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How we are, and why that matters

The notion of a profit-maximising individual who makes decisions consciously, consistently and independently is, at best, a very partial account of who we are. Behavioural Science is now finding what most of us intuitively sense: humans are a fundamentally social species, responding to the environment around us and often relying on ‘gut instincts’.

The RSA’s Social Brain Behavioural Science strand believes that human behaviour is shaped by a different set of influencing factors than rational choice theory claims. Human beings are embedded in complex social networks and are highly sensitive to social and cultural norms. We are largely habitual creatures, and often rely on automatic responses rather than carefully deliberated decisions about our next course of action. Our behaviour is context-dependent, shaped by the design or organic existence of our immediate environment. We can be tempted by instant gratification, despite wanting to look to the long-term. Our evolutionary past still has a strong hold on how we make decisions today. And we are better at rationalising than being ‘rational’.

This matters because so often when addressing current social, political and environmental challenges, many fail to fully grasp that social context is not an afterthought or a variable to be controlled. Rather, it is a defining feature of how we think, learn and behave

The RSA’s perspective is that just as a product designer must have a rich understanding of his or her materials, so too must a service designer. And in the case of service designers, their materials are humans.

Therefore the Social Brain Behavioural Science strand of work aims to bring theories of human nature to light, applying behavioural insight to range of topics through research, public dissemination, and practical engagement.

The research report ‘Everyone Starts with an A’ we produced together with the RSA received great attention in the relevant public spheres in Germany as it broke new ground: It was among the first that showed how behavioural insights could not only be employed for commercial marketing but also for a much higher purpose – motivating students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to try harder in school.

Sebastian Gallander

Vodafone Foundation Germany, funder of 'Everyone starts with an A'