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Interview with David Halpern

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 David Halpern.

David is the Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team. David has led the team since its inception in 2010. Prior to that, David was the first Research Director of the Institute for Government and between 2001 and 2007 was the Chief Analyst at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. David was also appointed as the What Works National Advisor in July 2013. He supports the What Works Network and leads efforts to improve the use of evidence across government. Before entering government, David held tenure at Cambridge and posts at Oxford and Harvard. He has written several books and papers on areas relating to behavioural insights and well-being, including Social Capital (2005), the Hidden Wealth of Nations (2010), Online Harms and Manipulation (2019) and co-author of the MINDSPACE report. In 2015, David wrote a book about the team entitled Inside the Nudge Unit: How Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I bought a second hand psychology text book – by David Myers – when I was 14. It was amazing. All those classic studies – Asch, Milgram, Zimbardo.

Later, as an undergraduate studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge, I discovered I could do Experimental Psychology as an option from year 2. It was magical to find that you could study a subject that you loved so much, and was so gripping and fun.

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

Well, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is pretty cool. Working with an amazing team and with scholars from across the world, we’ve been really able to design and test a string of interventions using behavioural science to have a real impact in the world. Increasing savings. Getting people back to work faster. Halving sugar in UK soft drinks. Supporting children to get better grades. Reducing gender inequalities in the labour market. Re-integrating ex-combatants. Combating disinformation. We’ve even managed to save some tigers. Yup, actual tigers (an intervention to encourage farmers to put up fences, so tigers don’t attack their livestock, and the farmers don’t hunt and kill the tigers…)

Always more to do. There’s a long list of things we wish we were asked to do. Doing more on reducing conflict. Testing more innovative interventions to reduce disadvantage. Upstream interventions to make markets work for people, rather than the other way around. There’s also the frontiers on knowledge and ‘why’ things work we’d love to do more on. We hope to find funding and partners to create a ‘Centre for Excellence’ to pursue more of these!

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

Probably and architect or urban planner. I had a place to do a second degree in this in the USA, but instead went back to Cambridge and did a PhD.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I try to keep the ratio of positive to negative remarks up at the 5:1 ratio at home and work. Not sure I succeed.

I try to integrate good habits into my life, like cycling to work instead of kidding myself I’ll make it to the gym. I do better at that.

We leave out chopped carrots at work, instead of just cakes. Mixed results there.

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

Know some psychology would be pretty good start. But the real core is strong methods. They are the keys to the universe…

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

I hope we’ll work through the list above. More generally, I hope we’ll get to harness it for good (‘nudge for good’ as Richard Thaler always likes to say). That’s by no means a done deal. Behavioural science can be thought of like any other ‘general purpose tech’ – it can be used for good or bad. It can help teenagers persist with their studies, or drag them into gambling. Let’s try and use it for good…

What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?

Sharpen your quant skills.

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

Hum. I’ve always thought Susan Fiske’s work is fabulous, and maybe doesn’t get the profile it merits. (I also would have been totally screwed trying to do lectures on social cognition without her brilliant textbook – so eternally grateful to her for that…). We had Henrich in recently, who’s work is a masterpiece. And of course, there’s always the next generation – aren’t we lucky to be studying and working in such an amazing field?


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

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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