Fake Gold: The top 3 challenges with ‘pop-psychology’ in business

Back to insights

Depending on what decade you were born in, you will have surely experienced some form of popular childhood craze. From Spokey Dokes, Scrunchies and Pogs to Crocs, Hoverboards and Heelys – we have all been guilty of falling victim to one popular trend or another. As we move into adulthood, no doubt we’d like to think that we leave such trends behind us. Still, the truth is that as adults, we are in danger of falling for similar, if not more complex and widespread trends. 

Businesses have seen several popular trends over the years, and the story is always the same. Overwhelmed leaders regularly rush to adopt the latest blockbuster developments in the hopes of quickly delivering solutions to increasingly complex problems. Nowhere is this more so than in the areas of psychology and behavioural change. Such trends regularly claim to offer simple solutions (hacks) to complex cultural and behavioural challenges.

From TED talks on building ‘Grit’ to self-help books that claim to offer easy solutions for wellbeing and mental health challenges, there seems to be an impulse within organisations to prematurely rush and over-hype the adoption of the ‘next big thing’.

So, what happens when misinformed decision-making comes into contact with the sophisticated marketing of behavioural science?

The rush to be seen to adopt the latest popular trend has led to a growing number of unproven or questionable theories and ideas taking on a life of their own within the corporate world. ‘Nudge‘, ‘Grit‘ and ‘Implicit Association Testing‘ are just some of the most recent trends that we are only now discovering may not be as useful as we first thought. However, these speculations are often subsequently found to be significantly less effective under closer examination or when attempting to scale localised solutions.

Such haste can promote unreliable, untested and ineffective quick-fix behavioural frameworks and interventions that can end up causing more problems than they solve. Not only do organisations regularly end up spending vast amounts of money on approaches that don’t work, but they also often end up ignoring those approaches that do.

So, if over-excitement, marketing hype and false claims can mislead an organisation’s decision-making in damaging ways – why do we repeatedly rush to adopt these untested solutions?

1. Trends are quick to scale and easy to monetise

There is a rush by academics and organisational leaders alike to be rewarded for discovering the ‘next big thing’ and by the market to monetise and scale it. Popular trends such as power posing, ‘grit’, or wellbeing seemingly offer simple blanket solutions that are easy to understand. This makes them ideal for leaders facing the diversity of challenges created by the increasing complexity of modern human workforces.

However, it is often the case that in the rush to market and monetise new thinking, the first thing that tends to be overlooked is whether or not it actually works.

This doesn’t mean that these popular trends don’t have some small elements of truth to them. It means that when they are brought to market too early, over-hyped, and at scale, they can end up causing more problems than they solve.

2. They help avoid dealing with systemic issues

A lot of these approaches tend to promote solutions that focus heavily on individual coping mechanisms. By pushing the solutions down to the individual level, organisations can defer responsibility for fixing causal system issues. This excuses them from the time-consuming activity of attempting to deal with the issues in a healthy manner.

Achieving the right balance of responsibility between the organisation and the individual is critical. It ensures that the issues causing behavioural challenges are pulled out at the roots while still equipping people to better deal with their working environments.

3. The need for academic protection

Hurried and careless academic sign-off is acting as a replacement for proper market objectivity and rigour. Popular narratives and harmful incentivisation models often steer industry experts and academics alike. As long as findings align with popular opinion, they tend not to be subjugated to the proper levels of scrutiny so long as the findings point in the right direction.

Various troubles currently plague the academic world of psychology, which may mean the trust organisations afford academic research may no longer be entirely warranted. From data manipulation of p-values (p-hacking) to lack of experimentation reliability and reporting bias, there is a growing crisis within the field of psychology. The impacts of this crisis could result in some genuine implications if ignored by business leaders.


In the wake of Covid-19, an increasing number of CEOs are looking to re-shape their organisational cultures in response to upcoming challenges and opportunities. However, contrary to the claims of some academics and HR departments, effective interventions for behavioural change are hard to achieve and far more complicated than merely addressing the surface level symptoms. Genuine culture-shaping is even harder because there is little evidence that most traditional undertakings in this space genuinely work.

However, there are practical solutions and approaches for both cultural and behavioural change out there. The challenge is that they require the same level of investment in terms of time and effort as any other form of change or transformation programme.

Other tips include:

  • Don’t just jump on the bandwagon. Use suitably qualified and experienced people to conduct proper research into new methodologies before adopting them.
  • Establish proper metrics. Benchmarking, KPI’s and benefits measurement for all behavioural change and culture shaping work.
  • Less haste more speed. Make the time to design balanced solutions that target both the individual and the structural/institutional levels.

Most of our childhood trends end up in a box buried in the back of the wardrobe, forgotten and overlooked. Because there is some value to the psychology buried deep within modern behavioural trends, we want to avoid the same fate so that we can make use of it to make businesses better.

However, the truth is that there are no quick wins in these cognitive and people spaces, only hard work, commitment and patience.




Will Rackham is a part of our core writing team. Check out our Insights page for more articles from our experts.

Subscribe to The Pulse – our monthly newsletter filled with unique industry insights from our expert network.

Be a part of our LinkedIn family and get daily updates about the world of business and be a part of the conversation.