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Ethics of Behavioural Science

Introduction Behavioural Science (BS) has been widely used all around the globe. Many ideas have been implemented, much more have been thought about and, most of all, many lives were changed. We have been covering actions taken, whether good, the nudges, and bad, the sludges. However, what are the limits? What are the lines someone nudging cannot cross? This is where ethics and moral conducts step in, as a way to guarantee not only efficient actions, but, most importantly, respectable ones for all involved.

The Problem Although most people mean well when nudging, trying to increase efficiency and easiness on decision-making, it is important to stand out that, sometimes, firms’ decisions and studies without outside help may not be used in the best ethical way.

Partnerships between managers and behavioural scientists are very valuable. Managers will have access to the data, and to a large number of people, all of them working towards the same goal. As for researchers, they have the high insights on BS, knowledge on how to design different ideas and interventions, while respecting all those involved in the study.

Main Principles A few main principles were created so that it would be easier for firms and researchers to partner together in studies.

I) Interest alignment: Firstly, aligned interests are a very important matter. Firms, researchers and participants’ interests must be on the same track. In 2016, John Hancock, a life insurance company, found a way to improve the company while improving its costumer’s life. The idea consisted of giving rewards to people when they took healthy decisions and actions. In this way not only the insurance company’s goal was met, since it incentivized people to have a better way of living (less cash outflows for the company), but it would obviously be in the best interest of all those involved.

2) Transparency: Secondly, transparency within all those involved is crucial. It is important to know which data is being used, and how it is involved with the purpose of the study. For instance, few years ago, Facebook decided to conduct a study on some teenagers, with the sole purpose to realize when did teens need a confidence boost. However, it was only known that teenagers’ data was being used to do so after they made the results and the study itself public. This action taken by the app was very criticized all around the world, and some people considered it “unethical”.

3) Freedom of choice: Among a few other principles that could be approached here, the easiness to opt out of studies is also very important to preserve the participants’ freedom of choice. Facebook did an experiment as well, concerning almost 700 thousand users, where they manipulated the emotional content, those users would see. In the end, they concluded that emotions can be contagious on social media. None of those participants knew they were being part of the study, and none of them had the choice to opt out. Once again, it was a very criticized process.

The case for Behavioural Ethics It is also important to talk about one of the fields that involve BS, which is Behavioural Ethics. The purpose of this field is to try to explain people’s motivations to act a certain way. So, it differs from philosophy simply because the latter tries to tell us how we should behave, how we should live our life. However, Behavioural Ethics tries to answer on why we take certain ethical or unethical decisions. By understanding the motivations, researchers will more likely be able to design ideas to align interests and decisions.

Conclusion To sum up, a successful research is one that brings results and effective ideas, that helps improving lives and changing behaviours for the better, while respecting not only those who are trying to nudge but, most importantly, while respecting those who participate in the study. By joining Behavioural Ethics and some main principles on how to conduct a research using Behavioural Science, the motivations and what people can do next can be aligned, bringing more efficient results.


Joana Alfaiate – Research Analyst

References Behavioral Ethics. Ethics unwrapped, McCombs School of Business. [online]. Available at:

Benson, Sue. Behavioural Science: A Question of Ethics. July, 2018. The Behaviours Agency. [online]. Available at: Jachimowicz, J., Matz, S., Polonski, V. October, 2017. The Behavioural Scientist’s Ethics Checklist. [online]. Available at:

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