Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisations, 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 James Elfer.
James has a master’s in behavioural science from the London School of Economics, and spent 10 years in people and consulting before founding MoreThanNow in 2016. He specialises in making experiments happen and bridging the gap between academia and the corporate world. MoreThanNow is a behavioural change agency using science and creativity to transform the world of work.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I’d been involved in workplace culture and change for about a decade and had become a bit disillusioned with the industry and my personal impact. Like many, it was Thinking Fast and Slow that turned me onto behavioural science. Daniel Kahneman had achieved more in HR in his early twenties then I’d seen in 10 years of consulting (by introducing algorithmic decision-making to officer recruitment in the Israeli army), and he was still talking about it some 40 years later! I wanted a bit of that action and started planning how I could get back to school.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I’d love to scale experiments and academic collaboration to such a degree that it transforms the way organisations think about culture and change. We’re a long way off that being normal, but I’m pleased with a few small steps in the right direction. MoreThanNow Labs (where academics from Harvard, UCL, LSE and INSEAD experiment alongside organisations like Ericsson, Novartis, Vodafone and Microsoft) is a model which can contribute a great deal to both organisations and organisational science. I’m proud of the latent potential but I wouldn’t call it an accomplishment just yet. We’re on our way!
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I’d be a cynical, disillusioned consultant wondering where it all went wrong :)
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I bore friends and family to despair.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Oh, that would be a long list – the discipline is still young so demands generalist skills. If you’re in the field, I’d highlight an ability to say no to requests for applications of behavioural science that aren’t credible or progressive, alongside an ability to turn those requests into something that will be useful to the world and our science.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I’m not sure. I hope the replication crisis and our understanding of context dependency will make us double down on field research, which will need the worlds of practice and academic to become more fluid and collaborative. I see green shoots in places like BEAR at Rotman, the BIG IDEAS initiative at Exeter, the Inclusion Initiative at LSE, and hopefully at MoreThanNow. But there’s something mysterious in the way of connecting wicked problems in the world with researchers who can solve them. If we’re able to overcome that in the next decade, it would be a wonderful thing.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
Do work that you’ll be proud to talk about in ten years.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
It’d be great to hear from anyone taking our discipline into the field and bringing something back to the science. The leaders of the initiatives I mentioned, Dilip Soman, Grace Lordan and Oliver Hauser; the behavioural scientists doing this in organisations (try Chris Rider, Baiba Renerte or Antoine Ferrere at Novartis); the academics just making this happen like Robert Metcalfe and John List. I’ll stop there but you get the point!
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions James!
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!