Last week I celebrated having uploaded 50 interviews with prominent people in behavioural science. Talk about a milestone! Obviously, I am now aiming for the next 50. Don’t you worry, I’ve got you covered. If you feel like you’ve missed out on some of the interviews, make sure to read them all here. I promise you, you won’t regret it! Now, back to today’s article. After I hit a milestone I tend to pick out one of the questions
For 20 interviews it was: “How do you think behavioural science will develop?”
For 30 interviews it was: "Who or what got you into Behavioural Science?"
And for 40 interviews it was: “With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?”
Now for the big five-o, we are looking into how the experts apply behavioural science and its insights to their own life, by looking at their answers to: “How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?”
Applying behavioural science to your own life. It sounds so intense. According to Magda Osman it isn’t intense at all. She argues she might not even do it at all, at least not deliberately. She does emphasize having become more sceptical and always looking for alternatives as a result of being in behavioural science. Magda isn’t alone in (potentially) having seamlessly integrated behavioural science. According to Graham Loomes, he lives it. “I don’t so much apply it as live it. Besides various of the ‘violations’ and ‘anomalies’ in choice under risk and uncertainty, I’m also prone to many of the other ‘fallacies’ and ‘heuristics’ in intertemporal choice and in buying goods and services. This reassures me that, despite others’ opinions to the contrary, I am, on balance, fairly normal.” It’s nice to be normal! Torben Emmerling has probably become a nicer person through applying behavioural science to his own life: “I force myself to analyse situations from different perspectives, to better understand why family members, friends or colleagues, for example, might act in a certain way (and not to fall for fundamental attribution error).” That’s nice of you Torben 😊 Ali Fenwick has effectively applied behavioural science to every area of his life: “From sports (mental performance, goal-setting, visualization), to my relationship (persuasion and influence), with my friends (pro-social behavior and establishing a strong group identity), and in my work (get to experiment a lot on people… ethically of course!). Behavioural science has also helped me during the pandemic to develop new habits and be more effective in the digital space.” Hot damn, if there was a price for which expert did it best, Ali would be a serious contender…! But even Ali has competition, in the form of Neela Saldanha: “Too many to count! I took the studies on happiness seriously and both my husband and I have prioritized not having a long work commute because the data are so strong on that one. I don't stock tempting snacks at home, from all the work on self-control & environmental changes. I am trying a commitment device - my daughter (on my request) has hidden the chocolate I binge on and she gives it to me only once a week (again at my request). I told her I would beg and threaten and yell but she was not to listen to my elephant self at that point -she reminds me we have a "contract." So far it's working! And finally, behavioural science experiments are wonderful bedtime stories - my daughter knows about the marshmallow experiments, the Stroop task and much more!” Ali vs. Neela, it’s going to be an intense match… Christina Gavert is also a contender: “I think about behavioral economics all the time, so yes, I am sure it influences my life quite a lot. I study optimal timing of reminders in my research and consequently think quite a lot about when and how to set optimal reminders for myself. I also teach game theory at the university and that triggers even more thoughts on how the models of behavioral economics apply to my life.” I love game theory, a game of chicken always proves useful to get my way! Colin Camerer also lives and breathes behavioural science, he even applies it to his own family: “Mostly I use behavioral economics as a tool to understand why me and my family face judgment and choice challenges, and to implement normative choices. Mostly it is elementary economics, like recognizing opportunity cost and hiring a lot of people to help us do things we do not like (e.g. dishwashing, lawn-mowing, not driving your brother to the airport which takes 90 minutes and is stressful but can be delegated to rideshare for $50). My teenage son has also been cured of sunk cost fallacy. He also knows that if an online restaurant menu has no prices, the prices are probably high. Happy about that. I’ve lost tussles about optimal family portfolio diversification, however. Not happy about that.” We can’t all win at everything Colin, I’d say the track record is pretty damn good! Another person living behavioural science is Kelly Shortridge: “I apply behavioral science all the time in my personal life! Sometimes I even get annoyed at myself with my immediate reminders that I’m succumbing to a cognitive bias, but it’s ultimately helpful for my personal growth and sanity. I also enjoy conducting behavioral experiments on myself to determine what kind of self-nudging produces the best results. For instance, I’ve found that social proof and pre-commitment produce little effect on me, but being vigilant for choice overload and making tasks feel smaller in scope can help me overcome a procrastination hurdle.” The more you know! This answer moves us into the next section quite smoothly…
