Behavioural Science in the Private Sector: Guidelines for Avoiding Misuse

This white paper emerged from a discussion with practitioners about how to get the most out of behavioural science in the private sector, and how to avoid its misuse. It traces the rise of behavioural science in the public sector and its uptake in the private sector. It also reflects on the debate that has been taking place as to whether taking advantage of people’s inherent cognitive biases could be considered to be unethical.

We conclude that, used well, behavioural science in the private sector does not have to be deceitful, covert or manipulative. Businesses can and should use behavioural science for the public good. Furthermore, consumers have a different relationship with private companies than they have with politicians and policy makers.They expect that companies will want to make a profit. They expect that companies will try to sell to them. There is an implicit contract between the consumer and the brand owner. Businesses may, in fact, have more licence to use behavioural science than the public sector, provided they are not dishonest.

In the past, there has been public unease about the use of the psychological sciences in the commercial sector. This produced a backlash against apparently subversive techniques, but also resulted in the setting up of a code of practice supported by the industry. The same may be needed with respect to the use of behavioural science.

As a starting point, we suggest the following guidelines:

  1. Behavioural interventions built on untruths are unacceptable.
  2. Nudges that make it difficult for people to choose otherwise are unethical: people must have the freedom to choose differently.
  3. Behavioural interventions should be scrutinised for unintended, as well as intended, consequences.
  4. Consent should not be hidden: interventions should be transparent wherever possible.
  5. Practitioners should be comfortable to defend their approach, methods and motives in public.

This document explains how we reached these guidelines. In the spirit of this discussion, we continue to invite and welcome your feedback: