I see a great deal of overlap between social marketing and behavioral economics and, of course, some differences.
Both disciplines rely on making things simpler. As I use to say, if you want to make a behavior popular you need to make it screamingly, conspicuouslysimple and easy. This focus fits usual interventions inspired by both approaches.
Another similarity is applying the same mindset notwithstanding differences in the tool name. In most cases I cannot see how choice/social architecture differs in nature from deploying some of the social marketing techniques (removing barriers, place strategies) to facilitate the performance of the target behavior. For instance, a program like Save More Tomorrow could be conceived under either conceptual umbrella.
In “The Political Brain”, Drew Westen stresses the role of associations and narratives (woven through emotional processes) in deciding the fate of political candidates. Of course marketers see easily the importance of associations and narratives for any brands or attitudinal objects. The way I see it,behavioral economics has achieved prominence mostly propelled by a strong narrative (and related metaphor): the David that overcame the Goliath (traditional economics – or better – rational homo economicus) destroying in the process one more facet of the idealistic vision of human beings (a trend centuries old). This narrative was strengthened by the Nobel Prize won by Daniel Kahneman in 2002 and the initial contempt (still existent) the discipline faced in traditional academics departments. Richard Thaler’s work with UK government and the building of a practical framework (Test, Learn, Adapt is their motto) to extend scientific method and mindset to pressing public issues has added to their growing popularity. The more common intuition is contradicted by the results of their experiments the more behavioral economics demonstrates the advantage of the scientific method (and increases its fame).
Behavioral ecomomics has discovered some fundamental truths about human decision making and behavior (beginning with Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory and its offsprings: framming effects, loss aversion, mental accounting, hyperbolic discounting and so on). In turn, the body of knowledge and the prestige the discipline gathered over time gave birth to specific ideas to tackle important public issues and well-succeeded interventions. But behavioral economists have been drawing heavily on other streams of research on human behavior, like (broadly speaking) social psychology. They seem to be successul in integrating theories and findings in areas like emotions, mapping, dual-systems, social norms, choice overload, implemmentation intentions, fairness, construal and the identifiable victim effect. I think a great deal of their deserved reputation comes from this integration. We are all aware of Cialdini’s (and related researchers) work on social norms. Dual-systems approach (System 1/System 2) has been researched by scholars under the psychology/philosophy of mind tradition, like Keith Stanovich (University of Toronto) and colleagues. And so on. But few practical approaches have been developed besides behavioral economics and social marketing.
I see social marketing as the most powerful social technology to address the social problems faced by our societies. My academic advisor used social marketing to structure important governamental programs, dating back to 1981. A bit unlike behavioral economics, it has a parsimonious and flexible toolbox that can easily acommodate and integrate the different theoretical avenues that offer insights on human behavior. Overall, social marketing is a more encompassing approach. From my point of view, however, I feel social marketing needs a more compelling narrative. Last month I read a recent book on tax-related behavior. It had several mentions to behavioral economics. It did mention segmenting taxpayers (something developed countries have been doing for more than a decade) – but there was no mention to marketing as inspiring that approach. I feel social marketing needs a better positioning.
The challenge is enormous and daunting, but I see it as feasible as the discipline matures.
There are important streams of research calling for some kind of integration – even if imperfect. I cite Self-Determination Theory (and one recent practical offspring: gamification), research on Self-Regulation and self-control (with promising understanding of behavior evolution and maintenance – a great advance over transtheoretical model – I mentioned it briefly in my recent paper in JSM), positive psychology, applied neurology… the list of course is not comprehensive.
I see the challenge as threefold: develop a compelling narrative, integrate findings from promising streams of research and dialogue with behavioral economists and other important scholars – given their prominence and given what seems to be lack of knowledge about social marketing. This open dialogue and the transdisciplinary approach can enrich social marketing, in my opinion.