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 Allison Zelkowitz. Allison is the founder and director of CUBIC – the Center for Utilizing Behavioral Insights for Children. Launched by Save the Children International in April 2020, CUBIC is the world’s first applied behavioral science team focusing specifically on the most marginalized children’s rights and welfare. CUBIC is now spearheading 20 projects in Asia, Africa, and Europe, as well as globally, applying behavioral science to address challenging issues such as reducing hazardous child labor, building parenting skills to enhance children’s development, and increasing vaccination uptake. Allison has been working overseas in international aid for over 17 years, and she is now based in Kampala, Uganda. She previously served as Save the Children’s Lebanon and Thailand Country Directors, and held senior leadership positions in Pakistan and Aceh, Indonesia. Allison holds a Master’s of Pacific and International Affairs from the University of California, San Diego, where she specialized in International Development, Nonprofit Management, and Southeast Asia. She graduated from Bowdoin College with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Theater. As you can see, she loves skydiving (and travel, behavioral science, and running quite slowly).
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
Back in 2013, I was working as Save the Children’s Thailand Country Director, and we were in the process of researching and designing a project to encourage children to wear helmets on motorcycles. Motorcycles are the most common form of transportation in Thailand, however children rarely wore helmets when riding as passengers, even when their parents wore them (the average child helmet wearing rate was about 7% at that time.) So many children suffered head trauma or even died when they were involved in motorcycle crashes.
During this project design process, I met a consultant named Chris Eldridge, who told about the UK’s “nudge unit and the new field of behavioral insights. I began working with Chris to develop the project, and I found the learnings from behavioral science so fascinating – Chris also wrote to Robert Cialdini during the process, so we did get pieces of advice from “the best!” We developed an entire school toolkit based on behavioral insights, and also incorporated these principles into other aspects of the project, for example, encouraging children to decorate their helmets so they would value them more (the IKEA effect.) When we first pilot-tested the program, we did witness a significant increase in children’s helmet wearing, though we also learned that the effect didn’t last long after we ended the pilot – so we knew we needed to do more to really support habit creation.
Anyway, it was during that time that I began to think that Save the Children should set up its own “nudge unit,” because behavioral science could make so many of our approaches even more effective. I suggested the idea in a few global meetings, and colleagues nodded and said it sounded interesting, but nothing happened. So years later, in 2019, I decided to make it my personal mission to establish an applied behavioral science team within Save the Children, and after 14 months of intensive self-study, gathering advice from experts, building internal buy-in, and fundraising, I launched CUBIC in April 2020.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
Honestly, my proudest accomplishment is my team, they are just fantastic, both as behavioral scientists and as human beings. CUBIC now includes 13 people from 13 different countries, with the most western-based staff in New Orleans and our most eastern-based staff in Singapore. Despite our fully-remote operating model, we’ve developed a really warm, supportive, and fun working culture, while we also drive ourselves to deliver quality results and keep learning and growing. We met in person for the first time in September at our inaugural team retreat, and I was amazed by how well everyone got along – after four full-on days together, we ended up liking each other even more. While CUBIC is still young, and we have a lot to learn and improve, my team members really impress me every day with their creativity, commitment, and kindness.
Now if you’ll allow me one more accomplishment to speak of, I’d like to highlight our VAX UP program which is a collaboration with the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics and Common Thread. We launched this partnership by releasing The Little Jab Book: 18 Behavioral Science Strategies for Increasing Vaccination Uptake in March 2021, just as COVID-19 vaccines were starting to be rolled out. While that guide was based on expert interviews and secondary research, we then began conducting primary research in Kenya, Nepal, the Philippines, and the Middle East and North Africa region, and released five more evidenced-based guides with contextualized solutions, which are now being implemented and tested in a number of these regions. Excitingly, the CDC even modeled their COVID-19 Vaccination Field Guide: 12 Strategies for Your Community, after The Little Jab Book.
