Interview with Felicity Algate

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 Felicity Algate.

Felicity is the head of BIT:North, based in Manchester which she founded in 2016. She joined the BIT in 2011 and since then she has designed and run more than 30 randomised controlled trials. She was responsible for co-designing the £30 million randomised controlled trial to evaluate the impact of the Growth Vouchers programme (the largest randomised controlled trial in the world by value). Felicity also helped set up the UK government’s ‘midata’ programme and co-authored ‘Applying behavioural insights to regulated markets’.

Felicity has a Master’s in Economics and joined the team from the Office of Fair Trading where she was a Senior Economist, working on competition and consumer issues. She began her career as a currency strategist and economist at a large investment bank.

Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I ended up working in behavioural science more by chance than by design. I trained in economics and mathematics. Behavioural economics wasn't covered in any of my courses and so I had never heard of, or considered, behavioural science when I was looking for my first job. I started my career at an investment bank doing macroeconomic and exchange rate forecasting. I quick quickly realised that while I enjoyed the fast pace, I wasn't particularly interested in the substance of the work so I moved to the Office of Fair Trading; which was one of the UK's competition regulators at the time (it has now been replaced by the Competition and Markets Authority).

During my time at the OFT I worked on both competition and consumer focused projects. My first experience of behavioural science came while I was working on a project looking at Advertising of Prices. The Advertising of Prices study was investigating various pricing practices and whether they had the potential to mislead consumers (and potentially break the law as a result). A large component of the work was thinking about how consumers understood and responded to prices and the project included an online experiment (which was entirely new to me at the time). This project started me thinking about the overlap between psychology and economics and introduced me to the ideas of behavioural science. About 6 months later an opportunity to join the Behavioural Insights Team came up and I decided to apply. At the time BIT was part of UK government so I joined on secondment for 9 months and, almost 10 years later, I am thrilled to say that I am still part of the team.

Over the past few years, I have wanted the opportunity to think more deeply about various behavioural science concepts and in June 2020 I joined Alliance Manchester Business School as a Professor of Practice. I now work part-time at BIT and AMBS which gives me a great mix of applied consultancy work, teaching and academic scholarship and research.

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

There isn't one project I can choose but some things I am particularly proud of:

  • Working in a team which has such a consistent focus on improving outcomes for people and communities. The team consistently strives to push the boundaries of how behavioural science can be applied. In some cases, this is through using proven approaches in new contexts/countries (for e.g. our work on 'nudge' trials on tax compliance in Indonesia) and in others bringing a new set of tools to try and tackle some of the world's hardest problems (such as education for refugee children)

  • Co-authoring the EAST framework. I get a thrill each time I meet someone who has used it to help them in their job.

  • Over the past 5 years most of my work has involved working with local councils and combined authorities across the UK. This has given me the opportunity to work with my outstanding colleagues to help increase food waste recycling, improve cancer referral rates and identify ways to tackle homelessness.

In terms of what I want to achieve:

  • I remain very excited about the opportunities to work with local governments in the UK to tackle significant social issues including social care (for children and adults), homelessness and environmental sustainability.

  • I am looking forward to getting better established in my academic role and building relationships with many of my excellent colleagues to collaborate across disciplines. AMBS has recently established a Productivity Institute which I am looking forward to working with to help find ways to improve productivity across the UK.

  • Continue working with enthusiastic, intellectually curious people

If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? There are lots of other jobs I would have loved to have done; these include engineer (figuring out how to solve problems), hairdresser (everyone feels better with a great haircut) and ballet dancer (the effort and training required is incredible but when done well it looks effortless).

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

There are lots of ways I try to make my preferred behaviour as Easy as possible. I have a rule that I didn't drink alcohol from Monday to Wednesday and, before the pandemic, I cycled to work so that exercise was incorporated into my daily routine.

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

  • Have an open mind - good ideas come from the most unexpected places sometimes.

  • Focus on evidence - we are all affected by heuristics and biases so remember to check whether your proposed approach has been tried before rather than just going with what feels like a good approach.

  • Test, test and test - sometimes things work, and sometimes they don't. We often learn more from the failures than the successes. If you don't try and test your ideas, you won't learn as much from them as you could.

  • Remember that this stuff is hard. It can sometimes feel like everyone else is effortlessly designing projects and trials but when you talk to them you hear about setbacks and failures all the time.

How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? It is hard to make predictions so I will instead say what I would hope happens in the next 10 years:

  • Behavioural science is more fully integrated into the toolkit for improving outcomes rather then being seen as a distinct method.

  • A bigger focus (mainly by Governments and regulators) to challenge where behavioural science harms consumers (so called 'sludge').

  • The file drawer problem becomes less severe. Publication bias has severe implications for all academic research, including behavioural science. The Financial Conduct Authority summarises the challenge it presents '[publication bias] means that the body of research which has been published and peer-reviewed is no longer representative of all the research which has taken place and may be biased in favour of research which shows surprising or interesting results. When combined with a low level of replication for many previous experiments, this means that current beliefs informed by research evidence could be incorrect.' There is a significant amount of work being devoted to trying to reduce publication bias (e.g. pre-registration) but there still seems to be a significant problem. I hope that as behavioural science is used in more applied settings there will be a shift to publishing null, or even negative results. BIT is already doing this as are the FCA.

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

A few spring to mind: Katy Milkman, Emily Oster (not a behavioural scientist but an economist whose writing I love for its ability to dig into the evidence on a variety of topics), Stefan Hunt (FCA) and Amelia Fletcher.

Thank you so much for these amazing answers Felicity! I will make sure to reach out to Emily, stefan and Amelia. The interview with Katy Milkman you can read here.

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!