How to use behavioral science to improve your experience

A beginner’s guide to applying behavioral economics, cognitive science, psychology, and neuromarketing.

Jennifer Clinehens
Dec 19, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

So you want to apply behavioral science to your experience, but you’re not sure where to start?

You’ve probably been hearing a lot of terms like behavioral economics, psychology, or neuromarketing being kicked around. What does it all mean, and can it really make your experience better for customers?

Behavioral science is the study of why people make, and act, on decisions.

The “behavioral science” umbrella includes behavioral economics, cognitive science, neuromarketing, and psychology. Principles are fair game as long as they’ve been stress-tested in a research environment and deal with how people make decisions.

Photo by Hugo Rocha on Unsplash

How can we apply behavioral science to experience design?

Design, Marketing, and Customer Experience managers can use behavioral science in several ways:

  • Frame creative communications: If you’re designing an email, TV commercial, poster, pamphlet, or a website, research is your friend. Behavioral science can help you leverage the science of customer persuasion.
  • Design “choice architecture”: Choice architecture is the way we present a choice, and how this presentation influences decisions. For example: How many product options do we show? How is the product priced in relation to other products? What language do we use to describe sales and promotions?
Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

Here’s the one thing you need to know about people

At the core of behavioral science is the idea that people don’t actually know what motivates them. We’re all more influenced by our “choice environment” than we realize.

For example, “anchoring bias” states that people use the first piece of information they see to judge all later information.

Photo by Krissia Cruz on Unsplash

This principle was explored in a study conducted by research duo Tversky and Kahneman.

Participants watched a roulette wheel that was rigged to stop only on 10 or 65.

They were then asked to guess the percentage of the United Nations members from Africa.

If subjects saw the roulette wheel stop on 10, they guessed a number that was 25% lower than people whose wheel stopped at 65.

People didn’t realize that the “random” number on the roulette wheel had influenced their answer to an unrelated question.

In other words, people greatly underestimate context in their decision-making. Also known as the fundamental attribution error, it’s a key principle of behavioral science.

We’re all liars — why behavioral science is so important

One of the major pitfalls of market research is you can’t trust what people tell you. Everything they say goes through an internal filter before they share it with the world.

To make matters worse, customers will say one thing then do the total opposite.

This doesn’t mean focus groups and other kinds of qualitative research aren’t useful. But it does mean we shouldn’t rely only on qualitative research to make experience design decisions.

As legendary marketer David Ogilvy once said:

“The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

How behavioral science can help — and hurt — you

  • Make your strategy stronger. The rigor, depth, and age of the field mean it’s robust enough to stand up to scrutiny.

When you use behavioral science, you’re improving the odds that your approach will be successful.

  • Recognize invisible barriers. Behavioral science helps you get under the skin of why customers might be doing what they’re doing. By looking at the context of decisions, you can spot places where the environment is driving the “wrong” behavior.
  • Drive customer choice. When you use behavioral science, you increase the probability that customers will do what you want them to. You no longer have to rely on “gut feel” or qualitative research to make expensive and risky decisions. Instead, you can base your approaches on proven, peer-reviewed research.

Hidden dangers of behavioral science

Photo by Ash from Modern Afflatus on Unsplash
  • The law of small numbers. Daniel Kahneman used this phrase to describe people’s tendency to make generalizations based on small amounts of data.

Be wary of betting the farm on small experiments. When an experiment is successful in a pilot group, continue to test it in different environments. That way you can make sure it works across a representative sample of customers before rolling it out to everyone.

  • Behavioral science interventions can go badly. Consider the case of United Airlines, who restructured their yearly bonus as a lottery with huge prizes. Rather than give a smaller cash payment to everyone, United gave everyone a chance at a big prize.

United re-framed their annual bonus into what they felt would be a more attractive payoff.

But they failed to consider the powerful “loss aversion” principle:

People are happier with a small guaranteed payoff than with a chance at a much bigger prize.

Within days United had to withdraw the lottery plan and return to their normal financial payout scheme.

  • Thinking behavioral science is a silver bullet. Although behavioral science is an amazing tool for customer experiences management and design, it’s only one tool.

How the best companies apply behavioral science

What makes the best companies so great at designing experiences? As consulting firm McKinsey put it:

The best [CX] practitioners we’ve observed work to rewire individual touchpoints as well as the most important customer journeys.”

For example:

  • Uber. Recent studies in psychology and customer experience have uncovered a principle called “Idleness Aversion”. It states that people are happier when they are busier, even if they’re forced to be busy.

In the example below, Uber uses an animation that keeps you entertained and informed while you wait for your ride.

Source: Uber Blog Australia
  • Amazon. A principle known as the Cashless Effect is at play in many parts of the Amazon experience. It’s the principle that states that the more tangible a payment is, the more painful it is. That’s why people on a budget are urged to use cash instead of credit cards — because the easier it is to pay, the more people will spend.

In the example below, one-click ordering removes the pain of payment. That way customers can focus on the pleasure of shopping.

  • Walt Disney World. The Peak-End Rule states that people remember an experience based on how they felt at its most intense point and at its end, instead of the average of every moment.
Photo by Joel Sutherland on Unsplash

Walt Disney World wants customers to have a fun and painless vacation. So, they get painful experiences over with before customers are even in the park.

For example, they ask families to pay for a meal plan before visiting. That way parents never have to experience the pain of paying while on vacation.

The bottom line — can we prove that behavioral science will improve customer experience?

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

When you’re designing or improving experiences, there are many tactics you can use to drive change. How do we know that behavioral science will make an impact?

Consulting firm McKinsey ran a study looking at experience improvements at a consumer-services firm. They tested improvements in both operations and through applying behavioral psychology principles.

The firm found that “improvements in customer-service scores accrued from behavioral-psychology initiatives rather than from improvements in operations”.

Source: McKinsey Report, “Putting behavioral psychology to work to improve the customer experience

The takeaway?

A proven approach, using behavioral science to improve your experience can have a huge upside.

In fact, the British Behavioral Insights Team inside the U.K. government created £100 million of financial return based on a cost of only £520k. Check out the excellent book Inside the Nudge Unit (paid link) if you’re interested in learning more about how the B.I.T. have implemented behavioral science.

So instead of asking if you should apply behavioral science to your experience, the better question is, “How can we prioritize it?”

👉 Want to learn more about how to apply behavioral science and psychology to create better customer experiences? Check out my book “Choice Hacking: How to use psychology and behavioral science to create an experience that sings”.

Choice Hacking

Writing at the intersection of psychology, science…

Jennifer Clinehens

Written by

Behavior change strategist. Use science and psychology to improve design, CX, UX, marketing, habits — subscribe at

Choice Hacking

Writing at the intersection of psychology, science, business and design

Jennifer Clinehens

Written by

Behavior change strategist. Use science and psychology to improve design, CX, UX, marketing, habits — subscribe at

Choice Hacking

Writing at the intersection of psychology, science, business and design

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