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 Aline Holzwarth! Aline is an applied behavioral scientist, specializing in digital health research and scientifically informed product design. Her training in psychology and business, and experience working in research and healthcare have given her the interdisciplinary lens necessary to appreciate the complexity of decision-making in the real world. Aline is Head of Behavioral Science at Pattern Health, a digital health platform that inspires and accelerates innovation to deliver more impact with less hassle. She also co-founded the Behavior Shop, a behavioral science advisory company, and holds an appointment as Principal of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, Dan Ariely’s applied behavioral science lab that helps people be happier, healthier and wealthier.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I studied psychology as an undergraduate at Reed College, and I took a class called ‘Thinking’ with Dan Reisberg (if you ever took a cognitive psychology class, you probably used his textbook). ‘Thinking’ was a deep dive into the research and evolution of the field of Judgment and Decision Making (what we think of today as Behavioral Economics), from the classic studies in risk and utility construction to more recent streams of decision-making research. I found that this particular area of psychology captured my interest more than the others I had studied – neuropsychology, psycholinguistics, developmental psychology, social psychology and so on.
But what really sent me over the edge was an internship I participated in at Carnegie Mellon where I was able to run research studies with some of the greats in behavioral science (and play beer pong with them, too!). The hands-on nature of research and the beauty of the scientific method made me fall in love with behavioral science, and these early experiences running studies with human subjects led me to realize I had no choice but to forever study human behavior for good.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist?
When MOOCs (massive open online courses) were first being introduced to the world, I worked with Duke’s Fuqua School of Business to create A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, Dan Ariely’s behavioral economics course on Coursera. With 300,000 students taking the course, we tried a lot of things that were new and untested at the time, including group videochats between students and guest lecturers, a moderated debate on dishonesty with professors Dan Ariely, Paul Bloom and Peter Singer, a “crowdsourced” paper collaboratively written by hundreds of students, real-time research on the topics students were learning, and all sorts of other special projects including an assignment in which students designed behaviorally-informed interventions to promote positive behavior change.
The creation and running of this course was a high point in creativity for me, and I was incredibly motivated by the idea that we could make behavioral science approachable and applicable to the masses. I’ll only take partial credit for this, but I think that this kind of democratization of education is part of the reason behind the shift of behavioral science from being a purely academic activity to one that is embraced and utilized by practitioners applying behavioral insights across a wide range of industries.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
Writing brings me quite a bit of pleasure, and I get a feeling of accomplishment from finishing an article that I can’t get from most other types of work. Most of my tasks are continuous work with no culmination or even a milestone to celebrate. But with writing, I can finish an article and really be done with it. I can celebrate it and set it aside. Years ago, when I was going through a wave of finding myself, I began looking into science writing as a potential career. I was told that it’s nearly impossible to be successful as a science writer, and there is room for only a few at the top. So I decided instead to make writing a part of my job as a behavioral scientist. And now that I’ve started writing for Forbes, I think I’ve found a good balance between doing applied behavioral science and writing about it.
Otherwise, if I could make a living as a travel photographer, I think the combination of taking photos (which I supremely enjoy) and getting to see the world (another favorite pastime) would be ideal. One of my favorite hobbies is observing people and places (which you might expect from a behavioral scientist), and I like to think I have an eye for composition.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
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); needless to say, my husband aced it. 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?”). And I actually used Qualtrics to keep track of RSVPs for my wedding.
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 spend money on experiences rather than materials and prioritize travel with a commitment to visit a new country each year. 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. And most recently, I’ve incorporated behavioral science to get myself to wash my hands more reliably (which I wrote about in this article) as one way to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
I think skepticism is one of the more underrated qualities in people – and as a generally critical person I may be biased toward favoring it – but I think we could all use a bit more skepticism in our lives and work. I find myself coming across more and more examples of people blindly applying behavioral science findings without experimenting or even measuring the impact of an intervention, and this makes me worry about the long-term future of behavioral science. We can’t forget that the beauty of behavioral science is in its methods far more than in its findings, and that as contexts and implementations vary, so do our results; we can’t always generalize from one situation to another. And the more skeptical we are, the more I think we will stick to the scientific method rather than faulty intuitions.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
My hope is that the interdisciplinary nature of behavioral science grows such that behavioral scientists are more integrated in traditional product and process design workflows. Digital health, in particular, is ripe for the opportunity to apply behavioral science — technologies that enable people to track and aggregate data from wearables and smart devices, combined with the ability for caretakers to reach patients through their smartphones, holds promise for more targeted interventions that reach people at the right time and place. I believe the next decade will see health care begin to embrace behavioral science findings and processes, moving beyond the transactional one-size-fits-all delivery of care to a personalized model designed for the humans who move through it.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I’d love to hear from behavioral scientists who are straddling academia and industry, doing rigorous applied work and making an impact in the real world. All the researchers at the Center for Advanced Hindsight are a fantastic example of this, as are some of my favorites: Katy Milkman, Amy Bucher, Charlotte Blank, Gina Merchant, Chandra Osborn, Ingrid Melvaer-Paulin, Heather Cole-Lewis, Chiara Varazzani, Hannah Moshontz, Leslie John, Angela Duckworth, Ashley Whillans, Elizabeth Dunn, Kristen Berman, Kelly Peters, Cynthia Castro-Sweet, Madalina Sucala and Heather Patrick. I hope you get a chance to talk to all of them!
Thank you for these great answers Aline! Lots of the amazing women you have mentioned already have interviews on this blog, but I'll make sure to reach out to those who haven't had a moment to shine, yet!
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!