If you’re a behavioural scientist in the tech industry, you’re in high demand, writes Mark Bell, Chief Experience Officer at Dare. Amazon has gone on a hiring spree, hoping to capture some of the latest thinking into human behaviour and the talent that goes with it – the question is why?

Yet the form of behavioural science the likes of Amazon are looking into is going further than the behavioural science we are used to reading about. Take nudge theory - the famous psychological technique which seeks to subtly nudge people into changing their behaviours. Everyone has realised the benefits of nudge, to the point where it has started to be seen as something which could encompass everything.

Currently, the way nudge theory is practiced by many companies and agencies is actually just chasing after the latest buzzwords: “social proof”, “loss aversion” and “scarcity value” for example.

In reality, increasingly promising insights lie beyond the basic applications of nudge theory, and deeper into the often misunderstood field of behavioural science. We need to follow Amazon’s lead and revisit it.

Nudge has true value – and we can go further

Nudge theory has been highly influential; one of the founding pioneers of nudge in the UK, Richard Thaler, just received the 2017 Nobel Prize for economics.

This is because nudges are inherently useful. Pictures of police officers in shop windows tend to discourage theft, or there’s the famous image of a fly on urinals which encourages its users to better aim - the evidence is that it can work.

It has been favoured by the likes of David Cameron and Barack Obama in government policymaking, and is popular with business leaders, public health bodies, and educators alike.

Cameron’s “Nudge Unit”, which Thaler advised, claimed to have increased payment of £30m a year in income tax, simply by introducing a line in their reminder letters informing the recipient that most of the neighbours had already paid. And it is credited with encouraging 100,000 extra organ donations a year.

It’s unsurprising then that everyone has championed nudge theory. Nudge is everywhere, and its applications are far-reaching.

But we can take nudge theory further. Currently the way brands and agencies approach it is quite limited, and people are starting to realise this.

Nudges change the way information is presented in a decision-making context, making a particular choice easier or more attractive. They are highly successful if you know the specific, impactful question or problem to solve.

For this, you need a more comprehensive understanding of behavioural science.

What is beyond nudge?

We need to step back and look at deeper psychological truths, to better understand the human beings whom we need to influence. Only then we can have access to new and innovative ways to apply nudge theory.

We need to look at how people actually behave and make decisions, using the latest psychological research to dig into the subconscious and irrational influences that traditional market research tends to miss out on.

And now we can use technologies such as machine learning, which allow you to take the data you’ve gathered from a specific consumer (with their permission) and use it to “learn” how they behave and predict what they want.

If we’re focusing exclusively on one application of behavioural economics, instead of the overall picture, we will struggle to get to the real behavioural or subconscious truths of why people make decisions the way they do. We would just be left with a blunt tool that works some of the time, instead of a comprehensive model of human behaviour which we can learn from all of the time.

This is important when you think about how human behaviour is not a fundamentally constant thing. It is cyclical; what we desire and aspire to changes from generation to generation, and depends on a whole host of circumstances, including the political and economic.

Rarely do you see a company actually using proper, psychological methodology for identifying behavioural truths in people. But as companies like Amazon and the tech giants (Google, Apple, Microsoft, and IBM) start to look deeper at what motivates human behaviour, increasingly brands will need access to these insights.

Why Amazon is going after behavioural scientists

Amazon will move forward leaps and bounds hiring more behavioural scientists – and other companies should follow suit.

It has already been a pioneer in pushing the envelope in this sense. Beginning with delivering products to your home, Amazon was one of the first tech giants to incorporate data-driven and personalised nudge marketing.

As the competitive pressure increases, and with technologies like machine learning becoming more sophisticated, they are hoping to build more comprehensive models of human behaviour and position themselves as the ultimate authority on the customer experience.

This is evidenced by their work on Amazon Echo. Recognising an opportunity to make it as easy as possible to get products to home, they saw an opportunity in emerging smart home technology. The idea of the “smart speaker” as a more natural way of using voice-control versus your talking to your phone was built on their understanding of behavioural science. They knew the kinds of questions they needed to ask to deliver the best experience for end users, and get ahead of Apple and Google in this space.

And we’ll see this going forwards as its AI “Alexa” continues to develop. Expect to see more natural pauses in the AIs speech to make it sound a little more human, but without going so far as to make it “too human.” Mimicking human behaviour is something which all experience should do to some extent, and nudge theory alone doesn’t effectively solve this problem.

Behavioural economics is at its most groundbreaking when it informs methodologies and drives strategy – not when it is incorporated as a back-story explanation for something you have already done. Deeply understanding consumer behaviour should allow us to actively engage with people and explore their behaviours.

We all need to be more informed with the latest psychological research, to help us think beyond our existing preconceptions. If the goal is changing and sustaining behaviour over time, we can’t afford to be complacent.