I get this question a lot – almost as often as “psychology? Can you read my mind?” (yes, you have a secret fear of your admin assistant). The question boils down to two basic queries: curiosity about what I actually do, and concern that I trick or manipulate people against their will.

Behavioural Science is a combination of psychology, behavioural economics, neuroscience, and marketing, so concern about manipulation is valid. We have all had the experience of buying something we didn’t want or need after being manipulated by clever or dishonest sales tactics. Our experiences of being manipulated for the sole benefit of some corporate entity are all too common. Meanwhile we go through life struggling to floss our teeth, exercise regularly, save for retirement, and convincing our teenagers to put on a sweater before turning up the heat. What if those clever marketers could help us with the things we want to change instead of buying another bag of potato chips?

Enter the behavioural scientist (in my mind I’m wearing a cape). Though it’s possible (and does happen) that our research can be used solely for financial gain, many behavioural scientists work at utilities, helping us save energy in our homes, or with municipalities, making it easier to bus, walk, and cycle to work. As a rule, behavioural scientists like me are interested only in making your life easier (and as much as possible, with your permission). Want to enjoy more exercise, eat vibrantly fresh food, or slash your climate change contributions? Then I’m your (slightly mad) scientist.*

Here is a typical (non-scientific) approach to behaviour change. It could apply to any number of behaviours, from getting your daughter to take out the trash, to getting employees to turn in their expense reports on-time. Here I use energy conservation as an example. See if you recognize yourself, even a little bit:

  1. The ask. A memo goes out: “all employees please turn off the lights before leaving the office.”
  2. The information/education. Another memo: “please turn off the lights to save the company $10 000 annually in electricity bills.”
  3. The carrot: announcement at meetings: “employees who turn off the lights every evening this month will receive a $100 bonus!”
  4. The demand: “all employees are required to turn off the lights before leaving at the end of the day.”
  5. And finally in desperation, the stick: “Teams with lights left on in their areas will be put on report.”

This approach works sometimes, but almost never with behaviours that are difficult (keeping off lost weight), ambiguous (cutting carbon emissions), or with people disinclined to do you a favour (bored or jaded employees).

The behavioural scientist’s approach is quite different:

  1. Pick a target behaviour. Do you want the easy behaviour or the most effective? One that will drive future change, or one that won’t rock the boat?
  2. Identify barriers: why aren’t the employees already turning off the lights? Maybe the cleaners are turning them back on. All the employee memos in the world won’t help you there!
  3. Build the program from there. Maybe you need an identity appeal “at Awesome Co. we’re committed to ethical operations…,” or a correctly timed and located prompt, friendly competition, feedback, or donate the financial savings to a charity.

Note the lack of coercion and negative feelings produced by a program like this one. Cutting company costs won’t make your employees feel good (especially if they fear their jobs are the next cut!). Even “helping the environment” for most people is such a weak motivator that it cannot produce change on its own (Scrimgeour & Helton, 2010; Scrimgeour, Helton, & Kemp, 2012).

At this point you’re probably thinking that motion sensors would be a simpler option. The official answer is maybe:


Picture your most common set of actions at your desk: you do the typey typey and you click your mouse around, and that’s what it’s all about (hey!). There’s so little movement that sensors’ “detection failure” rate in offices can be as high as 80% (Guo, Tiller, Henze, & Waters, 2010). Increasing the sensitivity or installing more sensors may not help you either. False detections can cause sensors to increase your energy use, and as many as 13% of sensors can be faulty right out of the box (Guo, Tiller, Henze, & Waters, 2010). By the time you install adjust, and replace enough sensors to operate the office lights effectively (plus the Smart system to go with them), you’ll have spent a lot of money and effort to eliminate a behaviour that doesn’t contribute much to total energy use (climate control and electronics typically use much more), in a way that will not cascade to employees adopting other efficiency behaviours. You’re better off with a sign.



*fun fact: an oft-quoted motto among psychologists is “it takes one to know one.”


Works Cited

Guo, X., Tiller, D., Henze, G., & Waters, C. (2010). The performance of occupancy-based lighting control systems: A review. Lighting Research and Technology, 42, 415 - 431.

Pelletier, L. (2013). Personal Communication. University of Ottawa.

Scrimgeour, L., & Helton, W. (2010). One Day Challenge: evaluation of a social marketing transport intervention. University of Canterbury Unpublished Honours Thesis.

Scrimgeour, L., Helton, W., & Kemp, S. (2012). Digital Persuasion: Effects of web-based information and beliefs on meat consumption attitudes,. University of Canterbury Unpublished MSc Thesis.