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Interview with Christopher Boyce

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 Christopher Boyce.

Christopher Boyce is a happiness and well-being expert. He trained as an economist (BSc, MSc) and went on to explore the links between the economy and well-being, completing a PhD in Psychology in 2009. He has worked at various academic institutions, including the University of Warwick, Paris School of Economics, the University of Manchester, and the University of Stirling, where he still has an honorary position. He has published more than 25 peer-reviewed academic papers on happiness and well-being, and has written numerous media articles on the topic. However, in finding it impossible to meaningfully live out his research in his day-to-day life, he quit his academic career to spend 18-months cycling to Bhutan. He used his cycling journey to explore alternative ways of being, find deeper personal fulfilment, and share his experiences with others. Since returning he has written and published a book about the journey entitled: A Journey for Happiness: The Man Who Cycled to Bhutan. He is involved in local, national, and international well-being policy discussions and is a Well-being Economy Alliance Research Fellow. He is interested in contributing to the creation of conditions that foster individual & societal well-being. He currently lives in the Scottish Borders, where he works supporting community mental health.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

First there was frustration, then sadness, then came the rage. I’d say it was emotions that got me into behavioural science. The absence of them in what I was studying, and their mounting presence inside of me.

I’d just started a PhD in Economics and my experience as a masters student in economics had been frustrating. In my masters, all the courses had what had become usual assumptions about human rationality. That rationality assumption was wearing thin, and I knew, from being a human (a fairly typical one, with emotions, limits, expectations, dreams, weird desires, and painful historical trauma), that the assumption of rationality was patently false. This was in 2006, so there was little, if any, psychology in most economics’ programs.

When I began a PhD in economics and there was that same crass assumption underlying all the models, yet with a level of mathematics that had me at my limits, I began to doubt myself. I questioned my ability, sometimes feeling sad at my inability to understand what I was being taught. But that sadness soon gave way to rage when I connected to the absurdity of what was being taught. I felt like I’d been cheated all these years into believing something I knew in my heart was not true. I had hoped as my studies advanced that I’d eventually get into studying something that had at least some basis in reality.

And so, with this anger I went along to my PhD supervisor ready to quit, telling him I was tired of the rationality nonsense (my PhD supervisor was Prof Andrew Oswald, a pioneer in happiness and wellbeing research). To my surprise, he wholeheartedly understood my concerns and, although I didn’t realise it at the time, I think he even valued my forthrightness. He suggested I move to Psychology, where he’d continue supervise me on a PhD about happiness there. So that is what happened, and so developed a healthy passion for the intersection between economics and psychology.

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

This is a funny question that makes me smile. Partly because I don’t know where to begin with it.

I’ll start by saying that I wouldn’t call myself a behavioural scientist. For me, it’s like this - I’ve dabbled around in behavioural science over the years, publishing some neat papers, and I’ve come out a little bit wiser for it. I’m adverse to categorise myself too rigidly as that’s not, in my experience, how humans grow and evolve. My finest work from an academic perspective arose when I stopped trying to be an economist or a psychologist and that enabled me to transcend both fields and do things that no-one else was doing.

However, what I’m most proud of was taking things further still and going beyond what one might expect from a behavioural scientist and doing something radically different. After more than a decade dabbling in academia with behavioural sciences, I quit my academic role altogether and set about journeying to Bhutan by bicycle. I’m proud of that decision. It radically changed my life and allowed me to put many of my ideas into practice.

The key motivation for this cycling journey was my inability to find personal happiness in my academic role and within the society I was part of. This speaks to one of the central findings in behavioural sciences – that context matters. And frankly, the academic context is not one that promotes happiness and wellbeing. Should it be? I guess that depends on what a person believes is the ultimate goal of society. But personally, I think wellbeing, holistically defined, is a far more valid goal than perpetually striving for a bigger economy each year.

My cycling journey was about exploring contexts where I could be happier, whether that be societies, like Bhutan or Costa Rica, who are constructing wellbeing conducive societies, or the self-created context of spending many months and thousands of miles on a bicycle. I’ve since written a book that brings together stories from my cycling journey to Bhutan with happiness and wellbeing research that addresses the importance of societal goals among many other important aspects of happiness.

