What Does it Mean to Study Behavioral Science?
Behavioral science majors explore and analyze how human actions affect relationships and decision making. While behavioral science majors traditionally applied their skills in social work and counseling careers, recent graduates have found high demand for their skills in the business world as companies strive to uncover new ways to overcome their competitors.
Behavioral science incorporates many disciplines from two broad fields. Neural-decision sciences analyze how our decisions and anatomy interact. Social-communication sciences investigate the impact of language and communication on our society, our relationships, and on ourselves.
Finding the Right Behavioral Science Program
People have begun to notice just how lucrative a behavioral science degree can be. Though many behavioral science majors start their undergraduate degree programs fresh from high school, more and more older job-shifters are returning to school to fortify their work experience, launching new careers as analysts or consultants.
The proliferation of accessible online social science degrees and distance learning programs allows even more busy professionals to pursue degrees in behavioral science without sacrificing their current income. Though many programs can be completed by participating in online discussion forums and by viewing videos of lectures, some programs require intensive on-campus residencies that can be completed during vacation or sabbatical periods.
Prospective students should consider their long-term career goals before choosing a degree program. If you have a specific career path in mind, find a college or university that has produced successful alumni in that specialty, or has employed experienced specialists on its faculty. If you want to juggle a degree program with work and family commitments, find an online behavioral science program that emphasizes independent study. On the other hand, if you love to interact with other people on a team, take advantage of programs that offer limited residencies.
Types of Behavioral Science Degrees
Regardless of the concentrations they pursue, all behavioral science majors develop a common set of core skills during their college degree programs, including:
- Understanding of dynamic development. Behavioral scientists examine how people and groups grow and change over time. Therefore, they learn to develop theories that adapt to shifts in culture and environment along with their subjects. Behavioral science majors develop the ability to capture data over large periods of time, and to store their research in ways that make it easy to revise and update regularly.
- Professional ethics. Behavioral scientists that study groups and organizations often examine the situational ethics within those social networks. In addition, behavioral scientists must maintain their own professional integrity when conducting fieldwork or other types of research.
- Data analysis. Behavioral scientists use mathematics as a jumping off point for their research, especially when attempting to analyze the financial impact of a decision or a consistent behavior. Behavioral science majors learn how to use spreadsheets and advanced computer modeling tools to test turn their data into reasonable projections and theories.
- Presentation and writing skills. Students who pursue an academic career must develop the ability to express the results of their research as a clear, concise research paper. Aside from seeking publication and peer review, behavioral science majors must prepare themselves to present their findings in front of live audiences as major conferences and conventions. Students who pursue jobs in the private sector must learn to make their results clear to the average lay person. They must also be able to produce reports and presentations that work in fast-paced corporate environments.
- Critical thinking and problem solving skills. Unlike scientists who develop a theory and then spend time trying to prove it, behavioral scientists often arrive at their theories in the field. They must develop the ability to see patterns that emerge over the course of a research project. In addition, they must learn to adapt their own ideas over time when data shows subtle shifts in direction. The most experienced behavioral scientists expect their own theories to evolve over time, which forces them to reconcile new discoveries with previous discoveries.
- Project management skills. Behavioral science majors must learn to coordinate the efforts of other researchers to aggregate research data effectively. In addition, behavioral scientists who work in the corporate world must be able to analyze the efficiency of project management tools and procedures within client organizations.
- Interpersonal communication skills. Because behavioral scientists study the impact of communication between people, they must develop superior skills. A career in behavioral science requires the ability to communicate effectively to people in a variety of settings. Social workers must be able to communicate across language and cultural barriers. Corporate coaches and consultants must couch their recommendations within the accepted and understood language of a corporation. Most importantly, behavioral scientists must be able to communicate questions and instructions to research subjects in a "value neutral" way, so their language does not contaminate the data.
Specializations Within Behavioral Science
- Social Psychology. By studying the causes of our human behavior, social psychologists attempt to improve how we learn to communicate and interact with other human beings. In social psychology courses, behavioral science majors may, for instance, learn how we establish first impressions with others. They also research how our very first experiences with communication can set patterns in the way we react to the world around us.
