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How Did You Become a Behavioural Scientist?



Last week I celebrated having uploaded 30 interviews with prominent people in behavioural science. Quite the achievement I'd say, and I hope to continue. All these people get asked seven questions of which one question is: "Who or what got you into Behavioural Science?" So let's see how they became behavioural scientists!




Natural Progression For some people, their environment (institution, colleagues), the timing, or the general Zeitgeist led them into behavioural science. An almost natural and pre-determined direction:

For Dilip Soman, getting in behavioural science seemed quite natural:I started my Ph.D. work at the University of Chicago in consumer psychology and marketing in the early 1990's. The school had a "Judgment and Decision making (JDM)" tradition, and a number of my fellow Ph.D.'s (John Gourville, Jack Soll, Klaus Wertenbroch) were working on JDM topics that then became foundation pieces for what we call Behavioural Economics today. I was also fortunate to have faculty like Steve Hoch, Chris Hsee and Richard Thaler to turn to for advice. So I guess it was a confluence of where I was, my interests and the faculty that were around there that got me into the field.”

Andrew Oswald is also quite relaxed about his transition into the behavioural side of things. He even calls it natural himself: “I have been interested in human wellbeing since 1991, when I looked at some of the first data. The topic seemed natural.” What a legend.

Bob Sugden gives an equally relaxed answer about how both he and Graham Loomes became behavioural scientists, moving onto becoming huge names in the field: “Graham and I got into behavioural economics in the late 1970s, long before the term was invented - we called ourselves 'experimental economists'. We were interested in Kahneman and Tversky's findings and thought we could explain them by developing a theory of regret. Having developed the theory and found that it had a lot of surprising implications, we wanted to test these and so started running experiments.” And you did Bob, you did. And then some!

Following Bob’s developments is of course Graham Loomes. What did he have to say about how he became a behavioural scientist?: “A colleague at Newcastle University heard a radio programme about a paper in Science by Tversky and Kahneman and thought I’d be interested – which I was – and this led to me reading the Prospect Theory paper. As I went through it, I found myself duplicating most of the patterns of choice that violated Expected Utility Theory and I remember thinking something along the lines of “Well, I’m undoubtedly rational and I’m making all these choices, so there must be a rational theory to explain them.” I wrote down a few rudimentary ideas and then asked the most rational person I knew – Bob Sugden – what he thought about them; and we went from there, changing and extending and refining things until we ended up with Regret Theory, which injected some psychological insights into a conventional framework to produce a richer account of human decision making. Bob and I also worked on Disappointment Theory to show how another kind of psychological response might influence behavior. I should say that others – especially David E Bell – were working along much the same lines at that time; so, incorporating psychological insights into ‘economic’ models of risky choice – and indeed, into other areas of economic behaviour – was an idea whose time had come.”

I love all the answers so far just read like they perfectly make sense. Developments that had no choice but to occur. Yet what we are talking about is the founding and progressing of a new field. Insane, isn’t it?

For Cass Sunstein moving into behavioural science was also quite a natural development, driven by dissatisfaction: “I was motivated by dissatisfaction with the rational actor model, as used at the University of Chicago, where I started my career. I was keenly interested in a different approach, and in the early 1980s, I discovered Kahneman and Tversky, and also Thaler. That was a big revelation.”

For Gordon (GDA) Brown, the development was quite natural as well, having been trained as a psychologist, with a strong background in modelling: “On the research side, it became clear that our simple mathematical models of judgement and decision-making were relevant to some of the central concerns of economists and policy-makers. On the equally-important “people” side, the influx of several exceptional behavioural scientists and behavioural economists into Warwick (Psychology Department and Business School) created the ideal interdisciplinary research environment.”

