Are companies guilty of “BS washing”?

Text: Beatrice Widmark & Elin Helander,

Behavioral Scientists

As an applied behavioral scientist it’s a great time to be alive, isn’t it? Using insights and evidence from science to inform business decisions have exploded in interest among companies over the last decade. More and more companies have become aware of the power that a deep understanding of human psychology and behaviors can have on their businesses, and are calling themself behaviorally informed. Behavioral scientists are no longer only a part of HR departments, they are now a part of marketing teams, product teams, committees and other units of organizations that had more “traditional” roles back in the days. 

As a consulting company that, amongst other things, works with and advises in behavioral science we find the growing interest in psychology and behavioral insights very exciting and we could continue writing a joyful text about all the positive accomplishments that the field of behavioral science have made (because there are many out there). However, that’s not where we intend to go with this particular story. Because, when talking to fellow practitioners in the field we see that a parallel story also emerges, which we want to draw some attention to.

This story points out how some companies – in a wide range of fields – use behavioral science as a compelling selling point but without having enough competence or maturity to deliver on it. They declare that behavioral science lays the ground for their method, strategy, marketing, campaigns or product development but in reality, behavioral knowledge is not fully rooted in the work.

The “say-do”-gap is a common issue and discrepancy within sustainability and we can see cases where it applies to behavioral science efforts as well. To explore this a bit more we interviewed practitioners to gain more insights. With approval we share some quotes from our interviews:

“I have worked on several pitches where behavioral insights were applied after the idea had been brought to the table. I.e. the idea came first from creative directors, and then we added insights that backed the idea from me as a behavioral scientist, as a confirmation”.

“Some organizations say that behavioral science constitutes the foundation of their business idea, strategy and way of working but time and again deprioritize it”.

“It took me a while to understand that it was not me being bad at my job but the company I worked for not truly wanting to use behavioral science. It became clear that they were not mature enough to pull it off, although they bragged about it. Over the course of time, it really demotivated me as I first thought I was doing something wrong.”

Is applied behavioral science in need of a regulatory framework or a certification? 

Within sustainability there are some regulations and standards that companies have to live up to in order to be sustainable, and claiming that they are. If you mislead or set claims as an organization about the positive impact you have on the environment you are at risk of being called out for greenwashing. But what about working with applied behavioral science? An approach that is used to influence people's feelings and behaviors (in a positive way) – i.e. a work that needs to be done with deep knowledge, ethics in mind and also caution. We need to know that we target the right behavior, with the right methods, and with the right intentions.

With this said, should we in the behavioral science community establish a certification? A standardized test that certifies a company and their work with behavioral science. Some requirements that they need to meet in order to say that they work with it, and not just using it as good PR. Certification or not, if “BS washing” is common, we could all benefit from spotting it and finding ways for companies to stay clear of it. 

What’s your thoughts on this? Is it common that organizations say that they are behaviorally informed but in reality aren’t? We are keen to hear your experiences as a behavioral scientist practitioner – regardless if you agree with our opinions or not. If you have a story or opinion that you’d like to share, we’d be happy to listen to you.

Note that your contribution will not be shared publicly. We will only use it as an insight gathering to more deeply understand the issue.

PS: Two interesting reads, published in Behavioral Scientist, that we'd like to recommend since they somewhat addresses the same issue: