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Interview with Kurt Nelson

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 Kurt Nelson.

Kurt is a sought-after speaker and recognized leader in human motivation and behavior change. For over 20 years, Kurt has worked with global companies to apply behavioral science principles to drive change in their organizations. He is founder and president of The Lantern Group, a communication and behavioral design agency. He also is the co-founder, with Tim Houlihan, of the Behavioral Grooves podcast, where they interview leading academic and business executives from around the world and explore how they apply behavioral science to their work and lives. All his work focuses on understanding ways to positively influence how people behave, so I'm excited to see his answers!


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I’ve always been fascinated by people. My favourite classes in college were my social psychology classes – I loved the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments that showed how we were greatly influenced by those around us and our environments – to the degree that many of us would do things that we wouldn’t otherwise think we were capable of. However, being a practical Midwestern boy, I went into business and studied economics and marketing. Fast forward a few years after getting my MBA I was working in marketing for a mid-sized organization and hated it. Luckily for me, the company had a small division that did OD work. Even more fortunate for me, they liked me and brought me in to work on some of their projects. It was there that I started leading and designing team building programs. Those team building programs again introduced me to the power of group norms, social influence, motivation, and a number of other behavioural science principles. I was transfixed.

When I started my own consulting a firm shortly after that, I knew that I needed to focus it on impacting human behaviour. I also knew that I needed to learn more about why we do what we do so I went back to get my PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. I have been working in applying behavioural science principles inside of businesses ever since. What has been interesting for me, is that the learning never stops. I have probably learned more and grown more interested in behavioural science insights and application in the past five years, than I did in the previous 15.

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

I’m not a researcher. I would like to be, but not being in academia or in the public sector, the opportunity to do research is harder to come by (but not impossible, so I still have a chance for my many ideas). So the accomplishments that I’m most proud of is educating people on behavioural science. This is both inside of businesses where I work with senior leadership to help them understand how they can bring a behavioural science lens to the business and improve the lives and performance of their employees, to the work that I do with Tim Houlihan with Behavioral Grooves to bring together a community of behavioural science enthusiasts to learn, share, and expand how we apply these insights to our lives and work. In regards to what I still want to achieve – obviously there is the research piece (I have some ideas on some experiments around motivation if anyone wants to partner with me on that) but probably more important to me is growing the community of behavioural science enthusiasts. I believe that understanding our basic drives and ways of operating can help us lead more fulfilling and more productive lives. This is my mission moving forward.

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

Probably still doing marketing or some sort of management consulting. Again, the practicality side of me would push me to do that, but if I didn’t have to worry about money, I think I would get into playwriting or screenwriting. Telling stories about people that shed light on our human conditions or transport us into different worlds.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

Very poorly. My children often catch me trying to use some form of influence on them and they call me out on it, “Papa, are you using that psychology stuff on us again?” So while I do apply some behavioural hacks in my life to try to lose weight, or focus more, or establish good habits and routines, I feel like I fail as often as I succeed. The one hack I talk about a lot is moving my beloved Oreos to the basement so they are still available to eat, but not in my face in the pantry every time I open up those doors to see what is there. I think it reduces my Oreo consumption by a cookie or two a week, but I’m not really sure.

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

Curiosity is key. In particular, curiosity about people. I think good behavioural scientists are always looking at things and asking “why?” We’ve interviewed over 200 people for the podcast and I think the common factor that runs through them all was that they all observed the human world (or primate world, we interviewed a primatologist as well) and they wanted to understand what was going on. The would look at something and say, “why did this person respond this way and not a different way?” The other skill that they almost all had was a keen sense of observation. It is so easy to go through life without noticing things. One interview we just recently did was with Leidy Klotz who related a story about building a Lego bridge with his young son. When the bridge was uneven because the legs were different sizes, Leidy went to grab another Lego brick to add on to the shorter leg, while his son just took a Lego brick off the longer leg. Leidy was observant enough to realize that his first instinct was to add and not subtract. This observation led him to research this phenomena and ultimately write the book Subtract that explores this human quirk in detail.

To be a good behavioural scientist, these two skills are vital.

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

I’m excited to observe and be a part of this journey over the next ten years. I think behavioural science is at an interesting inflection point in its development. I see behavioural science becoming more interwoven into businesses as they realize the impact that it can have. Right now, it is more widely accepted in the consumer facing aspects of business: advertising, marketing, UX, etc… Over the next ten years, I anticipate that more internal functions will embrace it such as HR, operations, even leadership. I also see that the applied BS field is trying to organize itself and put parameters up – with a few associations being recently formed around applied behavioural science. This could have some positive elements, particularly as it comes to defining a code of ethics, but I’m also cautious that the field becomes to formal and limiting in who it deems as a “behavioural scientist.” I think it is a tricky balancing act that needs to happen and I’m curious to see how this plays out over the next ten years. The integration of technology into behavioural science is another area that in the next ten years will have a significant impact on it – both from AI and machine learning, to better technology around neuroscience and getting neuroscience feedback in the real world (not in a big fMRI machine).

I also see a more global approach to behavioural science. We have been mired in a WEIRD world and we need to expand that to include insights and research from the Global South and other non-WEIRD areas. With that, we’ve recently formed along with 17 other consultancies from around the world including India, Australia, Africa, South America, Europe and the US, a consulting network, Diversifi, that is taking on this challenge of bringing a global perspective to the clients we work with. What I love about this, is that the network is both a way to expand our insights and our impact. One thing about behavioural science is that it melds a number of different scientific fields under its umbrella – everything from psychology, to sociology, to behavioural economics, to neuroscience, to economics and more. This allows for a broad look into our behaviour and thinking. I’m hoping that the interconnection between the disciplines becomes more connected, more interwoven. Particularly in academia.

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

I’m always interested in the fringe areas – what are people doing in primatology, or social connections work, or digital footprints, or other areas that may not feel like they have a direct connection to behavioural science, but then you talk to people in those fields and find the most wonderful insights. So no person in particular, just in general, people who are doing cool work in different areas.


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

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!

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