Now, what would I like to achieve? Where do I start?! We’ve been working on developing a scalable behavioral science course for teen advocates, and we have great partners and a promising course design, but we don’t yet have funders for this project, so I’d like to get that off the ground. Also, next year we’ll be launching a new project to de-sludge some of Save the Children’s administrative systems, so I’m hoping that we finish that project not just with simpler systems, but also an effective, documented process for how you can do this in an international aid organization. Finally – while this will take years – I do hope that a basic understanding of behavioral science becomes common among our 25,000 staff around the world, so that they know that merely providing information is usually not enough to change behavior, and that behavioral change is hard – but that learning and applying behavioral science can help.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
Well, being the Director of CUBIC is my dream job, and already quite a career shift, as previously I was a “traditional” aid worker. That being said, if at some point in the future I no longer found behavioral science as engaging, I could see myself returning to emergency response work, and focusing on responding to disasters like earthquakes, floods, conflicts, or typhoons. That kind of work is difficult when you have a family, since you often have to pack your bags and jump on a plane to a new country for months at a time. But my husband and I have mused about doing this when our son is grown and we’re not quite ready to retire yet. While it’s physically and emotionally draining work, it’s particularly rewarding because you’re helping people when they need it most.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I’ve used behavioral science to help me achieve personal goals, like entrenching an early morning jogging habit by setting out clothes the night before and making it easy (I go very slowly) and enjoyable by listening to podcasts. I even used behavioral science to get myself to start skydiving again. I’m also now so much more aware of how our immediate environment affects our behavior – for example, recently, I kept meaning to practice phonics with my 5-year-old, but I kept forgetting to do so. Finally I realized if I just left the box of flashcards on the dining table at all times, seeing it would remind me to practice with him for a few minutes when we ate dinner together – and this is totally working. I would also say learning about behavioral science has improved my social organization skills – whenever we host a party I invite everyone individually and I also send personal reminders, since I know how easy it is to forget.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
We’ve learned at CUBIC that our behavioral scientists really need at least four skills:
A strong understanding of behavioral science theory and principles (this is obvious!) as well as experience with the applied behavioral science process (which not all fresh graduates have)
Quantitative analysis skills, qualitative analysis skills, and sometimes both depending on the position
Project management skills, including the ability to really drive projects and lead meetings, as well as a level of detail orientation since we often run experiments, and these require a huge level of precision in implementation
Excellent interpersonal communication skills and the ability to develop positive relationships with our partners around the world, as well as other team members
People who have these four skills – as well as a strong work ethic and a commitment to Save the Children’s mission – are our ideal candidates.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
Well, I believe that human beings are usually terrible at predicting the future, and I’m no exception. However, two areas that I would LIKE to see grow and develop within the field are:
Expanding the work on reducing friction and sludge, and developing robust tools and processes to do so, because I think this will unlock so many more opportunities and resources for people who need them the most. While sludge reduction is gaining traction in the West, I think we also need to expand such work in the Global South, because issues like complex forms and confusing processes can be even more discouraging and damaging for people who have to work 12 hours to put dinner on the table that night, or have lower literacy or computer skills. So I think there is huge potential for behavioral science in this area, and I hope CUBIC can contribute to this.
Promoting more self-nudging or ”boosting” – so much of the work we care about comes down to habit change, and while changing the environment of course can support habit change, there is only so much behavioral designers can do in this regard. When it comes to long-lasting habit change, I really think individuals themselves have to drive this, and we can help by equipping them with these amazing tools from behavioral science, which they can then adapt to their own situations and preferences.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
My main recommendation to behavioral science students or fresh graduates is to get some actual work experience however you possibly can – this will make you much more attractive to employers, as you’ll already have an understanding of what the job really entails.
When CUBIC hires, we look for people with some level of experience doing applied behavioral science work, so usually 1-2 years of job experience, including field experiments. However, since we know many students don’t yet have actual work experience, we also run an internship program for Masters’ and PhD students, so they can gain this experience and learn how the applied behavioral science process actually works in real life. And this internship program seems to be helping – many of our former interns have gone on to secure jobs with behavioral science organizations (including CUBIC).
Now, for mid-career professionals like myself (who may have too many financial and familial obligations enroll in a behavioral science Masters program), I would say that it’s worth looking at your current employer to see if there might be an opportunity to initiate behavioral science work, or spearhead a team, there. The Action Design Networks’ survey of behavioral teams revealed that most new internal teams are started by a current staff member, not by someone from the outside. While it did take me 14 months, this worked for me.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Did you already have an interview with the “God” of behavioral science, Daniel Kahneman?
What about Shankar Vedantam? While I love many behavioral science podcasts, his story-telling ability is incredible.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Allison!
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!