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Interview with James Healy

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 Healy.

James is a Principal in Deloitte’s Human Capital Consulting practice, based in Perth, Western Australia. He co-founded and leads Deloitte’s global Behaviour First offering, practically applying insights from Anthropology, Behavioural Economics, Neuroscience, Psychology, and Sociology to help organisations address their most critical challenges. James hosts “The B-Word”, a podcast featuring leading figures from the social and behavioural sciences exploring what it means to be human and how organisations can better understand and influence behaviour. He has extensive experience leading behavioural, cultural and technological transformation in global organisations and has led projects in more than 60 countries on 6 continents in industries including banking, insurance, mining, oil & gas, government, education, health, and aged care.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I’ve always been fascinated by human behaviour.

I started studying Philosophy and Economics at the LSE, but midway through my first year, my Economics tutor took me to one side and told me that while I was on track to sail through first year Econ, I was going to fail second and third year unless I “stopped thinking about how people behave, and started focusing on the equations and the graphs”.

As someone who was useless at Maths, this advice sounded the death knell for my Economics career, and I switched to pure Philosophy. Twenty years on, I might humbly suggest that tutor’s advice said more about what’s wrong with Economics than it did about me.

As it turned out, one of my Philosophy modules was “Scientific Revolutions”, essentially a history of Science focused on those seismic events when accepted wisdom was turned on its head by some lunatic visionary who’d later become a household name – Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein etc. One day we were given a paper by two random Israeli Psychologists none of us had ever heard of – Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Initially it really wasn’t clear to me why they were being mentioned alongside such venerable names; it’s very clear now.

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

I have a very ambitious goal: I want to spark a global revolution in the way that organisations think about and treat their people. If more people understood humans as we actually are, not as the Economists and Management theorists want us to be, a lot of people would be a lot happier at work. Organisations would also have a much better chance of solving some of their most pressing problems – technological change, organisational culture, sustainability, cybersecurity, and many more, all of which ultimately come down to changing behaviour.

With this as the end goal, it’s fair to say my accomplishments to date are fairly modest – if I’ve managed to make a few people in a few organisations around the world think a little differently about humans and behaviour, and enabled some slightly better outcomes, that would be a good start.

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

I actually don’t really think of myself as a behavioural scientist per se.

I’m someone who practically applies insights and techniques from the social and behavioural sciences to help organisations. For many years I did that somewhat under the radar, slipping behavioural science in when no-one was looking. Being realistic, if I didn’t have my current role I suppose I’d probably still be doing that somewhere, somehow.

While that’s true, it’s not a very interesting interview answer, so I’ll also say that I always wanted to be a spy, a foreign correspondent, or a travel writer, all of which I now realise ultimately come down to observing and understanding humans and human behaviour.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you about my awe-inspiring health and fitness routine, my monk-like self-control, and my incredible clarity of thought, right?

Unfortunately it turns out that just like you, I’m human.

When I do manage to practice what I preach, it’s almost always because I’ve made some subtle environmental change. At the time of writing I’m attempting to do “Dry July” - which so far I’m accomplishing mostly via the simple mechanism of ensuring the beer fridge stays empty. While there are plenty of beers in the cupboard, the prospect of warm beer is just not that appealing, and who can actually be bothered putting them in the fridge and waiting twenty minutes for them to cool down?

On a more serious note, I do think that the more I’ve learned about behavioural science, the more tolerant I’ve become. When you start to understand just how profoundly environment shapes behaviour, you tend to look for the environmental explanation rather than attributing it to someone’s fundamental disposition.

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

I’d say there are three things you need.

Firstly, curiosity. You need to be really curious about people and you need to keep digging deeper to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing - to look for what Rory Sutherland calls “the real why”. It’s unlikely to be what you first think, and it’s really unlikely to be what they tell you.

Secondly, humility. You’re constantly testing approaches, constantly realising that things you previously thought aren’t true, and, constantly being reminded of your own shortcomings - ie that you’re human. If you don’t have humility at the start you’ll soon pick it up.

Thirdly, a sense of humour. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many behavioural scientists have a quirky, dry sense of humour. If you spend your life observing and analysing the absurdity and irrationality of human behaviour, you have to laugh or you’ll be deeply depressed.

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

As the great Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman often says, “prophecy is for fools”.

However, as I often say, “knowing you shouldn’t do something and knowing why you shouldn’t do it often aren’t enough to stop you doing it”, so here we go…

I firmly believe the new frontier for behavioural science is within organisations. So many of behavioural science’s successful applications have been aimed at consumers and citizens, but employees are humans too. The Great Reimagination of work post-pandemic is really about making work and workplaces better suited to humans as we really are - that means organisations are going to need to put behavioural science at the fore.

I’ve always been struck by the great contrast between Marketing departments applying a sophisticated mix of data science and behavioural science to influence consumer behaviour with really targeted interventions while HR is often stuck in the dark ages, using broad brush blunt instruments like mandatory e-learnings, broadcast emails, and what Brené Brown memorably described as “bullshit posters on the lunchroom wall”.

Closing that gap will put organisations and their employees in a much better place – I also see it as a useful route into the grown-up conversation we need to have about big data and personalisation. We’re currently too squeamish about employers using data we put onto their systems and not squeamish enough about tech companies using data we put onto theirs. Why are we seemingly fine with our Facebook data being monetised – and weaponised – yet as soon as we get wind of an employer using our email metadata to do sentiment analysis, or organisational network analysis, we scream “Big Brother”? That intersection of behavioural science and data science has great potential for organisations to make life better for employees, but it will require some difficult conversations.

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

Firstly, don’t pigeon-hole yourself as a Behavioural Economist, a Psychologist, a Neuroscientist or an Anthropologist. Those titles reflect the arcane and ancient politics of academic departments far more than they reflect the underlying structure of reality. All of those disciplines (and many others) are valid ways of looking at human behaviour and can provide interesting and useful insights depending on the situation – blending them together is incredibly powerful.

Secondly, if you’re going to leave academia and venture into what Dilip Soman and Nina Mazar’s new book accurately refers to as “the wild” (and you definitely should!), you’re going to have to wrestle with the inherent tension between scientific rigour and commercial viability. Does everything need to be an RCT? Is your goal peer review publication in a respected journal or tangible results? There are so many grey areas…

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

Going back to my stipulation that behavioural scientists need a sense of humour, I’d love to see you interview someone like Pete McGraw or Jeff Kreisler who actually does professional comedy as well as behavioural science.

Alternatively, in the interests of avoiding that pigeon-hole trap I mentioned, perhaps Robert Sapolsky. As a leading figure in both Neuroscience and Primatology he brings a unique and fascinating perspective and is a dab hand with a tranquiliser gun, which isn’t something you can say about everyone.


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!

Keep your eye on Money on the Mind!


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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