Behaviorálny a experimentálny ekonomický tím MZSR

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Mentalists and other magicians or the application of behavioural interventions in practice

Behavioural science is given a bad name by mentalists and magicians who are convinced of its ability to change the world with simple solutions.

I've been debating for a long time whether to write something about it, what the use of behavioural science actually means in practice. I finally decided to do this after a discussion with a colleague about an unnamed acquaintance who was eager to apply behavioral intervention regardless of the topic and his previous experience.

Hoci má v tejto oblasti veľmi málo vedomostí, je presvedčený, že behaviorálnu intervenciu zvládne jednoducho “od stola”. Vzápätí na to ma nepríjemne prekvapí automatické predlžovanie zmluvy u poskytovateľa internetu, avšak za nevýhodných podmienok. Myslím, že motivácie k napísaniu tohto blogu mám dostatok.

Experts from the fast course

I am currently observing a global trend in  the rise of behavioral experts and economists who, after reading a few books, mostly popular instead of professional, consider themselves experts and experts on a particular topic (this is not just an example of behavioral science). Worse yet, they often follow their belief that they are able to change people's behaviour and take over the world in the way they imagine, or their principal or employer imagines. If that were really the case, we would all have been living healthier lives, going to the gym regularly, meeting deadlines, and doing things very differently in general for a long time.

This series of blogs will discuss how behavioral science can be effectively applied in a variety of fields and why it is important to understand the subject more deeply, rather than simplifying it. We will also discuss why behavioural science tools should not be used indiscriminately and expect that if it worked in one case, it must work in the other. We will also focus on how to properly understand behavioral science and its relevance in the real world.

Mentalists and magicians

I would divide the experts I mentioned above into two categories:

  1. Mentalistswho think they can accurately understand an individual and apply behavioural interventions based on this knowledge.

  1. Magicianswho, in turn, are not concerned with understanding individuals. They focus directly on behavioural interventions and often ignore the barriers and motivations of the individuals within the issue under study.

What unites them is their one-size-fits-all approach. They assume that gender, education, age and other socio-economic indicators do not divide people into groups and therefore may not be treated individually and do not foresee that this may have a completely opposite, negative effect (e.g. future disinterest or even resistance of individuals).

Rhett Wesley (Unsplash)

How to get to know mentalists and magicians?

Používajú slovíčko “nudge” alebo pošťuchnutie a často majú cards with behavioural biases. They like to brainstorm and send letters or SMS messages. Theirs results are often short-term and focused on one-off interventions, which show quite interesting percentage differences. However, they are rapidly changing areas of application as these percentages are rapidly decreasing in other applications.

It is uncertain whether they realise that the more they present certain interventions (e.g. sending letters) to the public, the less lasting their effect will be. To znamená, že čím viac listov pošlú a viac o tom hovoria, tým menej na to ľudia budú reagovať. V tomto prípade platí “less is sometimes more.”

If the use of behavioural science is not properly controlled and applied, it can have a number of negative consequences, such as:

  1. Automatic login and membership renewalA: While this can be convenient for customers, if it is not transparent enough, it can lead to inadvertently extended memberships that the client does not like. This can cause discomfort, frustration and a feeling of being prevented from withdrawing or cancelling the service while being charged overpriced fees.

  2. Scare straight (scare in the right direction): This tactic is based on the use of fear and threats to change people's behaviour. However, it can have undesirable consequences because fear-based approaches can trigger strong negative emotional reactions that can lead to defensive responses and rejection of any attempt to change behaviour.

  3. Vaccination as a backfire: Using behavioral science to support vaccination can be helpful, but if not balanced properly, it can backfire. If people feel they are being manipulated or if they feel pressured to vaccinate, they may begin to show resistance and scepticism towards vaccination, which can undermine efforts to increase vaccination uptake in the population.

  4. Socio-norms as backfire: The use of socio-norms to promote desirable behaviour can have undesirable consequences if people feel forced or pressured to conform to social expectations. This can trigger resistance and rebelliousness in individuals who may refuse to conform to the desired norms.

Overall, it is important to note that the use of behavioural science must be ethical, transparent and respect the autonomy and freedom of individuals. If used unscrupulously and manipulatively, the findings of behavioural science can have a negative impact on people's psychological and emotional well-being, undermining trust in institutions and society as a whole.

Edson Junior (Unsplash)


This alludes to one of the most important things in the use of behavioural science , which is trust. If people realise that someone wants to influence them, they may resist it and no longer want to participate in the process. On the contrary, if we try to understand people and do not want to force them, but actually improve their lives, we build a relationship and trust with them. And it is only through trust that we can build long-term cooperation. Let the mentalists and magicians stay in the movies and soap operas rather than have to set up the workings of society. This is true not only in the public sector, but also in the private sector. Whether it is a citizen or a customer, this is not how long-term strategies should be set.

Is behavioral science used this way in practice?

I have to admit that I encounter this all too often. But can we blame them? It's hard to say. In this day and age, when results are demanded instantly and everyone is trying to find the shortest route, this is understandable. And at the same time, almost all deductions are set on an annual basis or on some short cycle (I'm not just talking about the public sector here). On the other hand, systematic work is not as immediate and attractive as antibiotics that work quickly, steroids that make us instantly stronger, or pills that immediately relieve pain. What do these examples have in common? I leave the answer to you.

About the author
Ing. Lukáš Sekelský, PhD.

He works at the Ministry of Health and leads the Department of Innovative Approaches in Health, which consists of the Behavioral and Experimental Economics Team (BEET). In this capacity, he leads various projects in areas such as integrated care, mental health, drug policy, blood donation and others.