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Adopting the “Behavioral Scientist” Mindset As a Knowledge Manager


We are all behavioral scientists. 

I hear you protest – not me! I’m a knowledge manager. I don’t have a PhD, I can’t be a scientist, I am in the business of knowledge, not behavior. 

To which I reiterate: yes, we are all behavioral scientists. Think about it – as knowledge champions and managers, every day, we try and get our partners and teams to seek, share and use knowledge effectively so that they can design and implement family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) and other global health programs that improve and save lives. 

Read that sentence again: “seek”, “share’, “use” are all behaviors – actions in a particular context. When there are behaviors, there is a need for behavioral scientists. And we cannot leave this critical job to a small group of experts – all of us need to cultivate the “behavioral scientist” mindset to have lasting change. 

Behavioral science draws on insights from psychology, economics, anthropology and other social sciences to help us understand why we do what we do. The “science” part comes from an application of the scientific method: formulating testable hypotheses, testing them with data, making decisions based on the evidence, iterating to find new hypotheses to test when our previous intuitions are not observed in the data. 

So how do you go about adopting a behavioral scientist mindset? Here are three actionable ways: 

Be specific about the problem to solve. problem solution written on a chalkboardBeware of the “everything, everywhere, all at once” trap we often fall into when trying to change behavior, whether our own or others. How often do we make several New Year’s resolutions only to give up, exhausted, by the end of January? Behavior change is similar: it works best when there is focus on a clear behavioral challenge that is explicitly identified. The critical word here is “behavior” – while attitudes, thoughts, feelings are important, we need to ultimately measure the action. Actions are observable and measurable. A filter may be asking ourselves the following question: can I film them? For example, “listening to an FP podcast episode” or “downloading saving an article from FP insight” are measurable actions which are observable by an outsider. Being aware of the FP insight website, on the other hand, while important to the behavior of downloadingsaving, is not an action and therefore not enough for us to focus on for measurable behavior change. 

Focusing on behavior does not mean focusing only on the end outcome. For example, if we want people to regularly share their helpful information resources they use to inform their projects experiences on a website such as Knowledge SUCCESS’ FP iInsight, we may find that a large proportion of the community is not even registered on the site. This, then, becomes our first behavioral problem to solve, as further parts of the behavioral chain cannot function without this one. 

Further, solving a specific behavioral challenge such as getting people to download save an article, does not mean needlessly simplifying a complex and interconnected problem such as getting the entire ecosystem of FP/RH professionals to seek, share and use knowledge generated. It only helps us focus our resources rather than spreading ourselves too thin, tackling multiple large challenges.

Focus on solving the “intent-action” gap first. An illustration of a figure advancing up the stairs of different steps to problem solvingToo often, we ignore a simple way to enable behavior change: closing the intent-behavior gap. This gap can be as high as 40%.  At the time of doing the behavior, despite our best intentions, we forget, procrastinate, have a shortage of time or money or energy. We give up in the face of “sludge” – hassle factors and frictions that make it just easy enough for us to postpone or avoid the behavior. Imagine wanting to exercise but not being able to find one’s house keys before leaving the house – a simple matter like this leads us to postpone exercise for that day and before we know it, we have given up on our resolution to stay fit. Thinking about how we can make it as easy as possible and remove every possible friction for others is a core step: whether redesigning forms and surveys to highlight the critical parts, conveying information as simply as possible, or removing unnecessary steps and information. 

Keep a running list of ideas. Being a good behavioral scientist can be fun! It involves a curiosity about why people behave the way they do. For example: Why do my teammates, despite their good intentions, not use information that is freely available to them? Why do I, despite learning from others’ failures, not share my own failures with others? And it involves coming up with creative ideas to solve specific barriers, whether it is redesigning a rewards system to improve motivation or framing communication or designing reminders to help reduce or eliminate the intent-action gap. Illustration of two different puzzle pieces in a equation with a image of a lightbulb used as the solution to depict the outcome of the equation.

So where can we source ideas from? Steal with pride! Frameworks such as EAST framework from the Behavioral Insights Team (Make it Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely) give us a systematic way to think through ideas. We can borrow ideas from other behavioral scientists. Sometimes ideas come through books and websites, including Knowledge SUCCESS’s  FP insight. Other ideas may spring from our own experience – games and apps that use behavioral science principles, or products and services we use. How, for example, can we design our own version of the Amazon “one-click” system? 

Of course, then we come up against another problem: too many ideas, choices and resources can lead to choice and cognitive overload. So how can we keep track of ideas without getting overwhelmed? First, plan. Outline when and where you will spend time everyday noting some ideas. Make it a 15-minute calendar appointment. Second, keep a running list of ideas, maybe in a notebook, on your phone, wherever it is handy. You could group them through the EAST framework or simply note them down. Third, use community and social norms- find a fun place for a lunch break with some colleagues to share ideas or share them on your organization’s communication channel. The more we see others generate ideas (and vice-versa), the more of us will join in. 

I hope these ideas are useful and will help you confidently say: I am a behavioral scientist! 

What are your best ideas? Share your successes, challenges, and learnings with your peers in the FP Insight community to foster collaborative solutions and collective ideas.

Neela Saldanha

Executive Director, Yale Research Initiative on Innovation and Scale (Y-RISE) at Yale University

Neela Saldanha is the Executive Director at the Yale Research Initiative on Innovation and Scale (Y-RISE) at Yale University. Neela was previously the Founding Director of the Center for Social and Behaviour Change (CSBC) at Ashoka University, India. Neela has consulted with several organizations working in the area of poverty alleviation such as Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, Surgo Ventures, Noora Health, Innovations for Poverty Action (large-scale community mask trial in Bangladesh). Neela combines her skills in the social sector with deep private sector expertise. Neela was mentioned in Forbes magazine as “Ten Behavioral Scientists You Should Know”. Her work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Behavioral Scientist. Apolitical, Nature Human Behavior, The Lancet Regional Health, among others. She has a Ph.D. in Marketing (Consumer Behavior) from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from IIM Calcutta, India.