2020 In Review: Behavioral Science Edition

Aline Holzwarth
7 min readJan 4, 2021
Before painting over 2020, take a look back at what behavioral science had to say about the year. Getty images.

In hindsight, we should have known 2020 would be a fiasco — really, what else could it have been? We’ve almost reached the end, with 2021 just weeks away. But before we shut the door to 2020, let’s review how behavioral science played into this year’s marathon of cataclysmic events.

From the behavioral changes required to slow the coronavirus pandemic to the battles with misinformation on social media, the need for sound behavioral science has never been greater. Yet as Robert Cialdini noted, despite the potential for findings from behavioral science to help battle COVID-19, “the most attention has been paid to health science, epidemiology and medical science. Not on behavioral science.” While the biological challenges themselves are formidable, they go hand in hand with the psychological and behavioral challenges that come with combating the virus.

This review compiles research and articles that have shaped our understanding of human behavior in 2020, from the novel coronavirus to the future of work and social justice.


Nothing took up more space in our lives this year than the coronavirus pandemic, and there was no shortage of insight on how behavioral science can help inform policy and public health initiatives, why it is such a challenge, and when early insights from the field are not quite ready to be applied.

Behavioral science began the pandemic with a focus on promoting non-pharmaceutical interventions like handwashing, mask wearing, and physical distancing to slow the spread of the virus. When most of the world was in lockdown, the focus turned to staying sane while in quarantine: Getting a fresh start with health behaviors that were knocked off course when we went inside, and taking care of our mental well-being. Once coronavirus became the new normal, attention turned to battling the so-called “ quarantine fatigue” where we simply became tired of shutdown. As irresistibly social creatures who need human connection, we behave badly even when we know we shouldn’t. Due to misleading feedback, the collective-action problem, and non-salient dangers, we simply aren’t programmed to naturally continue on the path of perfection.

With the development of COVID-19 vaccines, behavioral scientists and the World

Aline Holzwarth

Aline Holzwarth is an applied behavioral scientist, primarily focusing on digital health research and scientifically informed product design. alineholzwarth.com