George Loewenstein also describes his development into behavioural science as quite natural, although given that he could have ended up as an engineer raises some doubts with me personally: “I was always interested in psychology, due to my family background, but (in part to escape that very background) I never took a psychology course during my undergraduate studies; instead, I majored in economics and electronics. A few years after graduating, I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, and, though I probably would have chosen psychology as the field, having taken no courses on the topic I had no prospect of getting into a psychology PhD program. So, I applied to economics programs, got into Yale, and when I visited, asked whether I could study a combination of economics and psychology. At Yale, though I didn’t formally take psychology classes, I did go to seminars in the psychology department, and one member of my committee, Robert Abelson, was in the psychology department. Abelson introduced me to the work of Kahneman and Tversky. A key moment in my graduate education was when I read the work of Richard Thaler, and then met him when he visited, after I persuaded economics faculty to invite him to give a seminar. When I graduated, I did a postdoc with Albert Hirschman, who himself did interdisciplinary work, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.”

For Matt Johnson there were two(natural?) forces that led him into behavioural science: “First, I had the good fortune of doing my PhD in the Psychology Department at Princeton, which has a storied history within behavioral economics. While I had taken courses in judgment and decision making as a psychology undergrad, this really first exposure to the academic literature of behavioral economics. The impact of his ideas on the department was palpable throughout my experience there, and his ideas seemed to always be on the tips of everyone’s tongues. The second came a few years later. Towards the end of my PhD, I became very interested in business consulting work. I was attracted to the prospect of applying analytical problem solving in order to have a direct and immediate impact. I ended up doing an internship with a consulting firm during my senior year, and then after graduation, working as a business consultant in Shanghai, China for about 18 months. Working in consulting right after graduation was an incredible opportunity to see the rich, unexplored connections between psychology and business, which further strengthened my interest in the field.


All of the people mentioned above are academics in behavioural science, or an adjacent field, but looking into industry we can compare stories:

Sam Tatam argues that he has always been fascinated by human behaviour: “My background is in Organisational / Industrial Psychology (my interest is primarily ‘normative’ psychology compared to ‘abnormal’ or ‘clinical’ behaviour… although the disciplines are clearly not entirely separate). As the field of Behavioural Science has evolved, I’ve enjoyed broadening my focus into related sub-disciplines, like Behavioural Economics.”

Rory Sutherland claims he was doing Behavioural Science before the field has been properly named: “I was a classicist at university, but for various reasons – my brother is an astrophysicist – I spent much of my time hanging out with mathematicians. I had taken Maths as one of my A-levels, too, and have always been fascinated by statistics. But I have also long been fascinated by the relationship between statistics and psychology – how people will hastily contrive fairly simplistic explanations for statistical phenomena and then, once having post-rationalised them to their own satisfaction, will spend very little effort looking for alternative or complementary explanations. In my early days in advertising, I used to refer to "That thing which has no name". So frequently was I confronted with results to experiments in marketing which bore no semblance of standard economic logic, that I was convinced that there was a wholly missing science, yet to be created, to explain why behaviour so frequently defied conventional rationality. About ten years later, through becoming addicted to science and economics blogs, I finally discovered that there was such a science, and that a book was about to be published in the US called Nudge. I ordered it from Amazon.com via FedEx, making me one of three people in Britain to read it on the date of publication. The other two were the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his then advisor, the brilliant Rohan Silva, who had recommended it to him.

Daniel P. Egan also has always had a fascination for psychology, so his career choices also made a lot of sense: “I was always interested in psychology, especially higher-order cognitive functioning and logic. But also how societies function, what their limits and organization are. So I ended up studying both cognitive psychology and economics, and never really picked one. A small example - when I travelled abroad with my family in high school, I wondered how well people actually translated foreign prices into their own currency, or if the raw number still influenced their thinking: both cognitive psych and economics!”



Blaming it on Someone Else Not everyone slid into behavioural science as if it was a silk robe that fit perfectly. Some people had clear guidance, in the form of a person, who got them into it:

Starting with Chris Starmer, he “blames” Bob Sugden: “How did I get into Behavioural Science? The short answer is ‘Bob Sugden.” Well there you go!

