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 Ellen Peters. Ellen is the Philip H. Knight Chair and Director of the Center for Science Communication Research (SCR) in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, she explores how policy makers, physicians, and other experts can enhance public understanding of science and technology by advancing the science of science communication. Her primary research interests concern how people judge and decide, and how evidence-based communication can boost comprehension and improve decisions in health, financial, and environmental contexts. She is especially interested in the basic building blocks of human judgment and decision making—such as emotions and number abilities—and their links to effective communication techniques. These processes are also central to the effects of adult aging on decision making as well as to public policy issues, such as how to communicate about the health effects of smoking or about the pros and cons of cancer screenings and treatments. She is also interested in methods to increase number ability, a.k.a. numeracy, to improve decision making and, in turn, health and financial outcomes. Click to learn more about her research at the CAIDe lab site and on her Wikipedia page.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
Dr. Eric Johnson, author of The Elements of Choice, did. I was his research assistant and ran some of his very early Mouselab experiments at Wharton. I then had the great fortune to work with Dr. Paul Slovic as my PhD advisor and then collaborator for many years! It was Paul who got me interested in the possibility of developing basic theory in decision making while tackling large societal issues.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I’m probably most proud of our work in numeracy and decision making. I had run across Isaac Lipkus’s research on numeracy and numeric comprehension even among the highly educated while working with the National Cancer Institute. I became curious about numeracy and why it might matter to decision making. We started playing with it in some early experiments on framing and denominator neglect. Since then, I’ve had the great privilege of working with some fantastic students and other colleagues on many facets of it!
In terms of what I’d like to achieve: I hope to use the work on numeracy and numeric self-efficacy to communicate better about the intersection of climate change and health and hopefully make a difference to these critical issues.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a librarian! Libraries are the best. They’re beautiful, free, and librarians are amazing.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
Just this morning I needed to purchase a new mattress. It’s a horrid task of too many choices, tons of ambiguity, and not enough high-quality information. I used Wirecutter and a few heuristic shortcuts to reduce my choices to a manageable few in order to not get overwhelmed. Then I realized that, while I could spend hours more looking at choices, I would never know if it made a difference since I would experience the mattress under conditions of separate evaluation (“evaluability” from Chris Hsee is such a great concept) and all the choices were good enough! At that point, I essentially chose randomly from the options in front of me.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Curiosity and persistence!
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? I think we will continue to develop theory as we always have and will better integrate cognitive, social, and motivational processes, including with individual differences, into theory. Also, we will look more towards using theory for social good. We’ve seen a lot of the translational implication of our science throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think we’ll seen even more going forwards and in tackling climate-change issues, in particular.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
I always recommend following research lines where you’re curious and want to know more. Maintaining an academic career without burning out requires having internal motivation and finding joy in what we do! Also, if you want to know more, probably other people do, too, or they will soon.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Angie Fagerlin, Barb Mellers.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Ellen!
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!