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 Daniel Connolly. Daniel is a PhD student in Behavioral Decision Research in the Social and Decision Sciences department at Carnegie Mellon University. At SDS, his research focuses on the role of memory in decision making and behavioral political economy. Prior to his PhD studies, Dan spent several years at ideas42, an applied behavioral science nonprofit, where he worked on designing interventions in education, criminal justice, and voter turnout. Dan holds a BA in economics and psychology from Cornell University.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
My high school economics teacher Gerry McCloghry was the first to show me that economics was something you could do with your life, and in college my mentors Erik Helzer and Dave Dunning showed me the same for psychology. I am pretty lucky to have landed my first (and last) job out of undergrad at ideas42, where I spent several years running behavioral science field experiments in a half-dozen different settings.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I'm most proud of my work managing the ideas42 Nonvoter Innovation Lab during the 2018 midterms, where we contacted millions of people in large RCTs to improve voter turnout in the US. That team was made up of such brilliant people, and it's definitely the most impact I've had with any one project to date. I've got a few years left in my PhD to do something I'm equally proud of! There's so much left to achieve, so I'll just say "watch this space".
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
Truly I have no idea. I've been at this in one way or another since I was 18, so it's difficult to imagine anything else. Introspecting a bit, I tend to be at my happiest when I'm coding up an analysis or simulation in Stata, R, or Python, so hopefully I'd be some other sort of scientist doing something very similar!
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
Many ways! I use a pretty strict set of attention management tools, since I'm up against an entire industry of behavioral scientists who'd like to monetize that attention. I track my deep, focused work time with a time tracker, and I use a fantastic tool called "Cold Turkey Blocker" to regulate my wandering attention. I also take the bus to work with running clothes in my backpack so that when it's time to leave for the day I just change clothes and run home. Much better than getting home after a tiring day and trying to convince myself to run.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
The most successful behavioral scientists I've worked with have strong quantitative skills, a good background in the behavioral science literature, and deep interest in one or more subject areas. I think quant skills are the hardest to get outside of formal training, but you can get a lot of the other two just by being a curious, well-read person. It also helps to be personable. My most successful projects have been with partner organizations, and those are immensely tough to get off the ground unless your partners trust you. Humility can play a big role here....I often think about this exchange.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
One aspect of behavioral science research that really excited me is the focus on the decisions of policy makers as opposed to the subjects of policies. As successful as the nudge movement has been, I think it's reasonable to critique the nudging approach from an equity perspective. But focusing on improving the decisions of policy makers (whether that's legislators, judges, doctors, or anyone else with power) gets around this, and it's not as though experts don't make mistakes. In some ways this calls behavioral science back to where it was 40-50 years ago, when researchers focused on whether "actuarial judgement" could outperform the judgement of expert human decision makers. We've already seen some of this attention around whether judges and doctors can outperform machine learning tools on certain judgement tasks - I'd like to see that focus expand to decision makers of all kinds.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
The good news for behavioral scientists younger than me is that there are many pathways for doing behavioral science professionally, and I don't think nearly as many of them existed 10 years ago. If you're still in school, spend the time you have developing technical skills - these seem to be the hardest to get independently. Unless you'd like to be an academic behavioral scientist, I think it also really helps to cultivate an interest in a specific subject area, such as education, health, personal finance, et cetera. That way you've got a complementary set of skills and can either become more of a generalist behavioral scientist or an applied expert in your field of interest.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I'm very curious how Piyush Tantia at ideas42 would answer these questions! But I'll also name some people whose work I admire from afar: Daniel Read, Alex Rees-Jones, and Stefanie Stantcheva.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Daniel!
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!