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Interview with Cristina Bicchieri

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 Cristina Bicchieri. Cristina barely needs an introduction. She is the S. J. P. Harvie Chair of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics, and Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the director of the Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences, the Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program, the Behavioral Ethics Lab, and the Center for Social Norms and Behavioral Dynamics. She has published more than 100 articles and several books, among which are The Grammar of Society: the Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms, Cambridge University Press, 2006 and Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure and Change Social Norms, Oxford University Press 2016. She works on social norms measurement and behavioral/field experiments on norm change, cooperation and fairness on social networks. Her most recent work looks at the role of trendsetters in social change, and how network structures facilitate or impair behavioral changes.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

The person who got me into behavioral science and experimenting is Robin Dawes, who was a colleague of mine at Carnegie Mellon. He was a social and mathematical psychologist and we taught together for many years, so I learned a lot from the literature we were looking at, but also from him. When I was at Carnegie Mellon I was writing my first book on social norms, a book that I finished when I came to the University of Pennsylvania. I had already developed an interest in behavioral science, but I decided to start doing lab experiments after I finished that book, because I wanted to test if indeed manipulating expectations was leading to changing behavior. And so that is the main reason why I started doing experimental work in the lab: to test the predictions of my theory.

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

I am very proud of having developed good measures of social norms. This is something that I always cared about and am very happy to have done. And I continue ameliorating, if you will, not only the measure, but also the model. Something else I’m proud of is the applications that I have been able to work on. Applications that deal with behaviors that are generally considered harmful, like child marriage, female genital cutting, corruption or open defecation. These are behaviors that damage either the whole population or part of it, or in some cases mainly women, and to be able to apply my measures and to get some answers and finally to advise policy makers on the most effective intervention I think is an accomplishment I’m very proud of.

I would like to work on applications of social norms to other areas, such as poverty. There are obviously a lot of studies on the economic determinants of poverty. And they are very good studies, by the way. What is maybe less studied are the social determinants of poverty. I’m very interested in studying poor communities where poverty goes on for generations and trying to understand what sort of implicit rules of behavior, what sort of social norms are dominant in these communities and whether they can be changed. So this is an area of research that I hope to work on.

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

Many things. I’m interested in neuroscience. But again, I’m interested in neuroscience looking at how the brain responds to certain social stimuli. This is something I’m interested in.

And, believe it or not, I’m interested in finance. I was always interested in finance. And I thought, if I cannot have a career in philosophy of science, in my area, then I would be interested in studying finance. It is something that people don’t expect from me. They expect art, other areas of philosophy, or something else. But I really do like finance. I think it is a sort of challenging field.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

This is interesting, because when I tell this people get very surprised, but it’s true. When I have to make a really momentous decision (there are very few of them) like having or not having surgery for a serious condition, or changing jobs or city, I tend to draw a decision tree and assess the probabilities of various outcomes. It is a useful exercise and I follow through with the understanding that it is a very limited tool and that very often we cannot predict how we will feel after we have made a specific choice. Now I may think I will feel very good afterwards, and then maybe I will not. So, you know, this is something you have to discount, but if it is a very serious choice like changing a university or having surgery, I tend to draw a decision tree. Even if some probabilities are subjective, it helps me think of possible alternative outcomes, and how much risk I am willing to take.

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

There are several skills one needs. One important skill is to be able to design surveys. For example, in my experience, I learn a lot from focus groups before designing a survey. Through these discussions questions emerge that I may not have thought of. This is a very important part of my work: focus groups and surveys. Being able to conduct a survey is in my view crucial. Being able to analyze and identify networks is also crucial because, in particular in my work, you have to know the relevant reference network, since norms are properties of networks, not people. So it's important to do network analysis. This is another skill that is needed.

And of course we often do lab or internet experiments. So, how to design an experiment, how to conduct it, and how to analyze data is obviously very important. Other related tools like knowledge of statistics are also quite crucial.

Often we do projects with several researchers, and there is a natural division of labor: however, it is important to be able to understand how others use their tools, to integrate each other’s knowledge.

There is this very important, very popular area, called norm nudging, that consists in sending messages about what other people do or what other people approve or disapprove of, hoping to influence expectations, and hence behavior. One recommendation I have is, first of all, try to first diagnose what motivates behavior, because we may completely misinterpret what causes the target behavior and therefore spend money and time uselessly. Because you may think, for example, that the target behavior is a social norm, and instead it is a common custom, or a simple descriptive norm. The intervention should be appropriate to the nature of the behavior. So it's very, very important to do the correct diagnosis of what motivates behavior, first point. Second point, what is the reference network of the people that behave in that particular way? How do you measure it? And third, design good surveys to answer these questions.

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

That's a very difficult question. I think that there is a major interest in interdependent behaviors, especially in the nudging domain. These are behaviors that are motivated by the perception of what other people do, approve or disapprove of. So I see part of behavioral science at least moving into the area of interdependent more than independent behaviors. I also see more inclusion of social psychology and psychological knowledge in general in the area of behavioral science, especially behavioral economics. I believe there will be greater research integration between behavioral economists, social psychologists, and neuro psychologists, too, because neuroscience may become more and more important to understand how our brain receives certain messages, how we process them, the role of emotions in processing messages, and so on. So I see us moving into greater integration of these areas.

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

Francesca Gino from the Harvard Business School.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Cristina.

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!


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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