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Interview with Alex Gyani



Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisations, 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 Alex Gyani.


Alex is the Director of the Behavioural Insights Team’s Australian office. He has been based in Sydney since 2014. Previously Alex oversaw the team’s research and evaluation work across Singapore, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand and ran the office in Aotearoa New Zealand from 2018-2021. Since joining the team in 2012, he has worked in a diverse set of fields from domestic violence, energy regulation, health system efficiency, obesity, financial regulation, employment services to education. His PhD focused on encouraging people with anxiety and depression to seek treatment using a mobile phone app and encouraging psychological therapists to use evidence-based treatments. In 2018, he was named one of Apolitical’s 100 Future Government Leaders.



 


Who or what got you into behavioural science? As with anything, I got into behavioural science with a bit of luck, but I think there are three critical moments that made it likely for me to become a behavioural scientist. The first critical moment was just the decision to start studying psychology at uni. And was with a lot of people, this choice was due to a very good teacher who just brought the subject to life and made me want to study psychology in a bit more depth.


I always had very broad interests and that works fine within psychology. I loved history, I loved maths, and I loved art (including the performing arts). Unlike economics - which has a very sort of unitary identity – there are lots of different paths you can take in psychology. In the psychological, I find that researchers would probably identify more as a qualitative researcher or a social psychologist, rather than a psychologist. So, the diversity of pathways that you can take in psychology was quite appealing to me.


Then whilst doing my undergraduate degree, the moment that had the biggest impact on my career, and led me to do my PhD, was a lecture on evidence-based treatments. This was a baffling experience because it shone a torch on a false assumption that I had about how the world works. I assumed that doctors (and therapists) would use evidence to determine whether they might offer psychological therapies or pharmaceutical interventions. Having a lecture about the existence of evidence-based treatments (and by extension, non-evidence-based treatments) made me just go: hang on, isn't that what happens?!’ That got me really interested in the idea of getting evidence into public policy.


The final moment happened when I was doing my PhD. I spent a lot of time trying to understand why it is that certain therapists, GPs or commissioners (who would decide which services to offer within the National Health Service) would or wouldn't use evidence to inform their practice. The key thing that came out was most wouldn't go out and read academic journals. That wasn’t to say that they weren’t curious about how to help their patients. Quite the opposite. They'd just read the practice journals to understand how to do something better, rather than whether the overall practice was shown to work.


My PhD also highlighted that many of the key decisions about evidence-based treatments did not happen in academia. The decisions lay with policymakers. While many researchers in the sector view their role as advocating (or even lobbying) for evidence based interventions from the outside, the decisions happen inside. So that's why I got really interested in working for the Behavioural Insights Team once I finished my PhD in 2012.



What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve? Honestly, one of the real benefits of working with a team is that you get to achieve far more. One of my proudest achievements is just having the team here. I can't claim their achievements, of course, but being able to work with passionate, curious and kind people just means that you can do more!


Project wise, I’m quite proud of the first one that we did. It was with job centres in the UK and some of the work that we got to do in Victoria with VicHealth on the food environment.

In terms of what I still want to achieve – I think that there are three main things. Firstly, I’m keen to get these ideas being taken up in a much broad way, so mainstreaming the use of behavioural science in public policy. We spend a lot of time training up other teams. It’s because we believe in the ideas, many have been backed up by research evidence, and we want to get as many people to use them and learn from them. Secondly, I’m excited by the broader uptake of the use of randomized control trials to really establish whether things are working. I think that we will see some exciting developments in Australia on this point. Finally, I’m really interested in finding ways to ensure that the use of evidence-based policy also involves the people that it affects; not just in terms of the implementation of evidence-based policy, but the process of discovery. Can we work out which questions matter, so that we can use robust methods to answer them?



If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? I honestly couldn’t tell you. I had a lot to think about this before we started speaking and I couldn’t give you a clear answer. I thought there’s probably a number of ‘sliding doors’ moments that could have led me down very different careers. But I think generally be something that would have a vague social purpose, having the ability to ask interesting questions. I’ve always got that curiosity about human beings that I think is sort of critical to this line of work.


How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I think that a very powerful and probably actually underappreciated, in the sort of BI canon, are a lot of the ideas that come out of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is really the genesis of where evidence-based treatments came from in clinical psychology. There’s lots of different nice CBT based ideas that can be used throughout your own professional life and mindfulness-based techniques that are quite simple and easy to apply. I've tried to use those as much as possible just to manage stress because these projects can be quite stressful. The beauty of CBT is that there is some sort of broad and theoretical orientations and formulations of problems that you can use – the hot cross bun approach. [Merle looks confused] On each one of the points of the hot cross bun, you would have emotions, you would've physiology, you would have cognition, and you would have behaviour. And the whole reason why it's called the hot cross bun is that if you draw links between them all, it's like a hot cross bun. All of those four nodes (emotions, cognition, physiology and behaviour) have different relationships with each other. So, your physiology will affect your mood, and then that would also affect your behaviour because you’ll choose to do certain things that affect the way that you sleep. The key thing is identifying which nodes you actually can control; and then focus on those. Part of what really appeals to me is that this hot cross bun model has some analogies to the systems thinking approaches that were described by Donella Meadows. It's like an internal microcosm for systems thinking. You identify where you have (most) control - and then focus on that. Of course, sometimes you don't have any control and I think that's where a lot of the arguments against CBT are quite valid. But, it is still a useful framework to use.




