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Interview with Gareth J. Harvey

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 Gareth J. Harvey. Gareth is the Director of Behavioural Science for Decide, the UK's oldest independent marketing consultative. However, before joining Decide, Gareth was a Professor of Consumer Psychology, having taught at universities in Geneva, Paris, and North Wales. Despite having worked in universities for nearly ten years, Gareth was a somewhat unconventional academic. Rather than focusing on publishing academic papers, he focused on commercial research. As the Director of the Laboratory of Consumer Psychology he ran projects for the likes of Unilever, Cadburys, and Aldi; helping them apply principles of psychology to improve their marketing. He has also undertaken some more unusual projects: working with counter terrorism to help identify smuggling techniques in ports and airports, exploring how customers react to robots in supermarkets, and even investigating how visitors to art galleries react to interactive exhibitions. Now that we know this about Gareth, let's see how he thinks about behavioural science!


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

My route into the behavioural sciences was a little unconventional. I initially studied marketing at university, but I was one of those really annoying students who kept asking my lecturers why something worked. When lecturers used to say "XXX" will grab consumers attention, I wanted to know why. Likewise, when I was told that you need to do XXX to help consumers to remember your brand, again I asked why. I quickly realised that the answer to these questions (and the many more I asked) didn’t lie within marketing, but psychology. So, much to my parent’s delight, I decided that I had studied the wrong degree and that I needed to switch to psychology. Luckily, I saw a PhD advertised in Consumer Psychology, taught in a Psychology department and I was lucky enough to be selected for it.

It was during my PhD that my supervisor, James Intriligator, was conducting some commercial research for Cadburys, alongside Philip Adcock. Philip isn’t an academic but he’s read pretty much every book written about marketing psychology and knows how to apply this and make money from it! Between the two of them they were a formidable team. James is one of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to human psychology and Philip could instantly see how to apply these principles in a commercial context. They offered me the chance to help and I quickly discovered that I found commercial research far more rewarding than traditional research. The research wasn’t conducted in a perfect controlled laboratory, exploring how students behave and then generalising it to a wider population. Instead, we were testing in a normal supermarket, understanding how ‘real’ shoppers behave. Suddenly our sample size wasn’t a couple of hundred (which fifteen years ago was pretty decent),but thousands. Testing in a supermarket allowed us to quickly modify our intervention, optimising its effectiveness. Once we were happy with this, our intervention was rolled out across supermarkets in South Africa – which is a pretty awesome feeling as a PhD student.

The other big difference compared with academic research was the mindset. A commercial brief would come in and a client would expect an answer within a month or two. When it comes to traditional academic research, you often don’t have ethical approval by the point the client expects the research results. I suppose it’s a question of mindset. In academia the objective is often about trying to be certain in your conclusion. With commercial research there is no point in coming up with the perfect answer if it has taken you two years to get there. By this point your competitors may have been able to innovate and steal a lead. This just excites me and I’ve not looked back since.

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

What excites me most is walking around a supermarket and knowing that I helped influence the design of the store. Likewise, when I see a product on the shelf and know that I was part of the team that designed the packaging. I find this far more exciting than academic publishing. Publishing a paper is a great feeling, but unless you have written a seminal paper, realistically only a very small pool of people in a niche field will ever care about your work or be influenced by it. However, when I walk around a supermarket and know that I helped to design the layout I know that thousands of people are influenced by the decisions I’ve made. For me, this is just more exciting and motivating.

So far I’ve had a really successful career having conducted research in virtually all of the major supermarkets in the UK. However, most of my work specialises in working with Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCGs). As for the future, I’d love to start working with outdoor brands (climbing, paragliding, snowboarding etc). In my free time I love being outdoors and I’d like to combine this passion with work. It also poses an interesting theoretical channel. These items are a lot more expensive than FMCGs and closely tied to an individual’s self-identity. This poses a different and interesting marketing challenge.