As for the follow up question about what I’d still like to achieve. One of my most startling realisations from my cycling journey to Bhutan was how much I confuse achievement with happiness. I think it is a confusion endemic within the culture I grew up in – “if or when I obtain this, I will be happier” – yet it rarely turns out that way. Not in my personal experience, and not in the data either. Sadly, I think such a confusion is inevitable when the overarching context is one that supports the goal to grow our economies ever larger.

“It is not in the interests of the economy to have people feeling calm and satisfied with their lives. It is better for businesses to tell people what they are missing out on, and what they really shouldn’t live without.”

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

I think perhaps I’m doing just that. When I quit my academic job and left on my cycle journey to Bhutan, I had no idea what my life would look like when I came back.

(That is of course whether I even made it back - there were a few testing moments on the journey where either my life was on the line, or I found myself in places I was certain could bring me a life full of happiness).

I left a lot to fate going on my journey and could see no other way to do it. However, as the months ticked by and the miles rolled on, one thing that became clear was that when I got back, I wanted to build a personal life centred around happiness and wellbeing. I knew that would mean going against the grain of society but since I’d managed to create a journey centred around happiness, then why not a life. Not only that, I wanted to be part of creating a society centred around wellbeing. A life (and society), as my research had been telling me for years, that prioritised relationships, mental and physical health, and living authentically. I didn’t think that I would be able to best do this by going back to my academic life and carrying out behavioural science research.

I had no idea how I’d create that wellbeing-centred life at first and it wasn’t an easy shift to make. Not only because we don’t live in a society that prioritises wellbeing and that makes it hard for any person (and some more than others) to prioritise wellbeing, but also because the pandemic hit at a critical point in making that personal shift.

Nowadays I better protect my time and am much clearer on my personal and professional boundaries. I get what I can done and if it doesn’t get done, then it doesn’t get done. Professionally my time is split between two different part-time jobs. At the start of the week, I work in community mental health, where I support people directly with their mental health recovery, and at the end of the week I work for an economic consultancy encouraging organisations to consider their impact on wellbeing and promoting a wellbeing economy.

Both my jobs bring fulfilment on account of seeing the day-to-day impact of what I do, they involve caring about people, and enable me to live in line with my beliefs and values. A good deal of the rest of my time is spent looking after my physical and mental health through cycling and walking, and often camping out in the hills. I also give public talks about my journey to Bhutan and sometimes I’ll even make long cycle trips to give these talks. For example, I gave a talk in Galway, Ireland, not too long ago and cycled there.

Life is better than before I went to Bhutan, but there is still some way to go in making wellbeing the centre of my life. It’s difficult when society is unsupportive of such an endeavour. I’ve still got some harmful health and relationship habits that have been difficult to break. I often get caught out in various contexts and do things that don’t serve me. I try to learn and grow.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

This question follows nicely from my answer to the last question. There are two broad ways I apply behavioural science in my personal life. The first is through having an awareness of context design, and the second is doing what I can to avoid toxic contexts altogether or, for contexts I can’t avoid, doing whatever I can to change the context to protect my wellbeing.

On the awareness front, whenever I’m in a new space (whether online or in the real world) I consider what the aim of the space I’m in is. What do the people who control that space want me to be doing? Because I guarantee that the space will have been carefully designed to achieve that end. And it’s a sad fact of modern society that the primary aim of most constructed spaces won’t be to serve my wellbeing. Typically, the primary aim of most spaces will be to make money, and not just enough to survive, but as much of the stuff as is possible.

There is a certain necessity in making money, but we don’t need that much to live a good life (above $20,000 per person an extra $ is largely trivial). But the extent to which we should intentionally exploit people’s psychological biases to do it is a major ethical concern. These days, many will have to do that for their own survival and to meet their basic needs, and I can sympathise with an individual or small business who might feel they need to do this. The bigger concern for me is the large commercial organisation where there is an abundance of data used to track near instantaneously to how people respond to different designs. Whether it’s a betting shop reframing a loss as a win, a supermarket selling different quantities of similar looking-goods in the same size tubs (this is a behavioural design that really annoys me at the moment), or a social media site showing me posts that are more likely to keep me scrolling, all are designed not with my wellbeing in mind but to serve the interests of that organisation.

