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 Evan Nesterak. Evan is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Behavioral Scientist, a nonprofit digital magazine that examines the world through the science of human behaviour. Previously, he led the Mindset Assessment Project, an initiative designed to bring rigorous psychological research into the world of sport. He also worked with Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania on character development research. Originally from Colorado, he currently lives in Prague, Czech Republic.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I moved four or five times growing up. I think that’s when I first became interested in human behavior. Getting exposed to different ways of living and seeing the similarities and contrasts each time we moved. Then, in high school I was exposed to literature and explorations of our psychology and behavior through fiction. In college, I found psychology as a way to understand ourselves scientifically.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I am proud to be a cofounder of Behavioral Scientist. Working on our second print issue revealed to me one boundary I’d like to continue to push: the intersection of behavioral science and the humanities and what we can learn from them when we think about their goals as two sides of the same coin.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
This is a tough question. I am most drawn to projects where 1) you have the ability to build something over the long term and 2) you have a chance to make people’s lives better. My mind goes to two careers that might seem different at first, but I think have both of these features: coaching and urban design.
I grew up playing soccer and coached in my twenties. I really enjoyed the chance to apply psychology daily in that setting. Coaching really has it all—teaching, motivation, design, collective effort, competition. It’s so dependent on a knowledge of and sense for human psychology; of who humans are and who they can become. Coaches are some of the wisest people about human behavior.
I’ve never been an urban designer, but it appeals to me because of the chance to help people live full and meaningful lives. A city park, building, or space can be so inviting to social connection and development. I lived in a number of the cities and the difference between design that prioritizes human well-being and one that doesn’t is so stark. I’d love to be part of the process of designing spaces that can positively impact so many people’s lives.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I try to apply what I think of as behavioral science’s foundational lessons for a good life: the importance of social relationships and community, seeking purpose in what you do, continuous learning, and not taking things too seriously.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Behavioral science is such a young, diverse field I am more inclined to think about how a number of different skills could contribute to it, rather than exclude anything. But maybe that’s unsatisfying, so I’ll offer one recommendation and this should apply to anything you might do for a career. It’s about how you work.
If you’re training to be a behavioral scientist, there’s going to be a specific area you’re an expert in or becoming an expert in. Maybe it’s study design or statistics or a certain domain or application. Whatever it is, my recommendation is to set the highest standard for yourself; to be your own barometer for success. When evaluating your work, you should be the toughest to convince. Does the intervention actually do what you hoped it would do? Does the finding actually mean what you hypothesized it would mean? If this is your standard, then everything you do—successes and setbacks—is a learning opportunity, a chance to get closer to the core of an idea, the truth.
Since the beginning of humanity, there’s been a handful of people in every group wondering why someone did what they did. It’s been a couple hundred thousand years and now those people are us, behavioral scientists. It might sound a bit trite, but we are torch bearers, keepers of the flame so to speak of a long tradition, a long curiosity in understanding who we are and who we can be. It’s a tradition we share with the social sciences but also with the humanities. It’s a privilege to get to think about human behavioral everyday and it’s sacred in a way. So, if you’re going to be a behavioral scientist, set a standard that allows you to contribute to this long tradition.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
This is a big question. My mind goes to a lot of different places. Ethics. Tech. Government. Marketing. In all the places it goes, there’s an imaginary fork in the road where one path leads to a net positive and the other leads to a net negative. I hope we take the positive path, but I wonder if we’ll end up down the negative path before we realize it.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
When you’re starting out, look for opportunities that have three things: where you can develop a skill, where you can test out a career you’re interested in, and where you can work with people who are willing to mentor you.
Skill development: There are many early opportunities where you might not actually be learning that much, but maybe just entering info in spreadsheets. That’s not going to help you develop, so even if that’s needed in the job, make sure you advocate and carve out opportunities to develop a skill–stats, qualitative research, report writing, etc. And it’s unlikely that you’re going to stay in the same position forever, so when you eventually leave that skill will come with you to your next challenge.
Test a career: When you’re starting out, you don’t have that much experience with what different careers are like day-to-day. So when you research opportunities, don’t fret about whether or not you’ll stay in that career forever. Just have it be something that might work out. If it ends up being something you want to do forever, that’s great. More likely, you’ll check something off your list that you don’t want to do or better understand what aspect of the work you like the most and pursue that.
Mentors: Landing in a place where people care about the development of those earlier in their career is important. A place that looks out for you will help you grow by giving you new opportunities and being there for larger career and life decisions in the future. And that relationship won’t end when you leave the organization. A place that doesn’t care about you will use you up and might sap your joy for the work. When looking for opportunities, try to set up conversations with people two to three years ahead of you, either at the organization or who have moved on from the organization. Ask them about their experiences.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Syon Bhanot, Chaning Jang, Elizabeth Weingarten, Morela Hernandez.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Evan! I speak for everyone when I say that we're all fans of the behavioral scientist and your work!
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!