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 Chaning Jang Chaning is CEO and Director of the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Hawai'i with a specialization in Behavioral Economics and Development and a BSc in Managerial Economics from the University of California, Davis.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I got into behavioural science through global development actually. My wife's always been interested in global development. When I was about to start my PhD, my wife was finishing up a volunteer gig at an IDP camp in Kenya, and I went to go visit her. Before that I was not a big development person – I didn't really get it. I didn't pay attention to it. So I went to Kenya to visit her and I totally fell in love with the country. As this coincided with starting my PhD I thought: how can I incorporate development?’ And I just looked up what was happening in development economics, which happened to be exactly around the time when Esther Duflo and other amazing behavioural economists were writing all their papers. RCTs were happening all across Africa and their results were being published, so, I read all of that like a fiend. And then by the time my third PhD year came round I had a chance to go back to Kenya again. I Googled experimental economics, Kenya, because I was taking some lab experiment classes, and Busara was the first hit. I emailed Johannes, who was a PI for that project, and he told me to come over to work on some projects together. And the rest is history. So, it really started via development economics into experimental economics, which is kind of the root of where a lot of the behavioural stuff comes from - at least from my perspective it all started with testing economic theory. And then from there I got really into behavioural economics because of how elegant it is from a policy perspective; it really kind of self-bakes the criticism and the reflection that's necessary for good science. Because the things that you so often think are right or intuitive or should be right, often aren’t. And that reflection is really useful for policymaking and getting evidence-based policy passed. So yeah, it's a little bit circuitous, but, basically through development economics I made my way through to behavioural economics. What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what would you still like to achieve?
I think the thing that I'm most proud of is being a part of bringing behavioural economics and behavioural science into the non-WEIRD settings. And even the idea of WEIRD and non-WEIRD was something that we were just studying. When I was doing my, PhD, Joe Heinrich's paper came out on taking behavioural science into the field. And the thought that we could take such an ivory tower discipline and just do this all over the place was so fascinating to me. Even more fascinating was the question on whether we could do something similar in the developing country context in non-WEIRD settings? Can we even start spreading that idea of what WEIRD and non-WEIRD is? That's probably a thing that I'm, I'm most proud of. My number one. And then my number two is the, and I can't really take much credit for this one, but just seeing the ecosystem of people that grew up in Busara; seeing the people that come through Busara and leave, what they end up doing, and the amazing careers that they have to evangelize both behavioural science and evidence-based policy. That's always bigger than any individual case study or trial. I'd say those are the two biggest things that I'm proud of being a part of Busara.
What I still want to achieve is tied to mainstreaming behavioural science. I still think there's a long way to go for it to kind of move past the kind of silver bullet phase of research and policy or applied research into an actual mainstream idea. And I think I would like to see that all the way through. I think with a lot of these new advancements, whether it's human-centered design or behavioural science, I want to make sure that behavioural economics makes it all the way through, especially when it comes to development programs.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
My dad was an entomologist - a natural scientist. We would run AB tests with fruit flies all the time. So, the idea of testing, the idea of empiricism has always spoken to me. So, I'd probably be in a scientific field regardless.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I use defaults a lot. I always set defaults for myself. And I always use commitment devices. Those are those two things I use all the time. That's just a part of just trying to be a better human and better adult. The other ones I'd say not so much. I don't do a lot of AB testing on myself. I don't do a lot of deeper, mental models, but certainly there's a few tips and tricks that I've picked up on. I'm trying to really not be some of the annoying people at parties that always point out biases and heuristics in everything that they do. That seems to be common coffee talk amongst people that work in behavioural economics or behavioural science. It's one of those things you see, and you can't unsee. So, I'm trying to actively not see the really obvious things, to enjoy life a little bit more.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
If you give anyone a month, they can read 15 popular science books and talk about them. And that’s great. But I think walking the walk and actually getting some experience, either getting your hands on designing and analysing experimental data or being able to use those things to synthesize and create concrete recommendations that a business or an organization can actually mainstream and use - those are the things that are going to differentiate yourself, not whether you've read the books or not. In fact, like those, when we interview for recruiting purposes, we saw those things matter very, very little. Cause I know that you can pick that up. You can pick that up fairly quickly by just reading in your own time. And you're also, not even testing skills, you're just testing if someone has a really good memory for the written word or for the audio book. In short you need to have three things: the rigor side, the experiment side and design side. If you’ve got skills across all three you’ll be more than fine. How do you think behavioural economics will develop (in the next 10 years)?