Know thyself A lot of people have indicated that knowing behavioural science has made them more aware of their own biases. And once you’re aware, you can change your own behaviour accordingly. Nuala Walsh regularly plays ‘spot the bias’ in herself, friends and colleagues. She says it has become a default mode. She also uses the peak-end rule, consciously creating as many memorable peaks as possible in life has to be a good thing. She has also focused on counteracting loss aversion in her investment decisions, and those of clients. She says this has been instrumental to steer decisions towards the best strategy rather than the easiest one. “Once aware of its powerful influence, you can’t ignore it.” Christian Hunt also knows that behavioural science can make you spot your own biases: “I take a lot of pleasure in spotting that, with hindsight, my decision-making in a particular situation was heavily influenced.” So do I, but my reaction isn’t always pleasant… Joshua D. Greene also argues that he has become much more aware of his own biases, helping him make better decisions. On top of that, his research on altruism has driven him to give a percentage of our (his and his wife’s) income to the charities that have proven most effective at saving lives and improving human well-being. Which I think is an absolutely great impact of behavioural science! Michael Hallsworth has become more aware of his tendency to make rapid associations between ideas or events: “I think Kahneman calls this the “associative machine”. Of course, this ability is very helpful for creative activities. But I’ve become increasingly wary of the way it can lead us to make false connections or see patterns where there are none. I’m more cautious in those situations now; I force myself to think through other possible explanations, apart from the ones that spring to mind easily.” I too have a “quick” mind, which doesn’t always lead me down the best paths of reasoning. I’m glad I’m not alone! Koen Smets has learned a lot about himself, and others, through behavioural science: “I cannot help observing my own behaviour all the time, and I constantly try to understand what is going on - why I make the choices I make, whether they are really in my interest, why I feel the way I do, that kind of thing. A couple of times a year, when I take a break, I tend write about economics or behavioural economics questions that arise in my personal life. Why do I refuse to pay a tenner for priority boarding on a ferry to be first on and first off the boat, but happily make a 15 mile detour and pay for the Dartford crossing (costing me more than £10) to avoid a 10 minute holdup on the M25? Is it wise to avoid paying £15 per day for parking your car close to your holiday flat by parking it a mile away, if you need your car every day?”
One guy who really knows himself really well is Guy Champniss: “How do I apply behavioural science in my personal life? Incredibly badly, is the answer! Seriously, I am hopeless. My wife is constantly pointing out how bad I am at making choices, which she finds highly entertaining considering I should know better. I do know better, of course, but that doesn’t stop the poor decisions.” That’s great Segway into the next section!
Choices, choices… Every behavioural scientist knows the choice architecture (context) matters. But do the experts move this from literature to life? Eva Krockow: “I guess as a behavioural scientist, I am a lot more sensitive to choice contexts and the way that information is framed. I harbour a general hatred for “opt-out” tick boxes that try to trick you into receiving email subscriptions. I pay a lot of attention to the wording of media reports and, as a matter of principle, I deeply mistrust all targeted advertising I receive online.
Sam Tatam says he wishes he applied behavioural science more, but has changed the ‘choice architecture’ on his iPhone to make it harder to access emails when on holiday (good job Sam!)
Specific Research Some people were really clear on the behavioural strategies they moved into their own life: Gordon indicated quite clearly he lives by “a number of strategies from the “save more tomorrow” and “mental accounting” research traditions. He also states that he had changed consumption patterns in response to research on consumption and subjective well-being. Given that that research constantly updates, poor Gordon will be changing his behaviour for a while! Gordon isn’t the only one who has identified specific research to aid his life: Andrew Oswald, who studies happiness says he tries to think about what might contribute to his and his family’s happiness. He also rejects social comparisons: “Comparisons make people unhappy, in general.” Fair play Andrew. Cass Sunstein gets specific as well: “I try hard to think about statistics and probabilities, especially when I am sad or scared.” Poor Cass, I can’t imagine always having to think of stats… Talking about stats and models, Dan Goldstein also uses these: “I take the research on clinical vs statistical prediction to heart and like to use models to make consumer decisions. When we were buying an apartment, I constructed a pricing model to see if what the sellers were asking was reasonable.” Fair play! Greg Davies, finance connoisseur, unsurprisingly has made most way in applying behavioural finance to his own life: “I strive to practice what I preach as completely as possible in managing my own finances and investing. Applying the theory