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 Amy Bucher. Amy is the VP of Behavior Change Design at Mad*Pow. She has always been fascinated with how things & people work. Her interest drove her to become a psychologist and why she came to apply psychology to behavior change design. Amy believes behavior change needs to be a part of the entire design process, not just an input (user research) or an output (outcomes research). She sees amazing opportunity to leverage technology and design to help people shape their own worlds so they can be their happiest and healthiest. With a mindset like that, let's see how Amy envisions the future of behavioural science!
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I got into behavioral science by accident. I was an undergraduate at Harvard University. They used to require you to declare your concentration at the end of your first semester, which, looking back, is extremely aggressive. As you might expect, my 17 year old self didn’t have the best ideas about what to study. Because I love to read, I assumed I’d be an English major and took several of the prerequisite courses my first semester. I could not have hated it more! I found myself in a funk in our common room the night before our concentrations forms were due, totally unsure of what I should do. One of my roommates suggested psychology on the basis that her sister double-majored in English and psychology. I realize now that logic is suspect—I’d hated English—but I was desperate and inked the form.
Fortunately I fell in love with my psych classes and got involved in research after my first semester. Another stroke of luck was scoring a research assistantship in Dr. Nalini Ambady’s lab. Nalini was incredibly supportive of me and agreed to supervise my thesis research. She encouraged me to consider grad school—something that was not on my radar—suggested specific programs and advisors who would be a good fit for my interests, and gave me the confidence boost to apply. I was accepted at the University of Michigan.
This may have changed since I started grad school in 2001, but in my experience PhD programs are designed to produce future faculty members. Your training is focused not just on the skills of conducting research and teaching students, but also honing your research focus to a unique specialty for the job market. At some point during my PhD program I realized that wasn’t how I wanted to organize my work. I was and still am someone who thrives on variety, so becoming increasingly specialized wasn’t interesting to me. I also found the timelines of academia frustrating, as someone who’s very focused on gathering data immediately to gauge my own efficacy.
Once I had that realization that I wanted to do something other than academia, I got involved in way more research. I became active in multiple labs to build a broader knowledge base and network of advisors. I also delved into qualitative methods for my dissertation research, which felt very subversive at the time. In retrospect that was such a great growth period and set me up for my career today.
My second job after graduation is where my career really began. I worked for a startup, HealthMedia, where I was involved in product development as a content developer and product manager. I worked closely with an in-house behavioral science team that focused on outcomes to bring that research back into the product development cycle. I also worked with health care clients to understand their patients and customers and design custom programs to meet their needs. This is where I became a behavior change designer and discovered my passion for applying psychological insights directly to products and experiences.
Ultimately HealthMedia was acquired by Johnson & Johnson, and we became an internal consulting group for J&J companies. I got to do behavior change design for a variety of health conditions, populations, and modalities. In my current role at Mad*Pow I continue the type of work I did at J&J, consulting directly with clients to conduct research and design products and experiences that change people’s behaviors. At Mad*Pow, I’ve been able to extend my work outside of healthcare to also support financial behavior change—which is of course a key part of overall well-being and human flourishing.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist?
Right now I’m pretty proud of writing my book, Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change. Although there’s more of a community around behavior change design now, I think it can still be challenging for new practitioners to find their way. I wanted to create a resource that would lay out the basic mechanics of behavior change design and make motivation psychology in particular accessible to people without a lot of behavior change education. I hope I was able to do that with Engaged while also communicating the rigor that needs to be part of the practice. If people consider behavior change design as a career option because of Engaged, I’ll feel like it was wildly successful.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I tell people I’d be a pastry chef because I want that to be the answer, but given my educational background it would probably be something much less exciting. I’m really good at taking in lots of information and synthesizing it so the realistic lens has me in some kind of corporate job. That said, baking is relaxing and rewarding, and I love the idea of my alternate reality self frosting a beautiful cake. Maybe I’d eventually write my own baking book!
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I have a mixed track record here! 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.
On the flip side, I’ve never been able to adopt a truly healthy and consistent diet. I love food and cooking, and eating and drinking are a big part of my social life. I know what I’d say to someone else with these challenges but haven’t ever gotten over the implementation hump for myself. It reminds me of a core behavior change principle: People do things because they serve some purpose. For me, eating has a pleasure purpose that I find hard to shake.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
It’s not a skill but one quality you need to be a behavioral scientist is a curious mind. If you’re a person who wonders why people do things and how things could be different, you might be a behavioral scientist.
Skill-wise, I’m grateful for the strong research toolkit I built over my years of education and experience. Being able to identify the right research methods for a question, design and conduct the study, and then interpret the results appropriately is the core of my job. The best behavioral scientists are also great communicators who can convey insights both for general audiences and experts with the right level of detail.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I think and hope that behavioral science will take a more explicit ethical focus in the near future. It’s happened before—immediately post-World War 2, it was apparent that behavioral scientists needed to get their house in order in light of how the science had been used and mis-used. Much of modern oversight of human subjects research comes from reforms at that time. We’re now in a new era where technology has introduced new opportunities to behave ethically or not. It’s also not always easy to determine what’s ethically correct; you really have to push on questions from multiple angles and play out potential future scenarios to come to a position, and I don’t think we’re used to applying that type of rigor. So I’d like to see this become a focal point. Between thought-provoking books by people like Cathy O’Neil, Virginia Eubanks, and Sara Wachter-Boettcher, and unfortunate public missteps by companies who misuse technology to customers’ disadvantage, I think we’ll get there.
I also think behavior scientists will be increasingly embedded in industry, rather than concentrated in academia. We have a role to play in how consumer products and experiences are developed and can make them more effective and engaging.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I’m fascinated by people who work successfully at the intersection of fields. Dr. Kate Wolin is a successful entrepreneur who design products to change behavior but also the business to sustain them. Dr. Sherry Pagoto is a professor who brings commercial interventions into academic research and has shined a light on how social media can support behavior change or not. Aline Holzwarth does incredible applied work and is one of the best science communicators out there.
Thank you for these great answers Amy! I'm quite proud to say that I have released an interview with Aline Holzwart already, which you can read here.
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!