Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisations, 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 Etinosa Agbonlahor. Etinosa is a behavioural scientist and personal finance expert. She is passionate about helping people live healthier financial lives. She partners with organizations to improve the financial wellbeing of their clients and the larger community, through large-scale interventions grounded in the psychology behind financial decision-making. As a researcher and consultant, she has worked across the USA, Australia, Africa and the UK, bridging the gap between academia and industry. She helps organizations access, and build upon the latest research to design, test and measure innovative solutions tackling complex financial issues, and driving better financial outcomes.
How did you get into behavioural science? I got into behavioural science because at the time I had an undergrad in psychology and I had very keen interest in personal finance. I was always writing for personal finance blogs on saving and spending and the basics of investing. And this was around 2013-2016, when I was working in publishing. But I had been thinking about what I wanted my next step to be. Which got me talking to a mentor who gave me Dan Ariely's book, Predictably Irrational. And I thought it was so cool. I started reading a lot into behavioural science. I was reading a lot of ideas42's research, I was reading a lot of Natalie Spencer's work from the RSA, and I just became really fascinated with the field.
I decided that this might be something pursuing. But before throwing myself into another degree, I spoke to every behavioural scientist and behavioural economist I could find. I spoke to more than 20 people across the UK, the US, just everywhere. Asking them: “How do you actually apply this in the real world?” “What does that look like?” “What is your day to day?” “How much do you make?” I was pretty straightforward with my questions, needing to find out if it was worth investing in.
Then I got into Warwick [where we met]. I made the change from earning money to being a student again. After that, I worked in applying behavioural science to the financial sector.
Now looking back, what is the thing that you are proud of as a behavioural scientist?
I am proudest of the high impact work I've been able to. I've worked on projects that involved helping people who are in financial distress right up to, how do you help drive internal organization on change? And so being able to work on projects where I was not only doing meaningful work, but also delivering value at an astronomical scale. That's been critical.
What is it that you're still looking to achieve? I want to work on complex high-impact problems. For example, how do you help improve women's relationship with money? How do you help people who have come out of domestic violence or financial abuse situations regain a healthy relationship with money. Problems where, if we solve this problem, we'll change people's lives in a significant way. And we could make an impact in one person's life that could just run down the generations and change what their children do, and so on.
The thing that makes these problems complex is that what we know works for ‘regular’ people is about ten steps too far ahead. If you think about somebody who has come out of a financial abuse situation, for example, you're not going to shift their behaviour by saying, “hey, just default a couple of money flows and you’ll be saving in no time.” That's not how it works. You have to start so many steps back. Let me help you understand why you're worthy to have money in the first place. Let me help you understand how you cannot be good or bad with money. It’s just a tool to help you accomplish your goals, and live out your values. Let me help you understand all of the basics of relating to money, before we even go and start changing actual behaviour.
In 2021 I did workshops with women who were experiencing homelessness in New York. And some of these women have come out of domestic violence situations. The conversations we were having were really basic such as “how to open up a bank account?” And the questions they had were “can I just go in and open up a bank account?” “Should I use this app – how does it work?” Or more fundamental: “we live on government vouchers, so do we need any of this financial skills? Should we wait until we actually have money to use the skills?” It makes sense that these questions arise. But no simple default nudge is going to fix them.
For a long time we've been besotted with this idea that tiny things, low hanging fruit, could drive behaviour change. But as the field gets into the place of maturity, we've picked out the low hanging fruits. Now we actually have to change behaviour in a meaningful way, and we're realizing that it is complicated.
What challenges do you foresee for behavioural science if we want to stay a key player? I think that the rigor is going to be really important. There's a level of discipline that comes with understanding the judgment and decision-making literature. There's a level of discipline that comes with being able to say to a stakeholder: “I know what you're looking for is a quick fix and some stats, but there's a deeper systemic issue here that we have to address and we have to upend everything to help you get that.” So yes, I think, first of all, rigour is going to be important, and that's academic rigor.
