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Introduction to Behavioral Psychology


Human behavior is complex. Trying to explain the causes of action requires mastering complexity. From time immemorial unraveling this complexity has become an obsession for many scientists, researchers and theorists. Investing effort to unearth the patterns in conduct is viewed as a virtue to mould society and tame unruly personalities.

With the evolution of time, we have many theories. Each built on top the foundation of another. Borrowing some aspects and enhancing on their own. With complicated names and explanations, they confuse the learner away from holding on to the meat of their message.

According to my understanding, All of these theories can be classified into four streams of study that deal with conditioning, choice, decisions, and behavior.

  1. 1. theory of conditioning postulates that the response of a person to an event can be primed or nurtured into a repeatable, frequent and predictable reaction through implicit and explicit reinforcement.
  2. 2. theory of choices focuses on the human ability to identify options when triggered by innate impulses and environmental stimuli to explore an action. It explores the impact of known and unknowns (primed and unprimed) in how our mind reacts.
  3. 3. theory of decisions focuses on the impact of degree of certainty in influencing our judgement. We also learn the benefit seeking behavior of the mind and how it balances seeking favorable outcomes and avoiding unpleasant ones.
  4. 4. theory of behaviors focuses on the role of commitment and competence in the way we express our action and reaction while implementing decisions. In other words the role of will and skill in determining behavior.

Together, they form the crux of all that is about behavioral psychology. Further the various schools of thought draw inspiration from these dimensions and their interconnections to postulate ideas about conditioning human motivation, nurturing specific preferences and controlling choice all together.

Notwithstanding the assumptions and inconsistencies in these social theories and my grasp of them, they are useful to know about and identify patterns of behavior. We will discuss these aspects in detail and explore leveraging them in product design.

Definition of Behavior Psychology

Simply put, behavioral psychology is the field of study that combines the basic understanding of cognitive psychology with the principles of behavioral science to study human behavior in a given context. In other words, a stream of study that connects why ? what ? and How ? of human actions.

Behavioral psychology, also called behaviorism. The fundamental premise of behaviorism is that one's environment directly shapes their behavior. By constructing and replicating specific environments, an individual's behavior can be measured, modified and controlled.

Why is Behavioral Psychology important ?

It is believed that by grasping why we do what we do, we the people can improve the quality of our communal life.

A key aspect of behavioral psychology is to connect the dots in terms beliefs, habits, change, context, mastery, motivation, determination, persistence, needs, happiness, productivity, decision making, intellect, focus, health, success, consumption, temptation etc to figure out the dispositions of people as a whole and behavior of people in a particular context.

In other words by studying the stimuli - response patterns, we can replicate specific behavior in response to a particular type of trigger. We can also leverage patterns of learning embedded in our mind to implant habits, manipulate perceptions, influence decisions and control actions of other human beings to promote a business, economic, political and societal agenda.

All of this boils down to priming, choices, decisions and behavior.

Framework to Explore Priming

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds — Bob Marley

Conditioning is a touchy topic. Many people particularly in marginalized and underrepresented communities across the world feel like the way Bob Marley does. There are many in the world who believe that every societal convention serves the purpose of making you mentally weak, dependent, helpless, hopeless and powerless.

Yes, there are flavors of conditioning that are manipulative, clubbing all forms of conditioning and giving them a nefarious agenda is detrimental to human development. Honestly, there are forms and flavors of conditioning. Some of it are essential (social decorum), a few beneficial (disciplining), even more manipulative (grooming) and a miniscule few subjugative (slavery).

While Mental Slavery as a phrase is a hard choice to explain normal conditioning, it’s the right choice when conditioning becomes a form of manipulation and subjugation. I prefer the term priming to refer to those that are essential and beneficial. It helps us explain the why of our beliefs, values, mindsets and orientations.

While scientific psychology dabbles on terms like classical and operant conditioning to explore the relationship between stimuli and response, our scope is to simply focus on the idea of a behavioral process whereby a response and consequential reinforcement becomes a norm through more frequent and predictable repetition of cue and behavior.

