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Interview with Joseph Devlin

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 Joseph Devlin.

Joe did his PhD in artificial intelligence but found himself more interested in how the human mind works. After training in neuroimaging at Cambridge and Oxford, he established a reputation as a leader in how the human brain processes language before taking up positions as Head of Experimental Psychology and then as Vice-Dean of Innovation and Enterprise at UCL. Joe run workshops on consumer neuroscience and has led projects with a variety of partners, including Audible, Vue cinemas, Shiseido, the Times, and the BBC.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

Several years ago I started running workshops on Consumer Neuroscience for business professionals, initially thinking my focus would be on the neuroscience (which is my area). It immediately became clear that, for most people, “consumer neuroscience” encompasses far more than just brains; it also includes behavioural science, behavioural economics, behavioural finances, etc. I quickly had to up my game! In practice, behavioural science has far greater practical impact on business environments than neuroscience, although there is also a role for brains in behaviour as well. I’m not sure I count as a proper behavioural scientist, because I am more of a neuroscientist cross-over, but we’re all headed in the same direction.

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

I did a project with Audible investigating whether the delivery format of a story affects how people engage with the narrative. That is, do you have a different emotional reaction when listened to the Game of Thrones audiobook or watching the HBO adaptation? To test this, we recruited just over 100 volunteers to watch or listen to scenes from 8 novels (Games of Thrones, Aliens, Pride & Prejudice, Silence of the Lambs, Great Expectations, Sherlock Holmes, Girl on the Train & The Davinci Code). Each person saw half as videos and listened to the other half as audiobooks while we measured their physiological responses (heart rate, electrodermal activity, body temperature). What was fascinating was that according to their self-report, they found the videos more engaging. Their physiology told a different story, however, with all of the biometric measures showing enhanced activation of the autonomic nervous system, consistent with greater emotional engagement – a classic example of the difference between self-report and implicit measurements. What was particularly interesting to me was that Audible now uses this study when speaking to authors about making an audiobook. Previously their pitch was essentially: audiobooks are a massively growing market, don’t miss out! But now they point out that listeners have a particularly strong emotional engagement with the book in audio format. In other words, they moved from “you’ll make more money” to “you’ll engage your audience better” if you make an audiobook version of your story. For most authors, the latter is more motivating. In terms of future achievements, I get excited by seeing more and more young people go into behavioural science (and the very related consumer neuroscience). I see it in my students, at all levels (undergraduate through PhD) but also people in both the public and private sectors. Business was already on-board with the idea but covid brought much greater awareness to government about the benefits of behavioural science and they are embracing it whole-heartedly. It’s great to see. Now we just need to deliver…

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

I’ve often wondered this! Marine biologist? IT consultant? Warlord? I love marine mammals and could easily imagine spending my life studying dolphin/whale communications. But I also worked in industry for a while and enjoyed that, especially solving tricky coding problems. Thinking more outside the box: I’ve always been pretty risk adverse, so maybe if I had to start over I’d throw caution to the wind and live fast and die young. Who knows?

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

If you interact with humans, you use behavioural science all the time. I am constantly using framing when setting out options for family plans; I use anchoring all the time to set expectations; and social norms are a great one during pub arguments… er discussions. When I had pets, I used basic learning theory to train them. When you’re in behavioural science, you see it everywhere.

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

The main thing is a commitment to experimentation. It’s great to know all the latest, greatest science but it’s quite another to accurately predict the consequences of implementing an intervention. They don’t all work and there are often unforeseen complications, so you’re best bet is always to test the intervention. A deep understanding of experiment design, solid statistics (sorry!) and the ability to measure relevant outcomes are all essential skills for a behavioural scientist. It is tempting to just say: “This nudge worked in the past, so it’ll work here.” It may or may not, but you’ll never truly know unless you test it. Developing strong data science skills is also a help.

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

It’s likely that there will be a proliferation of new frameworks beyond COM-B and EAST, especially for specific domains. Some tools will fall be the wayside as we discover the initial stories were examples of hype-over-fact (I’m looking at you social priming!) and people will become more aware of “nudges.” In terms of the Gartner hype cycle, the field is moving up the slope-of-enlightenment and should reach a plateau-of-productivity within 10 years. I’d like to think that will prevent future Cambridge Analyticas – but I don’t (quite!) have that level of faith in our species.

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

My advice to early career behavioural scientists would be to gain experience working your BS skills in a real world environment. Even if you plan to go the full academic route, having experience using BS outside the lab is invaluable. The complexity of the real world often means that our best laid plans can go awry in unforeseen, but often interesting, ways, and lead to new insights.

For example, my colleague Brad Love worked with Tescos/Dunhumby to examine the question: why do consumers occasionally switch from a brand they typically buy to something new? In psychology, this is the exploit/explore problem and there is a standard answer based on lab-based experiments about sampling a changing environment to maximize utility. But that’s not the whole story when you look at the supermarket’s loyalty database. Instead, you find that people change their “standard” option more often than expected when they explore a new option. Why? Because determining relative utility is often more complicated in the real world. Is Colgate toothpaste significantly better than Crest? Honestly, they’re probably about the same. But if you normally buy Crest and you try Colgate, then it may seem better simply because trying something new but worse would mean you’ve made a mistake – and no one wants that. So throw in a little cognitive dissonance and it makes sense to perceive Colgate as better because that validates your explore decision. Since it’s better, of course you stick with it. This differs quite significantly from utility in a lab-base gambling game, for instance, where there is no ambiguity that £10 is better than £1 and therefore leads to different behaviours.

There are many benefits to working with outside organisations as well, including improving your communication skills, gaining a better understanding of the goals and constraints outside of academia, and developing novel research and funding opportunities.

For anyone who plans to use their BS skills outside academia, getting that experience as early as possible is essential. It will make your transition into industry easier and provides a personal USP that facilitates getting that first post too.

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

My colleagues Lasana Harris, Nichola Raihani & Dave Lagnado both all proper behavioural scientists and have really fascinating perspectives. They’d be great. As a neuroscientist, Hilke Plassmann and Vinod Venkatraman are two of the young super-stars who work in this area (from a more neuro-side). They’d be great!


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Joseph!

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

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