Do Companies Really Need ‘Chief Behavioral Officers’?

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Scientist Taking Notes --- Image by ? Radius Images/Corbis
Photo: Edward Pond/Corbis

An article headlined “The Rise of the Chief Behavioral Officer” written by a guy who is a chief behavioral officer should be taken with a grain of salt, of course. But John Balz’s piece in Re/code is worth checking out. Balz, who is the CBO of Opower, which builds cloud-based software for utility companies, says that the job of folks like him is “bringing behavioral science perspectives to strategic business decisions.” About 10 to 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies have someone in this role at a high-level (and presumably high-pay) position, he writes, citing Dan Egan of the “automated investing service” Betterment.

On the one hand, yeah! Behavioral insights are often ignored by businesses (not to mention everyone else); too often simple habit or “common sense” — a lot of it dead-wrong, even when it sounds nice — prevails instead. Why not have someone dedicated to making sure a business’s practices line up with the newest research into human psychology? 

But it’s also easy to see the potential downsides of institutionalizing this role, of making it “a thing.” Alongside all of the solid behavioral research being done at the moment, there’s a lot of chicanery being produced by companies trying to ride the current wave of interest in behavioral science without conducting or relying on, well, legitimate behavioral science — their offerings pop into my inbox every day. Companies that do go down the CBO route need to make sure they’re not hiring a Shingy type who is going to pollute meetings with feel-good stuff that hasn’t passed the basic rigor test. It can be harder than it seems to separate psychological science from psychological “science.”

Plus, at the moment, we’re in a bit of a golden age when it comes to the dissemination of good, accessible knowledge about human behavior, so why not try to educate as many employees as possible about this stuff? To be fair, at the end of his piece Balz notes that “practicing good behavioral science is a team effort,” but I think that that, rather than the idea of a CBO, should maybe be the first step for companies trying to get smarter about this stuff.

Everyone should read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Danny Kahneman, for example — it forever changed how I view human beings and our interesting, quirky brains. Another must-read is Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and there have been plenty of other, similarly important books published recently (including the five Science of Us highlighted in our “best of 2014” list).

If every company asked its employees to read a couple of books of this caliber every year — books written by people with decades of experience in the relevant fields — it would instantly lead to a workforce better armed with some very simple but very potent concepts. And there could be all sorts of hidden benefits to having that knowledge distributed throughout a company rather than housed, or housed mostly, in one office.