Pharmaceuticals & Biotech

How applied behavioral science helps turn biases into success drivers

Aug. 20, 2021 | Article | 3-minute read

How applied behavioral science helps turn biases into success drivers

How can the pharmaceutical industry apply awareness of cognitive biases and behavioral science principles to drive an ethical culture? Though few people intend to be influenced by them, cognitive biases exist as a way for our minds to process the many quick decisions we need to make on a daily basis. Once we understand how our biases influence our decisions, we can develop interventions to effectively work with them—and ultimately use them to create a more ethical environment.


In a broad sense, some cognitive biases can promote positive or ethical behavior, while others can promote negative or unethical behavior. For example, people often unconsciously feel they have permission to engage in “bad” behaviors by balancing them against their “good” behaviors—a principle known as moral regulation. This cognitive bias may drive comfort with things like violation of travel and expense policies when “balanced” against overall performance or helping improve patient outcomes. For pharma companies, cognitive biases can introduce risk by:

  • Reducing a sense of accountability
  • Influencing employees to make decisions based on poor or incomplete information
  • Encouraging the circumvention of critical policies designed to promote proper medical treatment
  • Exposing liabilities that can reduce profits

On the other hand, an ethical culture can completely change an enterprise’s trajectory in a positive direction. According to the UK’s Institute of Business Ethics, companies with an ethical culture outperformed competitors in market value, economic value and price-to-earnings ratio.


The good news is that understanding cognitive biases can offer powerful insights on how to develop organizational initiatives that have the greatest opportunity for success and impact. A three-step approach can target and address active biases within your organization, offering the flexibility to adjust your tactics for specific groups and behaviors.

Step 1: Identify a target behavior

Whether it’s accepting individual accountability, properly managing risk or anything in between, there are behaviors pharma leaders would like to see more of within their organization. These behaviors regularly gravitate to the promotion of informed decision-making based on ethical judgment.


To determine which areas deserve your focus, consult with a behavioral science professional if possible. If that’s not an option, speak with internal resource teams and ask probing questions to identify the key behaviors you want to focus your efforts against. In the pharmaceutical arena, common behaviors that have triggered violations include: navigating risk is perceived as too difficult, presumptions that it is someone else’s role to manage risk, and of course the ever-popular “everyone is doing it.”

Step 2: Identify opportunities to promote that behavior

While researchers have identified well over 100 cognitive biases, it’s very hard to judge which of the principles are impacting your target behavior. Be scientific in your approach. Develop a list of hypothesized biases and do interviews with your target stakeholders to help you narrow down to which ones are actively influencing their decision making. For example, if you hear people explain some of their decisions as “everyone else on the team is providing meals to healthcare professionals outside of company policies,” you may be dealing with conformity bias, in which people feel a pressure to conform even when they know that it’s not the right behavior. However, if you hear “my manager always approves these weekly meals to this entire office and has never challenged it once,” you may be dealing with confirmation bias.


A good place to start learning about the many biases is through online resources like the cognitive bias codex or the list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia. Be creative but thorough in your search for the right biases to test for.

Step 3: Execute interventions that result in the desired behavior

The type of intervention may depend on what best aligns to your teams’ objectives, but could range from a gentle nudge from leadership to rewards for desired behavior. For example, in research studies, one way to mitigate conformity bias is to break up subgroups, which will disrupt the urge to conform. Choose your interventions carefully. The right one can result in immediate positive results, while the wrong intervention will have little to no effect.

An environment with an ethical culture and high-performing behaviors can still benefit from an evaluation of unknown cognitive biases. Applied behavioral science does not aim to rewire the mental “hardware” we have developed over hundreds of thousands of years, but understanding its application can promote better behaviors and reinforce ethical culture. Organizations that prioritize the understanding of these biases and related interventions have the opportunity to generate better traction for organizational initiatives, outperform competitors, and drive an ethical culture.


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