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On November 6, 2019, the Think Better speaker series began its 2019-2020 season with Dr. Steve Wendel, Head of Behavioral Science at Morningstar. His talk, “Challenges and Opportunities of Behavioral Science in Business,” explored findings from his international survey of behavioral teams in business—the largest survey of its kind ever conducted.

At Morningstar, a provider of independent investment research, Wendel leads a team of behavioral scientists and practitioners to conduct original research on savings and investing behavior and applies behavioral insights to the company’s products and services. He is the founder of the nonprofit Action Design Network and the author of two books on applied behavioral science: Designing for Behavior Change (2013) and Improving Employee Benefits (2014).

Working with the Behavioral Science Policy Association, Wendel recently completed an unprecedented survey of more than 200 behavioral teams across 6 continents. Presenting the results for the first time in public, he gave a birds-eye view of behavioral teams around the globe, how they operate, and the challenges they face. Wendel highlighted four major insights:

  1. The field is growing and diverse
  2. The process is remarkably similar across teams
  3. The job opportunities are vast but traditional
  4. The challenges are both ethical and practical

The teams surveyed show wide geographic diversity, as well as areas of expertise, from financial regulators to health care nonprofits to branding consultants. But despite that breadth, the survey found surprising uniformity in the processes by which teams collect data and test behavioral insights.

“We all came to the same dang answer: problem solve,” Wendel said.

Over the past decade, the number of behavioral teams has increased significantly. Most often evolving out of existing teams and initiatives, rather than via new hires. As a result, Wendel advises that we find ways to work behavioral science into existing jobs.

Wendel’s talk concluded with an urgent call for more ethical conduct by behavioral teams.

“There is a reckoning coming because of the abuses in the field,” Wendel warned, describing proposed federal regulation on how behavioral data can be collected and applied.

Too many companies—especially in the tech space—are using behavioral science to trick users and manipulate their emotions, Wendel worries. And it’s not a problem confined to a few bad apples. Even well-meaning behavioral scientists are subject to the biases and business incentives that that can derail good intentions.

“The problem isn’t defining what’s ethical; it’s actually doing it,” Wendel argued. “We have an intention-action gap.”

What’s the solution? Wendel encouraged behavioral teams to apply the lessons of behavioral science to their own processes. He outlined ways teams can nudge themselves and their members to act responsibly and to realign their incentives.