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Interview with Kristen Berman

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 Kristen Berman! Kristen co-founded Irrational Labs, a non-profit behavioral consulting company, with Dan Ariely in 2013. She is a co-founder and principle at Common Cents Lab, a Duke University initiative dedicated to improving the financial well-being for low to middle Americans. She was on the founding team for the behavioral economics group at Google and hosts one of the top behavioral change conferences globally, StartupOnomics. She co-authored a series of workbooks (with Dan Ariely) called Hacking Human Nature for Good: A Practical Guide to Changing Behavior. Let's see which insights she'll share with us today!


Who are what got you into behavioural science? I was a product manager at Intuit. Where I was trying to help small businesses use an accounting software called QuickBooks. And I was interviewing customers, had customer innovation jams. We would launch features – they would semi work – it wouldn’t be a grand slam and we would do this repeatedly. There was generally the takeaway that we were shooting darts and just trying to figure out what would work. By this point, Dan Ariely had just published Predictably Irrational and the field of behavioural science was becoming more popularized. I learned about there being a science to decision-making and there being an entire academic field dedicated to studying decision-making. It was quite obvious that the product development community, product management specifically, needed to incorporate this into how we build solutions to solve big problems. I met Dan (Ariely) and started working with him on the side, for a few years I worked him on the side of my corporate job, which was later followed by a start-up job. Ultimately I left the start-up job to work with Dan fulltime. My first project was to help Google start their Behavioural Economics Unit. Together with Dan I worked within Google for 3 years helping them build their behavioural economic expertise.

What accomplishment are you proudest of as a behavioural scientist? Generally making behavioural science something that can be used within industry setting. While academics and research in general is detailed and thoughtful, it is very difficult to find the time in the day for someone working in industry to read a full paper, and think fully about the mechanism driving their customers’ behaviour. I think there is just a massive opportunity to bring some more rigorous thinking into the product development world to build solutions that work. Things like creating the three B’s. Our framework for Behaviour Change helped Googlers really get a grasp on a simpler way to apply some core principles of behavioural science. Writing Hacking Human Nature workbooks with Dan and Jason Hreha were tools that we used within companies quite a bit. The other opportunity here is to change how people do research. Last year, we did some nice studies around the phenomenon that if you ask people why did they something, their answer doesn’t reflect why they actually did what they did. If you ask people why they are contributing to their retirement savings account, less than six percent of people mention the default – the automatic enrollment – which is why most people are actually contributing. Calling attention to the tools that we rely on as practitioners not being as powerful as, or not being as correct as we may think they are.

If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? My sense is that I would be a product manager at a company focused on some health or financial behaviour change. I really enjoy the idea of how we can build products or solutions to help people change their lives in the way they want to change their lives.

How do you apply behavioural science to your personal life? My favourite principle is accountability. The idea with accountability is that if our behaviour is seen by others we act differently. If I want to work out it is very different when I work out alone at 7 a.m. or when I work out at 7 a.m. and my friend is going to meet me. OR my friend is expecting me to text them something after I’ve worked out. With a group of friends we have regular gatherings, say every three months, where we share our goals and then together design a system to help us accomplish those goals. It always involves using other people and having friends hold us accountable for the things we want to do in life. The second approach of me applying behavioural science to my own life is still very much work related: It’s knowing how to install actual change, organizational change, through behavioural science. The biggest question in an organization is: how do we do change? How does organizational change happen? And what I think Irrational Labs has figured out is that in our work we are trying to get companies to try out new interventions, new nudges and new experiences and it is not just enough for us to go to them and say “here’s a great idea!” we actually teach them behavioural science tools and training before we come with the idea, so that than we’re all on the same level. Especially if we also brainstorm together they often come up with the idea. When you have this toolkit of behavioural science you can really be more creative in solutions. Getting people to come with the ideas rather than us coming up with the ideas. We tend to like our own ideas much more, so the art of this is to have companies, stakeholders or our points of contact really drive this ideation process, so they are the ones coming up with the ideas. We think this is a secret of our success, because ideas are more likely to flourish within that company if they were proposed and owned by someone internally. In that case, we can do more and have more impact.

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 being a behavioural scientist is really an opportunity to understand decision-making and then build solutions that drive behaviour change based on key insights. And that whole experience is really based on a few things: 1. One is an interest in psychology, an interest in decision-making as a core curiosity and the drive for most behavioural scientists. 2. The second, a more hard-skill, would be the appreciation of the process. The process of behavioural science is to do more experimentation and to question our intuition and to develop methods that really help us narrow down on an idea or concept based on what people do versus what they say. So experience with field testing or randomly controlled trials is helpful. 3. Knowing design is very helpful. Most things and details matter. Designers usually try to control those very details. If you can get good at sketching or mapping things out those are very good skills to have and will put you in a very good position to be in. 4. Another important skill to have is data science. Half of the battle in research is figuring out how to set up the experiment: making sure you’re isolating the variable you want to look at and you’re asking the right question, so you can eliminate the possibility of your set-up driving the result. The other half of the battle is doing the actual code and the statistics. 5. The last skill I would call the consultant-skillset, where we have to present our ideas in a clear and articulate manner. And be convincing enough to get other people to do them and try them out for us. We are not ourselves people who build these solutions, we work with companies to do that. But most people who are behavioural scientists will partner will partner with an engineer or designer to make the concept come alive. So the skill of convincing people to work with you is very important as well.

How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? My sense is that behavioural science will be more ingrained, or a part of the product and solution development process. More human-centered design and design thinking has integrated itself into problem solving and innovation. Behavioural science will also do so, in the way that we will focus on what they do than what they say to study and build solutions. Concretely, I think the field will evolve to do more lab and field studies, which will make studies less controlled. Because of the variations and noise in both the lab and the field are harder. We’ll have to come up with more creative ways to narrow down on hypotheses, given the fact that we are entering much noisier environments.

Which other behavioural scientist would you like to read an interview by? Obviously I am a big fan of Dan Ariely. I am very much a part of his cult, as many behavioural scientists are. I’m also a big fan of Rory Sutherland, who is a behavioural scientist with Ogilvy, he was advertising man who turned behavioural scientist. I think anyone doing applied work in behavioural science has had a lot of learning. I think this field is learning very quickly and its people need to learn to very quickly what works, how it works and what doesn’t. Second I think industry people who are in companies who do a lot of testing have a ton of insights. Anyone who is a growth marketer at a large tech company may have more insights about how you get someone to do something than one behavioural scientist does, because they are actually looking at real data at scale. So I think most people who have done controlled trials are very interesting to speak with.


Thank you for these great answers Kristen! I'll make sure to dive into experts when it comes to conducting RCTs.

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

Personal Finance



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