Nick Chater also thinks he found Behavioural Science through someone else: “It was my friend and, later, co-founder of Decision Technology Ltd, Henry Stott, who got me interested, when he came as a PhD student to the Psychology Department in Warwick. Henry persuaded me that decision making is of crucial practical importance, as well as being theoretically deep and interesting.”

Nick P. (Nattavudh Powdthavee) blames Andrew Oswald: “It was Andrew Oswald who first got me interested in the economics of happiness back in 2001, and from that my interest for its close cousin — behavioural economics — kind of grew from having done a lot of research into what makes us happy (and why we are not as happy as we would like to be). Basically, I thought that behavioural economics will be able to provide me with an even deeper insight into why we make systematic mistakes when it comes to choosing what is good for us in the long-run.”

Ralph Hertwig also credits a not-so-small (just say huge) name for getting him into the field of Behavioural Science: “I got into the field was through studying at the University of Konstanz, where Gerd Gigerenzer was a professor at the time. I was fascinated by his work and by Kahneman and Tversky’s work on how people make decisions, and how good or bad those decisions are. I was really struck by the conceptual tensions between the positions and the profound questions about the human mind and rationality they implied—and that’s basically what drew me to the field.” Although Gerd isn’t getting all the credit as Ralph argues that his “main concern, my main motivation was always a practical one: How can we help people make better decisions?” So there is that. A Natural Progression kick-started by Gerd Gigerenzer. There’s worse ways of rolling into a career.

With Tim Houlihan, you can almost argue he blames his poor boss at the time: “About 20 years ago, I joined a firm to design sales incentives and my colleagues taught me that my company believed (and pitched to customers) that non-cash incentives were more effective at generating motivation and performance than cash. It’s a counterintuitive position, so I asked why they believed that? They said it’s what they had observed over years of designing and operating programs, and I should take their word for it. That explanation didn’t satisfy me. So, I asked my boss, his name is John Jack, if there was a better explanation than “that’s our observation.” He rifled through a file cabinet in his office choked full of papers and handed me a copy of the 1997 Taxi Driver Study by Thaler, Babcock, Loewenstein, and Camerer. It blew my mind. That paper fueled my curiosity like a gateway drug. And around that time, Danny Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize, which caused me to drink behavioral economics studies from a fire hydrant. Shortly after that, I discovered my second-most influential paper: The Tale of Two Markets, by Dan Ariely and James Heyman. James was teaching at a university near me, but for some reason I didn’t reach out to him. At least at that time. But I happened to meet up with Dan after a lecture at the University of Minnesota and we hit it off. In no time at all, Dan and I were organizing field studies with my clients. Many years passed before I finally met James, but we have since collaborated, as well.”

With Paul Adams you can argue that he fits in multiple categories, but I’m putting him in this category. Because I can. Paul does actually “blame” someone for falling into behavioural science: William Goldsmith and Stefan Hunt: “I’ve always been fascinated by economics, and I can trace that back to my high-school economics teacher William Goldsmith. To me economics was always a way of understanding the world at every level - from the smallest individual decisions right through to geo-political conflict and the development of nations. But I can put down my interest (and probably a large part of my knowledge) in behavioural economics to Stefan Hunt. I went through my Bachelors and Masters degrees in economics in the early 2000s and behavioural economics hadn’t really made it onto the syllabus (at least in the UK). So when I started work with Stefan I was a relative newbie. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the literature, his enthusiasm and his belief in what could be achieved by adding behavioural elements to economic models really inspired me.”




Accidental Behavioural Scientist Some people don’t have a smooth natural progression nor a strong leading light. No, for some people it takes falling face first into behavioural science, or something like that:

Dan Goldstein takes “blaming” someone else two a whole new level, almost defining himself as an accidental behavioural scientist: “I met my advisor at a new student reception in grad school. When he heard I came from a computer science background, he gave me a programming challenge to solve, which I did over Thanksgiving break. He suggested working together and that little programming challenge became the core of my thesis. This is all to say I got into the study of decision making without really deciding to.”

