The Role of Behavioral Science in Communications

December 2019
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Edward Bernays, widely known as “the father of public relations,” referred to our practice as an applied social science. In his book, “Crystallizing Public Opinion,” he defined public relations as “information given to the public, persuasion directed at the public to modify attitudes and actions, and efforts to integrate attitudes and actions of an institution with its publics and of publics with those of that institution.”

A message must be received by the target audience, get the audience’s attention, be understood, be believed, be remembered and ultimately be acted upon. At the end of the day, our endpoint is behavioral change. 

To improve our effectiveness, we can benefit from applying behavioral science to our business challenges — learning what predispositions, experiences and contexts are influencing our target audience’s behavior. This is an approach that agencies like Edelman are taking to counseling clients. 

Felicia Joy, senior vice president for transformation and head of behavioral science for Edelman, spoke on the topic during a workshop at this year’s PRSA International Conference in San Diego. 

The presentation focused on how to merge behavioral science and communications to increase your impact and motivate people to change their behaviors. She addressed core scientific drivers of human decision-making and behavior, and explained how you can leverage these in designing an intervention to address a specific issue.

The behavioral science theories she mentioned you can use as foundation to your intervention included:

1. Choice Architecture: Design the environment and context to change decisions and behavior (e.g., adding sensory descriptions to a product).

2. Default Effect: Offer a preset option so the decision is passive; introducing low-calorie meals, where the clients don’t have to actively choose and are defaulted to that option, resulted in a 48 percent increase in consumption of low-calorie meals.

3. Social Norms: People’s behavior is influenced by their peers and social expectations. If a daycare introduced a new fee for late-arriving parents, we could assume that there would be fewer late arrivals. However, if we apply this theory, we know that instead, the number of late-arriving parents will increase because the “frowned-upon” action has now become a socially accepted behavior.

4. Fresh Start Effect: People are more likely to act when time-based milestones create newness (e.g., starting to exercise). How many of us have said — I’ll start next Monday, when we could in fact start on any day. 

5. Salience Effect: People tend to focus most on prominent, concrete information and items.

6. Framing: Due to loss aversion, people hate losing two times more than they love gaining. This theory explains why casino clients continue betting and find it more challenging to leave when they have made a win.

How do you apply these? First, you define the issue and make no assumptions. Research will help you avoid making assumptions and ensure you understand what predispositions are influencing the undesired behavior. 

Second, determine what the desired behavior is and what theories you may leverage to promote this behavior change. Then, determine the messaging and brainstorm measurable solutions. According to Joy, n=200 would be a representative sample to test your intervention idea(s). As with any scientific research, you will need a control and a test group to compare results. If your intervention ideas are successful in shifting your audience’s undesired behavior to the desired behavior, then you are ready to duplicate and scale your solution. 

As with all campaigns, you will need to set goals, identify what will be measured and how, reuse your test idea and adapt it to the channel you choose to use to communicate. 

Lastly, you will be ready to launch your intervention at full scale and show your client how communications can be a valuable tool to move your organization closer to its business goals.


photo credit: shutterstock

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