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 Koen Smets.
Koen, maybe better known as Koenfucius, calls himself an accidental behavioural economist. He uses concepts from classical and behavioural economics to help organizations work better in his role of organization development adviser. He has been applying insights from behavioural economics in his work for many years, and writes frequently about human behaviour in all its aspects. You can find his articles of wisdom on his own site, medium and he has also written for the behavioral scientist. He truly is an accidential behavioural economist, as Koen started out as an engineer, holding a Master's degree in Engineering from Brussels Free University before moving into Management Consulting, where he found behavioural economics. So let's hear it from Koenfucius!
Who or what got you into Behavioural Economics/Science?
It was a gradual process. I trained as an engineer and did engineer stuff for a good while, but through various quirks of fate ended up working in organization development. That is how my interest in behaviour and decision making (what motivates it, how to change it) really arose. At the time I didn't know about behavioural economics (it was well before Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel prize), but I was very much looking at microeconomics for insight on human behaviour. You might say it was 'mainstream' economists like Gary Becker, Herbert Simon and Thomas Schelling who opened the door for behavioural economics. But I should not forget those economists who are so good at connecting economics with everyday life: Tim Harford, David Friedman (yes, the son of Milton), Robert Frank and Steven Landsburg. They demonstrated to me how much of our behaviour can be better understood when you look at it through economics spectacles. So when behavioural economics came on the scene, I was ready for the final piece in my personal human behaviour jigsaw puzzle.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural economist/scientist?
I suspected you were going to ask that, and I find that really hard, as I am not really a behavioural economist or scientist. As a practitioner. I use many insights in small ways in my work, but I would not consider anything in that domain as an accomplishment. Perhaps one thing that gives me a little bit of pride is an article (There is more to behavioral economics than biases and fallacies) that I wrote for the Behavioral Scientist website last summer. I argued against the way behavioural economics is often painted quite simplistically as a collection of quirks - a bit of a freak show of human behaviour. I felt (and feel) quite strongly about this, and being approached by these guys in itself was quite something. But to top that, I remember (how could I ever forget!) that one of my heroes, Tyler Cowen, mentioned my article on the Marginal Revolution blog. It also ended up being the 4th most read article of 2018. Which was nice. <smiles> Does that count as an accomplishment?
If you weren’t a behavioural economist/scientist, what would you be doing?
I might still be an engineer, but if I could choose an alternative career now, it would be to be a jazz musician. But it's easier to do behavioural economics as your day job and be an amateur musician on the side, than to be a musician for a living, and to do behavioural economics as a hobby.
How do you apply behavioural economics/science in your personal life?
It has become second nature (sometimes to the despair of my family!). I cannot help observing my own behaviour all the time, and I constantly try to understand what is going on - why I make the choices I make, whether they are really in my interest, why I feel the way I do, that kind of thing. A couple of times a year, when I take a break, I tend write about economics or behavioural economics questions that arise in my personal life. Why do I refuse to pay a tenner for priority boarding on a ferry to be first on and first off the boat, but happily make a 15 mile detour and pay for the Dartford crossing (costing me more than £10) to avoid a 10 minute holdup on the M25? Is it wise to avoid paying £15 per day for parking your car close to your holiday flat by parking it a mile away, if you need your car every day? That kind of thing.
The life hack that helps me perhaps most is a form of mental time accounting. I had a pretty bad depression some time ago, which was in part brought on by being very poor at managing my time. Since then I have taken control, and no matter how busy I am, I will always take some time out to play the piano for 15 minutes or watch an episode of South Park. I don't even do it consciously, but it is as if I put an hour in that 'take a break' account every morning, and I cannot use this time for anything else.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural economist/scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
I think it helps to be a generalist. Why? Behavioural economics is, in a way, the ultimate science of humanity. It is about what we do, what we feel, what we want, how we make tradeoffs, and so on. So a behaviouralist needs to be curious and open to everything that helps further that understanding. Inspiration can come (and for me certainly does come) from anywhere.
How do you think behavioural economics/science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
That is really hard to predict. I think behavioural economics as a discipline is at a point where it could go into different directions. Richard Thaler has said it will eventually join (or rejoin, depending on your viewpoint) with mainstream economics, making it just as behavioural as it needs to be. I can see that logic, but I am not sure it really will happen. I think it will continue to exist in its own right, connecting economics with other social science disciplines like psychology, sociology and anthropology. I think we will also see more detail and nuance emerge in observed effects. Rather than simple, binary "doesn't replicate" or "does replicate", we will see what works (or doesn't work) in which contexts, with which demographics, in which cultures and so on.We may evolve from today's broad brush insights to a much more granular view. But that may be motivated reasoning, because it's what I would like to happen, haha!
Which other behavioural scientists/economists would you love to read an interview by?
Too many to list, really. But if you insist, here are a few: Josh Miller, Alex Imas, Peter Ayton, Dilip Soman, and Aline Holzwarth.
Thank you so much for these amazing answers Koen! 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!