Behavioural Science: Man Behaving Curiously

By John McGurk, currently on sabbatical from the CIPD.

I have behaved curiously all my life. By curious I don’t mean unexplained weird behaviour or some kind of curtain twitching nosiness. I mean that I always want to learn and explore things. Though “lifelong learning” is an oft- used phrase, Here’s what it means for me as I embark on a sabbatical from the CIPD.

As I fast approach my sixth decade (57 and counting) I decided to embark upon on a Masters degree in Behavioural Science. It’s a mixture of economics open to the influence of psychology - psychology ready to engage with the world of economics all strongly buttressed by data analysis to keep it all in the realm of evidence and applied insights.

You might know behavioural science better as “nudging’. A nudge is a situation where choices are presented to people in a way which channels them towards the best option, often when they might not make that choice themselves, for a variety of reasons.

For example, if in a company pension plan, the lowest pension contribution you can make is 2% you might see that at the end of the options list, and the higher option of 4% will be presented more prominently. If we really want to nudge you, you might even be shown the highest contribution of 16% at the top. You might think that’s a bit of a steep deduction but low and behold your employer is paying 10%, so 6% is doable.

Most public policy is based (or at least partly informed) by economics and its guiding precepts that our behaviour is rational. That is, we optimise based on available choices the things we like best. That might not appear to other people to be “rational” in the commonly understood term of “reasonable”. So, if you cash in your pension and buy a Ducatti motorbike so you can slalom round the A9, I wouldn’t see that as rational. But the thing is you would. An economist sees it as your ‘revealed preference'. We act as though the world and everyone else acts that way as well. Don’t worry I will unpack some of the logic and reasoning as we advance.

Behavioural Science arose because the most basic thinking about how we buy things, how we value money, how we make big life changing decisions. Everything from planning a pension, to deciding whether to have a dog, are driven as much my emotion as reason. Behavioural science puts forward rigorous evidence from an interdisciplinary perspective on how we usually don’t act rationally. I will be sharing some of these insights as I encounter them in the lecture theatre and the seminar room. And from key writing in the field.

Right now*, (*when this was written) I am at Stirling University. It’s my first day (a rainy one) and freshers are swarming around as I did when as a slightly mature student of 26 when I first came here in 1989. I had made the decision, supported by my sage and now sadly departed wife Martha, to get myself off the railway and educated for my thirties. Now thirty years on I am back to burnish my learning again. 

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