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Interview with Anisha Singh

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 Anisha Singh. Anisha is the Director for Research and Innovation at Busara. She leads Busara's portfolio of academic collaborations and experiments that focus on creating new knowledge around behavioral mechanisms and testing behavioral interventions in the Global South. She is also a Practitioner-in-Residence at MIT GOV/LAB collating stories and learnings on running behavioral lab experiments for development from around the world. Occasionally, she teaches Behavioral Experiments for International Development at the University of Chicago. Weaving together years of research process learnings from working with teams across many developing countries, she set up a team to focus on i) research on research, ii) measurement and cross-cultural contextualization of behavioral science, iii) ethical experimental research and led the set up of a co-branded Consumer Citizen Lab with Nudge Lebanon.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I was faced with the dreaded “what are you going to do next?” at the end of my undergraduate degree. I was RA-ing for Prof William Tov who was studying cultural differences in well-being. I couldn’t fully articulate what I wanted to do but I rambled about how I was fascinated with the overlaps and contrasts between my game theory, development economics and cognitive psychology courses. I went to a Business School where all the Economics students (and quite frankly, everyone) were joining banking or consulting. And, I was extremely sure I didn’t want to move in that direction. He asked if I read Nudge.. I went home that evening and downloaded the book, and that was that!

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?

Working in the non-profit applied behavioral science space, we’re often moving from project to project and it’s hard to take a step back and contribute to broader science of doing research. I’m most proud of setting up our CREME team at Busara that focuses on i) research on research, ii) measurement and cross-cultural contextualization of behavioral science, iii) ethical experimental research. I felt these were understudied and are some of the building blocks of applying behavioral science in different contexts and with hard to reach populations.

There’s lots I still want to achieve! I’m not one for making a 5 year plan, but broadly, I want to be applying behavioral science for gender equality!

If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?

I love decorating homes and I feel strongly about women’s rights - is there a way to combine both?

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

Often to the annoyance of the people around me, I can be picky about cleanliness in different ways. My biggest pet peeve is people wearing shoes indoors. When I first moved to Nairobi to work with Busara, I had flatmates while I looked for my own place. Everyone seemed to parade in and around the kitchen and common areas with their shoes from outside. I wasn’t courageous enough to tell them I didn’t like it so I bought a shoe rack and put it next to the door. People automatically started taking off their shoes and putting it on the rack - I was delighted! I’m not always that lucky but I definitely look for ways to apply behavioral science in my personal life - usually I’m wondering what can be changed in the environment around me.

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

Atypical “skills” but my top three are: 1) curiosity, 2) patience, 3) self-awareness that we ourselves are biased and our intuition is frequently no better than random.

Curiosity ensures you ask the right questions, try to diagnose the actual problem and find the movable barrier. It also means you try to include multiple perspectives, understand why your ideas aren’t accurate, and update your beliefs.

In doing that, we’re going to fail. We fail for many reasons - sometimes partners pull out in the middle of a study, the intervention wasn’t designed well, we didn’t do enough qualitative research to understand the decision-making context, we have null results, and so on. To learn from each failure, and iterate and communicate with other stakeholders involved takes patience. It also takes humility to accept and acknowledge that we fail and might be biased ourselves.

How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?

I’ve seen behavioral science expand to encompass design, customer experience, machine learning, UI/UX, etc. I think we need to embrace this diversification and own it. In the next few years, I see behavioral science as the lens through which we might approach a problem or solution design, but not necessarily a standalone approach in itself.

Having said that, I would love to see more foundational research done in non-WEIRD countries to understand people's preferences and the effects of interlinkages with institutions in society. I hope to see comparisons across a large number of non-WEIRD countries and see more governments show interest in an embedded behavioral unit. I hope we take a bottom-up approach to exploring whether there are behaviors and biases that are unique to non-WEIRD contexts - we still overlook this and apply or replicate ones that already exist.

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

You have to start somewhere, just start! A lot of folks reach out to me who are graduating or looking to make a career switch. I’ve noticed a lot of them try to find their niche before they start and discount a lot of their previous work experience. Applying behavioral science sounds “cool” to the outside world, but a lot of what we do daily is project management, people management, managing up, communicating expectations, firefighting and worrying about timelines and budgets. I’d love to say we spend all our days brainstorming and coming up with “new and fun” ideas, but on many days I don’t think of myself as a behavioral scientist. So diversity in skill-sets and perspectives is very helpful, in practice!

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

I was recently asked how we work in countries that are not democracies and what a non-democracy means for a behavior change approach. I’ve been thinking about the question since and I’d love to read more from non-famous folks applying behavioral science in a variety of governments, with hard to reach populations and in precarious places!


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

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!

1 comentário

09 de nov. de 2022

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