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 Christina Gravert. Christina is a professor at the University of Copenhagen with a PhD in economics from Aarhus University. And she is the Chief Behavioral Economist at Impactually. She conducts research on why good intentions often do not translate into the desired actions. Her research involves active collaborations with companies, non-profits and the public sector, using large-scale datasets and experiments. Her research findings have been published in several academic journals and have been featured in the media. Christina is a frequent speaker and workshop leader on nudging for behavior change, and has trained hundreds of practitioners. She aspires to increase the welfare of individuals and society through behavioral insights and evidence-based decision making.
Who or what got you into behavioural science? During my Master in Economics, I read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and loved it. I didn’t connect it though to what I was studying at university. Only during my last course, I heard about Behavioral Economics. When I heard that, it was possible to do a PhD on the subject I knew that was what I wanted to do. My first paper, single-authored, was an experiment building on Dan Ariely’s work on cheating. When I met him the first time at a conference in San Diego at the end of my first year as a PhD student I was star-struck. He was so nice and invited me to visit the Center for Advanced Hindsight that summer. Uri Gneezy and John List, who I also met the first time at that conference in 2012, were also very influential for my work in the years to come. I visited both in 2013 for a couple of months. In San Diego, my guest office was next to Richard Thaler’s, but, honestly, at that time he was just one of the many old professors roaming the hallways. What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? While I love diving deep in my research and finding “the truth” about how we humans behave, I early on thought it was disappointing that not more of the research got out to the public and those who could use it. In 2012, when I was in my PhD, the BIT in the UK had just started their work and few other consultancies existed that used behavioral insights. So from my PhD time, I started working on communicating the science to the public which, in 2017, then led to the founding of my behavioral consultancy, Impactually. The combination of research and teaching as a professor and consulting and training as a consultant make me happy and I believe create value on both sides – academia and “the real world”. If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? Probably I’d be on a social impact tech or vegan food start up team. In the summer of 2018, I spent a couple of months at a co-working space, Impact Hub, and I loved the vibes and the different social and environmental impact projects. Behavioral economics can, of course, contribute a lot to developing these types of products. Who knows, if a cool company offers me some stakes, I might be tempted to start another side job. How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? I think about behavioral economics all the time, so yes, I am sure it influences my life quite a lot. I study optimal timing of reminders in my research and consequently think quite a lot about when and how to set optimal reminders for myself. I also teach game theory at the university and that triggers even more thoughts on how the models of behavioral economics apply to my life. The Corona crisis has provided so many fascinating examples about human behavior. One of my students is writing his thesis on how toilet paper hoarding is similar to bank runs. With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? For me the most important part about being a good behavioral scientist is to be able to set up theories and test them empirically. I strongly dislike giving advice without evidence. So, skills on how to run randomized controlled trials or how to analysis data are the most important. The harder the skills, the less other people will have them. I would recommend everyone interested in standing out to take courses in statistics and data science (for example, the University of Copenhagen has a Master in Social Data Science now). Everyone can read up on cute biases and social norm experiments, but unless you can work with data, it will always stay at the surface and potentially dangerous when you implement things that might not work or even backfire. At least one should be able to distinguish good research papers from bad, when citing them or applying their findings. How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? On the one hand, I think it will become more mainstream and large companies will have a “behavioral science department” that will be involved in product and service design. Hopefully, the public sector will follow as well. On the other hand, the initial hype that behavioral science is the silver bullet will fade and behavioral scientists will have to work harder to prove their value (which I am convinced exists). But the level of skills needed will increase, hence the recommendation to build the right skills early on. Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? I would be interested in hearing how Lucia Reisch (a frequent co-author of Cass Sunstein and my colleague at CBS, the other university in Copenhagen) got into working with behavioral science.
Thank you for these great answers Christina! I'll make sure to reach out to Lucia Reisch and pick her brain about working with Cass Sunstein.
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!