The hubris of most applied behavioral scientists

In college, I was a biological determinist.

This was natural, since I was studying neuroscience. All I thought about all day were chemicals, genes, and electrical currents.

When you’re looking at people from that perspective, it becomes pretty hard to see us humans as anything other than complex chains of billiard balls, bumping into each other in a pre-determined yet somewhat random way. The room for conscious choice and free will in that picture is close to zero.

After I graduated, and started to study other fields, my stance softened a bit. I saw more room for the environment and choice. “Yes, we may heavily shaped by our genetic lottery, but nurture is where it’s at!” I read books like Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

Though I saw problems with each of these books, I had this deep desire to see us humans as pieces of clay. Young clay is soft and malleable. You can shape it into anything you want. As you leave it out in the air, and it gets older, it starts to stiffen a bit; but you can still make substantial changes to it.

That became my new model.

Then, at one point, I got really into social psychology and behaviorism.

Each of these schools of thought sees organisms as (mostly) blank slates. What determines their differences over time are their experiences, which determine what they learn. 

According to this school of thought, what makes Einstein Einstein is his practice regimen and all of the books he read. What makes Lebron James so good at basketball are the tens of thousands of hours he’s practiced.

But there’s a problem with that point of view… and I bet you caught it when I referenced Lebron James.

Do you really think that what makes Lebron James so good at basketball is his intense practice?

Yes, that’s a part of it. But what if he was 5’9'' and really skinny. Would he be any good? Would he be able to make it to the NBA? The answer to that is, clearly, no.

Even if 5’9'' Lebron practiced for 20,000 hours by the time he was 18, he would be crushed as a pro. It doesn’t matter how good of a shooter you are if you can’t arc your ball above the 6’9 defender in front of you. The fact that Lebron is 6’8'', has a wing span of 7’0'', weighs a lean 270 and can accelerate as quickly as a spry 5’8'' sprinter is remarkable, and mostly due to the genetic lottery.

So, obviously, both nature (our genes) and nurture are important to the behaviors and outcomes we see in the people around us.

As behavior designers, however, we can only really shape the environment (nurture); which we can do in the following two ways:

  1. We can change the environment.
  2. We can pick the environment

And our ability to do both of these things is usually fairly limited.

This is because every single person on the planet is constantly in the process of shaping their environments to fit their innate needs and predispositions.

We can organize the environment of someone who is messy and has very little conscientiousness, but if we show up a week later, it will be a wreck again. Their nature will shape the environment, rather than the environment shaping their nature.

In addition, each of us does a pretty good job of picking our environments based upon on natural strengths and weaknesses. It’s not common for people to be in completely inappropriate environments. (Though, in the modern context, especially at the higher socioeconomic levels, it seems like it’s becoming easier and easier to pick environments that are bad fits.)

Let me give you a quick example of environmental selection: it’s unlikely that a socially anxious, shy person is going to become a salesperson and join a boisterous sales organization. First of all, it’s unlikely that they’re going to even desire to join such a group—it’s just distasteful to their personality. Second, it’s unlikely that those choosing members for their team are going to be attracted to the shy, socially anxious individual. So, in that case the individual’s natural preferences will pull them towards environments that are in accordance with their predispositions; and once in that new environment, they’ll modify it to be in even greater accordance with their nature—they’ll volunteer for fewer committee positions that require lots of social interaction, will choose to go to fewer happy hours & mixers, and so on.

At this point, you may be a little confused: “So you’re saying that people seek out environments that support their inborn nature, and change their environments to be even more in-line with their inborn nature? And if the environment changes, they’ll work to bring things back to their preferred equilibrium? Does that mean there’s no hope for us behavior designers?”

And the answer to that is: No. THERE *IS* HOPE.

But it does mean that most applied behavioral scientists out there are likely overselling themselves to you. They're disregarding the role of nature, and overestimating the pliability of people. This probably isn’t being done intentionally (in most instances), it’s just that a lot of the people in the field don’t have a comprehensive background in a diverse array of academic literature. A lot of them are steeped in social psychology (which, if you remember, has a 25% replication rate). No wonder they’ll tell you that humans are pieces of clay that they can shape effortlessly; they’re working with a laughably wrong model of the world.

So, given the importance of our predispositions, how should we think about behavior change?

For that, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Until then,


Jason Hreha