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 Heather Mann.
Heather is a behavioural scientist, consultant, and coach, who is driven to support the transition to an economy that operates within social and planetary boundaries. Through her consulting company, Blossom Collaborators, Heather has worked with a wide range of clients, from Fortune 100 companies to social service agencies. Heather holds a PhD in Psychology, and has trained in behavioural science, social entrepreneurship, and process-oriented psychology. She believes collaboration is key to growing a sustainable economy that works for all.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I found my way into behavioural science mid-way through my graduate studies. With a longstanding interest in the mind and brain, I majored in Psychology as an undergrad at the University of Waterloo. I went on to study cognitive neuroscience as a Master’s student at the University of British Columbia, and then as a PhD student at Duke University. Although the brain interested me, I found myself gravitating more and more toward social and behavioural sciences. At Duke, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Dan Ariely, and after a few months of working together he agreed to be my advisor.
Several years into my graduate studies, I was feeling somewhat disillusioned with the “ivory tower” of academia. I really admired Dan’s dedication to applying behavioural economics beyond the walls of the academy, disseminating research to the public, and collaborating with companies, government, and non-profits to tackle “real world” problems. I was also glad to be part of a fun and quirky lab group of around 15 people. Dan was a caring mentor and had a way of keeping life interesting! And so my career in behavioural science began.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I have appreciated opportunities to apply behavioural science principles to enhance patient participation in healthcare. At Ayogo Health, I was involved in design and go-to-market strategy for a new tool providing education and decision support to patients with chronic kidney disease. Engaging with physicians, nurses, and patients to better understand their experience within the healthcare system, distilling insights from stakeholders’ real-world experience, and translating insights into strategic recommendations was quite rewarding.
In terms of what I want to achieve: I am very concerned about the climate crisis. What role behavioural science has to play here is an interesting question. Social scientist Peter Sutoris has argued that behavioral science won’t fix the climate crisis. He contends that nudging people toward more environmentally friendly behaviours is not nearly sufficient to address the world’s ecological crisis, because this problem demands larger-scale cultural and political change. And, Sutoris argues, cultural and political change requires action – that is, activities that lead to something new and different – not just behaviour modification.
I am inclined to agree that – while behavioural nudges are well and good – they are woefully inadequate when up against an issue at the scale of climate change. Messaging that encourages hotel guests to reuse their towels can save thousands of litres of water, but these types of tactics will only get us so far. Climate change is deeply interwoven with our political and economic systems; the task of re-inventing these systems requires more than minor shifts in behaviour. Indeed, this task requires more than individual action – it requires collective action, the type of action that facilitates enduring social change.
This observation leads to some interesting behavioural questions. What leads people to engage in social movements (broadly), or with climate movement (in particular)? Why do many people fail to engage, even when they have awareness of the problem? Curious about these questions, I trained with the Climate Change Coaches, and am beginning to practice climate coaching myself. I work with individuals who feel called to do more to address climate change, empowering them to take bolder steps forward.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. In recent years, I felt this desire bubbling to the surface and began to pursue it. I currently work with children through a community-based non-profit called the Centre for Uniting People (CUP). I co-manage an out-of-school program and have helped to put on a variety of events and programs for kids. I am simultaneously working as a behavioural science consultant. In addition, I am and beginning to practice coaching, with a focus on climate coaching and conflict management coaching.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I’ve always been a fan of Peter Gollwitzer’s research on implementation intentions. Gollwitzer found that when setting a goal or intention, visualizing a concrete “if-then” plan of action dramatically increases our likelihood of following through. I try to apply this in my own life: for example, I set an intention to go cross-country skiing after work one evening. I put my skis and ski boots in the car the night before, and imagined myself heading to the ski trails directly from work. The next day after work I was tired and tempted to bail – but with the plan created ahead of time and everything ready to go, I made it out to the trails (and it was well worth the effort!).
To name another example, I often observe the power of social norms in shaping people’s behaviour. Trends are an interesting manifestation of social norms. Suddenly, a new trend takes hold and everyone is cutting their hair a certain way. I sometimes like to observe groups of friends walking together and notice the similarities in the way they look and dress. I believe that most of us drastically underestimate the extent to which social and cultural factors shape our decisions 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?
In real-world contexts, behavioural science can be applied in a variety of ways. A behavioural scientist may be asked to draw from their knowledge of b-sci principles to explain a pattern of behaviour, such as why some patients fail to adhere to a needed treatment regimen. They may be asked to help re-design an environment, tool, or process, such as the user onboarding flow for a new software-as-a-service product. They may be asked to analyze data to help understand patterns of behaviour, such as customers’ online behaviours in response to customer engagement emails. They may be asked to design and run experiments to test competing hypotheses about what drives a target behaviour. And, they will likely be asked to communicate behavioural findings, whether through direct engagement with clients, through quantitative reports, or through written communications such as white papers.
Personally, I have engaged in all of the above activities in my work as a behavioural scientist. Roles that lean toward data analysis and experimentation require a strong grounding in data analytics and statistics. Roles that involve working closely with clients draw on written and interpersonal communication skills. Roles that emphasize design require curiosity and creativity. All in all, behavioural scientists can develop a pretty well-rounded skillset; being able to exercise different types of skills is one of the things I personally have enjoyed about applied work in this field.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I have been impressed by the growth of this field over the past 10 years. Behavioural science seems to have come into its own, which is exciting.
At the same time, behavioural science is a field with loose boundaries, and one that is continually broadening. Researchers Michael Muthukrishna and Robin Schimmelpfennig propose that a new wave of behavioural science is emerging, which they term cultural evolutionary behavioural science. This nascent field explores how genetic evolution and cultural evolution influence our psychology and behaviour.
Behavioural science as practiced today tends not to emphasize the broader social, cultural, and political systems within which humans operate. I believe that the field of behavioural science – and our understanding of human behaviour – can be enriched by drawing from fields such as community psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, and systems theory. Behavioural science today is also founded largely on quantitative research. I sometimes feel that we are missing out on fertile insights that can be gained from qualitative research. Over the next 10 years, I would love to see the field expand to incorporate more qualitative methods.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
Stay open to opportunities, or create your own. Human behaviour is everywhere.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Since I mentioned them above, I will nominate Michael Muthukrishna and Robin Schimmelpfennig.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Heather!
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!