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Interview with Elina Halonen

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 Elina Halonen. Elina Halonen is a behavioural science consultant who works on behaviour change, cultural insights and market research projects. She was previously the co-founder one of the first agencies to use of behavioural science in the market research industry and now runs both her consultancy, Square Peg Insight, and Behavior Change Society, a behavioural science training platform. Below, we talk about her expectations for the future of the field, training her dog using behavioural science, and the skills needed to be a good behavioural scientist.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

Funnily enough, this is what I've always wanted to do - I've always wanted to understand why people do what they do which might have been sparked by getting zoologist Desmond Morris' classic book The Naked Ape as a birthday present when I was 10 years old. I read lots of accessible psychology books as a teenager and even conducted my first study when I was 17 in our psychology class on a cross-cultural comparison of bullying among girls. I wanted to be a clinical psychologist when I left school but life took me on a scenic route via marketing, consumer behaviour and market research instead. Some years into that career, behavioural science was emerging as a specialism and I met someone who had similar ideas about how to do market research differently so we founded a business together which became my more formal entry point to "behavioural science" as a practitioner. What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?

I’m pleased to have been a part of the early days of applied behavioural science – it was a much harder sell ten years ago when a lot of people didn’t know about this field! I can’t take personal credit for the success but believing in ourselves and that this should be a serious profession back then certainly required each “pioneer” to take the risk of investing in this as a career – which I guess is the opposite of tragedy of the commons!

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

These days, if I wasn't a behavioural scientist I'd probably work with dogs but even that is about human behaviour change. It might be surprising but dogs are actually the easier part - it's a bigger challenge for any dog behaviourist or trainer to get owners across the intention-action gap, value long-term gains over short-term comfort, adhere to training plans and persuade them to do things differently.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I use it for a lot of things – previously to design experiences like holidays, and for building better everyday behaviours. I've also used insights from human behavioural science in training my dogs for a long time - sometimes intuitively, and only some years later learning that it was a good thing to do when I read a new book or see a new study from canine science. I’ve even recently started exploring how the COM-B model and Behaviour Change Wheel could be adapted to canine behaviour change – watch this space!

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

Technical skills depend on your exact role and application domain, but in terms of personal or transferrable skills I’d say critical thinking and curiosity.

I genuinely believe using behavioural insights can make a positive difference in many if not most areas of life and business that have anything to do with human behaviour but I’m always suspicious when people say they are “passionate” about behavioural science because enthusiasm can mean thinking about evidence less critically. The scientific process and especially academic publishing is not perfect – it’s not exempt from politics, perverse incentives and human errors, so we must keep these in mind when we look at the evidence in front of us. We shouldn’t identify with our thoughts and ideas but instead try to prove ourselves wrong before accepting an explanation.

Humans are complex – we need to curiosity to draw inspiration for our hypotheses from a wide range of sources and sometimes disciplinary boundaries get in the way of that. For me, that means reading widely and paying attention to things that surprise or annoy me – it could be something that is challenging my existing view on something, and worth examining more closely.

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

For it’s definitely the paradigm shift initiated by the differing reactions to COVID-19 around the world that highlighted the importance of context on behaviour. I think we’ll see is more nuance and research on individual differences and contextual factors – one of them being cultural context, but also ecological, historical, biological and socioeconomical contexts. So far we have been busy with establishing main effects and partly “selling” them to the wider public, but in reality humans are complex and to move forward we need to bring in the small print of human behaviour. We also need to broaden the scope of our field to include the Global South - both in terms of research evidence and inclusion of voices from the practitioner space.

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

Hazel Markus, Sharon Shavitt and Michelle Gelfand for their cross-cultural insights, and maybe Michael Muthukrishna and Michael Inzlicht to talk about the challenges in psychology when it comes to theory and methods!


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

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!

1 Comment

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Sep 01, 2021

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