling your students, readers, or clients about your study’s conclusions - ask them what they think the results are. You can even suggest placing bets on the results. Many members of your audience will find themselves surprised that their common sense actually didn’t point them in the right direction or that they didn’t understand some part of human behavior, and now, they do.

This can also be done by walking your audience through all the research steps, rather than directly to the results. First, take them through the false starts and setbacks, or alternatively, present competing theories and make it clear how easy it is to tell a compelling story around any result.

While this issue may seem like a trifle, it is not: it is important that people understand that science is a long, winding path with no clear end; that there are many more things we don’t know about behavior and our social life than things we do know; and that many of us have failed ourselves or our clients because we thought we had “common sense” answers when we really didn’t.

So, the next time you hear someone telling you that your behavioral science findings are obvious - or the next time you find yourself thinking the same thought - don’t let it pass by. We all have an amazing storytelling machine in our heads, and sometimes we have to tell it that it got the story wrong to appreciate getting it right.

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