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 Carlos Hoyos.
Carlos is a Social Psychologist from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, has a Master in business administration from Centrum Católica and EADA Busciness School (Barcelona) and is a professional who has been working for over 13 years, analyzing and understanding consumer behaviour in business through various research and design methodologies. He is currently a Senior Behavioral Designer at BeWay, one of the most influential companies in Behavioral Science in Spanish, and creator of Behavioral Pills, an initiative to promote knowledge and training in Behavioral Design. And all of that earned him the Behavioural Scientist of the Year (2022) Award by HabitWeekly. So let's see what this talented man has to say for himself ;)
Who or what got you into behavioural science? I'm a psychologist that has always worked in industry and corporate. And I never felt that I had someone to learn from in terms of behavioural science, because I always worked in market research. But suddenly I discovered a book: Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards by Yu-Kai Chou.
It's one of the best books I think I've ever read on behavioural design. Yu-Kai is not a behavioural scientist, but still he proposes a very interesting model in motivation design that for me it's still like one of the greatest tools I have ever used. And that book mentioned a lot of other references like Dan Ariely, Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman. So that book led me to discover the other books and moved me into behavioural science. From thereon I read Predictably Irrational. Whether all the research in that book still stands is irrelevant for me because what really connected with me was Ariely’s passion and freshness to talk about behavioural science. So I would say those books really got me into the field. And then I just never stopped reading.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? I’m proud of the way I have managed to gamify my teaching. It’s given me the opportunity to test my own skills and knowledge. I really enjoy education, but I have this feeling that we could do it better with what we know now about motivation, learning and design. So I'm really proud of what I came up with in my own courses, because I want to keep pushing further so that maybe we can help change or improve the way we teach. Additionally, I'm really proud of the opportunity I've had to lead and maybe guide some of the young talents now here in Peru and Latin America in terms of getting into behavioural science. As I mentioned, I only got into behavioural science when I found Yu-Kai’s book, I didn’t know anyone in behavioural science. I didn’t know what to do or what career path to follow. That’s why I created “Behavioral Pills”, so that I can share information I’ve gained, I can tell them about behavioural science, develop them as behavioural scientists and help them out. It wasn't like that for me, so I'm really proud to be able to give that to experience to someone else and being someone others can talk to. What I still want to achieve is to resolve a bit of a frustration of mine with the field. When we finish a year, what do we have to show for it as behavioural scientists? When UX designers wrap up a year they have a portfolio; they can show the web designs they did or the campaigns they created etc. I have this feeling that in behavioural science since we don't always have the chance to actually roll out our designs, so we lack that portfolio. So what I want is to be able to say ‘hey have you seen this commercial/campaign/website/product? We made it using behavioural science!’ So I would still want to achieve being able to create something like that for behavioural science.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I would be a therapist. What makes me happy is actually helping and serving other people. The frustrating part of being a behavioural designer is not being able to actually roll out your designs all the time. This means that sometimes your work doesn’t make an impact on others. With therapy I feel like I could always make an impact, in some way, through my behavioural knowledge and help people to actually navigate their lives, without having those constraints that corporate puts me in.
How do you apply behavioural science to your own life?
There has been a key moment in which the way I applied behavioural science to my own life has changed. There was before my daughter, and after my daughter. Before my daughter I used behavioural science in many ways: habit formation, self-experimentation, temptation bundling. Temptation bundling is the best thing I've ever done to myself because now I do many of the household chores listening to podcasts and it has actually come to a point that washing the dishes is now a moment of relaxation for me. Both my wife and I experiment on ourselves a lot. We have found things that worked, but most experiments failed, just to let you know.
Now, for after my daughter; all my behavioural science knowledge is useless against her. The only thing that so far vaguely seems to work is operant conditioning! Parenting is such a huge challenge! It's like they're from another planet. They are different beings. They don't work the same way adults work. So everything you know about behavioural science for adults does not apply to a child. So it's like not knowing anything about psychology. My wife, who is not a psychologist, manages so much better!
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? First, and maybe not necessarily a skill, but you need to know the literature, or know how to get to know the literature quickly. A lot of research is required before you can just propose a solution to a behavioural problem. Second, I do think that they have to enter with the mindset of experimentation, you won’t know what works until you try it. Third, I think flexibility is very important. Flexibility as in, being very tolerant to frustration because in the end it's still a design process and a design process is filled with errors, constantly not know what to do. And things that worked in one area may not work in the next, so you’ll have to be flexible by not insisting on the same idea but try to reroute what it is that you were designing.
