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 David Perrott. David is an applied behavioural science practitioner working out of Cape Town, South Africa. Over the last seven years, he has tackled behavioural challenges across a broad range of sectors, but the majority of his work has been centred around working with financial organisations to drive better outcomes for their clients and staff. He currently runs an independent consulting business in addition to the Circles in Time program: a behavioural change program during which he helps people figure out how to apply behavioural science to themselves, regardless of what their goals may be!
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
That's actually a really difficult question, Merle. Especially if I try to avoid my brain's tendency to sort messy, noisy and complex unfolding processes in neat and coherent stories that fit my current view of myself and the world.
I know that's not helpful though, so with the above disclaimer made, I'll share one experience that I am reasonably sure played a role in putting me on the path I find myself on.
When I was 21 my father had a terrible stroke that damaged the left hemisphere of his brain. The damage reduced him to a disoriented, semi-conscious state for a couple of weeks and left him without the ability to speak or walk for several months. It was a traumatic time for me and my family, and the way I dealt with it was by trying to understand the brain, how it worked and what had happened to him. This lead to a sort of unravelling and rebuilding of my entire world view from the ground up, and the cognitive, neuro and behavioural sciences were placed firmly at the centre of that view. Would I have ended up with such a strong fascination for behavioural science and how the brain works anyway? I'm not sure. I've always been incredibly curious, so I imagine the topic would have been something I found interesting. But the almost obsessive level of interest that I have held for the past 8 years doesn't feel like something that I could have gotten to with just curiosity alone. That's my suspicion anyway. What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? I try not to think in terms of concrete accomplishments, to be honest. They can be a useful signal of future effectiveness, but most of the time they're just leveraged as weapons in backwards-looking status games people play to figure out the power dynamics within a particular context. That would be alright if it didn't constrain change, innovation and progress, as much as it does. It also fixates us on the extrinsic, when we should be following our intrinsic motivations and passions. Again, that's probably not helpful in answering your question 😌 sorry. Here's a concession: I am proud of the contributions I have made to the ongoing development of the field, especially with regards to applied behavioural science within the context of personal finance and consumer technology. Although much of my learning has been shaped by WEIRD thinking, I have also been able to stretch the field in parts of the Global South that had little to no prior exposure to behavioural science. More recently, I feel that I have contributed constructively to the conversation about the challenges our field faces and explored innovative ways to resolve some of those challenges. ... And what do you still want to achieve? Not so much an achievement, but I would love to play an active role in closing the researcher-practitioner loop. At the moment it is mostly one-way traffic, with knowledge flowing from academic research to practical application. There is such a great opportunity to understand how academic theory survives in the wild, and feed those learnings back into the academy, so that more nuanced hypotheses, theories and models can be tested. This can happen at the level of a government, an organisation, a community or even an individual. If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? When I was seven years old I was set on becoming an ornithologist. I knew almost every bird in the country by appearance and had a good grip on the residential territory of many of them. So perhaps I'd be studying the migrating patterns of some bizarre bird? Or maybe the evolution of birds? I absolutely love Richard Prum's work on the evolution of beauty. When I was 19 I was djing at clubs and festivals almost every week and ran electronic music, clothing and events company, so that is another possible path I could have been moving along. Lastly, I've been captivated by all the literature on the philosophy of mind and the problem of consciousness. I feel like I've got some sort of contribution to make there in the future. Fortunately, armchair philosophizing, thought experimentation, deep conversation and writing are all skills that seem ripen with time and age. How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? Do people apply behavioural science in their personal lives?? That's brilliant! Just joking. As you know Merle, this question has been my primary obsession for the past two years. In 2020 I got practical. Turning my ideas into a set of development programmes and an online community called Circles in Time. I'm not only excited about this space because of the immense potential benefits it offers in terms of personal development and resolving one's recurring self-control challenges, but also because I genuinely think that it enables behavioural science researchers, practitioners, designers and communicators to build a set of capabilities that make them more effective in their professional roles. Okay, but that's not really answering your question. I use behavioural science in the following ways: Firstly, I use the insights and tools to understand myself, the beliefs I hold, the judgments I make and the projections I form. Secondly, I use the insights and tools to set goals, build personal systems and shape my choice environments in ways that allow me to make better decisions and resolve my self-control challenges. Lastly, I use the validation instruments from the field to help me setup self-experimentation protocols and figure out what works for me over time. With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? It depends on which hat you're wearing and the domain you're working on. 'Behavioural Scientist' is a label that is used to cover a wide of roles, and there is a lot of variation in required competencies across those roles. If we're talking about applied behavioural scientists operating in the private sector (which is the hat I tend to wear most of the time), then there are five core skills that worth prioritising:
The ability to prioritise and narrowly define the behaviours of interest. Understanding how these behaviours relate to the business model, company objectives and customer intentions isn't easy. Linked to this is the ability to understand the ethical implications of behaviour change and the potential second-order and third-order effects that may result from a specific first-order change.
The ability to accurately identify the factors (drivers and barriers) that are playing a role in shaping the existing behaviour, as well as what might be limiting the desired behaviour from taking place. Being able to leverage a wide range of quantitative and quality research tools is important here.
The ability to design behaviourally-informed interventions that have a high probability of moving behaviour in the desired direction. Having knowledge of the prescriptive behavioural science literature, the boundary conditions of particular tactics and potential side effects of interventions, all improve effectiveness here.
The ability to set up user testing, field pilots, randomised controlled trials and other forms of evaluation activities to get at the validity and potential impact of an intervention. Where this set of competencies differ from academic research is in the purpose. Academic researchers typically run experiments to get at the causal relationship between an independent variable and a dependent one. That can be important for a practitioner, but the primary reason for experimentation in the context of a business is that it enables better-informed decision making on the part of stakeholders with whom the practitioner is working.
The ability to communicate effectively with stakeholders within organisations. This is an underrated skill and one that deserves much more discussion than it is currently getting. Without the ability to communicate the importance of running an experiment, how an intervention works or why changing a specific behaviour will improve the business or customer experience, practitioners will not be able to get the buy-in required to operate effectively. Storytelling, visual illustration, public speaking, persuasive writing and effective networking, are all fundamental to get behavioural research and design projects over the ground.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? If Covid has taught me anything it is that long term forecasting is an almost impossible game to be good at. But for fun, I'll share three speculations:
As a result of better sensors, data collection, profiling, software-driven targeting capabilities, our interventions are going to get a lot more personalised. This is going to have complicated ethical implications that we're all going to have to grapple with.
There will be much more focus on recurring behaviour changes, as opposed to just once off behaviours. Related to this, consumer-focused physiological data tracking is going to shift behavioural measures into more of a proximate and instrumental role, as we start orientating around key biomarkers as better indicators of health and development.
Self-applied behavioural science is going to become an important part of the personal health and development toolkit, especially as we see wearables and other personal data trackers become more mainstream and the ability to intentionally shape and customise our systems and choice environments becomes easier. Hopefully, my programmes can play a role in making this trend a reality.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? Samuli Reijula. Ruth Schmidt. Richard Bordenave. Ting Jiang. Robert Haisfield. William Mailer. From neighbouring fields: Lisa Feldman-Barrett. Sandy Pentland. Michael Levin.
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!