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Interview with Liam Delaney

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 Liam Delaney.

Liam is the Head of Department for Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE. His career has focused at the intersection of economics, psychology, and public policy applications and he has developed a number of programmes in this area. From 2017 to 2020 he was Professor of Economics at University College Dublin, where he led the development of the UCD Behavioural Science and Policy programme. Prior to this, he was Professor at Stirling University, and led the development of the Stirling Behavioural Science centre. He is working currently on ethical frameworks for behavioural policy applications, mental health and public policy, and naturalistic research designs for measuring human preferences.


Who or what got you into behavioural science? I have been studying economics and psychology since I was a teenager growing up during a period of recession in Ireland. I read extensively in my local library, which happened to have a decent economics and a decent psychology section which were beside one another. And it made a lot of sense. When I registered for university, it was possible to study economics and psychology jointly, I think I was one of the only people to have done it at that stage in Trinity College in Dublin. It wasn't common. It has become a lot more common to think of those things together. And then I became exposed to the work of great scholars like Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahneman and those types of people as an undergraduate. It's from there that I got into behavioural science. I was the first in my family to go to university which turned out to be helpful in one way, there was no real weight of expectation to move into any particular profession and I think it just seemed quite natural to me to want to work on this as a career. What really drew me in was the history of the discipline itself. I have never fully recognized the distinction between economics and psychology. If you look at the history of the development of both economics and psychology, the rigid distinction that formed in the mid to late 20th century was quite unnatural. The idea that you could separate them out doesn't make sense, really, if you think of both as being sciences that understand human behavior. I am not particularly keen on seeing what we now call behavioural science as being the resolution of that process. I think there's a lot more work to be done to resolve some contradictions in how these different streams have developed in different periods of time. For example, we're using a phrase behavioural science to refer to the stream that's relatively recent in one sense, but if you look at it further, you know, how would you compare it to the behavioural science of the 1950s - people like Herbert Simon -, and go back even further still, looking at all of these attempts to bring psychological foundations to economics in the 19th and 20th century. So in terms of what drew me to it, I don't think I ever was drawn away from it. My instinct from, even as a teenager, was that you couldn't understand economic problems without having a psychological foundation for them. And that psychology, divorced from questions of institution design and allocation was never particularly interesting to me. And I think that's the experience increasingly of people coming into the area, they see these things as they are, which is as fundamentally intertwined.


What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve? I'm proud of developing two interdisciplinary programs in the area with strong collaborations with public policy: one in UCD that is now moving into its fifth year and one in Stirling University, which is an intrinsically interdisciplinary behavioural science program that's run now for nearly ten years, and brought some really good students, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, together. Both involved working constantly with people are curious about and interested in bringing behavioural science together in public policy applications. More recently, I'm proud to have developed, or am proud of being in the early stages of developing an ethical framework for how behavioural science is applied in public policy. And I think, as we are developing the Department in LSE, I'm increasingly interested in how we could develop more strongly the intellectual foundations of the pragmatics of behavioural science, ethics, institutionalization, professionalisation and trust. Not just thinking of them as issues of application, but also really thinking deeply about the intellectual issues of behavioural policy at scale. I have been involved a lot at the intersection of academia and policy. For example, I wrote the code of conduct for the new Global Association for Applied Behavioral Science (GAABS). I worked recently on the Irish government covid team, where we had a team of behavioural scientists, people from health psychology, behavioural economics, experimental economics, nested within an overall government response. And we're really adding something significant to it grounded in ethics and ideas around how to scale and do things very rapidly. And I think to the extent that I can drive work here in LSE, in our programs, it will be to contribute to a behavioural science that is a real deep level public service. Or at the very least, a very deep level, integral, professional aspect of wider action.

Other than that, my work has been looking at the interaction between mental health and public policy. So not just the effect of public policy on mental health, but also the extent to which understanding the role of mental health in decision making can influence how you think about a whole range of public policies. For a long time that that has been a big missing link from behavioural science that we have reintegrated a lot of work in cognition, social psychology whereas this work on clinical psychology and mental health has more or less been absent in a strategic way from what we would talk about as behavioural science now. We obviously need more on deep level questions of people's mental health, you know, which touch at the big aspects of people's utility or what can destroy people from a public policy perspective. We've had the wellbeing literature, we've had a behavioural decision making literature. And it is really, the interaction between those two, I think, still needs quite a lot of work and I hope I can make a contribution there over the rest of my career.


If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? If you look at the types of characters who've been influential in these fields, over the years, they've often had outside interests. And I think that in some sense, this is partly because they're drawn to the realism. I think that the application and the realism of behavioural models go hand in hand in a way that if you are comfortable with deep level theoretical abstraction, you're also comfortable with sort of staying away from real world institutions often. Whereas the folks who have tended to be drawn towards developing realistic micro foundations have tended to be drawn towards policy or they've been drawn towards policy which has led them to be dissatisfied with models that don't have those sort of micro foundations. I think I would have, like most people are in this area, a natural curiosity and desire for application, that would have probably stood to me in other walks of life. Having said that, I love being a Professor involved in developing and running programmes, it keeps you constantly in contact with a wide range of people and I am glad to have had the opportunity to develop this career.