to myself gave an unparalleled opportunity to learn.” He also admits he’s been a lot less effective in applying behavioural science outside of financial decisions … diet, exercise and health for example… Oh Greg, we can’t do it all, can we? Jeff Kreisler’s application of behavioural science joins Greg’s: “I think a lot more critically about my financial decisions… though I can’t say I make better ones.” Getting even more specific, let’s look into COM-B, Dan Bennet’s poison of choice (and mine): “The COM-B framework comes in handy in my personal life at least three times a week. Knowing whether somebody is or isn’t doing something because they don’t have the capability, the motivation, or the opportunity tends to solve a lot of problems … and can help to bring a lot more empathy to the table.” Want some love advice? Dan Gilbert has got you covered: “I believe my data and I incorporate their lessons into my life whenever I can. For example, many years ago we published a set of studies suggesting that people are happier with irreversible decisions than with reversible decisions because they rationalize the former more than the latter. My friend Dave Myers pointed out to me that this might explain why married people were happier than those who lived together. The idea is that when your wife does something mildly annoying you shrug your shoulders and remember her good qualities, but when your girlfriend does something mildly annoying you immediately start wondering if you should keep shopping for another girlfriend. This made perfect sense to me, so I went home and proposed to my girlfriend. And just as our studies predicted, I now love her much more.” Awh <3 Staying in the domain of love and relationships, Biju Dominic uses behavioural science principles to become a better father and a husband. Prince Ghuman has turned loss aversion into a key feature of his life: “Lean Into Loss Aversion - Knowing that losses hurt more than gains heal had a strange effect on it [personal life]. It made me re-examine things in life which I may initially flinch away from. Pain hurts more than pleasure feels good, but that shouldn't keep you from trying again.” I feel a motivational speech coming on! In line with Prince we have Nick Powdthavee: “One of the behavioural economic principles that I’ve tried to apply in my daily life is to not let the fear of regretful action dominates my decisions. This is the idea that most of us tend to think we’d regret making foolish actions — i.e., doing something and it turned out badly — more than foolish inactions — i.e., not doing anything at all and find that it was a mis-opportunity. This thinking can lead us to choose not do a lot of things we’d like to do in our lives for fear of embarrassment. But we know from studies that we tend to regret “not” doing the things we wanted to do in the past, e.g., seeing enough of our friends and family, etc., much more so than the things we did. This is because we can always rationalise the things we did but turned out badly. However, it is much harder to rationalise things that never happened because we chose not to let it happen.” Good advice Nick! One of my favourite really specific applications comes from Aline Holzwarth: “I have traditionally been very comfortable surveying people. Back when I was dating, I used to assess people with Shane Frederick’s cognitive reflection task (in person, usually at dinner). I used to put potential housemates through a thorough screening questionnaire, including both Likert scales and open-ended questions which I'd code for creativity (i.e., “How clean do you think you are? 1-5. What would your last roommate say?”).” Damn… (makes notes). Daniel P. Egan also gives some good life advice: “We’re more rational/less emotional about things that are further into the future, so I always try to have tough conversations as early as possible - I generally find that both parties (myself included) have more productive discussions that way.” He also mentions that he tries to outsource as much routine/cognitive labor as possible, so that my attention is spent on creative, important work that only I can do. This is in line with Matt Johnson, who lives by the Law of Least Mental Effort: “Thinking is hard, and (all things being equal), we try and avoid exerting mental energy as much as possible. Given this, it’s possible to reach the same desirable outcomes over a long stretch of time by making a difficult decision once, instead of repeatedly. My favorite example (which I think comes from Annie Duke in ‘Thinking in Bets’), is about ice cream. Instead of having to exert the mental energy to constantly resist the ice cream in the fridge, make that one difficult decision while you’re at the shopping mall to not bring ice cream home with you. Planning ahead makes it much easier to avoid these constant, difficult decisions. Huge implications for impulse control, as well.” Exactly! Talking about specific applications, ever thought you could apply behavioural science to your daughter’s summer camp? Neither did I. But Kelly Peters has done it: “There was an incident at my daughter’s summer camp, where I observed that there was cheating happening during one of the games. Older boys were abusing the rules and were unfairly collecting valuable prizes. Another parent (Sergio Meza, a professor of quantitative marketing) and I were able to quantify the problem and develop a simple nudge based on the research on honesty. Much to our delight, it helped reduce cheating significantly.” Nice one Kelly!