People like to jump on trends; but you can't really jump from behavioural science into some of those things necessarily. Although people are trying to find mixes. But there will be some new behavioural economics or human-centered design approach, and maybe it'll just jump into that. But I don’t think it matters too much if we don't actually address some of the problems at the root. I think there's also a world where it's not a bad thing. Like maybe at one time marketing was probably a really tight, well-defined field or strategic communications and I think the great example that from ideas 42 always talks about cost benefit analysis. Right? That was a huge thing that was a really tightly defined, rigorous subfield, and now it's just kind of like incorporated into how everyone thinks about things. And maybe that is just the future for behavioural science.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
The advice I would have is to find a speciality and like embrace that speciality regardless of which kind of field you want to go into. Obviously if you want to go to academia, that's one way. If you want to go into the applied world, which a lot of people do, I would say there's a couple things that I would embrace to be different. I would put down a lot of. I would stop not overinvest in just reading 'nudgy' literature. And I would invest in either some really hard quantitative skills, like experiments as design or econometrics or data analysis or the other way and get deeper into design field or go the third way, which is think about consulting, I think.
What are the biggest challenges for behavioural science?
Doing the scientific method, asking the question, forming a hypothesis, testing that, and then making your decision based on that recommendation is more important than whether nudges in general work or not. The first thing that I'm most worried about is whether or not behavioural science will fall out of fashion, not because it's because each individual case is evaluated as opposed to the idea of the field and what it stands for and what it really should mean. The second one is just making sure that we're constantly developing a rich, talent pipeline of behavioural scientists that can truly represent the context that where the work matters the most. And for me, again, I'm speaking for someone who cares a lot about doing behavioural science in developing countries, the programs aren't quite there to get there. And what that means is that rather than just having a bunch of expats doing behavioural science in developing countries, you get some locals and nationals. But even they are all Western educated and that correlates with income. That correlates with all kinds of other things that still creates this barrier to context that we don't even understand. So, if you look at Busara itself, we have probably about 60% local staff. It’s fine, but it still needs to get better. And if you actually look at the people in the more senior positions, they're almost always western educated right? And that's my biggest concern. Unless we really invest deeply in local talent and we see that as an actual part of the entire ecosystem, than nobody is really incentivized to pay for and develop that. I worry that we're just going to continue with the same issues.
What are your biggest frustrations with behavioural science, as it currently stands?
I feel the term ‘behavioural economics’ has even fallen out of fashion. But as the science expands its boundaries, which I think is a good thing, we need to keep in mind what behavioural science really mean. I don't think it's very well defined and I think that's a little bit of a problem. I don't think the answer is necessarily creating some governing body to regulate what behavioural science is, but I do think some more conserved discussion over how you keep the field of behavioural science is a useful thing to discuss. That to me is one big thing. I think the whole world understands now that context is a big part of behavioural science, and this is something that we pound the table on all the time, but it's not that we even know what that means. So, getting some people to think about, okay, what are the big topics? Is it inclusivity, is it context, is it rigor? People are really starting to have a great interest in behavioural science, and a lot of people who have been practicing parts of behavioural science that have been doing it for a long time are starting to realize, oh yeah, actually I should be included in these debates. But I don't think all of the economists people have met all the other people and have had real discussions about this. It's just a few people like you and other people that are willing to create those bridges. But I think those bridges are really important and until that happens, I think the field is going to just continue to fragment more and more and more. Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I would recommend interviewing as many people as you can. I've told this to Evan Nesterak at the Behavioural Scientist as well: people that sit between the different spaces of behavioural science, those are the people that will start to see trends before everyone else. And those are the people that can really serve as the anchor points to the kind of big discussions that need to happen. But I think you have interviewed Evan already. Also I really enjoy the work by Allison Zelkowitz who started the behavioural unit at Save the Children. Have you talked to Fadi Makki at Nudge Lebanon and BCG? [Yes.] Have you talked to Mike and Sherine at Common Thread? They do some really interesting stuff too!
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Chaning!
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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