So, to that end, having awareness of the aims of the space help me remain mindful of my actions. I try to be extra cautious so that I protect my wellbeing. If I find myself doing something out of the ordinary, I’ll question why. I still might do certain things anyway, possibly feeling some regret, and then maybe anger that I’ve got caught out. I try not to feel shameful, which from personal experience is a emotion that can feed dependence and addiction. Instead, I try to be compassionate towards myself, and if I’m feeling particularly strong I might even be able to extend my compassion to the human behind the manipulative design.

In sum, if I can avoid a manipulative space, I will. Or I might refrain entirely from engaging in something because I know I’ll consume too much, such as alcohol or certain types of social media. And if I can’t refrain altogether, I’ll try to protect myself with having clear boundaries. I might impose limits on myself as to how I am allowed to engage with things. Some things, for example, I refuse to own or buy myself, but might contemplate consuming if offered as a gift. This might include playing a computer game or eating a packaged sugary good. My own little counter-nudges to keep me well.

One of my favourite things I used to do when I was weaning myself off excessive consumption was that when I saw something I wanted to buy, is to make sure I walked out of the shop and touched a tree before I went back in to buy it. That is if I did go back in, because the process would allow me a little time to think about why I wanted the thing, and whether I really needed it, rather than get lost in a commercial world that promises instant happiness. If it was online, the same applied.

(By the way, If this all sounds exhausting, that’s because it is exhausting. But remember I’m just trying to protect myself against a human world that’s been designed not with my best interests at heart, and it doesn’t need to be this way.)

When I get anxious, which some spaces might be explicitly designed with that purpose if it increased sales, like Las Vegas or health insurance adverts, for example, I remind myself that it is okay to feel that way, and then try to sit with what is coming up inside me. I have no television. I avoid things in shiny wrappers. That doesn’t mean I don’t get it majorly wrong from time to time and do things that don’t serve me, because of course I am human. My goal is to be a happy one which, in this world, our created social context, right now, isn’t an easy thing to be.

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

Oh cripes…well, given I don’t know if I am one, or at least I’m not one that has done things conventionally, I’m not sure how to answer that question.

One answer might be to get on a bicycle and ride around the world…it’ll open your eyes up a lot as to how humans are in different situations, including yourself. You’ll encounter people that don’t look like you or behave like you. You’ll connect with what really matters to you and that’s the most important thing there is.

I guess at the root of the “cycle around the world” answer is to have experiences and develop skills outside of being a behavioural scientist, and to learn to listen to people from diverse backgrounds and who aren’t behavioural scientists. In fact, I’d recommend that to anyone – break out of the tried and tested norms and challenge your perceptions of the world.

Other than that, just be authentic – listen to yourself and live in alignment with what you believe. Even if that means ignoring everything I say here. But then do deeply question whether you’re ignoring it just because you find it challenging, which is what I find most people do with ideas that may threaten who they believe themselves to be.

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

I have no idea. There is one way I’d like to see behavioural science develop, but I don’t hold much hope for development with what I see as being the biggest problem with the field. For what concerns me, the vested interests in dealing with it are far too big. Yet doing so, I am certain, would go a long way to improving societal wellbeing.

I’m not sure where to begin with it. I’ve tried to have conversations with behavioural scientists over the years and many don’t seem to get what I’m talking about. And I suspect that sometimes they don’t want to get it. Have you ever come across the saying that “it is difficult to get a person to understand something, when their salary depends on them not understanding it”?

My main critique of behavioural science stems from what might be called the dark nudge. By a dark nudge I mean the context design that takes place routinely in the private sector to encourage people to go against their better interests, to do things that do not serve our long-term happiness and wellbeing. It’s my belief that a dark nudge will do far more damage to societal happiness than a few behaviourally-informed policy interventions can ever hope to rectify.

