On 5-6 of September, I attended the 2019 edition of the Behavioural Exchange (BX 2019) at Queen Elisabeth II Centre. London. BX is an annual event that “gathers together the world’s leading policy-makers, academics and practitioners to explore new frontiers in behavioural science” [1]. The organisers have made good on their promise, setting the bar high right from the opening ceremony and keeping it there all the way to the end.

In the interest of space, this entry will be ‘only’ about the first three presentations (the reasons for the air quotes should be clear soon), and readers can exercise their imagination about what happened in afterwards.

Methodological diversity is at the core of behavioural sciences

In the opening event, David Halpern, author of the book “Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference” explained that over the past decade the behavioural sciences have been gaining traction in various areas – academia, organisations, governmental agencies, etc. – as they continues to build bridges that circulate insights between laboratories and the offices of large-scale policymakers, passing through private companies and RTC (randomized control trials) along the way. The cement holding these bridges together is an almost obsessive demand to use experiments to confront theories and facts. But this is a sort of unfair confrontation because when in a tie, experimental data is always favoured over theories. Well-argued theories can be quite convincing but experiments are the real catalysts of change.

Halpern highlighted the fundamental need of replication – repeating experiments as often as possible, to see if the same results hold true. When explained like that, replication may sound like a waste of resources, an unwanted redundancy. But this is simply not true. Replications test the robustness of what has been found previously. Can anyone get the same results if they follow the same procedures somewhere else? A positive answer means that the findings are scalable, that they can be used to benefit many instead of just a few. A negative answer means that either the procedure hasn’t been properly explained, the critical variables and processes haven’t been uncovered, or that it was just a straight up falsehood. A negative answer, what some might like to call a ‘failure’, is as relevant as a ‘success’ in an experiment.

At that point, a 30-sec pause in Halpern’s speech built the proper cliffhanger to what he was saying next: “a lot of good ideas simply won’t work… and that’s ok”. One of the greatest advantages of laboratory experiments is that they create a safe, controlled environment for failure, the mother of innovation. The history of science is full of examples in which failure and errors have guided people’s attentions to details that would be buried under the label of ‘success’. Innovation in behavioural sciences that can only happen if failures are as encouraged as successes.

Four ingredients to social change… or lack thereof

Next on the stage was Cass Sunstein, who co-authored the best-selling book “Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness” with Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler. This time, instead of talking about nudges, Sunstein discussed the fundaments of social change.

He proposed four factors that may help us understand why some social movements take everyone by surprise and shake the very structures of society, while others that seem equally relevant are met with apathy and fade away. They are: 1- Preference falsification, 2-Diverse thresholds, 3- Social Interdependence, and 4- Group Polarization.

Preference Falsification means that people tend to be unaware of their ‘true’ feelings and opinions towards various social issues, or refrain from expressing things that do not conform with ongoing social norms. One example is the #MeToo movement. Public outrage and a wave of disclosures of cases of sexual assault and related behaviour were suddenly triggered by a small number of cases related to public figures came to light. The victims have kept their humiliation and outrage silent for decades, until the hashtag went viral in 2017. So, why did they decided to expose their experiences all of a sudden, in unison?

Sunstein explained that “when social norms start to collapse or to be revised, people are unleashed, in the sense that they feel free to reveal what they believe and prefer, to disclose their experience, and talk and act as they wish” Once they do, “discovery of the intensity of people’s outrage, and event its existence, can be startling” [2].

The second ingredient to social change, Diverse Thresholds, relies on the fundamental fact that humans are a social species, highly attuned and influenced by the behaviour of others. Imagine that a person, for an unknown reason, publicly admits to having lived an experience that others would expect them to ‘keep silent’ or expresses disagreement with an ongoing state of things (a ‘social norm’). Sunstein categorizes them as ‘zeroes’, replacing names like pioneers, revolutionaries, desperate, troublemakers, etc. ‘Zeroes’ are people who don’t need someone else to do something before they take the initiative of doing/ saying it. Each person has a (diverse) threshold in terms of the number of people that they need to observe before they join in the action. Some are ‘Ones’ in the sense that they would do or say things only if they see someone else first. ‘Twos’ would require that at least two people do the same thing, and so on. For social movements to happen, there must be a fortuitous occasion in which Ones and Twos observe and follow the actions of Zeroes. The actions of ‘Zeroes’ will cause no effect if observed by people with higher ‘Threshold numbers’ for social actions.

