Tag Archives: understanding human behaviour

In 2013 we will solve the problem of extreme forgetfulness – again

In 2012 there seemed to be a lot of new content related to understanding human behaviour. From bottom up via neuroscience & biopsychology, top down via social science, social psychology and behavioural economics and middle out via cognitive psychology.

At least it seemed like a lot to me, probably because I was actively looking to feed my own hunger for knowledge in this area.

A look at Google Trends however shows that 2012 was just an average year for ‘behavioural psychology’ headlines compared to the heyday peaks from 2004 – 2006. Closer inspection indicated that this specific phrase is only trending in the UK, Australia, Canada and India. Ahhh – I thought – although American by birth, these days I speak an Australian variation of the Queen’s English and therefore looked for ‘behavioural psychology’ trends.

If you look at the trend for the US spelling, ‘behavioral psychology’, you see that 2012 was a pretty good year for the search term. Maybe the US is just catching up with the rest of the English speaking world, or maybe the rest of the English speaking world has started to use the US spelling for publications. Or maybe something else.

For what it’s worth, if you look at ‘cognitive psychology’ – a search phrase which avoids the spelling issue, the graph looks more like the English result for ‘behavioural psychology’ while ‘social psychology’ searches have been on a definite downward slope since 2005.

While I pursue my Google led education, trend analysis of search terms helps me to visualise the long tail of the usage of concepts which might have been new to me, but obviously have been evolving for some time.

So how do these results relate to forgetfulness? Well, trend and citation analysis can help highlight the mind boggling amount of content that is related to these behavioural concepts which are often described by present day authors and journalists as new and groundbreaking. While the old saying that a wizened guru expert has forgotten more than you’ll ever know about a subject might not be true, it seems quite likely that our collective consciousness has forgotten almost all of the things ever written about behavioural psychology.

Recently, I saw a number of twitter and blog discussions putting forward the view that Nassim Taleb’s new Antifrigility book is old news, repackaged by an attention grabbing popular author with a strong (well, arrogant) personality. Various references were sited to academics, economists and business commentators over years gone by who had posited similar or perhaps more profound ideas but with a less flashy style – from Ackoff to Argyris, Schien to Schon, Snowden to Stacey, Plato to Popper and on.

The pattern of debate sounded very familiar to me – it’s the same one you can find in other contexts related to the study of soft systems in general and human behaviour theory in particular.

This year I enjoyed consuming content by authors such as Duncan Watts, Daniel Kahneman, and Nassim Taleb, I have also followed meme trails back to earlier work done in the early 20th century to the present and can see that each generation carries notable contributors to the field however many of the contributions involve similar concepts perhaps with a different emphasis or nuanced definition (or maybe even just a different spelling).

It certainly doesn’t help when some of the high profile research in the area is found to be fraudulent. None the less, even when there are genuine scientific advances in the study of human behaviour, these advances don’t seem to have much impact on how we behave. We are still blindly assuming cause and effect where there is none and we continue to assume that our decisions reflect choices of control over the environment.

If you follow the behavioural science long tail back up stream you find that successive generations get similar insights from their experience, write it up to fleeting effect and interest, and then it becomes forgotten, certainly by the mainstream and, in many cases, within the social science community itself.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter if someone published a good proof highlighting consistently poor decision making behaviour under rigorous experimental conditions in 1920 or 1940 or 1960 or 1980. If the insight isn’t accepted into the mainstream, it doesn’t contribute to the evolution of knowledge. If the material didn’t catch on when it was published, it’s probably not going to catch on now.

It’s almost a moot point whether the ideas of Nassim Taleb are original if they were never incorporated into ‘common knowledge’. To some degree, in behaviour science, credit must be given not just to the idea but also to the effective communication and adoption of that idea. Without effective communication, we won’t internalise the insight and improve our behaviour and evolve the practice and the theory. Therein lies the great opportunity for those in the business of popularising behavioural practices – you can be successful for the packaging even if your science is weak or your insights were described and published thousands of times before.

I predict that in 2013 the long tail of behavioural science will continue, possibly even with some upwards kinks with new discoveries coming from neurobiology. I’m also confident that we will once again find more proof that we over simplify the world and over elevate our individual roles within it. Once again, we will find this intriguing, and continue the long commentary as observers rather than participants. By the end of the year, we will have traversed the the circumference of the goldfish bowl, and all will be new again.

I hope you enjoy this year’s swim around the bowl.