I’ve highlighted this earlier, but essentially most environments use and abuse our psychological biases to increase their profits. That’s the reality of our everyday world, the wider societal context, and I think most of the tweaks that behavioural scientists engage in to encourage “better” behaviour are inconsequential compared to that. But of course, people won’t pay much attention to you if you say such a thing, it’s too much of a threat for the dominant economic and political agenda.

The behavioural sciences rose to prominence because it was framed in a way that didn’t threaten the central tenants of neo-classical economics (and its associated political dogma neo-liberalism), that economic rationality was desirable behaviour, and that free choice brings about the best individual and societal outcomes. It doesn’t fundamentally disrupt the status quo – even though it could, and I think should.

Behavioural scientists take the wider context as a given, and though they’ve debated the ethics of governments nudging people extensively, they haven’t scrutinised the ethics of the private sector doing so, not seriously challenged it. But why not? They wouldn’t be welcome at the policy table, for one. Yet, the built-in addictiveness of social media apps is frightening. Advertising (or as I like to call it commodity propaganda) that a product will do something, such as meet a need or bring happiness, that it does not, is scandalous. Appealing to status concerns (or heightening people’s feelings of inadequacy compared with others) to sell more gadgets and cars is outrageous.

I often wonder whether how much our behavioural biases are because of private sector nudges and the wider context we live in rather than innate biases. For instance, taking short-term rewards over longer-term ones, our desires to punish others, or our intolerance of financial loss and risk, might just be the result of our wider context which systematically perpetuates this type of behaviour. For example, defaulting people into pensions may be one of the most wide-reaching behavioural interventions there has been, but why not question, and tackle, why people are so biased towards the short-term? I don’t find it surprising we don’t think sustainably with all the claimed “instant fixes” to solve every issue we didn’t know we had until we were told it was an issue. It’s easier to blame people (which is politically convenient) than question society more deeply. I sometimes think that if we were truly left alone, then maybe we’d even be quite Buddha-like, for example, compassionate, accepting, secure in ourselves, and so forth. I remember feeling a lot like this when I was a young boy, but then the world got hold of me…

Even if you accept the point I’m trying to make here, one response might be that it is a world in which we all must navigate. You might say that we all still have choices and if a person falls for these subtle and imperceptible tricks then it is their problem. Yes, indeed we do have choices (which is conveniently in alignment with neoclassical economics), but we don’t all have the same choices, not even close. Some are far more vulnerable than others by virtue of factors outside of their control – be it traumas that happened when they were very young, daily mental and physical challenges, where they live, poverty, among many many other things that I’ve not only seen cycling around the world, but I see every day in my job working in community mental health. In my experience it is those who hold positions of power and have far more choices than others that often propagate this choice argument.

And even if this is a valid argument (and it totally will be for those who benefit from things be as they are), why the hell does the world we have created have to be so difficult to navigate? Why do we have to be so on guard? What I’ve concluded from all my research looking at individual behaviours that do or do not lead to happiness, is that we need economic system change. An economic system that does not prioritise economic growth above all else. I think the ultimate aim of an economy should be to create wellbeing for people and planet. Economic growth might be a part of that, but for any country with more than $20,000 per capita then there are most definitely better ways to improve wellbeing, including basic universal care, less inequality, and strong public institutions that curtail corruption and promote human rights. I’d love to see behavioural scientists seriously challenging that wider societal context we’ve created.

What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?

Look inwards and question deeply who you are. Are your views a consequence of conditioning, be it from your education or the wider social narrative, and are you willing to explore beyond that? Remember, there is both an objective and subjective world. Again, experiencing the world from different perspectives will help with that. Other than that – best of luck.

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

I’m not sure because I’m not really connected to that world anymore. Anyone not white and not male. They get far too much attention. Maybe Neela Saldanha, who I hear is doing interesting work to challenge poverty in the Global South. Or perhaps Philip Atiba Goff who explores racial bias.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Christopher, especially as you no longer identify as a behavioural scientist!

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!

Behavioural Science

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