Interview with Liam Smith



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 Smith.


Liam is the Director of BehaviourWorks Australia (BWA) at Monash University. Since establishing BWA in 2011, he has overseen significant growth and the research group now consists of 35 staff. Since establishment, BWA has undertaken over 600 behaviour change projects in collaboration with government and industry partners on a wide range of social, environmental and health challenges. Liam has overseen many of these projects, with a strong personal portfolio of research in social inclusion and pro-environmental behaviour. His research interests include behavioural spillover, habit formation and the nexus between behaviour and societal transitions. He has published over 60 research papers in a diverse range of journals, and has authored over 200 research reports. He is currently on the Board of Inclusive Australia, the Lancet global taskforce on non-pharmaceutical interventions for COVID-19, South East Water’s Customer Engagement Council, and Monash Sustainable Development Institute’s Executive and Graduate Research Committee. He has previously held positions on Zoos Victoria’s Scientific Advisory Committee and Vichealth’s Leading Thinkers Taskforce.

 


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

A couple of experiences led to my interest.


I did an environmental management degree in the early 90s, after which I travelled for several years before combining my passions – environmental issues and travel to do a Masters in Ecotourism. During this degree I did a project seeking to change the behaviour of people who were incidentally encountering minke whales during scuba diving expeditions on the Great Barrier Reef. When the whales turned up, divers were supposed to get out of the water, take off their scuba gear and put on snorkelling gear before getting back into the water to watch the whales from the surface. My attempts weren’t particularly successful at changing behaviour, but I realised that people management was an important part of conservation.


A couple of years later I was doing some volunteer work to monitor an endangered frog population when a proposal came to develop an area that contained an important breeding pond. Despite the protestations from those involved in the project, and various other scientists, the development went ahead and the pond was destroyed in favour of the development. From that moment, it became clear to me that conservation was more about the attitudes and actions people than it was about science.


Motivated by these experiences I did two further higher degrees (MPhil and PhD), to transition into behavioural science, in the hope I could make a bigger difference by persuading people to care (and act) on environmental issues.

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

I am most proud of the staff and the work culture we have at BehaviourWorks Australia. We have a hard-working team with a strong appetite for making a difference underpinned by a great team ethos and a willingness to help each other out. Seeing staff thrive in this environment, and progress, is the epitome of success.


I think there more, and much needed work to be done on the link between behaviour and systems / societal transitions. A few years ago, I had an existential crisis when I realised that much of the work we were doing may be causing more harm than good because we were putting band aids on much bigger issues and the focus should have been on more systemic change. Over several months, I realised that behaviour change can be important in system change, and may even be used to drive it. So now I want to understand how behavioural science can drive changes to systems and support societal transitions… and put this understanding into practice.



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

I have no idea. I’ve done over 30 different jobs in my life, mostly when I was younger and travelling, but this one is the one I love the most. Perhaps something in graduate research design or administration because I’m passionate about shifting universities to be more relevant and I think this starts in PhD training.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

One small thing I do is write daily ‘to do’ lists. I know that writing things down is a form of commitment which increases the likelihood I’ll do them. I sometimes add items that I’ve already done to my lists, just so I can cross them off to feel like I’ve accomplished something.


It is worth noting that no behaviour science techniques seem to work on my two teenage kids… so I often resort to shouting louder! I think they’re at an age where a parental voice is much less influential than peers.


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

Depends on what we mean by “behavioural scientist’. There are plenty of academic researchers looking into the reasons why people do and don’t do the things they do… but in a less applied way. These more traditional academic behavioural scientists are vital for the generating and testing of new ideas and models and so need to be both innovative and rigorous. Applied researchers are a little different. They need to be across the literature, be creative in turning ideas into interventions and (while also being rigorous) know how to adapt when field studies go awry… which they inevitably do.


At BehaviourWorks, we sit in both camps. We try and test new ideas in the real world, and publish a lot of our work to share we learn in situ. This means we need both sets of skills.

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

Behavioural science is certainly mainstreaming. There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of BI units in governments and government departments around the world. It’s also interesting to see that some regulators are now mandating that regulatees use behavioural science in their approaches to compliance. This is exciting because it expands the areas in which behavioural science can work, but also because it enables behavioural science to combine with a long and rich history in regulatory theory and models of compliance.


In terms of areas where behavioural science itself can progress, there are many but to name a few:


  1. There are many models of behaviour but which ones work best in which circumstances to understand behaviour and design interventions?

  2. There is some work on the breaking and formation of habits but more is needed to understand what works for whom, in which circumstances and why.

  3. What mechanisms are needed foster behavioural spillover (one behaviour leading to another)?

  4. What are the synergies between intervention types? Do they combine for greater effect and if so, which combinations tend to work well together?

  5. See my answer to question two regarding systems and behaviour – to me, that’s the key question.



What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?

I’m a researcher so I would say to any upcoming behavioural scientist thinking about a career in applied area: 1) Be sure to work with others that you can learn from. These can be disciplinary expertise or practitioners. Lifelong learning is a privilege. 2) Be humble. Behaviour change is rarely the only solution to issues, particularly complex ones. We need to review evidence and listen and learn from others before deciding how, and if, behavioural science is the right tool and 3) Be empathetic. To be a good behavioural scientist, you really need to understand the viewpoint of your target audience.

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

Given the blog is financed-focused, I can recommend one of our staff, Dr Fernanda Mata, who is very focused on behavioural science and finance issues such as saving for retirement, retirement confidence and risky behaviour in the finance sector.



 

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