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 Jo Evershed.
Jo is in charge of the financial and scientific aspects of Cauldron. Her background in the City combined with her scientific research allows for applying recent advances in psychology to real-world settings, and equally ensure that Cauldron's projects stay feasible and funded while remaining scientifically valid. She is fascinated by the psychology of education, learning and joy, and wants to build her unique vision of how we can enrich ourselves through deep and meaningful interactions. Take it away Jo!
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I was working in private equity creating financial models to aid decision making, and we were interviewing for a new recruit.
Candidates all had excellent academic results in mathematical subjects (maths, finance, physics, economics) and yet there was huge variation in their ability to answer mathematical questions that we knew were predictive of successful candidates.
This lead to me reading some books about mathematics and cognition - notably ‘Where Mathematics Comes From’ by Lakoff and Nunez and ‘The Elephant in the Classroom’ by Jo Boaler. And in that strange way that intellectual curiosity can just take over, I ended up enrolling in an undergraduate course in Experimental Psychology at UCL.
During the degree course I realised that understanding the development of mathematical cognition wouldn’t be easy as it was extraordinarily hard to do longitudinal research on kids. I realised that to solve this problem, psychologists needed simple to use behavioural science tools that allowed for online testing. With the mentorship and support of UCL’s Prof Sarah Jayne Blakemore and Prof Daniel Richardson, this lead me to create Cauldron Science (http://cauldron.sc/welcome); a technical consultancy service that creates bespoke software for behavioural scientists that want to get their research out of the lab.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I'm proudest of having created the Gorilla Experiment Builder (https://gorilla.sc/) to help researchers take their behavioural research online without needing to code. We have a huge vision to provide everyone interested in experimental behavioural science with the tools and the training they need to do interesting, high quality, ecologically valid and engaging research online.
As more and more researchers embrace tools like Gorilla that really accelerate their research, I’m really excited to see the impact that their research can then have on our day to day lives. Already we’ve seen researchers shape public policy, test behavioural health interventions and create evidence-based educational games, and this is only the beginning.
As an example, I’ve greatly enjoyed working with Prof Brian Butterworth and Prof Diana Laurillard to create FunMaths - an evidence-tested series of games for developing primary level mathematical cognition. And as part of that collaboration, I got to satisfy some of my intellectual curiosity about the development of mathematical cognition.
In many ways the world has improved tremendously in the last 100 years, and yet there are still huge challenges that face society - from climate change to obesity, racism to tax avoidance, and plenty more besides. I believe behavioural science is where we’re going to find the answers to these challenges, I want to be a part of that journey. Ultimately, I hope empowering behavioural scientists with powerful and flexible research tools will support the development of impactful evidence-tested products and services of the future.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I've already reinvented myself a few times; I started as an engineer, then an economist and now behavioural scientist.
I’ve often fantasised about opening a restaurant – tapas but English style. Local produce in shareable portions that suit every diet, washed down with a glass of cider!
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I love this question! And I’m going to delight in reading everyone else’s answers in due course!
My deep love of experience design, means that I am constantly tweaking and adapting our home environment to make day-to-day routines more streamlined and automatic. On top of that, I enjoy designing our family environment to elicit the behaviours and activities that will enrich our lives. Over time, life just gets easier and easier and better and better!
A year ago, I had a thorny leadership problem that needed me to change. But before I could change my habits, I needed to change my attitude and to a certain extent my identity. So I hired an extraordinary mindset coach and the results were dramatic in ways that I couldn’t have foreseen. I theoretically knew that my beliefs and attitudes shaped my perception, but the lived experience of changing my attitude and having new opportunities present themselves has been very strange!
I also try all the various behavioural nudges out on my 5-year-old (‘Most boys your age can already put their socks on by themselves’), but I’m having my own little replication crisis here…
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
I think the future of behavioural science is going to require a great deal more real-world experimentation. So we’ll need skills in digesting the theory, using that to design an experiment, operationalizing that experiment, creating the study, collecting and analysing the data, and then interpreting the results into a recommendation that can be applied in the real world. All of this will require openness and curiosity about the world and a desire to make it better for humans.
Experimentation is exciting because it allows behavioural scientists to embrace ignorance as a strength and say, “I don't know the right answer, but I do know how to find out”. As we all know, the situation impacts behaviour, and so embracing experimentation also allows us to test how effects change across different situations.
With an experimental mindset and skills, we'll be able to apply behavioural science to policy, engineering, finance, health, education and more. We’ll be released from oscillation between competing ideologies and instead build society around what has been shown to work, rather than barking on about dogma.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
Behavioural science is going to get increasingly important. It's clear that behavioural science is going to inform part of the solution to challenges like climate change, the obesity crisis, racism, tax avoidance - these are all social problems with behavioural solutions.
To give a concrete example, with our shop builder tool, we’ve supported researchers investigating the impact of labelling on food purchasing decisions. This can be used to discover how (and when) to nudge healthy food purchasing decisions for maximum impact in order to inform regulation that will help reduce the obesity crisis.
If we want to live in a better society, we need to design society so that it works for all humans and draws out their empathy and sense of community. It's behavioural scientists that will work out how to do this. At least I hope that they will - we have all the right skills and knowledge to do so.
To give another example, we’ve worked with Prof Mairead MacSweeney to create and test an educational game that improves the lipreading of deaf children, with the end goal of improving their reading skills (mediated by developing phonological awareness). I think there’s huge opportunity for specialist to come together to create evidence-tested digital educational interventions for those with special educational needs.
More broadly, I believe Behavioural Science is going to become a core discipline in industry. In the same way that you now have marketing, sales, finance and legal disciplines, you’ll also have a behavioural and data science discipline. This is great news for graduates of experimental psychology and behavioural science courses as there will be a wide range of career opportunities.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I have the great pleasure of working with Prof Daniel Richardson, who is an extraordinary lecturer and researcher at UCL. He's doing innovative research into how people behave in real time in groups together with The Hive; a bespoke research platform that we built for him.
So much of behavioural science looks at how we behave on our own. But we're actually social creatures; we're always behaving in reference to all the other people around us. Dan’s developed a novel experimental methodology to understand how people behave together and I would love to hear him talk about his research.
At the moment, he's investigating how and when societies engaged in societal self-harm, which is topical in the light of Brexit and COVID-19.