Interview with Bill von Hippel

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 William von Hippel. William (Bill) is Professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Before the leap down south, he grew up in Alaska, got his B.A. at Yale and his PhD at the University of Michigan. Bill has published more than a hundred articles, chapters, and edited books in social psychology, and his research has been featured in many major outlets. He also wrote a bestseller: The Social Leap which looks into the evolutionary story behind the nature of modern humans, explaining the legacy of the priority of social skills over physical dominance along with other quirks.

Who or what got you into behavioural science?

My entire childhood I wanted to follow in my grandparents’ footsteps and become a physicist. When I graduated from high school, however, my physicist uncle pointed out to me that (at least then) most physicists were working on the same general set of problems, and hence labs were essentially in a race to solve them first. He suggested that his death would put the field back by a grand total of five minutes, which – given that he’s way smarter than I am – made me realise that my death would probably accelerate science were I to become a physicist too.

This realisation threw a real spanner into the works of my career and educational plans, which left me looking around at college for something that would interest me and in which I had a shot of making a contribution. After noodling around a fair bit, I realised my psychology classes were the most promising. Having worked on a farm every summer for many years, I had no interest in a real job, so decided to pursue psychology in the hope that it would prove to be as interesting as it seemed – which it did!

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

The consolidation of a lot of data from different disciplines into my book, The Social Leap, is the accomplishment of which I’m most proud. I recognise that much of it will no doubt prove to be incorrect – that’s the nature of science itself – but it’s my hope that it will nonetheless prove to be a help rather than a hindrance to fellow scientists and people interested in human behaviour.

I’d love to write another book, but I don’t know if I have one in me (by which I mean I don’t know if I have a coherent and complete book’s worth of new material). But if I don’t do that, I’ll be happy if I keep conducting experiments and writing empirical and theory papers.

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

I’m afraid I have no idea. I’d be happy as an economist, biologist, anthropologist, or neuroscientist, but beyond that I really don’t know. And those are pretty similar to the job I already have. I’d love to be a photographer, but I doubt I’m talented enough, and I’d really love to make movies or write novels, but I know I’m not talented enough.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I have the advantage that most things that people do in their daily lives are relevant to my work. So my research helps me understand people who might otherwise bemuse or frustrate me, but more importantly, the actions of those around me inform my research and give me hypotheses. And even my own introspection about my life helps me form new hypotheses.

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

Basic methodological and statistical skills are super important, but beyond that the most important thing is learning a large enough body of research that you start to develop a perspective on human nature. Once that starts to form in your mind, new ideas come constantly and new data either slot right in or show you where you’re wrong – both of which are super valuable.

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

I think it’ll become much more integrated with the other sciences. We’re already seeing a lot of collaboration with the brain sciences, and I think that process will not only accelerate, but will also eventually lead to more connections with chemistry, mathematics, and philosophy as we start to leverage the expertise of people in different disciplines who can contribute to the understanding of human behaviour.

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

Tons! Robert Sapolsky, Michael Tomasello, Steve Pinker, Susan Gelman, Henry Roediger, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Eli Finkel, Roy Baumeister, Shelley Taylor, Rob Brooks, Tim Clutton-Brock, Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd, Uri Gneezy, Daron Acemoglu.

Thank you so much for these amazing answers Bill!

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!

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