How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? I am what the literature has called a sophisticated, low self-control person. Not keeping anything tempting within reach has been my main behaviourally-informed tactic when it comes to food in particular. And I have developed very good habits over time around exercise and so on, partly inspired by various literatures. While also realising behavioural science isn't about turning you into a hyper controlled individual. I haven't become this super clean-living person since I've studied behavioural science. But I think I certainly have got a greater awareness of what it is that I like doing and get meaning from rather than just want to do in a given moment. And when we talk about this distinction within the beta delta preferences, and what your true preference is, is it to have that extra beer on Friday night? Or is it to bind yourself from doing that all the time? And in truth, the more we look at those models and think about them, there's no clean answer to that. You don't necessarily want to have a life that's hyper controlled. So I think for me, it's helped me own the process of being a sophisticated low self-control person, and allowing myself enough room for spontaneity, but also have a good sense of how to keep to bigger goals that I have. I also like temptation bundling and those sort of concepts. A nice coffee after a run really is one of the best things in life. When it comes to things like finances, you do get a real appreciation of how much things like set-and-forget it strategies are just really effective, if you can bind yourself to doing these things. And the fascinating thing, and this comes from my own research also, is that often there's no necessary trade-off between short run pleasure and long-run well-being. When it comes to things like this, you actually feel better in the short run if you've done it. And you're more set up for the long run. So, it’s a win-win.


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 there's a few things. Having been involved in several programs, I think there's the emergence of a generic skill set that I think will be valuable. And it will differentiate over time, but the ability to understand experiments, the ability to understand a range of survey data, the ability to analyse those sorts of data are all obviously core. And while a lot of what we call behavioural science in our communities will tend to focus on quantitative calls and design, I think you're going to see a lot more people with specialisations in ethnography and various different types of qualitative designs, increasingly using the terminology of behavioural science. So I would say certainly, with my students here in LSE, I advise them to develop a strong mixed methods toolkit. And I think that a theoretical foundation in social psychology, cognitive psychology, and behavioural economics helps. It is tricky, because if you study any of those disciplines, you could study them happily for 10 years, and still only scratch the surface of elements of it. So it becomes a balancing act to define what that skillset is. But I think anyone working in that area should understand the basics of judgment and heuristics, intertemporal choice, various types of models around emotion and identity. Enough that they when they encounter models that are used, that they have enough of a critical and theoretical understanding to be able to understand how those models work. I think an ethical sense is also very important and an understanding of institutional aspects. I often say to my students is, if somebody said to you, I'm a computer scientist, what would you ask them next? And of course, what you would ask them next is: “what do you actually do? What do you specialize in?” They want to know that you've got a defined expertise, and you've got experience in something. And there’s no real shortcuts to that. You have to develop a skill set. And it could be quantitative, it could be qualitative. Develop a knowledge of some literatures and then develop hands on pragmatic expertise. I regularly meet former students who are now 10-15 years out, who've worked in areas like financial regulation, or they've worked in areas like social policy, and they’re a joy to speak to because they combine all those skills that they picked up in college and developed with a real understanding of the domains that they work in. And I think that's really, when you transcend surface knowledge, and you move into expertise. And that's the hope for this. We're not trying to just create hundreds of people who have a sort of basic knowledge of behavioural stats and who have read some of the surface material. We are trying to create people that enter into their industries with that sort of skill set, and then are accumulating the type of knowledge that you would need to really affect change in institutions. So I think that's the skill set. It's a generic, methodological, and theoretical skillset. And a mindset for developing expertise in areas of practice.


How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? I think there will be different things happening. There will be a greater specialization, and there'll be more differentiation. So I think you'll see fields like behavioural economics becoming very technical aspects of economics. And I think we'll increasingly know the difference between the emerging trans-discipline of behavioural science and behavioural economics, which will generally be seen as a particular stream of economics. I think we will continue to develop more terms like behavioural public administration, to differentiate particular aspects of it. And it would be very interesting to see what the generic phrase behavioural science comes to mean. I suspect it might come to mean what it did before. And to an increasing degree that it will be seen as a sort of generic general term, to unite a whole range of different disciplines. I still feel a lot of people in economics and psychology use it to mean, essentially, the intersection between economics and psychology that emerged in the 80s and 90s. But that's just not tenable as a use of that phrase. Because of anthropology, sociology, and all these other disciplines’ previous uses of it. But I'm not pessimistic. I actually think that the clarification will be very interesting. Some of the things that I've seen that point to the future will be, for example, the development of the behavior public policy journal. And although we're not perfectly defined, you can see that there's a community of people that are speaking a very common language, about public policy and the need to have behavioural foundations for public policy. I think that there is no way that that is just going to run out of steam in the near future. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, people interested in working in that area, but we do have issues now of conceptual clarity. And we have issues of treading on the toes of existing fields. There has been a danger all the way through that when you create a trans-discipline it can end up reinventing things that had been known in other disciplines. And so I think that's going to be an interesting process to work through. But transdisciplines can, if they emerge in the right way, do things that are genuinely transformative. And I think we will see things like that. I think we will see models increasingly develop that you couldn't pin to any particular discipline, and that, in essence, break free from those existing disciplines. And we are getting to the scale in this enterprise, where that could really happen. And I don't necessarily think it would be a general theory of human behavior or something like that. But I think it could be a set of models that really become quite influential in a whole range of areas of life, which we're seeing the beginnings of. And whether that becomes something that is somewhat niche or whether it becomes something that is one of humanity's biggest hopes in the 21st century is something to dwell on. What will it look like to have fully elaborated behavioural foundations underpinning major issues like climate change, pandemic response, etc.,? When you start thinking about it at that scale, some of the potential for advancement is really immense.


Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? I hate being obvious but I think if I have to be fair, I would probably say, Cass Sunstein. I would say Cass’s work has been the one that has most energized my teaching and helped in terms of connecting those threads in my mind. He is obviously prolific in terms of output but I think there is still a lot he has to contribute in terms of how these literatures deal with the increasing amounts of contact they are having with the real-world.


Thank you so much for these amazing answers Liam!

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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