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 Lionel Page. Lionel is a Professor in Economics at the University of Technology Sydney. He joined the Economics Discipline Group in January 2019. He has received his PhD in economics from the Paris School of Economics in 2007. Lionel possesses research skills from different fields including Econometrics, Decision Theory, Sociology and Behavioral Economics and applies them to practical problems from areas of financial and prediction markets, education and inequality. His research interests spans decision-making, either alone or in groups, linking insights from economic theory to the behavioural sciences such as psychology.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I was always interested in how people make decisions. In France, I did a double degree in economics and political sociology. Eventually, I chose economics. As I started my PhD, I found about the research in behavioural economics and economics of decisions and found it really interesting. My research interest ended up eventually focusing on these areas.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
Tough question, as I am usually a harsh judge on myself as many academics are (isn’t our proudest achievement is this next big idea around the corner?).
That being said, now I would have to say that it is my book which I recently finished “Optimally irrational”. It was an ambitious project to review behavioural economics findings and try to make sense of them. The book merges insights from standard (old) economics, behavioural economics, and other behavioural sciences, evolutionary and neuroscience. It is the kind of books I would have loved to read as a PhD student. I think it will be useful to many behavioural scientists across different fields.
What I still want to achieve? I enjoyed writing this book, even though the writing process is challenging at times. I am considering writing some other books on topics I already have in mind. Besides that, I’ll enjoy producing interesting research at the crossroads of different behavioural sciences with my colleagues.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
Interesting question. I was trained in France as a school teacher (as part of the quirky French educational system). So I could be a school teacher. I indeed did training in a high school and had to request to be relieved to continue my PhD.
I was then trained as an economist & statistician, and I guess I could be working with data and statistics in some other professions. I did a stint in a hedge fund and could have stayed there.
But I think I really got the job I would have liked the most: asking questions about human behaviour and using models, experiments and field data to answer them.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
Don’t ask my kids. They can’t get away with anything without me telling them why they do what they do… and often why it’s wrong.
Overall, I see the world as an interesting laboratory. People are continuously engaged in very complex problem-solving tasks without being aware of it. It is the case, in particular, when you consider social interactions where people have to coordinate with others and form beliefs about intentions and beliefs about others' beliefs. We are really good at solving these problems without engaging in too much mentalising, which means we often do not have a deep understanding what why we do what we do. It’s a bit like riding a bike. We are able to do it, even though we don't have a theory of how bikes work. As a behavioural scientist I like to see and understand the different layers of complexity in the settings we are engaged, which determine why we are doing what we do.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
I’d make two recommendations to become a behavioural scientist doing research. First, I’d recommend to be trained in mathematics, at least at an undergrad level if possible. Models of behaviour either in economics, game theory or neuroscience are quantitative. If you want to understand these models and their limitations, you’d want to be able to engage with their level of formalism. Applied mathematics in the form of statistics is also useful to do empirical research rigorously. Second, I would recommend to read widely across behavioural sciences. Economics is great, but there are lots of great contributions in psychology, biology and neuroscience. A young researcher can really benefit from getting these diverse insights to shape one's view of the different explanations of human behaviour.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
Predictions are always hard. We have seen a big push towards more empirical applications in economics and with more computer power and more data available it makes sense we are have made these steps. Ten years is really tomorrow in science so I don’t expect things to be very different, but you can expect new approaches to have a growing importance. One likely candidate is behavioural genetics which benefits a lot from the gains in data and computer power. The way behaviour is studied by geneticist is very different from how it is studied by behavioural scientists who come from more social science type of fields like economics and psychology. There is a potential of disruption here in the same way that psychology eventually changed how economics was done. After having been ignored for decades, the “behavioural revolution” happened when economists finally accepted insights from psychology and merged these insights with mainstream economic ideas. The same thing could happen with behavioural genetics.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Here are a three very interesting behavioural scientists: Robert Frank, Wolfram Schultz, and Peter Bossaerts.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Lionel!
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!