- Cognitive Theory. Behavioral scientists explore language within groups. Specialists in this field may study, for example, how individuals who work for companies like Enron or WorldCom used the corporate culture to tolerate major breaches in ethics and standard business practices. Cognitive theorists also analyze the root causes of racism and nationalism in groups throughout history.
- Psychobiology. Have you ever been told "it's all in your head" when you complained about feeling sick? A behavioral scientist may be able to identify real cause of your illness. By understanding how the brain controls our pleasure and pain centers, researchers hope to reach breakthroughs in understanding the causes of obesity, fatigue, and addiction.
- Management Science. Behavioral scientists working in the business arena have started to apply mathematical models to the workplace to help managers choose the most likely path to success from a series of similar decisions. Also known as operations researchers, these specialists combine their understanding of human behavior with scientific measurements to improve efficiency and eliminate risk.
- Social Neuroscience. Social neuroscience specialists attempt to understand the "nature vs. nurture" debate by analyzing how our environment and education can physically alter the pathways in the brain. Rather than investigating purely chemical reasons for mental illness, social neuroscientists might identify cultural tipping points that can influence decision-making processes later in life.
- Ethology. Behavioral scientists who pursue this concentration investigate the role that raw instinct plays in our decision making. By observing subjects in the field, ethologists can understand why someone might answer a poll question a certain way while making the exact opposite decision in their natural surroundings. For social workers, this branch of behavioral science plays a large role in making valid field assessments of clients.
- Anthropology. Behavioral scientists use their training in anthropology to compare the ways that different cultures view their societies and shape their communities through communication and interaction. Though the word "anthropology" conjures visions of ancient or aboriginal cultures, behavioral scientists in good old-fashioned offices rely on the principles of anthropology to understand conflicts between ethnic or geographic groups. Many social workers use these skills to grasp the conflicts between troubled inner-city communities and affluent neighborhoods only a short distance away from each other.
- Organizational Behavior. Specialists in this field attempt to understand the ways that people connect with and react to one another in organizations. Behavioral scientists use their findings to help businesses to improve staff morale, especially when they identify elements of corporate culture that employees believe cannot be changed. The discipline of corporate coaching has blossomed, partly, because of recent breakthroughs in the study of group dynamics.
- Behavioral Finance. Although classical economists understood the impact that people could make on their local economies, the study of finance and markets retreated to a place of pure science for most of the past few centuries. In recent years, companies and governments have returned to the study of behavioral finance to explain seemingly irrational reactions to market shifts and policy decisions. Behavioral scientists explore the ways that we make purchasing decisions based on personal rules of thumb and past experiences instead of on pure mathematical analysis. By expecting consumers to buy goods and services based on their feelings, behavioral scientists can recommend effective advertising and public relations strategies to clients.
- Social Networks. In the past century, behavioral scientists have developed striking new ways to view the sets of "nodes" and "ties" that bind individuals to their companies, their families, their religions, and their countries. Because an individual maintains ties to different groups of people, they may solve problems or even communicate differently based on the cultural norms within each group. For example, a highly effective company manager may experience problems at home by using his workplace skills to communicate with his wife. By identifying these groups, behavioral scientists can help their clients understand how to "shift gears" more effectively between situations.
- Memetics. A very recent branch of behavioral science, Memetics is the study of how ideas can replicate themselves through individuals and social networks. When combined with other branches of communication sciences, like behavioral finance, Memetics can illustrate how consumers create their own demand around "hot" items while similar goods languish on store shelves. Politicians and government agencies have started to use Memetics by wrapping controversial policies around compelling stories that win over public affection when simple facts or figures cannot do the job.
- Organizational Ecology. Behavioral scientists have developed this specialty within the last twenty years to study how organizations mimic natural processes such as evolution and natural selection. Organizational ecologists identify the traits that successful organizations use to grow and thrive in today's global marketplace. Likewise, specialists study companies that fail and die to help clients prevent similar fates.
Because behavioral science bachelor's degrees contain a number of common humanities courses, some students can supplement their core education with an associate degree. These shorter programs can prepare a student for eventual entry into a graduate program or provide a businessperson with specific skills to enhance their value on the job market.
A typical four-year bachelor's degree program in behavioral science allows students to blend many traditional humanities courses with vital coursework in their chosen specialty. Behavioral science majors who have not settled on a concentration can explore classes within their majors to expose themselves to the widest variety of career options.