There is nobody who can claim to be free from conditioning however woke they are. As learning organisms and products of habit we are indeed conditioned. Recognizing it. Classical examples could be cases of insurance premium or credit scores or traffic tickets that reward and punish you for compliance.

Priming leverages the principles of association that is innate in our physiology to effect cognitive influence.

Framework to Explore Choice

Our ability to make deliberate decisions may often be an illusion - Unknown

According to Psychologist Barry Schwartz, the western belief that welfare of people can only be achieved with unlimited freedom of choice is a misplaced assumption. He argues that while choice is important to human happiness, being overwhelmed with options is a recipe for dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

Whether you agree or disagree with his perspective on the paradox of choice, you must admit that choice as a means of welfare is deeply embedded in our psyche. However, choice is not as liberating as we think it is. Rather, it’s a repeatable function of our predispositions, conditioning, traits and situations. In other words, every choice is made based on context and trigger. Trigger could be internal or external and Context could be familiar or unfamiliar.

Context we operate in and the triggers we are inundated with dictate the bouquet of choices we have as individuals or teams. Point is that while most people think that they are free agents there is an invisible hand wielding a subtle influence and implanting choices without us ever realizing the tug our ideas are.

For example, When we discuss the internal dimensions we talk about need, desire, hope, fear, control, cognition, attitudes, knowledge, expectations etc. When we discuss the external dimensions we talk about society, technology, economics, learning, skills, determinism, hierarchy, conflict to name a few.

Familiarity is all about the routine, usual, habits, heuristics, biases, experiences, unconscious, known, obvious, reflex etc. Unfamiliarity is all about risk, exploration, patterns, curiosity, courage, consciousness, unknown, deliberate, pain, problems.

Everyone is equally vulnerable to be boxed. Ceding control of choices is the first step in being manipulated. Faking a sense of complete control is essential for everyone to hold onto a sense of freedom we all cherish. When the choices are boxed, effective decisions become an illusion. Holding onto personal will then becomes a matter of perception.

Framework to Grasp Decisions

It is often said that a wrong decision taken at the right time is better than a right decision taken at the wrong time - Pearl Zhu, Decision Master: The Art and Science of Decision Making

According to psychology, decision making is a cognitive process that is invoked when humans need to make a selection from alternative options. A capability and necessity for frictionless human existence. All of the decisions we make rest on an objective or subjective evaluation of options known to us and available for immediate consideration.

Our brains are processing each option for favourable outcomes. Every outcome is validated for its feasibility and investment required. Every investment is measured against an anticipated upside and an acceptable downside. In a way decision making is a deliberate process of deduction and analysis to arrive at a personal optima.

Every decision boils down to the intersection of certainty of outlook and favorability of outcomes. Outlook could be certain or uncertain and outcomes could be favorable or unfavorable. Certainty is achieved through logical, causal, realistic, objective, calculative, sensible, coherent, shrewd, circumspect, pragmatic, proactive and fair evaluation of choices at hand. When we discuss uncertainty we talk about things that unnerve us like scarcity, risk, disadvantage, fear etc

Decisions come in all shapes and sizes. on the one hand it’s split second and on the other it’s long and winding. irrespective of their nature they drain us of our cognitive energy especially those that require reflective capabilities. Emotional decisions are typically quick and rational decisions are typically long.

Human beings tend to be evaluative. We are blessed with the faculty to work backwards from a desired outcome and apply those expectations on pending decisions. In the instinctive or emotional case, it is driven by past experiences. In the reflective or rational case, it is driven by the evaluation of good and bad, pros and cons or favorable and unfavorable outcomes.

Favorable outcomes would enhance profit or reward or promotion or recognition or progress while negative outcomes would enhance risks, losses, etc..

Framework to Interpret Behavior

Decoding human behavior is a challenge. They are complex and unpredictable. Both our conscious and unconscious behaviour are always driven by contextual impulses. As people we are naturally fuzzy. Not being present to this reality is a major stumbling block to human interactions and relationships.

Anyone at the forefront of interacting with and responding to people needs to be cognizant of the hidden and the obvious, the offline and online, the instant and the delayed. Being present to the innate human capability to manifest a spectrum of behavior under similar circumstances is essential to navigate this complex web of stimuli - response.

