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 Lena Belogolova. Lena is the Founding Partner and Head of Behavioral Science at Intellichanges, Inc. She uses behavioural science to learn from, question, run experiments on and make small tweaks to the forces that influence our day to day decisions. Her work is really diverse, as she has been applying the behavioural science lens to optimizing not only the way consumers act/feel but also with in-company + personal tools, behaviors, as well as marketing, pricing and product strategies. Take it away Lena!
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
Answering this question after 4 weeks of COVID-19 quarantine means I’ve had a lot of time to reflect. It also happens to be the week of the Jewish holiday Passover. While I’m generally not a practicing Jew, I will say that the traditions of Passover point to what I love and is fundamental in Jewish culture as well as behavioral science - the questioning of everything. For those who aren’t familiar, there’s a tradition where the youngest children at the table ask the adults questions about the Passover story and traditions.
I was interested in behavioral science before I knew what behavioral science was.
As I look back on my family conversations, education, and my career, I was always asking myself why I was making each decision and why somebody else was making a particular decision. Trying to understand this force is probably why I became interested in cognitive science and neuroscience when I was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
A seminal moment for me was at my first job out of college - as a trader on Wall Street. While trading, I noticed patterns in the way that people responded to me either on the phone or on the broker boards when I showed them odd numbers and specific numbers (lower yields = higher price). The pattern that I noticed was that they would simply negotiate with me less if I used more specific numbers and odd numbers. At that time, I was one of the people leading overnight funding at Goldman Sachs and was in charge of a significant amount of money on a daily basis so I was able to experiment and test my hypothesis. When I did, in as clean of a set of tests as I could at the time, the results were undeniable: It was clear that I ended up making more money simply by changing how I presented information.
I then thought… I can’t be the only person who has noticed this pattern? And sure enough, I wasn’t. This whole world of anchoring and availability bias and precision effect opened up to me - and I was hooked. I also quickly realized that I had actually been inadvertently running behavioral science experiments in real life and in classes while at MIT. For example, I did some survey research as MIT students were entering our elementary differential equations class by asking them their preference between milk, dark, and white chocolate (my hypothesis was that dark chocolate was objectively better). I was surprised to learn that almost 80% of people preferred milk chocolate. This consensus information about chocolate preferences forced me to re-evaluate my views and admit that maybe chocolate preference was a matter of taste. This research ended up being the inspiration for my paper with Stephen Spiller in 2016 on how malleable our product preferences are. Not only that, but I later found out that one of my closest friends had actually worked in Dan Ariely’s lab at MIT when we were there. I started talking to Dan, got involved with Startuponomics, and the rest is history - thank you, Dan.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist?
The accomplishment of making this a career. I was always envious of those people who knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives from the moment they found that one “thing” in school or at work that they wanted to dedicate their life to. I was always good at math, but didn’t love it like that. I am so blessed to have figured out my “thing” and that I get to do it.
Beyond that, this isn’t quite a singular accomplishment, but it’s worth mentioning because it is incredibly fulfilling: It’s those moments when behavioral science starts to click for the CEO or a leader at a company I’m working with. That moment when they start doing a behavioral audit of their product or a new product feature based on something I’ve taught them… those moments are each priceless accomplishments.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I really don’t know - it took me long enough to get here.
In another life, I always thought I’d do something related to music since, in behavioral speak, that’s how I embrace my system 1 (the more emotional/non-analytical part of my decision making). Sometimes I crave doing something that takes me outside my analytical mind and music has always been a great reprieve.
How do you apply behavioural economics/science in your personal life?
I’ve used behavioral economics in a myriad of ways throughout the years and continue to do so almost on a daily basis.
A few specific examples:
I used the concepts of mental accounting and illusion of progress to lose 35 lbs. Specifically, I made sure I was hyper-aware of the mental accounts that we maintain of exceptional foods and exceptional contexts for eating food (great research by Abby Sussman). These mental accounts have been shown to limit our awareness of how much food we’re eating. I always identify when I am in an exceptional scenario or eating exceptional foods and make a conscious decision to only eat half by putting the other half away (or throwing it away). I also created spreadsheets that simulated progress bars by giving myself stickers for standard daily tasks I already did (e.g. brush teeth, make bed, wash face) and introduced new good eating habits/workouts one at a time. By the time I went to eat breakfast, I already had 5 stickers for my morning routine and didn’t want to throw the progress off by not eating a healthy one.
I use the planning fallacy concept to make sure I don’t underestimate the time I need to perform tasks for clients and set more accurate expectations: Whenever I send a proposal to a client, I use my previous experience on specific similar projects (e.g. a behavioral audit) to make sure I employ my planning fallacy multiplier when I provide deadline estimates.
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 it’s so important to start from a place that should be a prerequisite for all scientists, not just behavioral scientists, and that’s intellectual curiosity. Intellectual curiosity, in my mind, is composed of three main things: (1) being comfortable asking why something is happening; (2) understanding of and appreciating the scientific method (this includes loving the learning you get from a null result) and, this is related: (3) being comfortable with being wrong.
In order to be a successful behavioral scientist, it is important to have an understanding of how the brain works, a background in psychology and economics, as well as an interest in learning more. As a side note, I believe neuroeconomics is still relatively in its infancy and there’s a lot of opportunity there for anyone with an understanding of neuroscience.
In terms of specific technical skills, understanding how to craft and run experiments, design surveys, and complete analysis of the results (comfort with data, SQL, statistics) is also super important.
Beyond the basics for scientists, a behavioral scientist in industry vs. in academia is a different beast right now and I really hope that these two worlds start converging more and more. In order to aid in that transition, I think the most important skill set is the ability to translate complex concepts from academia into industry and from industry to academia. Having been in both worlds, I think it’s really important that we come together in order to help grow this industry, help more people, and inform one another. In fact, this initiative/blog is a good example of that!
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I think a lot depends on how industry and academia interact with one another in the future. If a more symbiotic relationship between real research and business application/value is developed, I believe good behavioral research is possible at scale. This outcome depends on a few big things:
How open and willing industry is to incorporating experimentation and research into their business (slowing down a bit)
How open and willing academia, specifically business schools and economics departments, are to valuing field work research in industry (moving a bit faster)
Right now, we are in the early stages of this industry and all of us behavioral scientists/economists are trying to figure out where we fit within industry incentives, and how we convince leaders that this matters. I think how these relationships develop will greatly shape how behavioral science develops in the next decade.
Finally, I believe the field will continue to develop to study more nuanced behaviors and their changes over time. Specifically, I believe we will start to see even greater behavioral personalization and context-specific research and field work.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Abby Sussman, because I’ve admired her and her work in financial decision-making since my grad school days (and because we both started our careers working at Goldman Sachs). Specifically, I’ve personally used her research on exceptional expenses to lose weight, as I mentioned above, -- so thank you, Abby!
Hal Hershfield, because I have an enormous amount of respect for Hal and his contribution to research on the future self. Specifically, I think his work is so important if we ever want to start changing people’s behavior today for intangible things in the future (by limiting at least some of the power of present bias/hyperbolic discounting).
Thank you for these great answers Lena! I'm a massive fan of Abby Sussman as well, and will make sure to reach out to her! I'll do the same with Hal :)
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!