Turning knowledge into ideas: why you need a behavioural science framework

Here’s an experience several smart people have shared with me over coffee. You might recognize it. They read an interesting book on behavioural science. Maybe it was Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Thaler’s Nudge, or Predictably Irrational by Ariely. And they were bitten by the bug. Because they quickly realized these insights were not only revolutionary, but also very useful for their work in marketing and communications.

So they decided to figure it out. Read more and more, go to lectures, listen to podcasts. All the while they kept collecting pieces of the puzzle of human behaviour. Systems 1 and 2. Biases and heuristics. Habits. Social signaling theory. Neuroscience, from the dopamine rush that gets people Hooked on their iPhones to the mythical ‘buy button’ in the Nucleus Accumbens.

When the pieces won’t fit
And then, one day they decided to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Where in the brain is System 1 located? When do which biases and heuristics apply? When will social proof outweigh loss aversion? Is priming a form of nudging? In other words: they tried to build one complete model of human behaviour out of all these elements. To design a decision tree: if/then/else. Many times they felt close to finding a Unifying Theory. But in the end, the parts just didn’t fit. So they gave up. Shrugged it off. Went back to other ways of working.

They had fallen victim to a faulty idea. The idea that human behaviour should be like physics, with immutable laws of cause and effect. Or like mathematics, where one elegant formula says it all. Truth is, human behaviour is complex, paradoxical, messy. The result of different evolutionary drives and mental modules active at the same time and influencing each other. We need to blend in and stand out, seek safety and take risks, think long-term and short-term. Good luck putting that into a neat decision tree.

What you need (you know I got it)
Here’s what they should have done. And still can do. It’s my advice to you, too. See, I was on that road for a while as well. My business partner can attest to working in an office plastered with sticky notes that said things like ‘oxytocine’ ‘moral licensing effect’ and ‘mental accounting’.

And then I figured it out!

Seriously. (Kind of).

I figured out that I had to stop searching for a unifying theory or decision tree. And start experimenting with working from a framework. A behavioural science framework is basically a simplified model of different forces influencing behaviour. There are a few, some of which I will mention later. They’re all incomplete. Messy. They rely on a decidedly unelegant mix of research, observation and intuition. Oh, and as I’ve found: they work.

Mental models
Not because they offer a complete theory of human behaviour. But because they are useful, pragmatic coat hangers to hang your knowledge on. And because they enable you to look at the same challenge from different angles in a short time. A good framework is like a box full of spectacles which you put on to see the problem differently. In this way, frameworks are complimentary to Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger’s idea of Mental Models which many of us know through Shane Parrish’ excellent Farnham Street blog.

The first experiment me and my business partner did was to work from BJ Foggs B=MAT model (which he now calls B=MAP). Asking ourselves: could and should we Motivate people, Trigger them or boost their Ability? At the time we were still creative directors at a more or less traditional activation agency, and it took the creatives and account people a bit of time to adjust. Sometimes people would get hung up on details, other times we’d come up with surprising ideas. All in all, results were hopeful.

The journey EAST
Next, after starting B.R.A.I.N. Creatives, we embraced the EAST framework as used by the Nudge Unit of the British Government. This offered additional insights and we enjoyed looking at the same challenge from different angles as we explored how to make the desired behaviour Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. After a series of workshops and campaigns working from EAST, I discussed some pitfalls of the model with Richard Shotton, who suggested we develop our own framework from these experiences. I don’t know about you, but when Richard offers me advice, I tend to take it.

B.R.A.I.N. Framework
So off we went, inspired by models like EAST, B=MAP, MINDSPACE, B-COM, the 3B’s, Richard Shotton’s CREATS and the clever JTBD framework used by our friends at SUE Behavioural Design. We came up with the B.R.A.I.N. framework, which views Behaviour as the result of Resistance, Attraction, Incentives and Norms. Then we invited some of our most critical friends from scientific (behavioural economics, neuroscience), government and business backgrounds to critique it. It hurt. And it made it better.

We now use the B.R.A.I.N. framework as a tool for analysis, as a replacement for traditional briefing formats, as an idea generation tool and as an umbrella for workshops and lectures. And we are finding it useful beyond the confines of a traditional marketing brief. After all, in getting our kids to do their homework (B), resistance, attraction, incentives and norms are just as useful. All in all, the framework helps us to live our mission, which is to be ‘inspired by science’.

Your turn
I highly recommend working from a behavioural science framework. In my experience, frameworks are a way to move from an interest in behavioural science to actually applying it. yes, they’re all flawed, all different and all similar at the same time. Most of all, they’re inspiring and awesome and they may very well surprise you. Just like the humans that inspired them, then.