The kicker is that we usually don’t know our own threshold for action, and they tend to vary from topic to topic. “It’s like unlocking another voice in our hearts, and we suddenly start seeing with another pair of eyes, because some form of permission has been given”, said Sunstein. Our social threshold has been reached, and we are surprised by the intensity of our own feelings.

To learn about the other two factors for social change or more about the first two, one should read Sunstein’s latest book “How Change Happens”.  My signed copy sits proudly on my office desk, full of notes and dog-eared pages.

Narrative Economics, economic theories and social media

The third talk was from Nobel Prize winner, Robert Shiller. My admiration for Dr. Shiller’s work dates back many years, and is based on the breath, profoundness, and robustness of his ideas. It sprouted from his work on how and why financial market form speculative bubbles. As I was still catching up on this isse, he published the book “Phishing for Phools: the economics of manipulation and deception”, where he elaborated on how the so-called ‘Irrational Exuberance’ of consumers affects market equilibrium. And before I could fully incorporate these ideas, Shiller’s innovative vein led to the notion of Narrative Economics, a masterpiece. Keeping track of Shiller’s ideas is exhausting!

Shiller’s work has a distinctive characteristic. He typically bases and illustrates his arguments with an extensive historical exposition, and as a history buff myself, I would change it for nothing. This presentation was no different, and I sat on the edge of the chair as soon as the first historical timeline appeared. Shiller started by saying that “one of the most powerful tools to influence human behaviour in through speeches and story-telling”. Developed in parallel to the evolution of humankind, the ‘art’ of story-telling was used as a means to spread ideas, create emotional connections, foster human interaction and find agreement between groups.

An obvious fact that has been largely ignored by economic theories is that humans don’t react to facts and events but to stories. Stories create emotional connections in us by injecting meaning to a sequence of events. Narratives last much longer than facts.

Nationalism is an example. We all thrive on Identity, fundamentally care about ‘who we are’ and want to see ourselves as ‘authentic’ by matching what we do to some core idea. When we hear a praise about our country, we assume that it’s a praise for ourselves. Behavioural sciences offer ways to deepen our understanding of how humans form ‘heuristics’, i.e. the processes through which we quickly form opinions about everything that is told to us.

As an economist, one of the historical timelines that really caught my attention was a chart showing the rise and fall of mainstream theories of economics since the 1940’s. It included the Multiplier accelerator, IS-LM model and the Real Business Cycle. Theories, Dr. Shiller argues, are essentially stories guiding how economist see social and economic events.

The relevance of Narrative Economics is highlighted by Social Media. Throughout the history of human kind, story-telling has been a social mechanism to shape agreements between groups, but social media today has been doing something different. It facilitates the finding of like-minded people and deters the interaction with those who hold alternative points of view. The social consequences are out there, up for grabs to those looking for critical study topics.

Breathing and regrouping

At that point, lunch was a welcome break to gather my thoughts and stretch my hands, warm after the frantic exercise of writing down notes. If the BX 2019 had ended at that point, it would already be a brilliant exposition of some of the most intriguing, current, and potentially revolutionizing ideas within behavioural sciences today.

To recollect, David Halpern had advocated the relevance of methodological diversity in behavioural sciences, saying that no research method is able to fully cover a phenomenon as complex and the human behaviour. Every method has limitations and advantages. Laboratory help uncover the basic functions of human behavior and variables to be scaled up and tested in RCTs (randomized controlled trials). Those guide cost-efficient policymaking. The circle then closes when policies and trials feed questions back to the laboratories. Failures and (re)adjustments are to be expected and welcomed, as they pave the way to novel findings. Then, Cass Sunstein shed four beacons of light onto the obscure puzzle of social movements. He argues that preference falsification, diverse thresholds, social interdependence, and group polarization may either unleash unexpected earth-shattering movements or explain why they fade into oblivion.

In my mind, Sunstein intriguing propositions formed a central image framed by Halpern’s ideas and I felt the urge to expose the four factors to the arena of empirical experimentation. The soundtrack to that image was Robert Shiller’s voice whispering that narratives and story-telling guide the way I think about the world around me. At this point, my storyline was not difficult to discern. I pictured a quest to help change our society, using tools moulded by experimentation. As predicted by Dr. Shiller, the BX 2019 has made me feel well in my skin, interacting with like-minded scientists who believe that behavioural sciences can improve our world. My sense of identity has been strengthened and I say: long live the narrative!



[2] Sunstein, C.R. (2019). Growing Outrage. Behavioural Public Policy, 3: 1-16.

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