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Interview with Darcie Piechowski

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 Darcie Piechowski.

Darcie is the Global Leader for Career Strategy at IBM where she applies behavioral science to craft meaningful employee experiences. She has more than 15 years of experience in people strategy, management consulting, and organizational development and has worked across industries in both the US and Asia. Darcie previously served as the Innovation Fellow for the Center for the Business of Government where she explored the inventive ways governmental organizations serve citizens through their use of collaborative platforms and technology. Today, Darcie remains committed to applying her diverse skillset to help organizations take on the complex challenges shaping our world. Darcie received her MS in Behavioral and Decision Sciences from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and her BS in Business Administration from American University in Washington, D.C., where she currently resides. In her free time, Darcie is the co-founder of the Women in Behavioral Science Community and hosts The Not Book Club for Behavioral Science. You can connect with Darcie on LinkedIn.


How did you get into behavioural science - and do you consider yourself a behavioural scientist?

That was a bit of a windy path. I was always interested in psychology, but I ended up doing my undergrad in business. When I finished school, I went on to become a consultant. Initially, I thought I’d get my MBA, but after working for a few years, I realised I was no longer interested in pursuing an MBA. After a while, I didn't think I would be able to really get back to school at all. But while I was working, I started to become more aware of behavioural science as a field. I had read Thinking, Fast and Slow and attempted to use the lessons from it in my work. Then when the pandemic hit, I went back to thinking about what I wanted to do in terms of my career, and I ended up getting my Master's in Behavioural and Decision Sciences from the University of Pennsylvania. So, that’s my journey into behavioural science.

I’m not sure I identify as a behavioural scientist. There's a part of me that feels that a behavioural scientist is somebody who has a PhD or who works at a behavioural science consultancy, so, I never refer to myself that way. On the other hand, I definitely leverage the science and spend a lot of time on it. I guess it depends on the definition, which is probably why you get a lot of people saying that they don't consider themselves a behavioural scientist. When asked to define myself in terms of my work, I consider myself a people strategist.

So, what do you think in terms of skill or approach makes for a really good behavioural scientist?

I may be biased based on my background, but I think you have to have an interdisciplinary approach. You’re so rarely going to come across things that are just “behavioural science.” It would be a fallacy to say that human behaviour is just decided by this one small area. There are so many things that influence our behaviour, such as biology, culture, and all these other pieces besides the cognitive components. Long story short, I think having interdisciplinary knowledge is important.

I also think having business acumen is important, especially if you're going to do applied work. This includes understanding your client’s industry, understanding how they make money or what their goals are, and really getting a sense of that, beyond your own domain.

The last thing that's really important is understanding the ethics of it all, because behavioural science can be used to manipulate people. Sometimes manipulation is intentional, like with certain marketing practices, but also sometimes it’s unintentional, when you think you're doing the right thing.


Given our present and past (in behavioural science), how do you think it's likely going to develop the next 10 years?

A lot of organisations are still not really using behavioural science. And if they are, it's often from a consumer perspective; “how do I sell my product?” or “how do I get people to use this service?” Of course, there are some groups that do it well, but what I don't see as often are organisations having this core competency of behavioural science and using that as part of their internal operations: how they interact with employees and partners. I think that there's a lot of room for growth in that.


If you take the employees, for example, how do we understand our employees as humans? How do we understand their behaviour, and how do we motivate them in ways that help to drive both their goals and our goals as an organisation? I hope that's an area that we will move more into as a field.

Let’s talk about challenges then, which challenges do you foresee for behavioural science?

For the previous example, there are concerns with ethics; organisations haven't always done what's best for their employees and they haven’t always been transparent about that, see quiet firing as a recent example. We want to drive behaviours that are beneficial for both the employee and the organisation; creating norms around working longer hours, introducing sludge that makes work harder, setting defaults to lower benefits - yes, those are examples of using behavioural science, but they aren’t ethical examples. Behavioural science can be misused, so that's something I’d still be concerned about.

Another challenge is the need to continually evolve. For example, we know AI applications are growing exponentially. AI can help to interpret behaviours, and behavioural science can help AI to be more human. Knowing this, how does that impact what we learn and how we use behavioural science? If we can't continue to make those adjustments as a field, then we likely won’t be considered as relevant over time.


I don't know if these are brand new challenges, but I think they are challenges that carry through to whatever we move toward.



Knowing those challenges, if someone is now looking to move into behavioural science, what would you actually recommend that they do? 

