DL Seminar | Behavioral Science in the Digital Economy
By Divij Kadan
On 6th Feb. 2020, Dr. Michael Sobolev gave a lecture on “Behavioral Science in the Digital Economy” as part of the Digital Life Seminar series at Cornell Tech. The lecture focused on the positive impacts behavioral economics can have and the power of “nudge” in choice architecture on digital platforms that shape our decision-making processes online. This comes at a very important time where contemporary online habits and social media trends have us alarmed and concerned for future generations and the impacts on their cognitive development.
Over the course of an hour, Sobolev addressed the future of behavior science as a growing field of opportunity in comparison to data analytics, the digital economy and the advances made in choice architecture, the impact of technology defaults in app usage, and the results of behavior studies investigating behavior change that sticks. The latter included advances in “digital nudging” which could optimize recommendation systems for consumers of online content and shopping services, e.g. a green tag on items displayed in your browser while grocery shopping to indicate recommendations you should actually consider.
The later part of his talk focused on digital well-being and intervention systems which can effectively reduce things like screen time on apps like Facebook which are designed to be addictive for users. The studies discussed negative reinforcement as an effective tool in combatting social media addiction, using a sharp “beeping” noise every 5 seconds after the user exceeded their desired screen time on the app.
Finally, he concluded with the potential of nuancing recommendation systems for podcast providers who switch from “popular” channels shown on the platform’s main screen to personalized recommendation which increased the time spent consuming recommended content and time spent exploring suggested channels and stations.
A lot of the ideas discussed in the talk revolved around the concepts choice architecture and nudging outlined in Richard S. Thaler’s book, “Nudge”and the relation between design thinking and behavior design, both of which follow a similar progression from defining or ideation to implementation.
Another consistent theme was of “doing the right thing as judged by the subject”, i.e. creating a space for behavior change through nudging people in whichever direction they choose to go instead of defining an objective standard for what “good behavior” means and pushing towards the same. This bottom-up approach ties into the larger idea of using choice architecture for good by imagining clinics and cognitive behavior therapy designed to address digital well-being.
In the age of addictive technologies taking the center stage of consumer trends, games like candy crush and social media platforms like Instagram have reward systems built into their user interface that incentivize repeated, if not compulsive, usage of these apps. While Sobolev believes the studies conducted on the impact of such “addiction” on teenagers and younger demographics requires significantly more research and cleaner studies to draw inferences from, the amount of time spent looking at a screen is undisputed. With this research, the development of better recommendation systems can affect the quality of media consumed online, improve user experience while searching for podcasts, healthy food options, and several other facets of life which can increase the user’s quality of life.
This links up to the studies on habit formation and habit change which have been popularized through books like the “Power of Habit” and “Atomic Habits” and lifestyle gurus on YouTube creating widely popular content on “digital minimalism” and “habit creation”. The literature sheds light on the cue-craving-response-reward system that neuropathways are created on for repeated behavior which turns into a habit. When combined with the positive “nudge” systems recommended and digital wellness mandate laid out above, the implications of behavioral economics in the digital economy become apparent, a better digital ecosystem to create and inspire behavior change that users can evaluate and critique for themselves through their own metrics.
 Richard Thaler, Nudge (2008)  Charles Duhigg, Power of Habit: Why we do What we do in Life and Business (2012)  James Clear, Atomic Habits (2018)  Matt D’Avella, A Guide to Digital Minimalism, YouTube (Feb. 11, 2020)  Thomas Frank, How to Actually Stick to Your Resolutions This Year, YouTube (Dec. 23, 2019)
Divij Kadan is a JD/MBA Candidate at Cornell. You can find him on LinkedIn.