How do you think behavioural economics will develop (in the next 10 years)? I see like 2 paths. One of the paths I see is that behavioural science will just be everywhere. I feel like this makes sense for so many industries, for so many types of problems. I think behavioural science should be in every company, almost like the way every company has a marketing department. I think a chief behavioural officer is going to become, with time, one of the main roles in in any company.
I do think this is partially going to be driven by the revolution in data and analytics. Data analytics and everything we know about people through that pipeline is going to be spearheaded by a behavioural scientist at some point because even though we're not the experts in analysis necessarily, I have seen that at that data analytics and data analysis thrive when they have someone who has this curiosity for human behaviour and then uses this information to make decisions on where to go next. I’m not saying this is going to be an easy development. We have to see what AI is going to bring to the table, as well as behavioural scientists learning more about AI; because AI in the end is trying to replicate us in some way. So path one is that we’re going to become increasingly important and as such manifest in most if not all companies. Similar to that, but a bit different, is that behavioural science is going to be so important everyone has to know it. So everyone in sales, marketing, strategy, HR, design etc. will know behavioural science; so they don’t need us anymore. Behavioural science will be so ingrained in all these disciplines it won’t need its own discipline and departments anymore. A bit ironic, right?
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field? To me there are two things:
The stuff you have to know and
The stuff you have to know how to do.
For number 1, I recommend reading. Where do you find what to read? Follow Samuel Salzer (HabitWeekly). It’s one of, if not the best, sources of information. I do think understanding the fundamentals of a field, and what’s going on in it is incredibly important. This is also why I created Behavioural Pills. It’s where I put one hour long sessions on what I think you should know about behavioural science. I discuss theories, models (EAST, COM-B etc.). And then, once you’ve got the fundamentals down, try to learn how to apply it. Get the skills required to make that theory work for you. You just have to learn by experience. So for experience, I always recommend doing courses or workshops, and then being able to work for a corporation or business that is actually applying this. And that's where behavioural science right now has a very important role in Latin America (at least and in Peru). So for Latin Americans and for me that is the best way to learn because you know. You can know all the theories you want, but not knowing how to analyse or how to design a website or how to build whatever solution you have on the problem in front of you, that's going to make life very difficult. So learn your theory, and then put it into practice. Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I love listening or reading anything Rory Sutherland has to say. I think he’s someone with fresh ideas and a non-academic focused angle on behavioral science that brings imagination to the field.
On the same note, I follow a lot of what Melina Palmer and Jennifer Clinehens do. They focus on finding ways behavioral science applies to day to day businesses, to show how useful our field is.
What are the greatest challenges being faced by behavioural science, right now?
The way I see it the biggest challenge is how to position behavioral science in the minds of business managers.
When a manager thinks about creating or improving their website or anything related to a digital experience, they usually think about UX and UI as a must on their teams. But I don’t think Behavioral Science is on that top of mind yet. We feel that we’re useful for everything but we know, thanks to Goal dilution effect, that it would be much better if we “specialized” in one application and then grow from there.
What is your biggest frustration with the field as it stands? In addition to most behavioural scientists not having a portfolio? The way behavioural science seems to function in academia is a bit of a frustration for me. There seems to be a lot of egos and such an overt focus on publications. People dedicate decades to proving an effect or a theory because it has their name on it. How is that going to progress the field? The idea of proving that an effect holds in each and every context is nuts. Human behaviour is so complex as a result of it being so context dependent. It seems like they’re just chasing their own tails. Spending hours on trying to demonstrate something that no one is going to be able to demonstrate. I find this academic focus very frustrating. Another thing I wonder about, it’s not really a frustration but more of a question; where are the geniuses of behavioural science? Where are the Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Bill Gates of behavioural science? Where are the visionaries? It does tie back to my previous point; instead of looking at if an effect exists always, it’d be much more interesting to ask “How can I invent stuff? How can I create solutions that work using behavioral science?”. For example, not being able to say that a Behavioral Scientist created Marketing or modern publicity is one of our biggest failures. People with less training in human behavior cracked the code on how to use tactics to sell better and changed the way business was being done. That’s what frustrates me.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Carlos, especially as the interview is now growing, ten questions and counting!
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!