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 Jeroen Nieboer. Jeroen is a behavioural economist specialising in consumer financial decision-making. He has been affiliated with the LSE since 2013, when he joined the Department of Social Policy. He subsequently joined the Financial Conduct Authority to work in the Behavioural Economics and Data Science team, focusing on programme evaluation and the design of behaviourally informed consumer policy. He is currently the Behavioural Research Lead at the Commonwealth Bank Australia but continues to teach at the Department, on the Executive MSc in Behavioural Science and various MSc programmes. Jeroen has worked on a wide range of topics, including retail finance advice, consumer credit, consumer financial wellbeing and the design of experiments for policy. He also occasionally gets to study social influence on decision-making, a topic that has fascinated him for many years.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I did a course in Behavioural Economics in my 3rd year at university – Martin Strobel was the professor teaching it. It was the unpacking things of like utility functions, choice axioms, that I really enjoyed. And of course the beautiful historical demonstrations of violations of rationality - Allais paradox etc. It gave me a sense that here was a discipline that could be quite philosophical and practical at the same time. I also remember picking up books like ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell at the time – with hindsight I can say that can’t have been a coincidence! The next year I enrolled in a MSc in Behavioural Economics at Nottingham – we were one of the first student cohorts.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve? Undoubtedly the large-scale field trials we ran at the Financial Conduct Authority to set the rules around automatic enrolment into overdraft alerts. Thanks to that work, people in the UK now receive a text message nudge when they go into the red on their bank account. It’s just so tangible and helps millions of people a year. What I would still like to achieve… I believe there is a way of making consumer banking way more intuitive and suited to people’s individual circumstances. It can’t be true that the standard interface of banking applications (transaction list, payments screen etc) is the only way to do it.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? I would probably be some kind of technology consultant – always been a computer geek, but lack the patience to be a good programmer!
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? Pretty haphazardly. If I’ve got a bunch of things to do, I try to create improving sequences (do the most painful thing first) and create small rewards for myself. But I wouldn’t say I apply a whole lot of behavioural science to my work life. Since I work in finance, I probably think most of behavioural science in that context. When it comes to investing, I try to avoid things like the disposition effect (a very hard thing to do!) and various other biases. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t made my fair share of mistakes and irrational decisions along the way. I’ve realised I’m somebody who learns much more from personal experience than from others or books. And most of the time it’s fine to correct your irrationality over time. And I guess I’ve been lucky enough not to have made any catastrophic mistakes (yet!).
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? There are so many different types of behavioural scientist these days, it’s hard to say. But if I have to give one piece of advice across the board, I’d say mastering a variety of methods. Summarising academic literature and running RCTs is good starting point, but you don’t want to stop there. Learn some non-experimental causal inference techniques, how to run a survey, conduct ethnographic research, try out different behaviour change frameworks, collaborate with data science colleagues, etc. etc.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? On the practitioner side I think we’ll become much more aware of the overlap we have with other organizational innovators – in my line of work that’s marketing, experimentation, data science. Shameless plug alert – I wrote an article about that with Patrick Welsh last year:
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field? I think we’re now at the point where you’ll really benefit from a graduate degree in behavioural science, or a research degree in a social science, if you want a job as a behavioural scientist. Apart from a degree – get some experience running an experiment in the real world! Doesn’t matter if it’s a small sample, or a relatively insignificant behaviour. You’ll learn a lot along the way.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? I know he’s hard to get hold of, but John List always says something new and interesting when he gives a talk.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Jeroen!
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!