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 Jason Collins. Jason is a behavioural and data scientist who works for Australia's corporate, markets, and financial services regulator on improving financial decision making. Previously, he co-founded and led PwC Australia’s behavioral economics practice, and has also worked as a lawyer and an economic policy adviser. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Western Australia integrating economics and evolutionary biology. He blogs at jasoncollins.blog.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
It started with two books: Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and Matt Ridley's The Red Queen.
Whatever its faults, Blink led me to Gary Klein, who in turn led me to Daniel Kahneman and the broader heuristics and biases literature.
Ridley's The Red Queen led me to Amotz Zahavi, Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, Robert Trivers, Geoffrey Miller (The Mating Mind sparked the idea for my PhD) and so on.
The paths started by those two books have never stopped and continue to intertwine.
Many years later, I was introduced to a colleague in PwC, Will Mailer, who was interested in starting a behavioural economics practice. Which we did. My professional work in behavioural science grew out of that moment. Otherwise it might have just been a very involved hobby.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I don't feel pride about any particular accomplishment, and I'm not sure I've accomplished much yet.
But, I do take some pride in my approach to behavioural science. I try to approach it with rigour. That means reading papers carefully, pulling their foundations apart, reading the supporting literature, and considering how the results relate to other evidence in the field. Even post-replication crisis, this does not happen enough. It also means treating behavioural science as “science” rather than storytelling. Behavioural science his often presented as a list of "party tricks". Applied behavioural science is as much about the methodology as the empirical literature that we draw on.
I'm also not sure I want to achieve anything. I love figuring things out, doing things well, and working with people who want the same. I don't ask for much more than that.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I don't know. I have a poor record of predicting what I will be doing in three years. I expect that lack of forecasting accuracy would extend to predicting alternative worlds.
That said, a parallel thread to my work in behavioural science has been data science, so maybe something there.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I operate by simple rules or heuristics. Each is arbitrary and certainly not maximising behaviour, but the bright line allows me to comply. Most features on my phone are disabled. I don’t have sweets in the house. I don’t use internet on my daily commute (which seems a distant memory this year). I do not read news (a great year for that). And so on.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Beyond the behavioural science itself, statistics. It is the bedrock of so much of what we do. We use statistics to test ideas. Most academic papers we draw on use statistics. Understanding statistics is valuable in understanding what behavioural science findings should be given more weight.
For many modern behavioural science roles, that knowledge of statistics might need to extend into other modern data skills: statistical programming, dealing with large data sets, and using modern analytics techniques.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I'll offer an optimistic and pessimistic scenario.
My optimistic scenario is that the practice of behavioural science becomes more professionalised. Today, teams are often created by labelling some smart generalists the "behavioural insights" team. In the future, teams will be constructed deliberately, with people with specific skills hired or trained to fill roles. These teams will have well-developed services and products that they can deliver at scale. They will have the ability to develop new ones. The growth of good post-graduate behavioural science programs is going to create the pipeline of people who can fill those roles. Think about how organisations build data analytics capability. Behavioural science team builds will start to look more like that.
My pessimistic view is that we may be headed for a plateau. Many attempted behavioural team builds have stalled or failed, with their firms or agencies not yet seeing the value (beyond having a shiny thing). We will be left with some very good teams in certain niches or sectors, but we won't see behavioural science delivering at scale what has been promised for so long. It is only when the skills, approaches and products mature that we'll get past it (that is, until my optimistic scenario is realised).
(After writing that last paragraph I searched across half a dozen job search platforms for behavioural science and behavioural economics jobs in Australia. I came across one role.)
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Tom Griffiths, Gary Klein, Jess Whittlestone, Nicola Raihani, Dan Goldstein
Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Jason.
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!