Goals vs. Temptation An overwhelming part of the answers focuses on goal setting, and deviating from your goals by temptation. Jez Groom knows all about it: he regularly makes commitments out loud, to anyone who’ll hear them, to ensure he actually delivers! He also tries his best not to continuously overeat on chocolate and snacks. I feel you Jez. Jez and I aren’t alone either. Ralph Hertwig can join the club too: “In my personal life I think carefully about where to place tempting bars of chocolate or desserts. And with respect to digital tools I use, I think carefully about the settings and defaults I choose. So I’m more cognizant of the choice architecture around me—whether it be in the food environment, the digital environment, or elsewhere—and try to empower myself to change that choice architecture in a way that I think works in my favour.” Here’s some advice from me: don’t place chocolate bars anywhere, just don’t buy them. What you don’t own, you can’t eat 😉 Silja Voolma monitors and optimises her own daily habits and does a lot of self-development and -growth work to unearth the deepest barriers to freedom from unhealthy conditioning in her own psyche. She says behavioural science has been incredibly helpful in this endeavour as it gave her the skills to translate insights into specific actions. Go behavioural science! Evelyn Gosnell, much like Silja, is trying to optimise her habits: “One easy answer: ClassPass, to get me to work out. It’s basically the opposite of a gym and it’s great. I can’t stand to lose the credits I’ve already paid for so I will use them up before they expire - usually right before they expire.” Nick Hobson believes in reaching goals through good habits: “I am a big fan of the habit literature in social psychology, including the seminal work by Wendy Wood at USC. I rely on the science to help me create context-sensitive systems that “turn on” a script for achieving the desirable behavior that I know will likely produce good outcomes in the long-run.” Nurit Nobel also indicates a trend towards habit formation: “Personally, I use a lot of commitment devices. I know that one of my challenges is to remain focussed throughout the workday. So, I use things like browser extensions and apps to lock me out of websites that just tend to be a giant rabbit hole for me.” Productivity aside, Nurit also uses commitment devices to herself to the gym! More on exercise: Amy Bucher argues she has a mixed track record: “I’m proud that over the last 12 or so years I’ve gone from someone who’d maybe run a mile once to a bonafide runner. I essentially structured a program for myself that got me running longer and more often until it was a core part of my life. I recognized long ago that I respond really well to data and deadlines, so even now I track every single run and I make sure to sign up for races regularly so I have milestones to train for.” Habits are happening! Even Paul Adams, who admits that for a long time he didn’t apply behavioural science to his own life at all, now tries to use it to create habits that he can stick to relatively easily and removing temptations from his immediate surroundings. He also tries to use public commitment to bind his behaviour. Good stuff! Rory Sutherland has jumped on this habit train as well, specifically with regards to diet: “Actually I do believe that time restrictive diets – the 5:2 diet (fasting two days a week) or the 16:8 diet where all your eating takes place within a tightly defined 8-hour window of the day – do work, and represent a significant behavioural advance over calorie-counting. They are one of the field’s proudest successes. Indeed, whenever I have tried them, they work on me. But my working life is too much of a mess to make it easy to adhere to them. But this year, maybe, just maybe!” You can do it Rory! If you want to talk goals, we should really talk to Tim Houlihan, because he gave one hell of answer to this question, all goal focused: “Goals are tremendously powerful if we approach them with some good behavioral science. My life is better off because of a mix of long-term goals (sometimes referred to as BHAG’s or Big Hairy Audacious Goals) and short-term goals (referred to as bricks). Goals have helped me accomplish many things in life and have helped find interesting and rewarding side streets where, without the goal, I would have simply been on a meandering road.” Amen! More on food and exercise! Ganna Pogrebna thanks behavioural science for making her husband lose weight: “We know from behavioural research that when you give a person a choice between a chocolate cake and a fruit salad and ask them to make that choice (i) today and (ii) a week from today, they usually go for chocolate cake now and for fruit salad in a week’s time. This forms a basis of the “hyperbolic discounting” phenomenon. I just used this argument to convince my husband to lose over 30 kilos. Does that count?” Haha yes Ganna, that counts! On the topic of losing weight, Lena Belogolova has entered the chat: “I used the concepts of mental accounting and illusion of progress to lose 35 lbs. Specifically, I made sure I was hyper-aware of the mental accounts that we maintain of exceptional foods and exceptional contexts for eating food (great research by Abby Sussman). These mental accounts have been shown to limit our awareness of how much food we’re eating. I always identify when I am in an exceptional scenario or eating exceptional foods and make a conscious decision to only eat half by putting the other half away (or throwing it away). I also created spreadsheets that simulated progress bars by giving myself stickers for standard daily tasks I already did (e.g. brush teeth, make bed, wash face) and introduced new good eating habits/workouts one at a time. By the time I went to eat breakfast, I already had 5 stickers for my morning routine and didn’t want to throw the progress off by not eating a healthy one.” I love this answer, it’s really hardcore, but it’s actually quite similar to personal finance literature I’ve read (and apply to my own life). Aline Holzwarth also uses behavioural science with regards to healthier behaviours, but that’s not very surprising given she’s a digital health expert: “These days I mostly use behavioral science to get myself to engage in healthy behaviors like exercise (through pre-commitment and accountability) and flossing (with a commitment device). I design my environments to maximize focus and minimize stress, such as setting daily “deep work” hours and “no phone zone” situations where smartphones are banned.” Aline isn’t the only one to mention accountability, Kristen Berman lives by it: “My favourite principle is accountability. The idea with accountability is that if our behaviour is seen by others we act differently. If I want to work out it is very different when I work out alone at 7 a.m. or when I work out at 7 a.m. and my friend is going to meet me. OR my friend is expecting me to text them something after I’ve worked out. With a group of friends we have regular gatherings, say every three months, where we share our goals and then together design a system to help us accomplish those goals. It always involves using other people and having friends hold us accountable for the things we want to do in life.” Impressive, I’m calling my girl squad right now.