While the offline interactions and relationships are regulated by instant feedback loops, the online world is impacted by data driven long feedback cycles. Add to this our distraction, insecurity, anonymity, irrelevance and incapacity to give immediate feedback, we are naturally inclined to mistrust. For the same stimuli, behaviors are different depending on the context and channel of communication.

Things that had a nominal effect in some occasions will have a disproportionate impact on our choices and decisions in others. gut feeling decisions or affect heuristic, negative first impression or anchoring bias, positive association or outcome bias, knowledge curse or information bias, projection or self referential bias, good enough decisions or bounded rationality carry different weightage.

All of this can be boxed into the intersection of skill and will or competency and confidence.

Connecting the Dots with Learning

Priming, Choices, Decisions and Behavior is only possible with human capacity to Learn. An ability to store signals, assemble them purposefully, classify them, automate them, optimize them and leverage them for application in new situations is a capability unique to the mind. It is important to decode that mind to know more.

Decoding the Human Mind

Behavioral Psychology is the study of human behavior, essentially their actions and reactions in a given context. This study helps us get under the hood of human thinking. Be sensitive to people and set incentives to incite an action and evoke a reaction. We can start this learning by learning the human mental system.

Our Mental System is layered to avoid cognitive overload. Having a solid idea of each of these is essential. It will help design systems that will ease the cognitive and make it easy for the mind to adapt a new thing without much resistance. For simplicity sake, we align it with 5 functions as below.

  1. Restoration - Access to Storage and retrieval of temporary and permanent Information
  2. Regulation - Grouping of information into routine and non routine categories
  3. Judgement - selection of reflex through intuitive and deliberative thought
  4. Learning - absorption of patterns through socratic and experiential resonance
  5. Sensation - application of effort to attend and ignore incoming signals

Overview of Information Storage

In the 2006 film Memento, director chris Nolan tells a story about a man, Leonard Shelby, suffering from short-term memory loss and his mission to avenge his wife’s killers in spite of his disability. In medical terms this condition is called anterograde amnesia.

With inability to form new memories, Leonard develops a technique to help him recall the day to day events and correlate it with his past. He does this by using hand-written notes, tattoos, photos and anything to record stuff. I am sure you know more about the movie then me.

There are many more stories of memory loss, gain and the struggle to live a normal life. What is the point of all this ? Our life is tied together by our memory. There are two types of memory. Permanent and temporary. Both of them need to operate in sync and together in order to store and restore information for a normal life.

Perspective on Information Processing

In this book “The Power of Habit” Charles Duhigg presents the story of Eugene Pauly, a 71-year old man who suffers from viral encephalitis, which makes him lose the medial temporal lobe of his brain. The resulting effect is that he could clearly remember anything that occurred prior to 1960.
On the flip-side, he had short term memory about recent events. In that state, he falls into the condition of constantly repeating words. He neither could remember his children, where he was and where basic installments like the kitchen or his bedroom were.

During the course of the treatment one day, Eugene disappeared only to show up fifteen minutes later. It just happened that Eugene had, that day, taken the habitual walk all by himself. He soon made it his daily routine to take the walk around his house by himself. This occurrence startled scientists.

Eugene proved that the part of the brain where habits are performed and operate is entirely separate from the part of the brain responsible for memory. It was later confirmed that we can learn and make choices without having to remember anything.

Essentially, what we learn is that there are multiple types of Permanent and Temporary memories. There is a category of memory storage dealing with regulation of life that helps us unconsciously perform a routine task (habit) and consciously complete a not so routine task.

This distinction is important. We are normally hardwired to optimize energy usage. Anything that is new to learn consciously is something we resist. We like repetition and integrate any new thing into our existing routine.

Evaluation Process of Mind

Roy Baumeister in his book “Will Power : Rediscovering our Greatest Strength” has shown, in gory detail, how our willpower is fundamentally limited, and varies from moment to moment. Our ability to concentrate, perform well on mentally challenging tasks, and to resist temptation are all linked to how “tired” our brains are.