Second, the data science part of behavioural science is going to become a lot more important. So no more lists of biases. It’s going to be figuring out how we test and measure, because context matters a lot and will change things. That testing, that measuring, that understanding what works and what doesn't work, is going to be really important. I see a future where you will not have any behavioural scientists who don't already have a strong data science background, because it's going to be impossible to effectively do behavioural science if you're not also running experiments and testing the impact of the recommendations you're making.
Last, I'm hoping that there'll be a lot more creative experiments. Creativity, that sense of not always having to start by going straight to your handy list of biases, taking what has been done before and plugging it in. Freeing ourselves from this tendency to do the same experiments over and over.
Keeping these challenges in mind, is this the future that you're hoping for? Is this how you see behavioural science develop? I think it's both. If you look at an industry perspective, in order for the teams to continue to exist, they have to be delivering value. If we are able to do that, then I think that behavioural science will be more robust. Almost breathing new life into behavioural science.
Do you have a personal frustration with the field? Or with the people in it? Or the people attacking it? I suspect there is a correlation between a person's lack of technical expertise in behavioural science and how loud they are on social media platforms. Hopefully we'll get to a place where we hire people who are actually trained in behavioural science and know how to run experiments and do rigorous research, not just talk about biases and prospect theory in a ‘sexy’ yet inaccurate or unnuanced way.
If someone is now looking to get into the field, or wants to upskill, what makes the difference in terms of skills between a good and an excellent behavioural scientist? I think excellent behavioural scientists have that added spark of creativity and creative genius. But the next thing down to that is that good behaviour scientists are also very technical and very well grounded in the literature. So they understand the judgment and decision making literature, they understand the mechanisms, they understand attention theories, explore/exploit models, they understand the theories, models, actual technical details. When a stakeholder comes to them and wants to change a specific behaviour, they’ll know which model is likely to make the most sense, and how to talk the stakeholder through the steps of that model, identify pain points, barriers and possibly the need to do it multiple times, rather than in a single journey.
So excellent behavioural scientists have creativity and technical expertise, but are also good program managers and good relationship builders. They basically need to be able to take a project end to end.
Taking a couple steps back, how would you recommend that someone actually get into behavioural science? I still recommend going the formal route. If you're in America, do a PhD. If you're in the UK, do a masters and maybe also a PhD. Obviously, this is my bias, because that's the route that I went. If the intent is to actually apply behavioural science in any condition in which you'll be trying to influence people's lives, whether it's their money, their health, influencing policy, I feel it's the responsible thing to do to make sure you have an academic kind of grounding.
If you already have a specific skill set and you want to use behavioural science to expand how you think about things; do a MOOC, go read books, this blog, talk to behavioural scientists. Those are all ways to understand what's happening in the field. But if the plan is to then take all of the things you've learned and try and implement them in serious things, you probably want to make sure you really, really know what you're doing.
How do you actually apply behavioural science in your own life, if you do at all? I tend to be a satisficer, not a maximizer. So I make a budget that's based on a post it note, and then everything gets automated at the start of the year. And I never touch it again. It's very straightforward. I keep things super simple, particularly my finances.
I also think a lot about the cycle of building habits. Whenever I'm trying to build a new habit, the first couple of weeks I'm going to reward myself with something, otherwise it just feels horrible and I won’t stick with it.n the results of that, it switched from an effortful thing to an actually enjoyable thing!
Where do you think you would have ended up if you hadn’t found behavioural science? I think I would potentially still be working in publishing. I would definitely be an editor or a senior editor or something by now, hopefully.
Do you think it's really that realistic that you would have stayed in publishing given that you were talking to your mentor already about leaving? Actually that's a good point because I was actively looking to leave. I knew I was going to do another degree. I may have done an MBA and gone on to become a management consultant. Who knows? I mean, it's all possible!
Which behavioural scientists have you been inspired by? By which I mean, who else do you want me to interview?
So because I read a lot of work by Ideas42, I’d be keen to hear more from them, specifically Saugato Datta. I think hearing from Sendhil Mullainathan will also be super interesting. And maybe one of my former colleagues, Nikhil Ravichandar will make for a good interviewee as well.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Eti!
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!