I’ve written a lot about behavioural economics here – for which I apologise. I do find it fascinating, as a means to understand the emotional context for people’s decision-making. After all, in marketing, isn’t that we’re supposed to be obsessed by?

Thought that’s not always the case. I remain frequently amazed how incurious some organisations are about their own customers at times. Perhaps that comes back to the points I made here about the need to systemically provide stimulus and direction to teams and individuals. Anyways, I wanted to make it clear that on no account do I believe behavioural economics is the be-all and end-all. For a start, so much of its value as a discipline lies in how effectively its validated some of what we’ve already been doing: insight, the why behind the what, contextual relevance, compelling messages, providing solutions to problems.

So, it can help us with universal insights, attributable to the uniform nature of our behaviour. But what about the differences between us. In the executive mind resides the stuff that makes each of us unique. The mores, the values, the social norms that guide us. There’s no way we could argue these impulses are uniform or universal. BE can help us establish mechanisms to optimise people’s behaviour, but it’s limited in helping us to address the underlying commitment to that behaviour.

Of course, this is the critique of the behavioural economics put by Mark Earls under the Herd model. Since we’re fundamentally social animals, reducing the analysis of our behaviour to a individual model of behaviour is a mis-step. That’s not to say books like Nudge couldn’t accommodate a social model of behaviour, but it does little to explicitly address it. For a full discussion of the role of networks in public policy (economic or otherwise), go here.

By way of a very quick example that highlights the distinction, at MEC we’ve looked at the area of job-seeking. We found that Choice Architecture thinking was great stimulus to find ways to help make people’s job-seeking behaviour more effective. But it felt little more than tinkering at the edges when attempting to affect people’s evaluation of work as something neither inherently valuable or potentially beneficial.  Is it worth the aggravation to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for?

Real behaviour change required something deeper, overhauling sometimes generations worth of assumptions, a complex mesh of social, cultural and personal norms that no amount of nudging can compete with. Unless, that is, you want to resort to coercion.

So, BE isn’t social, it’s individual.

But beyond that, there’s a sense that the answers it provides might sometimes feel too easy, too uniform, too universal to be right all the time. The distinction between automatic/executive modes of thinking feel bang on. And while BE is great at the automatic, it’s less so on the executive.

And, in this space, there’s another field of study that’s quietly unearthing a wealth of evidence to challenge the idea that we’re ruled exclusively by the need for shortcuts, or that we default always to what’s easiest.

It seems that engaging the executive mind can not only be done, but is frequently achieved by appealing to the best of our psyche, not the most base, or laziest.

For anyone looking for more edifying conclusions as to what unites and delights us, then read on….

In Fun Inc, Tom Chatfield makes a compelling case for Games as a crucible of human insight: it has huge potential to effect change, engage communities, provide psychological insights, diffuse technological advances, influence the way we work, and signpost the way we might all live soon.

And incredibly it does this, not through escapism, fantasy or as the preserve of geeky young men in bedrooms, but by presenting a uniquely calibrated mix of challenge and reward, and making it accessible to an unprecendted number and variety of people.

Video games need to be intuitive – no-one’s being paid to play them. They need to be stretching – anything too easy is boring. Increasingly, they’re community-based, and focus on extraordinarily complex and time-consuming task completion. In short, they make difficult things fun.

And the more difficult things are, the more fun they seem.

That this sort of appeal to our better selves doesn’t only exist in games is strong evidence against the reductive assumptions that nudging makes of us all. Look at YouTube for example. It’s familiar and undeniably mainstream, and is no sense a game, yet it highlights how applicable some of gaming’s most important mechanisms are to us in other realms.

  1. Collecting: as a YouTube user, the capacity to gather a list of ‘favourites’, to be displayed as part of your personal identity, and seen online by anyone else who wants to participate
  2. Points: the secret to all games, and the true addiction. Anyone who’s posted a video can assess their ‘performace’ through the number of views, clicks, stars, and links that make up the public index of your profile
  3. Feedback: evidence of a dynamic community, and an essential element of any site deemed successful, despite it leaving the user open to rebuke as much as reward
  4. Exchanges: a core transactional component of games that underlies the new virtual economies developed within the gaming world – visibile in YouTube in the form of video responses to video posts, with all the tributes, mash-ups, re-edits, etc that we know and love
  5. Customisation: with any profile allowing opportunities to reconfigure their users’ experience, the remake/remodel credo is as strong here as with any avatar

The point to all this, of course, is that none of this is especially easy, but it does represent a course of action taken by a huge amount of people. The YouTube example is illustrative, but the principles could probably be applied to most kinds of social network activity, and are therefore representative of the kind of complexity people are prepared to take on in other, equally public, spheres.

So, behavioural economics makes sense of a lot of things. What is misses out, however, might be the most important element of ourselves. People’s natural leaning can be to be creative, to interact,  to build, to make. And, of course, to work incredibly hard to create social value for themselves and for others.

It means we shouldn’t let ourselves think we’ve found definitive answers.

Which should be easy, as long as we continue to make curiosity a virtue.