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 Gaëlle Vallee-Tourangeau. Gaëlle is a professor of behavioural science and director of research and enterprise for Kingston Business School. She joined Kingston Business School in January 2016. After studying at Paris Ouest University (1998, MSc Social Psychology) and the University of Hertfordshire (2004, PhD), she began my career as a lecturer in Decision Sciences at Leeds University Business School, after which she worked as a lecturer in Psychology in the School of Psychology at the University of Toulouse (2004-2009) before joining the Psychology Department at Kingston University in 2009. She joined Kingston Business School as a professor of behavioural science in January 2016.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
It would be a what, and that would be a book. I started out my academic journey by studying maths and physics but I had no clear idea of where I was going until I read a little French book called “study psych: why? how?” which introduced me to psychology as an empirical science, one that sought to understand behaviour using the scientific method, testing hypotheses through statistical analyses and writing reports. I had just completed a lab report in my physics class on an experiment using a Galton board also known as a “bean machine” to study statistical distribution of beans. I was fascinated by idea that these concepts could be applied to study human behaviour (which sounded much more fun that studying beans!). I transferred to a psychology degree and never looked back.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist?
And what do you still want to achieve?
I would say my work on better understanding healthcare professionals’ decisions to get vaccinated against the flu. I began working on this topic after I met someone working in the pharmaceutical industry during SPUDM, EADM’s conference, which I chaired in 2011. They were looking for a behavioural scientist who could deliver a talk in French to their employees about how the heuristics and biases which shape people’s decisions. I could do both speak French and talk about heuristics and biases (the topic of my PhD), so it was an easy decision!
This led to that and we ended up collaborating for a decade, developing a framework for understanding gaps in vaccination and a scale to measure and understand what drives healthcare professionals’ vaccination decisions, above and beyond a risk-benefit analysis.
Healthcare professionals are an interesting group because they often have access to, and usually can better understand, technical information about the science of vaccination and its impact on people’s health. Vaccination hesitancy in this group is surprising. It suggests it is not all about having the ‘right’ information. It’s not about convincing people they need to be vaccinated with more evidence, injunctions or incentives. It’s important instead to understand why they might not want to be vaccinated. We found that empowerment and social norms (e.g., knowing your boss has been vaccinated!) as well as autonomous motivation are stronger predictors than concerns around risks and benefits. Similarly, controlling messages like “get your jab!” are less efficient in overcoming hesitation than autonomy-enhancing ones like like “consider getting your jab…”.
I think we still have much to learn about individual differences and contextual mediators, as well as moderators. It is not all about intentionality and personal beliefs. We still need to understand better how context moderates behaviour: when, where and in what circumstances are certain people most likely to be swayed one way or the other? When is omission easier than commission? What is the impact of our social networks on what we do? We also need to understand better how our behaviours can change what we think: how can the things we do act as mediators for what we believe? Take the example of an avid traveller: they might report they hesitate to get vaccinated but still be likely to overcome their hesitation when they realise getting vaccinated will dramatically ease their travel logistics…
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I think I would be a computer scientist specialising in human interaction and design thinking. Besides vaccination, I’ve worked on better understanding how creative cognition can be scaffolded by the interactions we have with our material or digital environment. I believe there is much to unlock in this area with applications in educational policy and lifelong learning but this is slow science: we code videos of actual behaviours to understand how actions mesh with cognition. This needs greater input from UX and computer vision.
And if not that… I would be a graphic designer or an illustrator. I have a legacy of JDM logos…
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I think mostly through reminding myself that knowing about heuristics, biases and nudges by no means inoculates me! I try to question my intuitions and impulsive behaviour as much as I can. For a trivial example, if I want to save more, I try leave my items in my online basket and delay my actual purchase for a day. Sometimes it works and I cancel it the next day. I think I also apply it with my children and my students, particularly trying to encourage healthy or productive habits. I find that getting my kids to do a small thing regularly. For example, we scheduled one regular session to revise maths on an iPad app everyday during the holidays. I didn’t give a reason, it was just what we did by default before snack time. It turned out to be much more successful than trying to convince them they needed to do this to be good at maths and succeed in life!
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
The obvious skills relate to data science. Learn to read and write R scripts or Python scripts. Learn the skills to work with different kind of behavioural data, data mining big datasets, designing bespoke ones, using machine learning.
Another skill is about data management: nowadays being a behavioural scientist means knowing how to curate datasets with appropriate documentation and metadata. This should be as important if not more than knowing how to write a good report or using the APA citation format.
Less popular, perhaps, in our fast paced world is learn to observe real behaviour in context. I find we sometimes give to much power to the data points to tell the whole story. Scientists and engineers in other fields work on big data as well as small scales models of natural phenomena. There is still much to learn from studying actual behaviours in the lab and in the world in my opinion.
Lastly, I think we need to keep an open mind, hone our ability to engage with different disciplines. I was trained as a psychologist but I have worked in business schools and psychology departments, and collaborated with different stakeholders, from healthcare workers to charity and business owners and public organisations. There are so many different ways to understand something as complex as human behaviour, we need to go outside our comfort zones and pet approaches to continue to advance our understanding.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I think it will continue to develop as a profession outside academia, and become embedded in policy making and business organisations. I also think it will become even more interdisciplinary, with increasing input from machine learning and computing science.
I hope it will evolve to better understand the interplay between context and behaviour. We won’t learn all there is to know about behaviour in prolific or mTurk studies, no matter how large the sample size. We need to give researchers the space and time to study behaviour in vivo.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
Keep a close connection to the behaviour you want to understand. Network to build connections both within and outside academia: Behavioural science like any other science is build upon networks of influence, you need to engage stakeholders to progress. And finally, don’t let the publish or perish culture define your worth: make sure you keep time on the side to work on ideas you really care about, even if it is not the flavour of the day. Be a tortoise, not a hare. Don’t fear desk rejection, always submit your best work to the best outlets and learn from the feedback. You are in it for the long run.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Professor Ellen Peters. Her work on numeracy and decision-making across a wide range of applications is as insightful as it is impactful.
Moon, K., Riege, A., Gourdon-Kanhukamwe, A., Vallée-Tourangeau, G. (2021). The moderating effect of autonomy on promotional health messages encouraging healthcare professionals to get the Influenza vaccine. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. doi: 10.1037/xap0000348
Vallée-Tourangeau, G., Promberger, M., Moon, K., Wheelock, A., Sirota, M., Norton, C., & Sevdalis, N. (2017). Motors of influenza vaccination uptake and vaccination advocacy in healthcare workers: Development and validation of two short scales. Vaccine. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2017.08.025
Vallée-Tourangeau, G., Abadie, M., & Vallée-Tourangeau, F. (2015). Interactivity fosters Bayesian reasoning without instruction. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144, 581-603. doi: 10.1037/a0039161
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Gaëlle.
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!