Flip it and Reverse it! Who says knowing behavioural science influences your personal life? Why not the other way around? At least, according to Dilip Soman, that’s what’s going on in his life: “That's an interesting question, but in my case I think it’s more a case of my applying my personal experiences and observations to developing a research agenda. I would say most of my research has been influenced by observations in personal life that then became bigger empirical observations and finally a topic for a research paper. Richard Thaler always encourages us to make sure that our research is about the world rather than about theory, and I guess I've always subscribed to that principle.” Bob Sugden is with Dilip here: “It's the other way round. I see behavioural economics as an attempt to represent how real people actually behave in economic environments. Thinking about how you make personal decisions is one source of insights about underlying psychological mechanisms.” George Loewenstein also says his research is driven by his personal life but also admits defeat: “Although many of the ideas that I research and write papers about come from my personal life, I haven’t been very successful in applying behavioural economics, including my own research to my personal life. For example, I got the idea of hot-cold empathy gaps (when you are in one emotional or drive state it is almost impossible to imagine how you would feel or behave in a different state) in part from travel to different time zones. I noticed that when I would get an invitation to give a talk in Europe when I was currently jetlagged in Europe, I would turn the invitation down because I was in touch with the misery of jetlag. However, when I was well rested at home, I would be much more likely to accept the same invitation. I wish I could say that understanding this pattern has changed my behavior, but in this area and many others, I find that understanding an influence on one’s behavior does not go very far toward helping one to overcome it.” STARMAN (Chris Starmer) puts things in a different perspective: “Studying economics can make you wonder whether you are behaving as optimally in every corner of your life as you should be: have I got the right insurance policies; am I spending too much on utility bills; am I saving optimally for the future, should I consider a career change? But life isn’t like textbook economics where every decision is an optimal choice given preferences, beliefs and constraints. Real people have to decide what to do. The idea that there is no internal book of preferences that must be obeyed in pursuit of the optimal choice is, somehow, liberating.” It is Chris, it is. Another good point is made by Daniel Read. Awareness is good, but should we always adjust our behaviour as a result? Daniel argues we shouldn’t: “I think with personal decisions knowing the science does not always help. As an illustration, whereas I know I am overconfident, I don’t know by how much and even if I could adjust for overconfidence I am not sure it would help. Or, I know I have a “home bias” and like my children’s work more than that of other children, but again I don’t know if it would help to adjust for that home bias -- in fact, it might have a negative effect on my personal relationships. In general, I think that knowing you are prone to bias and error is mostly useful if everyone else knows it too. If you adjust for your biases, you can often come across as wavering and diffident.”
Conclusion Well, there you have it kids! Another beast of an article on how various influential people in the field of behavioural science apply it to their own life. And boy, the variety of people has led to a variety of stories! At the start of this interview series I didn’t have these summary articles planned, but I’m really glad I ended up doing them. They provide me, and hopefully you, my dear reader, with a great overview of what the expert collective is doing. Writing out these answers has led to something interesting results. I have to admit that I am genuinely surprised with the amount of people that use behavioural science to get them to work out (and leave the chocolate bar alone). I know behavioural science is great for goal-setting and temptation reduction, but it’s just so… specific? And my favourite answer is by Nick Chater: “Not much! Following the lead of Warwick psychologist Gordon Brown, I do quietly tell myself that I really enjoy things that I want to do more of (e.g., writing papers) - and being very suggestible, this seems to work.” Keep it simple Nick, it hasn’t done you any harm! On an ending note, you don't need to worry, this article was simply written to celebrate the first 50 interviews, I’m not quitting the series anytime soon. Up to the next ten, making sure we reach 60!