I have to admit that I created this subcategory for one man, and one man only: Koen Smets, the ultimate accidental behavioural economist. How did he get into Behavioural Science? “It was a gradual process. I trained as an engineer and did engineer stuff for a good while, but through various quirks of fate ended up working in organization development. That is how my interest in behaviour and decision making (what motivates it, how to change it) really arose. At the time I didn't know about behavioural economics (it was well before Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel prize), but I was very much looking at microeconomics for insight on human behaviour. You might say it was 'mainstream' economists like Gary Becker, Herbert Simon and Thomas Schelling who opened the door for behavioural economics. But I should not forget those economists who are so good at connecting economics with everyday life: Tim Harford, David Friedman (yes, the son of Milton), Robert Frank and Steven Landsburg. They demonstrated to me how much of our behaviour can be better understood when you look at it through economics spectacles. So when behavioural economics came on the scene, I was ready for the final piece in my personal human behaviour jigsaw puzzle.”

Daniel Read can be classified as an accidental behavioural scientist as well. Knowing almost nothing about the field before getting into a PhD: “I got into behavioural economics when I was applying for PhD programs and received an offer to study with Daniel Kahneman at UBC (University of British Columbia). I learned about Behavioural Economics while travelling across Canada by train, going from Ottawa to Vancouver. Oddly, I learned nothing about it during my undergraduate years.”

One of my favourite stories about rolling into behavioural science is still by Daniel Gilbert, who could have been literally anything else, if fate had been different that day: “In 1976 I was a high-school drop-out and an aspiring science fiction writer living in Denver, Colorado. One day I went downtown to the local community college to sign up for a creative writing course, but by the time I arrived at registration the course was full. I asked the person at the desk whether there were any other courses that met at the same time and that still had room for a student. She scanned the list and said “Psychology.” I shrugged, signed up, and the rest is history. If cartography had been open that day, I’d probably be a mapmaker.” You can’t come up with this type of stuff. You just can’t!

Jeff Kreisler has a journey so convoluted with other career paths that I am putting it into this category as well. He still jokingly argues he went the “typical route” however: “I earned degrees in Economics, Politics and Russian Studies from Princeton University, went to a top law school then, after passing the California Bar Exam became a stand up comedian. Got a job writing a weekly humour column about finance and business and started to see deeper patterns about incentives, conflicts of interests and our malleable mental judgment. In 2009 I wrote a book – a satire! – called “Get Rich Cheating” – which was all ultimately about, how money makes us do unethical, immoral and irrational things. I thoroughly researched the methods and actions of the likes of Enron, Bernie Madoff, Donald Trump, steroid users, showbiz scammers and more… but didn’t stumble across “behavioral economics.” The book did well enough that Dan Ariely got a copy and invited me to speak to his class of graduate business students at Duke. I did so, in character, pro-cheating… and it was turning point for me. I’d always viewed human decision-making as susceptible to forces like money and the emotion it engenders, but considered that just a casual observation on my part. Suddenly, meeting Dan and learning about the work of he and his colleagues and peers and the whole field of Behavioural Science I was like, “Holy crap! There’s a science to this!”

Jez Groom thinks that he’s always been working in Behavioural Science. He just didn't know it! “My first career was in advertising, persuasion and influence and even though it was 30 years ago we were taught to think about and define the 'emotional and rational benefits' of products and brands. Which I guess was referring to System I and System II - it just wasn't codified that way.”



Switching Gears Not everyone finds behavioural science through luck, timing, place, or a mentor, sometimes it takes a much longer process. Having to switch gears either mentally, or even professionally.

