Behavioural economics is a useful tool to help influence (or 'Nudge') the decisions people make.
It can potentially help them to do things which are better for themselves or for society as a whole. But it is just one of the tools available when planning and designing a social marketing programme.
Standard economics assumes that people behave rationally in their own interest. e.g. as the price of something goes, up people will buy less of it. Behavioural economics tries to take into account the emotional, social and psychological factors that mean that people don't always make rational choices: for example habit, or the behaviour of the people around them. The New Economics Foundation's briefing on behavioural economics gives a good overview.
In the UK behavioural economics has attracted a lot of attention from policy-makers as a way to tackle behavioural issues such as health, transport or personal finance, and this can now be seen in policy.
For example, in the UK workers will now be automatically enrolled in workplace pensions, with the choice of opting out if they wish, rather than relying on workers to sign up. This change, drawing on the insight that people will generally stick with any 'default' setting, regardless of what they know to be in their own interests, is expected to massively increase the number of people saving for their retirement.
Many policy makers see behavioural economics as a faster, cheaper way to influence behaviour than social marketing, hence its popularity with a government seeking to make major budget cuts.
At The NSMC we welcome the increased interest in addressing behavioural issues across government, but we see behavioural economics as one of the most important of a range of tools social marketers can use when planning a behaviour change programme, rather than a new approach.
Behavioural economics can be very effective if you are looking to influence people in a one-off behaviour (you either sign up to a pension scheme or you don't) but we have not seen a behavioural economics programme that has addressed long standing behavioural challenges - obesity, smoking, environment etc.
This is where the systematic planning process of social marketing is so important, and becomes all the more powerful when you combine it with behavioural economics rather than replacing it.