With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?

  • Obviously, it’s important to know the academic literature. This will help identify the range of solutions you have when faced with a behavioural problem. However, more important is the critical thinking associated with selecting the solution(s) that will have the most impact for the current problem. The ability to formulate and define a problem is critical.

  • Another important skill is being able to communicate your ideas clearly. How do you communicate a problem? How do you communicate your solution so that others are on board?

  • And last, a great behavioural scientist is just always curious; always curious about human beings. This means it's very easy to fall in love with a problem if there are people involved. People are fascinating. And not just as an abstract concept, but as individuals. Going out to talk to people to understand how behavioural science-based solutions might help them will get you much further than just reading the literature. That’s what makes my job so interesting.

But, just talking to people, isn’t enough. You should never stop reading, as the literature will constantly change. Always be willing to update your views and your methods as the evidence changes.


How do you think behavioural economics will develop (in the next 10 years)? I think there are a few ways in which it will go. I think we need to sort of push it a little bit. I think that there's always going to be these conversations around, ‘Does it work?’, ‘Doesn't it work?’ ‘Are nudges effective?’ I say, frankly, I don't think that's a particularly interesting question for a few reasons that have been outlined in lots of different think pieces. The main one for me being that I'm not particularly interested in whether or not it's ‘a nudge’ (which is a very loosely defined concept) is effective. What I would care about is, are we using our best knowledge of human behaviour to develop better policies, better programs, better services, better products? It doesn't really make sense to ask if it is that effective if we are testing our specific insights on a regular basis. It does make sense to ask whether they are effective at scale and over time, but this question is one that needs to be continually asked.

There are also a few ways in which behavioural science might integrate with other fields that I think are really exciting. There are three fields that I would highlight:

  1. System thinking. We had a lot of discussion about the i-frame and the s-frame. I've always felt that as behavioural scientists, we are to a certain degree, systems thinkers. It’s important to find leverage points in the system that allow you to have a big impact. I think that's something that we do intuitively as behavioural scientists, but we still have a lot to learn.

  2. Human-centred design. Although the term behavioural design is becoming more common, we need to learn more from these disciplines and integrate them better into our practice as behavioural practitioners.

  3. Data science. The discussion about data science and machine learning is only going to become more and more important. I think that behavioural scientists have a key role in learning how to integrate data science into our projects and helping those working in machine learning, AI and data science to learn more about human behaviour.

  4. And then mainstreaming it all – how do we get people to use evidence based methods and tools and stop them from falling back into the non-evidence based world? Some of the interventions and solutions we create are more fragile than I think we give them credit for. Sometimes they will be de-implemented despite the fact they've been shown to work. There's actual effort that needs to be expended to make sure that the things that have been shown to be effective are maintained and nurtured.


What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?

It’s important to fall in love with problems, not solutions. As you get more experience as a behavioural scientist you’ll start to realise quite quickly which kind of solutions are most likely to work for certain types of problems. But this can close your thinking. It’s important to really listen and understand the context in which you might be operating.

What are the biggest challenges for behavioural science?

I think we need to keep encouraging people to test any behavioural science solutions. I occasionally hear from some of my colleagues that there is less appetite for running RCTs than their use to be. I am not entirely sure of this. Bear in mind that RCTs were never hugely popular when teams like BIT started. It was only the most innovative partners that we worked with that were really pushing the idea of using trials to understand what works – and what didn’t.


These early RCTs also really helped build the case for the wider use of behavioural science solutions. Some of the critiques that we had at the beginning, e.g. from Ben Goldacre, warned against the over-extrapolation of findings from behavioural economics into public policy. And it’s important that we're not just extrapolating, that we are testing, giving back to the literature, and improving our understanding of human behaviour, rather than just taking those ideas and thinking that they might just work in a different context as well. For that reason, I hope that the use of RCTs in government and industry continues (obviously noting the important ethical considerations).




What are your biggest frustrations with behavioural science, as it currently stands?

I think some of the things that we were talking about before in terms of asking broad questions whether ‘nudges’ are effective or not. We should look at understanding whether specific solutions and theories are effective and then work out whether they can be scaled to different contexts and remain effective and acceptable to the public.

I general, I think we could be doing a lot better in Australia integrating research into public policy. In the UK it’s more common to have fellowships that allow academics to collaborate with, or fully transition into, government. This allows for a much better integration of ideas. Australia is lagging in this space and it is such an important aspect of idea creation, testing and implementing. This really helped my career, so I hope that these types of programs can help others.



Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?

I’d love to read an interview by JJ Gibson. He’s a visual scientist and came up with this idea of affordance, which has been very influential for human-centered design. On the other side, I think that speaking to Paul Meehl would be extremely useful for helping us navigate the current discussions about AI. Sadly, this isn’t possible as both have passed a while ago.


On a slightly different note, I think Christian Rudder or Seth Stephens Davidowitz would make for interesting interviewees. Christian Rudder was the co-founder of OKCupid and was one of the first people to use large datasets to tell stories about human behaviour in an engaging (and often pretty damning) way, through his OKtrends blog. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz did similar things with Google data.



 


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions 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!


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