Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field with new research being developed across a multitude of topics and applications. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Eric Singler. Eric is the Founder, CEO and President of the BVA Nudge Consulting. He is also Global Managing Director of the BVA Group, one of the 15 largest consulting and market research firms in the world. Eric is a “slasher”: he is an entrepreneur, a marketing & research expert, a pioneer in applied behavioral sciences, a lecturer and author: Eric wrote 3 books about the application of 'nudge theory': “Nudge Marketing”, “Green Nudge” and “Nudge Management”. Somehow this didn't keep him busy enough as he is also the founding president of the NudgeFrance association. Let's talk to Eric!
What got you into behavioural science?
At the beginning of the 2000s, I was the founder and CEO of a research company – named IN VIVO – which was (and still remains PRS IN VIVO) one of the worldwide leaders for packaging tests in the sector of fast-moving consumer goods.
I decided to write a book to share more than 10 years of insights and learnings on how to successfully manage a critical variable--product packaging in the FMCG world (« Le packaging des produits de grande consommation – Dunod »).
Thanks to my daily work with large companies like Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal, Colgate Palmolive, Nestlé, Danone, and others, I was an expert in shopper decisions in the retail environment. But in the preliminary work for this book, I decided to start by looking for learnings from real experts in decision making--academic researchers.
That’s when I discovered the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, which led me to other amazing behavioral scientists like George Lowenstein, Colin Camerer, Sendhil Mulhainathan, and Bob Cialdini. It was then that I had my first aha moment, as I realized the observations I was making in my daily work had scientific backing and could be explained by ideas like mental shortcuts, cognitive biases, habits, and what we now call choice architecture.
My second aha moment has been--as it is for many fans of BeSci-- the reading of « Predictably Irrational » by Dan Ariely and« Nudge » by Sunstein and Thaler. Dan’s book is really wonderful as it explains key behavioral science concepts and how humans make decisions in a simple and entertaining way. For a practitioner like me, Nudge was really an insightful and luminous book as it demonstrates how we can easily use behavioral science learnings in a very concrete way to help organizations and individuals make better decisions. It was about converting knowledge into action with a very strong approach.
So, from 2008, I was absolutely convinced of the importance of behavioral science. Some years later I decided to create the BVA Nudge Unit (now BVA Nudge Consulting)
and also NudgeFrance, both of which aim to promote the application of Nudge and behavioral science in my country.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
To be clear, I don’t consider myself a behavioral scientist but as a behavioral science practitioner. I think we need to stay humble so « proud » is certainly a too strong word. But let’s say that I am happy with 3 accomplishments.
First is to have contributed to the diffusion of behavioral science and the Nudge approach, especially in my country both at the public policy level and for private organizations. The BVA Nudge Unit has been the first to convince the French government to apply the Nudge approach in 2013 at a moment when nobody was aware of it. And, as the first experiment has been successful, it has led to more and more applications and experiments. I also played a significant role in contributing to the creation of a behavioral science team at the governmental level after the election of President Macron in 2017.
Second, our work in redesigning the website for the United Nations HeForShe gender equality movement was an extremely rewarding project to take part in. We multiplied the conversion rate between website visitors and member registrations by 12 times. And it is really rewarding to be successful at such wonderful challenges like gender equality.
My third accomplishment is having put together an amazing team--the BVA Nudge Consulting team. It is such a great pleasure and honor to work with each member of my team every day. It is absolutely fabulous, and I do agree with Yale professor Laurie Santos when she mentions human connection is key to happiness.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I would be doing what I consider I am doing, meaning being an entrepreneur and trying to manage my company the best that I can. But without the additional knowledge of behavioral science and without this passion that enriches my life.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I would say in 2 different ways. The first is trying to better understand people and situations around me. And BeSci helps a lot in this objective.
The second is applying learnings from BeSci to evolve toward a kind of « better version of myself ». And I struggle a lot with this objective. For example, I am a cigar lover and try to fight the present bias of enjoying smoking a cigar and damaging my health. And I also love good food and wine with a visible effect on my weight and my health. In these 2 cases, I know what I should do, and I try to apply good advice from Wendy Wood for example, but with no success until now.
I am human and I do believe that it is very difficult to move from system 1 to a system 2 version of ourselves.
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 that there are hard skills that can be learned from behavioral science research and methodology, but I would like to highlight the soft skills I’ve learned as well, starting with humility.
Every day we learn more about how humans make decisions but at the same time, we need to stay humble about what we know, what we don’t know, and what we think we know. The « replicability » crisis is for me a symptom of this. Context is so important – in a recent conversation with Rotman professor Dilip Soman, I was told « Context is king »--that a lot of our behaviors and decisions are strongly influenced by the environment. This means that universal learnings regarding human behaviors can be often questioned. We still have a lot to learn.
While behavioral science has added fundamental learnings about the field, the applied side of behavioral science has offered specific methods for approaching behavioral challenges. This is based on 4 key pillars; clearly defining a behavioral challenge, understanding people in specific contexts, designing powerful interventions based on the general and specific knowledge of the situation and conducting small-scale testing to determine if the interventions change behaviors.
How do you think behavioral science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I see 3 evolutions:
The first is regarding its application, as I believe that behavioral science learnings will be progressively used by public and private organizations in more and more areas. For example, I think HR is an area where behavioral science could help a lot regarding key challenges like employee engagement, cooperation, innovation, or diversity & inclusion. To me, behavioral science could and should be integrated as a basic program in all business schools and universities. Better understanding how humans make decisions seems like something that should be a fundamental tool for everyone.
The second is about the personalization of the interventions. We are all humans and share common behaviors but we’re also all unique. This means that interventions should be customized to be efficient at encouraging the adoption of positive behaviors and helping each of us to make better decisions. Thanks to artificial intelligence and the technology’s growing capabilities, I think the BeSci field could evolve towards increased personalization.
And lastly, the behavioral science community must be focused on the Ethical application of our learnings. The bigger our power to influence is, the more we have a strong responsibility to promote a relevant and ethical application of it with concrete recommendations including new laws and regulations.
What advice would you give to young behavioral scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
I strongly believe this field is fantastic. So, I think it is a good choice. There are a lot of opportunities to apply behavioral science lessons.
There are at least 2 different routes you can take:
you could be a behavioral scientist, and in this case, I think you need to specialize in a specific area to add something new to the field through formal academic research.
You could also use behavioral science to be better in a specific job. For example, a better marketer, UX designer, HR manager…or a better leader or entrepreneur.
Which other behavioral scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Tough question, as I think our field has a lot of great minds.
Rather than mentioning the usual suspects, 2 years ago I discovered Mitesh Patel and his amazing work at Penn Medicine School and now at Ascension health, so I strongly encouraged you to interview Mitesh.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Eric!
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!