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 Donna Hoffman.
Donna is the Louis Rosenfeld Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Marketing and the co-director of the Center for the Connected Consumer at the George Washington School of Business in Washington, D.C. Her award-winning research focuses on online consumer behavior, Internet marketing strategy, emerging consumer implications of the Internet of Things. She has published widely in the top marketing and management journals and speaks frequently on the topic of Internet commerce strategy. Hoffman was awarded the prestigious William O'Dell Award for long-term research impact and is the recipient of the Sheth Foundation/Journal of Marketing Award for her long-term contributions to the marketing discipline. Her current research is focused on using conceptual, empirical and computational approaches to understand consumer experience with AI.
Who or what got you into behavioural science? I think I was always interested in human behavior - trying to ascertain why people do what they do and what meaning they attach to their behavior and what those meanings can teach us about larger behavioral trends - but also I was into math and statistics from an early age and always felt that trying to figure people out with data was like being a detective. You have all this information and it’s not structured and you have to find the structure. And there are clues everywhere but they aren’t necessarily organized. So I was really attracted to behavioral science - especially the quant side of it with measurement and statistics - as a way to find the order in behavior.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve? I don’t know! I haven’t ever thought about it that way. In general, I think I’m proud that my work has had a lot of impact. It’s really gratifying to know that the papers you write are actually read by people and influence their own work. I want to keep doing that and I’m hoping my current work will also enjoy significant impact and influence other researchers in how they think about their own work.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? When I was in third grade I wanted to be a paleontologist. I thought it would be amazing to dig up dinosaur bones and try to fit them together and figure out how old they were and what kind of dinosaur the bones came from and maybe even discover new dinosaurs! I thought it would be amazing to try and understand what life was like in prehistoric times. See, like a detective! But somewhere along the way - this interest fell by the way side and I started to become interested in people who were living.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? Well, my research is very tech-focused and I think it’s safe to say that my own personal interests and behaviors inspire a lot of the research questions I study. That work started in the 90s with the advent of the commercial Internet, then evolved into the study of social media, and now I study the IoT and AI. In all these cases, I’m a pretty early adopter and user of these technologies and it’s fascinating to me how they are going to change our lives and even our society. So I’d say my personal experiences influence my research pursuits, rather than the other way around. One thing that is unique is that my husband Tom Novak and I work together and it’s been a fascinating and productive collaboration, both personally and professionally. So it’s great to be living with your co-author and to be interested in the same topics and be able to work together all the time.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? I think it’s critical to have a solid grounding in a basic social science discipline like psychology, sociology or economics. Also important is some solid quantitative training. I’m a quantitative psychologist by training and I think that perspective has really helped me formulate my theories and test my hypotheses. Also, I think it really helps to be able to develop strong conceptual frameworks for one’s research and for that, training in a basic discipline really helps. Then, if you are interested in testing those theories, training in statistics and methodology really helps. For example, we have a paper now that uses computational methods to operationalize assemblage theory! I think that’s a pretty novel project which requires the application of both solid theoretical insight and rigorous statistics. That would be hard to do if I didn’t have the training in both areas.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? We are facing some really big picture questions. The pandemic, the influence of technology, especially AI, both embodied and not, is going to dramatically change how we interact with each other and with these new forms of intelligence. I think AI will have a greater impact on the world than the Internet did, and that’s saying a lot. It’s interesting to me how the promise of the Internet devolved into the toxicity of social media. One has to wonder how AI could go wrong and put us on a collusion course for disaster. That’s a topic I’m really interested and so I think my future projects are going to be probing more of this “dark side."
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
So many! I’d love to read an interview with Mina Cikara at Harvard.
Thank you so much for these amazing answers Donna! I will make sure to reach out to Mina.
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!