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Interview with Grant Donnelly

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 Grant Donnelly. Grant is Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University, after having completed his PhD in Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. His research focuses on harnessing consumers’ cognitive and affective resources to increase their well-being. Grant explores how consumers strive to maximize their well-being in three central domains: financial, physical, and prosocial. Using a combination of laboratory and field experiments, he designs interventions that both influence consumers’ behaviour and identifies the underlying cognitive and affective mechanisms that drive the success—and failure—of such efforts. Take it away Grant!


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I originally thought I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. I was working as a grocer, and on the side started volunteering with an organization in San Francisco that did HIV test counseling. We would drive an RV out to different neighborhoods and offer rapid HIV tests, and while we waited for the results I would talk to people about the test and their behaviors. However, as part of the conversation we also had to administer a survey and submit these responses to be analyzed for government funding. After about 6 months of doing this work, I was in a meeting where the survey responses were analyzed and presented to the group. I was blown away by the insights of the survey. While I enjoyed the one-on-one connection with individuals, I saw the power of data in detecting patterns and knew I wanted to do something that involved data and research. As I mentioned, I was also working at a grocery store at the time and I cashiered a lot and observed a lot of people fighting and discussing purchase decisions. I also did a lot of different activities, including buying products and doing movement reports, and I realized that these reports were much like the data I was so inspired by with the HIV testing organization, so I became very interested in why people bought certain things and not others. So ultimately, observing decision making in the wild piqued my curiosity to pursue behavioral science.

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

Honestly, just getting into the industry was a challenge for me. I came into the field a little later than most, after working in the grocery industry for 10 years, and it was hard to transition back to academia after the time away. In addition to this, I care a lot about field experiments and observing actual decisions and I take great pride each time I’m able to run a field experiment because it typically involves a collaboration with a firm. These relationships take a lot of time to build trust but I think the initial investment is worth it, because you can uncover some amazing insights about consumer behavior. One field experiment I’m particularly proud of is a collaboration with a national bank that allowed their customers to make payments toward individual purchases on their credit card bill. This slight intervention, compared to making a payment toward the total bill increased repayment approximately 12%. I hope to continue doing work that can (hopefully) have a real impact on consumer well-being.

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

Probably working in the grocery business. I loved grocery stores! If not that, I love mini golf, and have always dreamed of opening up my own mini-golf course!

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I exercise every day and this is only made possibly by the insight of vice-virtue bundling (thinking of the amazing Management Science paper about holding Hunger Games hostage at the gym). I run on a treadmill each day, and allow myself to watch television programs that I would otherwise feel too guilty or indulgent to enjoy if I wasn’t bundling it with the virtuous activity of exercise. Lately I’ve been watching old episodes of Survivor. I recently finished Season 3 in Africa, where fellow Behavioral Scientist, Kelly Goldsmith was a contestant.

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

I think people need to think about their purpose of this work and do their best to stay connected to this sense of purpose each day. I’ve seen a lot of people get burned out, discouraged or distracted and I think they often lose focus (or did not focus) on the why they were doing what they were doing. I think a lot of my early experiences of observing couples fight in the grocery line, or the nervous and scared person waiting for HIV test results help me feel connected to the people behind the decisions I’m studying, and how to make their outcomes and lives better.

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

I hope there will be a larger movement for field experiments and practical, real-world outcomes.

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

Kelly Goldsmith. I would want to ask her about her experiences on Survivor influencing her career as a Behavioral Scientist. I would also love to hear from Charlotte Blank, Ashley Whillans, Dafna Goor and Ximena Garcia-Rada!


Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Grant! You've also made some great suggestions for further interviews, and I'll make sure to reach out to all of them :).

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!

Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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