Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field with new research being developed across a multitude of topics and applications. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Arron Child. Arron has applied behavioural science techniques and insights to help some of Australia’s most recognizable companies, and also international companies, with many of his projects winning awards. He is currently a senior customer experience strategist/ behavioural scientist at Resolution Life Australasia, where. he utilises customer experience and behavioural science strategies and techniques to understand and solve business problems/customers' problems. Arron also co-chairs the Sydney Behavioural Economics meetup with Will Mailer.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
About 10 years ago I was working for Microsoft in the UK as a consumer marketer. I was working on products with pretty sizeable marketing budgets; Internet Explorer and Windows Phone.
I really wanted to know what marketing activity was the most effective at changing perceptions and driving our desired behaviour but because we had so much activity running concurrently, it was really hard to determine. I wanted to know if experiential activity created stronger memories due to the sensory engagement which then in turn led to stronger purchase intent or how long someone needed to look at a digital ad for it to be processed etc. So I reached out to the Head of crossmodal research at Oxford University, Charles Spence, to help me learn about the brain and how we store and process information.
Charles is one of the best at understanding our senses and how we process information. He was kind enough to respond to me, send me things to read, invite me down to see the labs and meet his cross-modal team. At the same time, I was 1 of 30 marketers lucky enough to get selected for the Marketing Academy program over in the UK.
As part of the programme, I was able to attend a talk by Rory Sutherland. Rory Sutherland’s talk was of course incredible as it further opened my eyes to how behavioural sciences can explain human behaviour and inspired me to look for ways to use behavioural science insights to drive innovative business outcomes.
I moved back to Australia 6 years ago and Jason Collins, senior lecturer at UTS and William Mailer, Chief behavioural scientist at CBA, have been instrumental in me developing my behavioural science knowledge and skillset.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
My proudest accomplishment is the project I’m working on at the moment. I work for a life insurance company and we’re working on a project to discern how well people understand life insurance quotes that are sent to them and how confident they feel making a decision after receiving that quote. We want to increase the person's understanding of the quote and increase their confidence level in making a decision. I’m hopeful we can really help people with this work and can’t wait to see the results.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? Growing up, my life revolved around football. I was always playing or training and thought I was going to go on to be a professional footballer. I got to a bit of a cross-road moment when I was 17. I had just come back from playing for the Australia under-16 Futsal team on a tour to Brazil. My neighbour Eric Worthington (national director of coaching for Soccer Australia and helped set up the AIS) saw me play and wanted to organise a trial for me with a Premier League team in the UK.
It was around this time that I read “Losing My Virginity” by Richard Branson and was drawn to how much fun a career in business could be. A teacher told me that if I poured my time and energy into my studies, then she thought I would go on to have a great career in business. I knuckled down with my studies, and here we are.
I’m really passionate about nature and recently started wildlife photography. The thing I love about wildlife photography is that you have to understand the animals so that you can find them and then predict how they’ll behave so you can work out the shot to take. If I wasn’t a behavioural scientist, I’d love to be working to protect animals and the environment in some capacity.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I’m a big fan of Katy Milkman’s work on commitment devices and use it in my life. There are certain shows that I only allow myself to watch if I’m on the bike at the gym such as Last Week Tonight or a football mini match. I find this really motivates me to get to the gym and do a workout and because Last Week Tonight comes out on a Monday, it gets me off to a good start for the week.
Potato chips are my absolute kryptonite when I want a treat. I can’t just open the packet and have a couple, I end up having more than I want (and more than I should). So, to overcome my lack of will power, I create a partition. If I open a packet of chips, I pour a bunch into a bowl and then quickly put the packet away.
Something else I do, is to book meetings with people before I have completed the work. This creates a commitment device for me, as I need to complete the work to show at the meeting!
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
I apply behavioural science within an organisation, so the skills I think someone needs to be successful in this context are:
Curiosity: It’s so important to love learning and to always be curious as you can never stop learning as a behavioural scientist. I think it’s also important to read from a range of fields; behavioural economics, neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, habit formation etc.
Creativity: It’s rare to find academic research that will perfectly solve your business problem, but it does give you a good place to start and further investigate. Creativity is needed to join the dots for solving business problems with behavioural science solutions.
Strategic thinking: Resources and money are limited within a business, so projects need to be assessed and prioritised by potential impacts to the business and the time needed to deliver that impact.
Communication skills: It’s so important that you can clearly articulate the business problem, how you’ll solve it using behavioural sciences, the resources required and then to communicate the results. One of the keys to this is understanding what your stakeholder needs to know.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I look at the growth of behavioural science in the last 10 years, and am excited to think where the field will be in the next 10!
At the moment, some organisations are starting to embrace behavioural sciences but it’s still on the fringe, but in 10 years time I believe that behavioural sciences will be so readily adopted that it will be seen as another tool in the toolbox for solving business problems. The reason for the wider spread adoption will be due to the competitive advantages that businesses that embrace behavioural sciences gain, leading to others following suit. I believe it will become the norm for businesses to setup cross-functional teams and squads that include behavioural scientists to ensure the insights and benefits from behavioural sciences are realised by the business.
I also believe that the validity of the field will stop being called into question, those ringing the death bell for nudges etc. I think this will happen because practitioners and organisations will become more adept at taking insights from academia and applying this to organisations in more robust ways so that the benefits are found. I also think this will happen as the publication bias is rectified, with full results being published, which creates a more realistic expectation of what is achievable.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
Never stop learning. There are so many amazing books and blogs out there written by the most incredible behavioural scientists, that will really help you learn and progress. As you know, I co-chair the Sydney Behavioural Economics Meetup with Will Mailer once a month. It’s free to come along, and is another way to hear and learn from amazing behavioural scientists in the field.
Follow the conversation. Behavioural sciences is continually evolving as a field which leads to many debates in the field; do nudges work, replication crisis etc. Following these debates will really help broaden your thinking and your understanding of the fundamentals.
Seek out mentors. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Mentors have knowledge and experience that can help guide you. I’ve always sought out mentors throughout my career and have found that the learnings and guidance mentors can pass on are invaluable. Without the guidance from Will Mailer and Jason Collins in particular over the years, I doubt you would be interviewing me for this blog.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Arron!
As I said before, this interview is part of a larger series which can also be found here on the blog. As indicated, I have interviewed Jason, Dilip and Katy, and their interviews are hyperlinked. There's always more interviews on the horizon, so make sure you don't miss any of those!