Chris Starmer doesn’t just blame Bob for getting him into the behavioural field though: “A slightly longer answer to your question is that my metamorphosis began when I went to UEA in the mid 1980s to do an MSc in economics. Bob had just arrived as the newly appointed professor of microeconomics (Still blaming the Bobster though!) and was looking for someone to help him run experiments. As an undergraduate, I had no idea that economists could employ experiments as useful research tools – indeed, the conventional wisdom of the time, often written explicitly in textbooks of the day, was that economics is a non-experimental science. But, as an undergrad, I’d had quite some interest in methodology so getting involved in something that seemed so novel, or even slightly taboo, was irresistible. The practical aspect of running experiments was great fun and there was a real thrill attached to taking the first look at brand new data that no one had seen before.”

Going from wanting to be a surgeon to behavioural scientist is one hell of a transition, but Ganna Pogrebna has made it work: “I was a kid, I wanted to be a surgeon (everyone on my mother’s side in my family is a medical doctor), but my parents were categorically antagonistic to the idea as (to them) it implied working long hours, having huge responsibility and, at least in their minds, it was associated with a very bad work-life balance. So, when I went to the University, I had to opt for “anything but medicine”. I have decided to study International Relations as it was the only course that offered a 50-50 split between natural sciences and humanities (i.e., allows me to take loads of mathematics and statistics, but at the same time study economics and law – clearly, I had no clue about what I wanted to do). When I was 18, I won a Freedom Support Act scholarship to go to US and study Economics. But even then, I was not convinced that Economics will eventually become my career. In the end I graduated with two Master’s degrees – one in International Economic Relations and another in International Law. But then, by complete chance, I ended up sneaking into a lecture by Andreas Ortmann who was teaching Experimental Economics and that day was running an in-class auction experiment which demonstrated the “winner’s curse”. I have never seen a decision experiment before in my life, but at that moment I knew that I finally found something I wanted to do.


Neela Saldanha had to switch gears much more in mindset than in actual field: “After many years working in marketing, I went to do a PhD in marketing (consumer psychology). I thought I was going to research branding, consumer strategy, that sort of thing. But my mind was blown when we read our first papers in what I now know as behavioral economics - Prospect Theory by Kahneman & Tversky, the work on mental accounting & the endowment effect by Richard Thaler and so on. It seemed so foundational and I wondered how we had done MBAs in marketing with no exposure to how people think and make decisions and choices.”

Greg B Davies shares a similar story, arguing that it was mainly serendipity which led him into Behavioural Science: “In 2001 I had been working as a management consultant doing geeky quant/risk stuff in financial services but had decided to return to academia to attempt my PhD. The original plan was to focus on a topic bridging Economics and Philosophy, which was my academic background to that point: the philosophy of rationality. As I read more widely to focus on a more specific topic I stumbled on the field of behavioural economics. I had no previous background psychology, but was drawn to the combination of economics, philosophy, maths and psychology … but also to the blend of both theory and practice, and of empirical data and abstract thinking. So I plunged into behavioural decision science instead – though from within an economics faculty, where at the time behavioural econ was definitely considered to be the lunatic fringe.”

Magda Osman also had to switch gears, having started initially with studying deductive and inductive reasoning: “I found my way into studying decision-making (as a psychologist) much later in my career, as I had actually started off studying deductive and inductive reasoning. The main reason I veered into the domain of decision-making was through a circuitous route. This first involved getting interested in dual processes, and the problems in the evidence base in support of distinctions between conscious and unconscious processes. Getting into this revealed that the same issues extended beyond reasoning, to problem solving, and judgment and decision-making. At this stage I was also developing an interest in applied research, and so I ended working on projects looking at dynamic decision-making, which seemed to consolidate my experience of multiple areas of higher order cognition that I was fortunate to be able to investigate.”

Talking about switching gears, Guy Champniss found himself so frustrated that he went from business back into academia, jumping into a behavioural science based PhD: “I had ended-up in an insights and consumer behaviour role with the global marketing services group, Havas, and had become utterly frustrated with the quality of the insights being generated for clients. I was also becoming more and more interested in sustainability, and what that meant for brands and marketers, and felt the disconnect was even greater there. I was then lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks at Stanford, right around the time that a seminal behavioural science study was run looking at energy saving behaviour. The combination of Stanford and the exposure to applied social psychology was a lightbulb moment for me. I was utterly enthralled. So I came back and, wanting to deal in fact and evidence rather than opinion (which marketing services is very good at…), I committed to do my PhD in looking at how behavioural science could help us in terms of prosocial consumer behaviour. So still a focus on sustainability, but a different – and I think more effective – route in! I should also say that my supervisor – Professor Hugh Wilson – was a fantastic support, and is now at Warwick (and is also banging the sustainability drum, I believe).”


