I love the behavioral sciences.
Ever since I learned that you could study the gray lump behind our eyes, I’ve been obsessed.
At first, I was obsessed with neuroscience. Neurons, axons, dopamine, serotonin, vasopressin, oxytocin—those were my friends. They danced through my dreams as I thought about the sheer complexity of our minds and the stupefying tasks they can perform with ease.
Throughout my years at Stanford, I made the brain my focus.
Then I became enamored with psychology and behavioral economics. I read as much of Thaler, Kahneman, Ariely, and Tversky as my mind could handle, and let biases become my main squeeze.
There was a period back in 2010 when I had one of my walls covered in butcher paper with the names of biases big and small—well-known and unknown.
Identifiable victim effect…
Status quo bias…
These words bounced off my retinas as I drifted off to sleep each night.
Then I transitioned myself into the real world, where I battled with engineers and CEOs about the fate of different features, the colors of different buttons, and the science behind different product strategies.
It was in the midst of my first year of real-world work when I realized something:
I think that there might be something seriously wrong with behavioral scientists.
It struck me as I was reading a paper from one of those fancy journals. You know, the ones with official-sounding names and classy gothic fonts.
About halfway through the abstract, my eyes started to glaze over. I started to fall asleep (as one is wont to do when reading a scientific paper). When my head started to nod, I jolted awake.
“Ah! Where was I? What is this article about again…?”
And that’s when it hit me.
This paper had managed to say, in the most cryptic, highfalutin, and boring way possible that people are more likely to take their medicine if you remind them to take it.
I sat there for a good long while, wondering for a moment whether I would rather have my grandmother or a PhD in behavioral economics on my marketing team…
The answer was obvious.
Over the following year, I started to realize how much of the popular behavioral science research that was touted as “groundbreaking” or “fascinating” was just stuff that any person with a modicum of common sense could tell you in between sips of coffee.
“Groundbreaking study finds that when you make a behavior easier, people do it more.”
Who would have thought!?
“New study finds that if you compliment and encourage people to do a behavior, they do it more.”
I felt like I had taken the red pill from The Matrix. I saw most behavioral science research in a new way—it wasn’t pleasant, but it was the truth.
I couldn’t help but think that something was seriously wrong with those in the field. It was almost as if common sense wasn’t common to them.
And if they saw the world in such an odd, non-sensical matter how could they come up with a simple and accurate understanding of people and how they work?
I started to pay less attention to certain fields—mainly social psychology, which I saw a mine-field filled with bizarre (and likely false) findings.
Then the replication crisis hit…
We found out that fields like social psychology had replication rates of around ~25%.
We found out that, indeed, many behavioral scientists tend to be worse than a coin flip when it comes to properly perceiving reality.
Does this mean that the field is useless?
There are plenty of great researchers out there putting out useful and enlightening material. But it does mean that you have to be careful when tiptoeing through the literature. There are more bombs than nuggets of gold.
Those nuggets can be life-changing. When strung together they form a pair of X-ray lenses—allowing you to see beneath words and actions, to the mechanisms of why people do what they do.
It’s a beautiful thing and the topic of the book I’ve been slowly piecing together over the last year or so. I just finished up the manuscript and sent it to my editor this last weekend. I’ll give you more updates about it in the coming weeks as I finish the cover, choose the title, etc.
But the fact of the matter is that three of the most bone-chilling letters in the English language are P, H, and D. If you happen to see them appended to the end of a behavioral scientist’s name, you might want to run the other way. You’ll probably get hurt.