Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisation, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Alexandra Chesterfield. Alex has founded and lead Which?’s Behavioural Science team, then joined the FCA’s Behavioural Economics team to deepen its understanding of consumer, employee and firm behaviour, and is now at RBS leading a team of behavioural risk specialists to keep the bank and its customers safe. She is also a writer: co-authoring ‘Poles Apart’(coming spring 2021) on the causes and consequences of global polarization. And why it’s so hard to change minds and behaviour. She is also the co-host of the Changed my Mind podcast, part of Stanford’s Depolarization Project. Let's learn more about Alex!
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
Curiosity about why we do what we do. After originally graduating with an English Literature degree (I once had a behavioural economist splutter in my face at this point), I was lucky to get onto a graduate scheme with a communications and advertising group. I ended up working in its social & market research arm on knotty public policy problems which I really enjoyed. But after a few years mainly using self-report methods, I began to question why what people said rarely translated into what they did and started to read about consumer decision making...
Timing, luck, Ed and Joe. In 2010 I had moved to Which?, the UK's Consumers' Association. I remember excitedly discussing Nudge in my interview but was met with blank faces. Nevertheless, I got the job - designing and conducting research to influence politicians, regulators, business, government etc to change their business practices/policy/regulation, to improve consumers' lives across public and private markets. I could see the way stakeholders were using evidence was changing, especially to understand consumer decision making, and the Nudge Unit (aka the Behavioural Insights Team) was really taking off. I saw an opportunity to set up a Behavioural Science team at Which? Acutely aware of my lack of theoretical or empirical training, part of the pitch to the Board was to send me to UCL to study for a MSc in Cognitive & Decision Science, which Nick Chater (now at Warwick) had originally set up. Lucky for me, the pitch was successful. Nick introduced me to Ed Gardiner, now at Warwick Uni and co-founder of The Cognition Company. I also met Dr Joe Gladstone at the same time. Both Joe and Ed, still friends now, were fantastic mentors. This led to a formal partnership between Which? and Warwick University. The launch was at the Shard and I remember sitting next to Daniel Read (Professor at Warwick) and Colin Camerer giving a speech. I remember feeling huge imposter syndrome and, with hindsight, not realising how famous Colin was in the BE world. I started my MSc when my second child was 8 weeks old. It was full on, but I loved it and learned so much. I realised how much I didn't know and decided I wanted to find a role where I could apply and deepen my technical skills day to day, without having to manage teams. I was fortunate enough to join the FCA's Behavioural Economics team, set up by Dr Stefan Hunt and Paul Adams. I learnt a tonne more, but also how much more I didn't know! After 3.5 years at the FCA, I left to join Natwest Group as their Head of Behavioural Risk.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I feel I think I'm most proud of a project I worked on at the FCA where we used a combination of behavioural science, data and design to work out the best way to return money owed to very vulnerable customers in the pawnbroking market.
What do I still want to achieve? I've always found statistics hard and would like to get much better at this. I'd love to do a PhD at some point, but not for a while for the sake of my marriage and kids!
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
In some kind of public service - something where I can make positive change.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
Inserting friction to stop me doing things. For example, getting my kids to hide my work phone at the weekend so I don't check it.
I'm writing a book, Poles Apart, with two friends from politics and business on the causes and consequences of polarization. The book spun out of our podcast, Changed my Mind, and will be published in summer 2021 by Penguin Random House. I was once very politically active outside work – so using behavioural science to understand affective polarization and what might remedy it is an issue very close to my heart!
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Curiosity - there's always so much more to learn. Learning how to ask good questions and being sufficiently self-aware to know your own strengths + weaknesses.
To recognise and value how broad behavioural science is - I've really benefited from working or collaborating with economists, biologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, designers and org psychologists.
Training and real-world application of statistics and experimental methods (of which I’m sure I’ll always be learning!)
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
Very hard to predict. I would like to see greater professionalisation. And more collaboration between the different sub-disciplines to understand and solve more complex problems. And more incentives to cross-collaborate between academic disciplines and also academic and industry. But I suspect it will become more siloed e.g. behavioural design, behavioural data science.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Leor Zmigrod. Ed Gardiner. Joe Gladstone. Dave Lagnado.
Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Alex!
As I said before, this interview is part of a larger series which can also be found here on the blog. Make sure you don't miss any of those, nor any of the upcoming interviews!
Keep your eye on Money on the Mind!