Professionals who earned their undergraduate degrees in a field other than behavioral science can explore specific areas of the field through brief certificate programs. Many businesses now encourage employees to attend certificate programs that provide skills that can enhance a company's bottom line.
What Can You Do with a College Degree in Behavioral Science?
Career options for behavioral scientists are increasingly diverse and plentiful. Recent behavioral science graduates have filled these roles, among others:
Studying the character, the evolution, and the impact of geography on groups of people, anthropologists are in high demand in government agencies and in nonprofit organizations. By understanding the societal causes of crime, poverty, and social unrest, anthropologists can help alleviate the pressure on governments by developing programs that appeal to diverse populations.
Specialists analyze the non-legal aspects of crime to understand the root causes of criminal activity in communities. Criminologists attempt to anticipate crime by analyzing patterns that incorporate race, economics, demographics, and geography. Therefore, criminologists can deploy prevention campaigns that can reduce crime rates by eliminating the influences that encourage criminal activity.
While criminologists look at the "big picture" of crime trends, profilers excel at solving challenging cases by developing clear profiles of criminals when leads are scarce. Profilers use clues to piece together the identity of an elusive, usually violent criminal. By understanding the factors that can lead someone to turn to crime, profilers can track down criminals before they can strike again. As law enforcement agencies across the country focus their resources on prevention instead of prosecution, the job prospects for profilers are looking even brighter.
Traditionally, many behavioral scientists take on careers in social work, so they can use their skills to help clients or communities improve their living situations. With so many local agencies overwhelmed with cases of child abuse or domestic violence, many organizations have shifted resources to large-scale research and prevention efforts. By eliminating some of the deep causes of poverty and violence in communities, behavioral scientists can initiate long-term improvements for entire populations.
In today's competitive global marketplace, businesses want to explore every tool and resource that can give them an edge. In the past few decades, corporations have realized that slight improvements in processes, procedures, or work environments can lead to a major impact on the bottom line. Behavioral scientists act as agents of change within an organization. They allow companies to recruit and retain top talent. Likewise, corporate coaches can identify external trends and memes that allow companies to capture market share from their competitors.
Companies and governments understand that consumers don't always make decisions based on the numbers. Increasingly, we rely on analysts to help predict trends that can impact the prices of gas, food, housing, and other commodities. By understanding seemingly irrational consumer decisions, businesses can market themselves more effectively and governments can apply pressure to markets for a more beneficial impact to today's global economy.
Although price is a major factor when consumers make buying decisions, we now realize that many other elements contribute to those decisions. Market researchers help companies understand the emotional reasons that customers use to justify their choices. They translate customer wants and needs into stories that customers tell themselves and each other that make certain brands more desirable than others.
Behavioral Science Career Trends
A few decades ago, behavioral scientists were limited to careers as social workers or academics. In some educational circles, program coordinators expressed concern that there were too few professional openings for behavioral scientists at colleges and universities despite booming enrollment.
Fortunately, behavioral scientists have redefined their field. While some have found ways to relate their work to the business world, helping to improve efficiency within organizations, others improve how communities assist low-income families.
Today, behavioral scientists can choose from a plethora of thriving careers. They can apply their skills to social work positions within government agencies or nonprofit organizations, or they can work as analysts and specialists within large corporations. Many behavioral scientists even work as freelancers or consultants, applying the fruits of their research to groups client companies seeking a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
The United States Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects behavioral science careers will grow by about ten percent through the year 2016. As more behavioral scientists demystify their work by authoring best selling self-help and business books, many more businesses and organizations will carve out room in their budget to explore the ways that specialists can help them achieve their goals.
Behavioral Science Certification, Licensure, and Associations
Behavioral science majors who want to pursue careers in social work may be required to earn professional certification. According to the BLS, all fifty states including the District of Columbia have licensing, certification, or registration requirements regarding social work positions and the use of professional titles. Although standards for licensing vary by state, a growing number of states are placing greater emphasis on communications skills, professional ethics, and sensitivity to cultural issues.
Additionally, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers voluntary credentials. Social workers with an MSW may be eligible for the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW), the Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW), or the Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW) credential based on their professional experience. Credentials are particularly important for those in private practice; some health insurance providers require social workers to have them to be reimbursed for services.