Interview with Fadi Makki

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 Fadi Makki. Fadi is the founder of Nudge Lebanon and currently heads the first behavioral insights and nudge unit in the Middle East – B4Development at the supreme committee for delivery and legacy where he is also advisor to its Secretary General. He pioneered applications of behavioral insights and nudge concepts through RCTs in the Arab region and has more than 23 years of experience in public policy, socio-economic development, behavioral economics and social entrepreneurship. He currently holds research positions at AUB and Georgetown University in Qatar. Fadi has served as member of the world economic forum council for behavioral sciences, as Director General of the ministry of economy and trade and Advisor to the PM in Lebanon. Currently, he is also a member of the WHO’s technical advisory group on behavioural insights for public health and serves on the board of several financial and education institutions in Lebanon and the Arab world. It's a miracle he found time to do this interview, but here we go!

Who or what got you into behavioural science?

Obsession with making people comply with traffic rules and regulations was the number one driver for my involvement with behavioural science. I used to observe how little violations lead to traffic jams in the busy streets of Beirut. I used to think that giving people more information is what is needed.

I used to drop off my twin sons every Friday morning at school. Over time, I noticed that cars were failing to stop at a traffic light at a busy intersection near campus, causing traffic jams and ensuing headaches for everyone. Instead, drivers often stopped beyond where it was possible to see the traffic light. No longer able to see the light turn green, the confusion led to congestion. For me, I wanted to change people's behavior so they stopped where they were supposed to. I started thinking about one type of information that could be important to share with people, namely telling them about the impact of their behaviors on themselves and their community, a concept which I called – and actually I coined – “metriculisation”. Essentially it was about confronting people with metrics about the impact of their violations. I realized later that these were more the system 2 types of interventions also called boosts, but that there were other types mostly system 1 choice architecture interventions called nudges … which I stumbled upon … through the book “Nudge” and the website of the Behavioural Insights Team … we then tested in that location and it was one of the first interventions we did: we put simple a sign with a finger pointing people to stop at the right place! This had positive impact. I have attached a picture

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?

Having set up B4Development, the first nudge unit in the MENA region back in 2016, at the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy and establishing Nudge Lebanon one year later were the twin accomplishments I am proudest of as a behavioural scientist.

I started writing a book on the rise of nudge units in Arabia … I hope to achieve in 2021!

Another thing I want to see is have more countries do an executive order type of decision similar to President Obama’s Executive Order 13707 (Using Behavioral Science Insights To Better Serve the American People), through which he mandated government agencies to inject behavioural science into their work. Hoping to see more governments and even social purpose organizations doing this. This is key for further scaling up the use of behavioural science for social impact.

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

I would be doing landscape oil painting! I always loved oil painting and wanted to paint, but never got the chance to do so until the beginning of the Coronavirus and the lockdown … so I picked it up then, and now I love to paint whenever I get the chance! One day I will be known as the behavioural economist-turned painter!

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I do two things with my 3 boys (the twins and the little one!) with regard to planning time for their study to help them avoid procrastination, and to making it easy and fun to read:

With the twins, I used to bring up implementation intentions to get them to plan the when, where, and how of their study time. At the beginning of each weekend, they would ask permission to go out and negotiate the curfew, so while approving I would always ask them:

When are you planning to study? what time and how long for?

As behavioral science studies have shown, asking someone to set implementation intentions increased their likelihood of delivering on their commitments. These detailed questions on their plans along with a pledge from their side increased the chances of setting aside separate times for studying, while also granting them their free time.

At some stage they start realizing where I am heading to which they say, dad don’t give us your nudge thingy!

With Jude, I realized the he does not like reading Arabic, so we initially went on reading together few pages almost every day. Given distractions, we do not always manage this, so I complemented recently with something which Cass Sunstein added to the EAST framework, namely a “f” to make it FEAST, namely to make the behaviour fun. So knowing about Jude’s passion for football, I started sending him every morning a short sports article from an Arabic newspaper I read every day. He loves that and tells me about what he read. At the same time, he would pick up new words which relate to a passion primarily but that can also be used in other contexts. I will soon be testing if there is habit formation namely whether he will start reading that sports corner without the reminder!

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

In addition to knowing the fundamentals about biases and nudges and designing experiments … it is important to be able to do the following:

  • Have the ability to visualise the journey of the stakeholders that are target of the experiment, and documenting risks and other things that can go wrong, as well as listing mitigating actions

  • Know how to communicate in a non-technical manner to a general audience without too much information

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

Behavioral science will be scaled up and its use in public policy will be streamlined across public administrations – I see that already happening in many developed countries, and my role and that of many likeminded individuals and organizations is to ensure that this happens in the ‘global south’! I had mentioned the importance of executive order types of mandates to encourage use behavioural science by stakeholders. Another thing I see developing is more capacity building in behavioural science built into national civil service academies.

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

Cass Sunstein has had a tremendous impact on my professional and academic life. He has inspired most of the work that I and many have done in the region, and his gracious support has been fantastic. He always has amazingly relevant anecdotes and comments!

Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Fadi! And I'll make sure to keep on top of your work, because we can all use some more non-WEIRD science!

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!