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Interview with Colin Strong



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 Colin Strong. Colin is Head of Behavioural Science at Ipsos, providing leadership on the application of the discipline to a wide range of client challenges. The work of the behavioural science team at Ipsos covers both private and public sector, with recent activities in sustainability, disrupted brand choice, organisational change and financial wellbeing. Colin has an academic background in psychology, with a master’s degree in applied psychology from Cranfield. He has worked in the market research industry for most of his career, using a psychology lens to develop advice, guidance and new approaches using market research tools. Colin is also Professor at Nottingham University Business School, chairs the MRS thinktank, the Delphi Group and co-produces Frontline BeSci blog. His most recent book, ‘Out of Time’ has recently been published, an examination of the way COVID, climate change and tech disruption is changing beliefs about being human.


 


How exactly did you get into behavioural science?

I did psychology as a degree level and my final year dissertation, supervised by Peter Ayton, focused on framing effects around seatbelt wearing. Subsequently, I went on to do a master's but decided against doing a PhD. I then held a couple of different roles before moving into market research.


In market research there are many different well-established approaches, methodologies and ways of looking at and understanding data which perhaps meant that behavioural science didn't really feature there for a long time; it was only relatively recently that it came more to the fore. Which is when I started bringing it more into my practice.

Ben Page hired me into Ipsos and this allowed me to properly move behavioural science to the forefront of my work, as I was to lead the discipline within Ipsos. My role here continues to develop as behavioural science grows and matures – I am happy to be working in such a collegiate, dynamic and interesting place.


Looking back on the journey that you've just described to me, what would you say you are proudest of having achieved? And what are you still looking to achieve?

I'm quite a looking forward rather than looking back kind of person so that’s a tricky question but I certainly find one of the really lovely things is when you have worked in an industry for a while and there are people that you've worked with at different points of your career and you see them doing really well or you see them enjoying their job or you run into each other again and they're pleased to see you. Those are the important moments for me.

I'm proud to have been able to have worked in environments which are positive, in which relationships can be built and you can facilitate good outcomes. It’s great to have been a participant and a facilitator in different communities of people. And what I still want to achieve and excited about and is the way in which there are many different ideas floating around about how we live, work, make money and how we structure ourselves as a society; and how behavioural science can be part of those conversations. I’m hoping we can be a bigger part of those debates, and in doing so challenge the way in which the discipline often works and is structured. Too often we can be a little is little narrow in our scope and remit, more concerned with proximal influences on behaviour – we know we can do so much more than that.



 

What would you say a skill set is for a really good behavioural scientist these days? What is just a skill that you cannot miss?

For me, the important skill and focus of being a practitioner is that the question that you're being asked to address is at the very centre of the way in which you approach things.

Which means that the great thing for a practitioner, and a very important skill, is that actually you've got the luxury of being able to consider which bodies of work are most relevant to answer this question. Because, of course, any question can be answered by any body of work if you're so motivated. So, the required skill here is to be open-minded and not overly committed to a particular theoretical perspective or a particular methodology. We focus on the approach and body of theory that is most suited to offer practical and helpful guidance.


So how would you recommend someone gets into the field? Because the journey into behavioural science has really quite changed over the past 10 to 20 years.

I guess you could ask, well, what is behavioural science? Who defines this discipline? At one point it was very much based around the literature of people like Kahneman and others like Ariely, etc. And then your pathway through to it was pretty clear. It was going down the cognitive psychology route, do a PhD and there's a body of work which you needed to be familiar with. Now it's broadening out and it's perfectly legitimate for people to enter it with different backgrounds. And I think it's great if people can weave it into their jobs even if they do not have an explicitly behavioural science role – perhaps think behaviour change rather than behavioural science. There is definitely a role for behavioural science expertise informed by academic excellence but there is also a much broader opportunity for people to be able to access more codified approaches in their work.


A lot of people are excited by the field and would like to build careers in it. But it can be quite a tricky path. My feeling is that it may be even better doing an adjacent job and bringing behaviour change principles into that role. I feel there may well be many opportunities for people doing it that way.



 


So, given that the applied side of behavioural science has gotten really quite strong, and there are now a variety of ways into it, how do you see behavioural science develops in the next 10 years? What's the future going to look like?

Perhaps we will see a proliferation of different schools within behavioural science. We often see this as disciplines mature. The entry point was based on a particular approach, yet now I think we're moving into something broader than that. It's good to have different practitioner emphases and schools of thought and different types of practice.


Ok let’s talk challenges then. Which challenges do you see for behavioural science if we go down that trajectory?

I don't think we can ignore the topic of power: who controls the discourse? Who is setting the agenda? What voices aren't being heard? And why aren't we hearing other people, other voices? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves. How inclusive is this profession? What are the topics we're not really talking about? We are at a really tricky point in the world. We need to figure out which ways that the wind is going to blow toward towards a world which is more inclusive, multifaceted and allowing us to hear and be willing to hear different perspectives. That’s the challenge and opportunity I see for behavioural science.



 

Do you have a personal frustration with behavioural science?

I suppose the thing that is a frustration for me is, can we just move on from talking about particular psychological mechanisms and methods and instead as a discipline offer a bigger view of the challenges facing the world?


It feels as if we can get a little bit hung up on, or even stuck at times, on the tools of our trade. Surely, we can be more dynamic than that and be a bit more challenging and adventurous. For example, there is a whole heap of exciting ways to do experimental work that fall outside of what might be considered a Randomised Control Trial (RCT). Nothing wrong with RCTs but there are so many other routes (such as n of 1 agile trials) that we can equally be speaking about. That’s an example of how sometimes the conversations can perhaps get a little stuck on these quite specific points of evidence.


While Behavioural scientists care about these technical points, our clients are interested in the value we deliver, the tangible ways we can help organizations create change. I sometimes have the feeling that behavioural science community can sometimes forgets to make the value and outcomes of our profession tangible.


We're so deeply ingrained in behavioural science that it makes perfect sense to us. But if you can't communicate this, it's very difficult to get clients to move in the same direction. I did sales training in a personnel software company for a short period in my twenties. This taught me to talk benefits, not features, and we would do well to remember that simple point: what are we offering here that is above and beyond what other professions can be doing? What do we bring to the party? How does that work alongside other work the client might be doing?


How do you actually apply behavioural science to your own life?

I try to read widely to keep myself abreast of different perspectives of how the world works and that inevitably flows through into your personal life. But if you were to ask me exactly how that works for me, I would struggle to answer that. I think it's in a more organic way, in a sort of osmosis way rather than necessarily an overly sort of reflective way.



 


What do you think would have happened if you hadn't found behavioural science? What do you think you would have been?

Well, I've always worked really in market research and I think that's a very multifaceted and rewarding profession. The market and social research industry does a remarkably good job of presenting and defending itself and making a case for itself. But I think if I wasn't doing that, I'd like to be a writer or I also really enjoy teaching, talking with people, sharing ideas. So, I think that kind of academic role would also be something pretty interesting as well.


Which behavioural scientists have really inspired you? Who else would you actually read an interview by, and would you recommend me to interview?

One of the most inspirational people that I know in behavioural science is Tamara Ansons, who I worked with at Ipsos, and now works at NatWest. She’s a really thoughtful, creative, smart and inspires a lot of thinking for me and others.


 


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Colin!


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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