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 Cristine Legare. Cristine is a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Applied Cognitive Science at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research examines how the human mind enables us to learn, create, and transmit culture. She conducts comparisons across age, culture, and species to address fundamental questions about cognitive and cultural evolution. Her primary areas of expertise include child development, international education, science education, and global public health.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
Experiencing cultural diversity in healthcare practices first hand piqued my interest in behavioral science. I spent several years studying how South African youth and adults explain what causes AIDS, and got interested in interdisciplinary approaches to understanding complex cultural ecologies of health.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I am proud of building a research program in applied cognitive science. That entails applying the theoretical and methodological tools of cognitive science to solving applied problems and answering open questions in global development, international education, and public health. I want to continue to use the tools of multiple social scientific disciplines to study how insights from behavioral science can translate into more efficacious outcomes.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I would be a wildlife biologist. I spend much of my free time observing animals in their natural environments (in the wild and on the screen).
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? As just one example, I apply insights from my research on ritual to my personal life. We all engage in rituals, often without realizing it and fail to recognize the potential these practices have to transform our personal, interpersonal, and professional lives. Knowledge of the functions of ritual allows individuals, groups, and organizations to leverage them to achieve goals and to solve conflicts. Rather than viewing rituals as superfluous, optional, and even burdensome, understanding the functions of ritual is essential to effectively managing personal, interpersonal, and communal behavior. Rituals exist because they serve critical social functions, from celebrating important life transitions to solidifying group identity, to achieving collective goals. There are good reasons people spend time, money, and energy engaging in these essential activities; rituals are the behavioral programming of our species.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
It is critical to invest in cutting edge statistical training, collaborative problem solving techniques, and writing and communication skills. My interdisciplinary background in anthropology and biology has been very helpful in approaching psychological questions in innovative ways. Read outside your discipline, and collaborate with people who do not have identical expertise. Learn the core research questions in your discipline, and study them in creative ways.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
The world is ever more interconnected; the COVID pandemic has made this impossible to deny. Globalization and technology have increased the pace of cultural transmission, providing unprecedented opportunities to study cultural change, transformation, and innovation. It has also introduced social inequality and a variety of socioecological problems that the human population must tackle together. The social and biological sciences must take an active role in translating basic insights about cognition, behavior, and social organizations to tackle applied problems.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Neela Saldhana and Nachiket Mor.
Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Cristine! I will most definitely reach out to Nachiket, I've had the pleasure of interviewing Neela already :)
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!