An Interdisciplinary Approach to Human Behavior:...
Claudia Juech

Claudia Juech AVP & MD, Strategic Insights, The Rockefeller Foundation

Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts Program Associate, Bellagio Programming, The Rockefeller Foundation

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January 10, 2017

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Human Behavior: Learning from the First Bellagio Center Thematic Residency


We’ve all been there. Do we choose the apple or the cookie? The gym or the couch? The new shoes or the savings account? We often know what we should do to be on our “best behavior,” but sometimes cravings take over. This frequent conflict between our actions and our best intentions can make it really difficult to predict our choices or figure out how we can be prompted to make those good decisions.

Yet if we look to behavioral science, a more nuanced understanding of human behavior emerges. For example, Eric J. Johnson, professor and co-director of the Center for the Decisions Sciences at Columbia University, studies “choice architecture,” which looks at how the decisions we make are affected by the way the options are presented to us. He explains: “Decisions don’t get made in the abstract—they get made based on pieces of paper, websites that not only present options but let us sort and eliminate choices, or in physical stores with shelves arranged by retailers.” In other words, choosing between the apple and the cookie isn’t quite so simple.

In the summer of 2016, Professor Johnson joined twelve other leading academics, artists, and practitioners for a special residency on human behavior at The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. While the Bellagio Center has hosted residents for nearly sixty years, this was the first time that a cohort was curated around a specific theme. Over the course of a month, residents worked on individual projects, but also spent time sharing their work and feedback with one another. The group engaged through informal dialogue as well as a set of discussions facilitated by ideas42—a nonprofit that uses insights from the behavioral sciences to address social problems. The video above provides a window into this special Thematic Residency and highlights some of the insights elicited across the group.

The Bellagio Center Residency Program purposefully brings together a diversity of thought and practice, and former Bellagio residents often share that feedback from their fellow residents led them to take their work in a different direction. The common thread of human behavior woven throughout the residency projects brought this element of constructive disruption to a heightened level. Practitioners took insights from the behavioral sciences to change what they were doing on the ground; artists started thinking about how to apply academic methodologies to measure the impact of their work; and academics reflected on how the arts can help expand our understanding of behavior beyond the cognitive elements to also incorporate the emotions that factor into decision-making.

Although finding solutions is part of the challenge, delivering these solutions in a manner that is comprehensible and accessible to the beneficiaries, especially those who lie at the bottom of the pyramid [is critical and] is where art has a pivotal role.

What is particularly promising about taking a human behavior approach to development challenges is that understanding more about the fundamental drivers and roadblocks to behavior change can tell us something about a wide range of issues—whether it’s the likelihood someone will stick to a long-term medical treatment or if they’ll recycle more. And this focus on the individual allows human behavior to be a truly interdisciplinary field, incorporating the insights from both the arts and the sciences.

Bellagio Center resident and artist Vibha Galhotra reflects that, “Although finding solutions is part of the challenge, delivering these solutions in a manner that is comprehensible and accessible to the beneficiaries, especially those who lie at the bottom of the pyramid [is critical and] is where art has a pivotal role.” Fellow resident and artist Ruby Rumié echoes the importance of art for generating “citizen participation” in a way that allows people to “embrace, in a critical manner, the complexities of the world,” and question their surroundings.

Our individual behavior is influenced by much more than our own intentions. Whether or not we stick to that long-term medical regiment is impacted by which doctor we see or how long it takes to get to a pharmacy, and the food we buy is in part determined by how a retailer organizes food on the shelf. What was evident from the Bellagio Center Thematic Residency is that using insights and tools from across disciplines to better understand the dynamics between our individual behaviors and this larger context will be critical to the success of behavior change approaches.

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