Are some behavioural insights easier to stomach than others?

Every so often, when I’m running workshops on using insights from behavioural sciences, I’m struck by how the reaction to some effects differs from others. I’ve mentioned this before in relation to the use of smileys.

And I think I’ve noticed that, in public services and policy, some effects have been used more readily than others. The example of organ donation, with policy makers in England choosing to use exposure effect and those in Wales using defaults is a good example.

So I now have a theory: that there are some behavioural effects that can be understood and accepted even with the ‘rational-agent’ model. Of course people are more likely to do something if you make it the thing that happens unless they act! And of course people are more likely to do something if you ask them to do it! I can believe these two things without accepting that my instincts are perfectly adapted to an environment very unlike the one I live in.

I hadn’t really put two and two together when I did my talk last week for Political Innovation. I don’t think it would have changed my argument, but it might have made it more nuanced.

So, is there a set of insights from behavioural sciences that decision makers (and people generally) are more comfortable with, because they don’t fundamentally challenge our learned understanding of what people are like (that is, basically in control of our actions, and largely acting with purpose)? And a set that are more troubling, because they alert us to how driven we are by herd instincts and evolutionary imperatives? The latter set would include hyperbolic discounting, social proof and many others.

Am I on to something? Is this a new insight, or so obvious that no-one has bothered to point it out? Or does this sort of analysis already exist? Let me know.

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