The Irony of Neuroscience & Behaviour Change

by Andy Polaine on December 7, 2011

in General

I have been enjoying the Brain Culture: Neuroscience & Society series via BBC Radio 4’s podcasts recently. In the series Matthew Taylor looks at how developments in neuroscience are changing the way we think about everything from law and punishment to education and marketing. As a fan of Raymond Tallis’s writing, who is somewhat of a neuroscience sceptic, I found Taylor’s account pretty balanced, but not without asking some provocative questions.

The last episode looked at the use of neuroscience with regards to behaviour change, perhaps most famous through the Nudge concept favoured by the previous and present UK governments. Its also something that has gained some attention in service design and public policy/social design fields as a potential tool for designing for behavioural change.

The theory is essentially that by bypassing our brains’ rational level, we can be nudged into changing our behaviour on the semi-unconscious level, because our brains frequently make decisions before we are rationally conscious of them. This is put into practice in political environments, such as election campaigns, policy and public service systems (as in the case of using it for preventing no-shows to doctor’s appointments) or in the slightly scary sounding field of neuromarketing. On the one hand the practice appears extremely devious and devalues our sense of self and of being rational beings because it denies us the possibility of changing out nature (Tallis’s argument). On the other hand, neuromarketers claim that these techniques are no different from anyone who has baked bread or made fresh coffee in order to sell their house during viewings.

Science was built on the foundation of rational thought. Until recently economics and business thinking was also based on this rationale, much of it still is. The irony of the new discoveries in neuroscience, it seems to me, is that rational science is essentially getting excited about something designers and many others have know all along. People aren’t rational and make decisions – from financial investments to buying a car to getting married – based on their gut feelings, which they mostly post-rationalise afterwards. It’s also why we are so naturally rubbish at understanding statistics and probabilities. Science has taken several decades to rationally prove that we are irrational.

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