Understanding Human Behavior: It's A PIC-NIC

A year ago, I wrote a post about behavioral science, prompted by a conversation with UK-based behavioral scientist Howard Lees. Today's post was prompted by Lees' son David, who practices the same discipline in New Zealand.

The motto of behavioral science is "Why ask why?" Behavioral scientists don't bother with "why"; instead, they worry about "what." What do people do? How do people react? If we give them this stimulus, what is their response? According to David Lees, "Behavioral science is the science of human behavior, as researched over more than 90 years. It is based on data, not theory, and transcends all human differences such as culture, language and education... It can be as useful for you at home as it is in the workplace -- want the kids to go to bed on time?"

In this era of the Numerati, behavioral science is truly coming into its own. Last month, David alerted me to an article by Michael Grunwald in Time about how the Obama campaign deployed the study of human behavior. Grunwald writes, "Behavioral science -- especially the burgeoning field of behavioral economics that has been popularized by Freakonomics, The Wisdom of Crowds, Predictably Irrational, Nudge and Animal Spirits, which is the new must-read in Obamaworld -- is already shaping dozens of Administration policies. 'It really applies to all the big areas where we need change,' says Obama budget director Peter Orszag."



Closer to Search Insider home is a post last week by William Slawski over at SEO by the Sea, reporting on a recent Microsoft patent application. Evidently, and for rather obvious reasons, the folks in Redmond want to know the circumstances under which someone might switch from one search engine to another. "The patent filing tells us that some patterns in behavior seemed to indicate that a switch was about to happen," writes Slawski. "These include things such as:

  • Increased query length,
  • Viewing multiple search engine result pages, and;
  • Revisitation of previously-viewed pages, amongst others."
Studying data-driven patterns of behavior like these could yield market-share fruits for Microsoft, which needs them more than ever in light of Google's ever-increasing domination (a 7% increase year-over-year, according to the latest stats).

In case Microsoft's interested, the Lees brand of behavioral science relies on A-B-C: Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence. Behaviors are either driven by an Antecedent (someone puts a sign up in the office asking us to do the dishes) or a Consequence (our pay gets docked if we fail to do the dishes). Antecedents and Consequences can be either positive or negative, they can be immediate or in the future, and they can either be certain or uncertain.

It doesn't really matter whether the motivational factor is Positive or Negative, but given the above range of either/or choices, people will always respond more to Immediacy and Certainty. Hence, PIC-NIC.

This should resonate with your own experience. Why do people struggle to quit smoking or lose weight? Cigarettes and food offer an immediate and certain reward of pleasure, while the health hazard and that svelte silhouette are uncertain and in the future.

Microsoft's smart to look for ways to apply this sort of intelligence, and Steve Ballmer's got the right, we-can-afford-to-experiment attitude. For anyone to seriously compete in search, they're going to have to put human behavior at the heart of their proposition.

According to the Time article: "President Obama is still relying on behavioral science. But now his Administration is using it to try to transform the country. Because when you know what makes people tick, it's a lot easier to help them change." 

3 comments about "Understanding Human Behavior: It's A PIC-NIC".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Kim Williamson, May 13, 2009 at 12:55 p.m.

    "Microsoft's smart to look for ways to apply this sort of intelligence, and Steve Ballmer's got the right, we-can-afford-to-experiment attitude." Droll, very droll. Yes, of course this effort only continues MSFT's yet-again hamfisted copycatting of others that do it so much better, just hoping their fat weight in the marketplace will save them. Given their status as a great American company, I do wish that, at least once, they'd actually invent something of their own. Wouldn't that be novel?

  2. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, May 14, 2009 at 12:50 a.m.

    Very droll indeed... we'll see if Microsoft's behavior matches Ballmer's rhetoric! Fingers crossed :-)

  3. Stuart Long, May 14, 2009 at 3:44 p.m.

    Everyone knows rolling the dice in a Vegas casino is risky behavior. Banking on behavioral science isn't any different. If only everyone were the same and responded to everything the same way. While behavioral profiling can yield interesting results it can also result in impressive blunders. Google’s search model is based on relevance and relevance is hard to screw up.

Next story loading loading..