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 April Vellacott. April has been studying the field of human behaviour for a decade, and holds degrees in Psychology and Behaviour Change. At the University of St. Andrews she focussed on how evolutionary forces have shaped modern day behaviour, and conducted research on facial perception. During her master’s degree at UCL she wrote a thesis on how behavioural science could be used to enhance cyber security in the Internet of Things. Whilst working as a Behavioural Consulting Lead at Cowry Consulting, she helped FTSE100 clients to improve their customer and employee experience using Behavioural Science. Recently, she co-authored Ripple: the big effects of small behaviour changes in business. Using case studies from around the world where behavioural science has been successfully used in business, Ripple will inspire anyone who’s interested in using behavioural science in their own organisation, and give them the simple toolkit to get started.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
For most people I’ve met, there was a real ‘ah ha!’ moment when it comes to Behavioural Science. I’ve had several that I remember vividly, and the first was when I was at school.
It was my final year, and I was all set to study Maths at university. Our school offered ‘special interest’ courses; things you could study just for the sake of it. Whilst psychology wasn’t offered as a qualification at my school, the deputy headmaster ran one of these interest courses in Psychology. He was an engaging storyteller, and hearing him tell us about Kitty Genovese and the resulting acknowledgement of The Bystander Effect really lodged in my brain. In particular, I felt empowered by the insight that if you yourself were in trouble, the way to overcome this unfortunate quirk of group human behaviour was to single someone out and ask them directly to help you.
I did end up going to study Maths at university, but luckily in Scotland you’re allowed to take lots of other things. I dabbled in Astrophysics, Film Studies, and even the dubiously titled ‘Great Ideas’ – but, luckily, also Psychology. After a year or so I made the switch, and I’m so glad that I did. Having now also studied Behaviour Change at master’s level, the more I learn the more I realise I don’t know. Every day is a school day!
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
It was one of my lifetime ambitions to write a book, and I’m so pleased to have been able to write Ripple with Jez Groom. It’s all about how to apply Behavioural Science to have positive knock-on effects in the world around you, right from your very first project through to applying it at scale within a business context.
What do I still want to achieve? I’d love to write another book which marries Behavioural Science with happiness, and how to live well.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
Over the years, in chronological order, I’ve wanted to be:
- A children’s book author
- An advertising creative
- A stockbroker
- A statistician
- A music producer (of house music, specifically)
- A music supervisor (which is the person who chooses music for films)
So, perhaps one of the above.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
In lots of different ways, and often without realising.
When it comes to creating healthy habits such as exercising, I make it a default. I make myself opt-out of exercising each day, rather than the other way around. By making it a part of my morning routine in this way, I’m more likely to do it on auto-pilot.
When I’m making decisions, I try to be aware of my own biases – especially the Sunk Cost Fallacy. In fact, I talk about this one so much that even the non-Behavioural Scientists in my life go “Yeah, yeah, we know – it’s a sunk cost so we shouldn’t factor that into our decision.”
And finally, if I’m being honest, I’ll occasionally use Behavioural Science to persuade my partner of one thing or another. If I’m reeling off some options on Netflix, I may make the most of Recency Bias by listing the one I want to watch last, and throw in its IMDB score as a nice bit of Social Proof too.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Whilst I won’t go as far to generalise what makes a great behavioural scientist, I would say that there are a few skills which really help as a behavioural consultant.
The first is the ability to work with people from different teams and disciplines. When Behavioural Science is your toolkit, there’s a danger that you’ll use it as your only tool. Very rarely will you be helping to apply Behavioural Science in a silo, and being able to work collaboratively with people with different areas of expertise allows you to tackle a problem from multiple angles.
The second is asking questions, and listening. Before you can even begin to get to work, asking the right questions helps to define the problem through a behavioural lens. With any luck, you’ll be working with a multidisciplinary team (see above!) and asking the right questions to those who are experts in the context will help you whittle down the right interventions, and best means of measurement.
The final is the ability to bring people on the journey with you. Unless you happen to be working with other Behavioural Scientists, it’s so important to be able to bring the science to life for them. Whether that’s through storytelling, or teaching, helping other people get their very own ‘ah ha!’ moment is a useful skill.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
There are still so many annoying problems in the world which could be improved with a little Behavioural Science, and we’ve got a long way to go to address them all. Beyond fixing these existing problems, within the next decade I imagine that companies will build products with human decision making at the centre, rather than as an afterthought.
When it comes to applying Behavioural Science in business, we’re already seeing a shift from the niche to mainstream, and my hope it that in the next decade we’ll move away from one-size fits all solutions, to those that are context specific, culture specific and individual specific.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
There’s so much talent coming fresh out of Behavioural Science degrees. I’d like to hear from those who’ve chosen to go their own way and started their own practices straight out of their Behavioural Science masters.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions April! I am also a massive house/edm fan ;) In addition to the interviews you'd like to read: I have run a mini-interview series with younger behavioural scientists as well, the first "episode" in this series can be 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!