When we’re tired, and our willpower is drained, we increasingly rely on our intuitive processing. Tell me the things you do first as you wake up in the morning ? If checking your phone is the answer. You are not alone. Did this habit exist a decade ago ? It slowly evolved into a habit. One that is routine and done without any conscious load.

Imagine a situation where you are on a date which has worked out really well. Suddenly, from around the corner to your house you and your partner get attacked in a robbery attempt. In the moment of reflex you catch hold of the gun from a robber and shoot at him fatally.

To survive physically or psychologically, we sometimes need to react automatically. This automatic mode of thinking, not under voluntary control.

Think about another instance where you work for Amazon Chief Jeff Bezos who asked you to present a path breaking idea. You will need to write a 8 page executive memo. uhh...

You need to slow down and deliberately fiddle with pencil and paper and start thinking about how to impress him and the audience. You have to put a lot of diligence into writing something that makes sense comprehensively. There are situations where there is no threat to physical self but to our intellectual abilities. In those situations we think very differently and deliberately.

Looking at it from an overall perspective we see that Deliberative Thinking is conscious and non habitual. Leverages a lot of the temporary memory to process.Intuitive Thinking on the other hand is unconscious and habitual. leverages a side of the permanent memory reserved to process routine activities effortlessly.

Powerful Capabilities of the Learning Mind

As an innovator you wish your prospect to restore information quickly with a given clue. Further you want to integrate the actions into the prospects daily life as a routine like a tooth paste or a morning coffee or a body perfume. You want them to intuitively select your option out of the many options available without much thought.

Einstein said, "The only source of knowledge is experience."

Aristotle said, "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them."

Benjamin Franklin said “Tell me and I forget, Teach me and I remember, Involve me and I will learn “

There is experiential learning and a form of learning that is “not so experiential”. We can call that socratic.

Giving people an experience rather than just a lecture, course, or book will help them learn and develop themselves can be very effective.

Experiential learning is designed to help each person gain insight in their own way through introspection and self-directed activities.

Our brains are wired to remember emotions. Experiential learning enables people to feel, improving the brain's ability to remember. Training without experience leads you to risk missing out on long-term behavior change. Wait..that’s not all.

Applications of Behavior Psychology

Isaac Newton the pioneering scientist said “For every Action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. While this was postulated to explain the functioning of cosmos and physical things, this may very well be applicable to human behavior. For every behavior you exhibit towards others, they exhibit a response. Whether it is equal, opposite, favorable depends on the context in which the first action was executed.

While in the case of objects, it is immediate. Human behavior is immediate as well latent. No, we are not making an effort to postulate a new law. We are trying to see the relevance of an universal principle to human behavior and see if this reactionary element can be leveraged to gain influence and acceptance in the market.

Note, many large-scale phenomena are the sum of individual actions. sometimes millions or even billions of them. Sharing photos online is a good example. As we speak, trillions of photos of individuals, their families in social and intimate situations are getting shared without constraints. This wasn’t the same when photosharing started. They had to overcome a lot of obstacles including but not limited to peoples cultural norms, their privacy concerns and many other defenses holding them back.

Take the case of ecommerce in highly populated developing countries. If you are grappling with the question, “How do i make sure that my audience will buy their daily staple from my online store?”. Instead of fretting over competition from mom and pop store just a few minutes walking distance, innovators need to think about the minimum action that will make the switch possible.

As an innovator you aspire to impact millions. A complete shift across societies, across cultures and countries is your goal. You are working hard for your vision to materialize. But, all of this have to start with figuring out how you will make the process easy for one.

What is the first action a prospect will reciprocate ?
What is the spark that will bring about mass behavior shifts?
Are there approaches that businesses could use to influence behaviors on a micro level and reap macro benefits?

Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO points to an emerging field in design for behavior change as a source of methods and tools to incentivise, whether in the service of organizational change management or shifting purchasing behavior or even broader social initiatives pursued by companies for the common good.


Learning our brains and the psychology behind it is a learning in perpetuity. It will continue as long as it requires. We have just scratched the surface of getting to know it.

Also, all of the frameworks presented here are for illustration and understanding purposes. They carry no scientific weight or credibility. Rather, these are abstractions that will seed thoughts to explore more of the finer nuances.

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