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

I’ve always loved the outdoors and I’m happiest when finding creative (and usually expensive ways) to fall off mountains whether this is scrambling, paragliding, or snowboarding. So the naïve optimist in me says I would be working as an outdoor instructor. However, having worked at an outward bounds centre while at university, I’m aware this probably isn’t as fun as it sounds. Rather than spending all day climbing or kayaking, you’re sitting at the bottom of a cliff watching someone else trying to climb (or equally likely hugging a cliff and not moving). You’re just sat at the bottom holding a rope and shouting encouragement.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

Everybody always assumes that because I study Consumer Psychology, I’d be really efficient when it comes to shopping, as I know all the tricks. But this just isn’t the case. I get easily distracted, looking at new product packaging or the nuances of how prices are displayed. And the situation isn’t much better if I’m shopping online. I still want to work out the justification for all the design decisions. And once I spend ages looking at a product, there is always a good chance I’ll end up buying it.

The worse possible combination was going shopping with my PhD supervisor. The two of us would spend ages chatting about small details that nobody else noticed or cared about. I remember the two of us visiting a new mini supermarket that had just opened. In theory we were just popping in to buy some patisseries for the lab. Somehow, we managed to spend over an hour in this tiny store. I imagine we probably weren’t overly popular with the lab that day.

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

If you want to be successful, the best trait to have is curiosity. Look at something and try to work out why is it designed as it is? Look at the problem from all angles. It’s very easy for a behavioural scientist to instantly think that we can redesign something and improve the situation – and often we can. But other times there are logical business reasons why things are designed as they are. For example, Aldi or Lidl don’t do a huge amount when it comes to atmospherics in store. This may mean the in store conversation rate may be poorer, but it keeps their costs lower. So overall it makes economic sense. Try to think about the wider knock-on implications for the business if your idea is implemented.

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

For the last decade or so there has been a big push within academia for cross discipline research, and pressure for researchers to work with industry. But while universities and funding bodies talk about this, it doesn’t seem to happen. From my experience interdisciplinary research is less likely to get funding and there are virtually no incentives for academics to work with companies. When academics do try and work with companies, you quickly find that the systems aren’t in place to allow collaboration. All too often academics view the commercial benefit of the research as a secondary objective and only focus on getting their papers.

In the next ten years I’d really like to see behavioural science establish a more collaborative relationship whereby companies and universities are viewed as equal parties. This will require a big change in mindset.

What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?

Behavioural science is a diverse field so I can only really talk about Consumer Psychology. But the best advice is to read widely and to start building up a portfolio of commercial work. There are thousands of recent graduates looking for jobs, most who have great grades. When I’m looking at recruiting a graduate for a junior Consumer Psychologist role, what really shines out is commercial work experience. This doesn’t mean you have to work for free in a company for a month free of charge. Just drop a few small local businesses an e-mail and make suggestions on how they can make simple but easy wins on their website. This could be changing the message framing of special offers, rewriting some copy, or making suggestions on how they could change the order products are displayed. Most businesses will probably ignore you, but one or two are likely to be receptive to your ideas. And if they see that your ideas make a difference, who knows where it will lead to.

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

I’d love to see a few more interviews with commercial consumer psychologists. Behavioural Science has become the ‘new’ sexy term, but people forget that marketing departments have been employing psychologists for over 80 years (although some of their insights might be a little questionable now) and consumer behaviour has been taught as part of business degrees since the 1940s. Unsurprisingly, businesses quickly looked to work out how they could use this knowledge to make more money. However, as businesses keep this knowledge to themselves it was historically ignored by academics.

A great example is Kotler’s research into Atmospherics. He first coined the phrase in 1973 and this led to a sudden interest amongst academics. Yet business had intuitively being using these principles for over a hundred years. Walk into a bar a hundred years ago and the décor would be designed to evoke a positive emotion. There might be someone playing upbeat music in the corner – again seeking to produce a positive emotional state amongst their patrons – exactly what Kotler claimed.

Consequently, I’d love to see how practicing consumer psychologists view the industry. Maybe an interview with a couple of sensory scientists who work for Procter & Gamble, researchers from Unilever’s Consumer Technical Insights Team or even Tesco’s Marketing analysis (the people who analyse their Clubcard data). These guys have access to data and resources that most academics can only dream about.

However, I’d also love to see a joint interview which combines an academic and a practitioner and see what they agree on or disagree. For example, I’d love to read a chat between Philip Adcock and Matt Johnson. Matt’s a classically trained psychologist who is now applying his knowledge of psychology to marketing, whereas Philip hasn’t formally studied psychology or research, but has spent the last thirty years working in marketing working for just about every large FMCG brand you can think of, while reading as much psychology as possible – I’d love to hear their contrasting views on topics.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Gareth!

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!

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