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Culture: the missing behavioural link

News, 05 May 2017
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LONDON: Behavioural economics is too focused on the individual and needs to look beyond the immediate discipline to understand the social influences that affect people as well, an industry figure has argued.

Speaking at a WARC event, Behavioural Economics in Advertising, marketing and behaviour change consultant Mark Earls pointed out that "culture shapes all of our behaviour all of the time". (For more details, read WARC's report: Culture, social choices and a kick up the backside: what marketers can learn from behavioural economics.)

But the claims made by behavioural scientists tend to be based on a WEIRD sample – participants are drawn from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic societies – and, even more specifically, many studies have been conducted with psychology undergrads at American colleges.

"Middle-class white boys, mostly," said Earls: "probably the least representative sample of the entire universe."

Researchers cannot assume that there is little variation across human populations or that these "standard subjects" are as representative of the species as any other population.

"Culture," Earls advised, "is one of those social things that is really important and we ignore it in behavioural economics at our own peril."

Not only have behavioural scientists reached generalised conclusions based on questionable samples, they have also "smuggled in assumptions about how human beings are": chief among these, according to Earls, is the idea that we are individuals making independent decisions.

Not so, he says. "The most important part of the piece, the bit that we need more work on is that we are super social.

"We use the brains of other people. We outsource the cognitive load day-in day-out from the day we are born to the day we die."

That leads to socially informed choices, about everything from purchasing car insurance to expensive electronic items.

Classic adoption curves reflect the fact that people copy others, said Earls. "Behavioural economics," however, "has generally represented but doesn't include social [considerations]."

Data sourced from WARC

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