I do think that there's a value in people having some sort of formal education. Now, I don't mean you have to go to a university or some expensive program. But I do think that there's value to doing a bit more than just reading a pop science book or articles. Aside from learning the science itself, you’ll also learn how easy it is to misuse or not understand it. Luckily, there are a lot more widely available programs now for people.

The other thing I would say is that any savvy business that's looking to get involved with AI should be interested in behavioural science for how it can help improve human/AI interactions. I would expect to see a greater connection between data science and behavioural science - with people from both fields working together more. So, if you're a savvy behavioural science student, then you probably want to be thinking about how you bring AI and data science into your work more.

Do you have a personal frustration with the field?

I've had different frustrations over different periods of time, but what I find frustrating with the field now is that I really don't see great representation from scientists of colour. It's not for a lack of people. It's for a lack of how we represent them in different places; professorships, conference panels, etc. It's important to me to see greater representation from women and other underrepresented groups. We should all care about this, not only because it’s right, but because representativeness is the basis for good science.

My other frustration is the hyper focus on one concept. Instead, we need to open the aperture and understand the bigger picture. Behaviour is the result of a complex system of interactions. If behavioural science was only about nudges or only about irrationality, then really you could read a pop science book and get it. What we know now though is that a nudge is often limited in its application and what might be considered irrational from an economic sense, such as loss aversion, is not from an evolutionary sense. If we limit our focus to singular concepts or perspectives, then our value in organisations and with clients will be equally limited.


Looking back on your career so far, what are you proudest of having achieved?

I hate saying, “I’m proud of this thing that I did”. [Merle: you’re going to have to bite the bullet here]. Ok, something that I’m proud of is a project I spearheaded at work. We were able to develop interventions leveraging de-biasing practices from behavioural science to significantly reduce gender and racial bias in performance evaluations. The interventions were aimed at reducing managers’ dependence on unreliable heuristics and quick judgements by slowing down the process and providing objective evidence. We were fortunate to see those interventions drive meaningful changes. Performance evaluations have real implications for how people experience their work and progress in their career, so seeing this actually lead to fairer evaluations felt pretty good.

I’d also highlight the work I was fortunate to do with Save the Children’s Center for Utilising Behavioural Insights for Children (CUBIC). For that project, we built and applied a normative and motivational framework to help us develop interventions around adolescent cyberbullying. It’s amazing to do anything that can have such a positive impact on people, the community, or the world. That's what really excites me.

But then I'm curious to see what do you still want to achieve?

So much!  I’m very passionate about being able to apply my knowledge and experience, combining behavioural science and strategy, to solve problems that really matter for people. This may include problems like improving the employee experience, driving increased sustainability, or something like what we worked on at Save the Children. That would be a big win for me.

Other things are about supporting a more inclusive field. There's a lot of diversity in the field, but I’d want to create platforms for people who maybe didn't have them before, try to elevate new voices, and help people to be more visible in the field. That is something that I'm really focused on as well, which is what led to the creation the Women in Behavioural Science Community.



If you hadn't found behavioural science, what do you think you would have been?

That’s hard to say, since I started my behavioural science journey later in my career. As a kid, I wanted to be an anthropologist and a CEO. I wanted to be an anthropologist, because Jane Goodall was an anthropologist, and I was pretty sure that meant that you got to study apes. That's not what an anthropologist does, but that's what I thought they did as a child. I was very nervous about science in school, though. I just didn't have the confidence in myself to think that I could make something of it, so that steered me away from science and more down the business path. Perhaps now, I can be a bit of both!


Do you apply a lot of behavioural science in your own life? 

I have a lot more conversations with myself about sunk costs now. The conversations where you say to yourself, “you just have to let it go”. Sometimes I recognize something that's happening, a bias or another behavioural science concept, and I think, “you can do differently”. So, in my personal life, it's these kinds of conversations. My probabilities are probably stronger now, too. If I ever need to weigh out an important decision, I make a weighted decision matrix. Though, I think my husband taught me that originally.

Who in the field of behavioural science has inspired you the most? Which is a really slip short way of asking, who would you like me to interview next?

I think there's been so many amazing people that have done really cool things.

  • I think Zoé Ziani would be interesting to hear from. I was legitimately inspired reading about how she had this sort of face off with Francesca Gino - how she persevered through it and still stood up for what was important to her and what she believed in.

  • Natalie Hallinger always has great advice, so she will be a good choice.

  • Heather Lewis Cole would be amazing too. She's a Clinical Scientist at Google now.


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

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

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