With Christian Hunt you could almost argue that he has switched gear more times than you have switched insurance providers, moving from behavioural science to finance to behavioural science to risk and compliance and repeat: “I’ve always been curious about what makes people “tick”. At University, I read Modern Languages, which involved studying French and German literature. With hindsight, the perfect grounding; literature is the study of people, through the medium of story-telling. So what I was really studying were tales of human decision-making. I wasn’t really aware of Behavioural Science as a field. I was just drawn towards buying books, attending lectures, going on courses and reading academic papers that helped me understand why people do what they do. My career has been in Financial Services, with a particular focus on Compliance and Risk Management. I don’t quite know how that happened! Though I know that one of the reasons I joined the Financial Services regulator was that I was curious about the 2008 Crisis came about; a prime example of how human decision-making is irrational! I then left the Bank of England, to join UBS, where I headed up a Global Compliance & Operational Risk function. It suddenly struck me that Compliance (which let’s face it, isn’t the most exciting job title in the world) was actually the business of influencing human decision-making. That’s because organisations can’t be compliant of their own accord, it’s the people within them that determine whether that’s the case. And the other half of my job, Operational Risk was the same thing; because the most significant cause of risk in most organisations is people. What I call Human Risk. My “lightbulb moment” came when I realised that if we were in the business of influencing human decision-making, then why were we using techniques that no-one else who was trying to do the same thing, would ever consider using?! So I began “Bringing Behavioural Science to Risk and Compliance”. It uses the Rhyme As Reason Effect, but also genuinely makes a lot of sense!”

Closing the interview we have Joshua D Greene, who you could argue has switched between philosophy, ethics (moral decision-making) and behavioural science a good deal: “I got interested in moral philosophy in 7th grade when I started doing debate. I did a kind of debate called "Lincoln-Douglas Debate" which is focused on policy-relevant moral questions, often about tradeoffs between individual rights and the greater good (e.g. privacy vs. national security). In thinking through these questions as a debater, I tried to formulate my own philosophy. I have pragmatic inclinations, and I found myself drawn toward utilitarianism, according to which the best action or policy is the one that maximizes overall happiness. But then I was stumped by dilemmas such as the "transplant dilemma": Is it ok to kill one person if that person's organs can be used to save the lives of several others? I also wondered, a la Peter Singer, whether I and others like me could justify spending money on luxuries when some people are desperately in need of basic necessities for survival. I wondered about the psychology behind these judgments, and in my first year of college I started working with Jonathan Baron on precisely these sorts of questions. I ended up changing schools and becoming a philosophy major, but I continued to think about the cognitive mechanisms behind our moral judgments and the ways in which they may be faulty. In particular, I was struck by the Trolley Problem as a "fruit fly" for understanding the apparent contradictions in our moral thinking (and feeling). Later, while I was getting my PhD in philosophy, I met up with Jonathan Cohen, and together we tested some ideas about how moral dilemmas might arise out competing processes dependent on different systems in the brain. And that led to my main line of research on the cognitive and neural underpinnings of moral judgment.”




Well, there you have it kids! Another beast of an article on how various influential people in the field of behavioural science got to be in it. And boy, the variety of people has led to a variety of stories! There seems to be no one real way into behavioural science, which is what some may argue one of the strengths of the field. Whichever way you take it, I hope you enjoyed the article.

And don’t worry, this article was simply written to celebrate the first 30 interviews, I’m not quitting the series anytime soon. Up to the next ten, making sure we reach 40!