Interview with Liz Barker

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 Liz Barker.

Liz is Director of Global Behavioural Intelligence at The Behavioural Architects, an award-winning consultancy with behavioural science at its core, where she bridges the worlds of academia and business. She and co-Founder Crawford Hollingworth head up the company’s unique Core Intelligence unit which is dedicated to furthering the application of the latest insights and findings in behavioural science to marketing, business and research in order to better understand and steer consumer behaviour for clients. Her background is in economics, particularly the application of behavioral science across a range of fields, from healthcare and finance to international development.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

In short, firstly, disillusionment that Economics did not always reflect the world around me and secondly, meeting Crawford Hollingworth, one of the founders of The Behavioural Architects eleven years ago when they were looking for someone to join them as they launched!

I have an academic background in Economics, doing a BA and an MSc in the late 90s and early 2000s. Behavioural economics was not mentioned once, despite it being a well established field by that time and Daniel Kahneman winning his Nobel prize in 2002.

During my undergraduate degree I remember questioning the assumption made in many economic models, that people make rational decisions, as when I looked around me at how real people behaved, they didn’t always seem to make the best decisions. Instead, my supervisors waived my concerns aside saying that the variation in decision making all ‘cancelled out’ in the aggregate. Yet with biases, we know that this simply isn’t true, since people’s decisions tend to skew in a particular direction.

So when behavioural science started to become more widely known later in the 2000s I was intrigued to learn more. Luckily, I was offered the opportunity to join The Behavioural Architects as their first employee when they launched in 2011. We are a global insight, research and strategic consultancy company built with behavioural science at our core, and I am still with them today. I had wanted to work in a startup for a long time, so it was a brilliant option for me.

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

I’m proud of the behavioural science articles I co-author with Crawford Hollingworth for The Behavioural Architects. We’ve now published over 300 articles, across all the major market research and marketing platforms and some behsci platforms such as the Behavioral Scientist. We really try to push the thinking on behavioural science, spot new trends or highlight new or less well-known research. For example, we were one of the first to predict the growth of in-house behavioural scientists back in 2014, one of the first to analyse the concept of Sludge in 2017, and we’ve brought to attention fascinating research on the teenage brain and ageing brain and successful initiatives to help people lead more sustainable lives.

Equally, we advised on an Oxfam-led project to design and manufacture a user-friendly handwashing stand for refugee camps. In a humanitarian emergency, diarrhoeal diseases cause 40% of deaths, of which 80% are children. Washing hands properly can reduce the risk of disease spreading by around 45%, so interventions that are successful in promoting and enabling handwashing could save millions of lives. Yet, whilst aid agencies have well-designed latrine kits they can dispatch to camps, there were no readily available, low-cost, approved handwashing kits. This meant handwashing habits were hard to instill in a camp setting, with make-shift versions often limited, poorly maintained and not user-friendly.

To solve the problem, Foyeke Tolani at Oxfam (now at PHE) built an amazing multi-disciplinary team, drawing on sanitation (WASH) experts, logisticians, commercial product designers and graphic designers - and me as an advisor on behavioural science. I think the final product we now have is much stronger for having so many different perspectives inputting and feeding into the design.

My focus was on how to make the physical design easy to use so that it built a strong handwashing habit and how we might add additional visual nudges to the handwashing stand to motivate handwashing further. I also helped to design the trials in the camps, to e