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 ensure insights from behavioural science were taken into account in the baseline qualitative research, and how we evaluated the handwashing stand. For example, how could we objectively record and measure handwashing behaviour or better understand some of the existing barriers to handwashing?
The final version is the result of four years of design and refinement and three field trials, including in two camps in Tanzania and Uganda. Manufactured in China, it’s very low cost, and is available to buy by any aid agency via Oxfam’s supply centre. By 2021 over 4000 stands had been distributed to camps in Bangladesh, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia and Kenya and more are in production. Most importantly, where they’ve been installed in camps, they have resulted in significant uplift in handwashing and have received highly positive feedback from users.
I still have so much I’d like to do, there is a lot that interests me in applied behavioural science, such as achieving net-zero, consumer protection and regulation, and financial well-being. But currently I have a new project I’m exploring about decision making for young people.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I really believe that you develop your passion, not ‘find’ it as people often like to say. So it’s not a question of there only being one perfect job or field to work in, but recognising that we have many options, exploring some of the ones we are most curious about and investing time into one of them. On that basis, there are lots of different roles and sectors I would love to work in and know more about. I only wish life was longer…!
I spend much of my time researching and writing in my current job, and get a lot of satisfaction from it, from the deep thinking and research, discussions with my co-author and others on how to shape a piece, to crafting and shaping words and knowledge into something that people want to read. So I think that whatever I did, I’d want to continue writing in some way, whether it’s reports, articles, or a book.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
At The Behavioural Architects, we recognise how important habits are in daily life, and how difficult it can be to build a new habit or break an old one. I’ve really internalised a lot of the research and learning we’ve done on how best to build a new habit - in fact, part of our internal training is to help people identify and incorporate behavioural science in their own lives first. I automatically apply habits science whenever there is something new in my life I need to start doing regularly, from physio exercises and sport to making regular time to read books or listen to podcasts.
I also find behavioural science useful to push myself to do things that sometimes feel uncomfortable. For example, like fighting status quo bias and taking a different approach to something, such as using new technology, taking up a new sport, changing bank account, or exploring a new place rather than going to tried and tested locations.
Or pushing back against confirmation bias and in-group bias and staying curious and making myself to listen to, read or follow on social media people who I disagree with to try to better understand the roots of their point of view. I made myself do that during the pandemic to try and understand the diverse viewpoints about Covid-19 and lockdowns.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Take time to understand the behaviour you want to change. What exactly are people doing or not doing at the moment? On-the-ground, in-context qualitative research can really help here. Some people have a tendency to rush in to solve a behavioural problem, picking a nudge that they like as a solution without fully understanding what it is that needs changing about behaviour. Some organisations are excellent at building in time in their process to understand behaviour, others less so.
Be open to and work with other disciplines; build or find multi-disciplinary teams to work in. In my experience behavioural science is most effectively applied when it is combined with other disciplines, expertise and backgrounds, be that anthropology, design, economics, neuroscience, data science, or experts on the sector you are working in.
Keep a critical eye. Don’t fall for every headline/exciting podcast topic/TED talk. Click through to the original journal article, read it (not only the abstract) and think about how much the experiment actually provides evidence for the finding the researchers claim they have found. I sometimes find the methodology is quite weak, especially if it’s a lab based, hypothetical study and doesn’t feel convincing when you analyse the detail or the statistical analysis is weak.
When reviewing or evaluating experiments, think also about the real world effect size on the behaviour in question in absolute terms. Sometimes researchers talk about an impressive sounding relative impact or cite the effect size without bringing that back to the actual impact on behaviour. For example, a 15% uplift on minutes exercised per week might sound impressive, but when people were only exercising for 30 minutes each week on average the uplift translates to a paltry 4.5 minutes... Is that enough to make a tangible difference to people’s health, to warrant the cost of the intervention?
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I think we will come to better understand many of the nuances of behavioural science concepts and biases. For example, in what contexts does a bias or concept act more strongly? When are we more influenced by availability, scarcity or self-serving biases? How does age affect to what extent we are influenced by biases? We already know, for example, that teenagers’ behaviour is far more driven by an aversion to social risk than older age groups and that older adults make decisions in different ways to young adults. Or how do individual characteristics vary with biases and behavioural tendencies? For example, one of the big questions being asked by scientists today is what personality and individual characteristics influence people’s ability to build a new habit. Some people seem to build habits effortlessly, whilst others stay floundering in chaos and flux.
I also very much hope we will start to have a better understanding of behaviour beyond the narrow world of WWEIRD, with far more studies and trials gathered on, for example, other races beyond Whites, such as Latinos and African Americans, people from East Asian countries, Latin America and Africa, from rural or remote areas, varied socioeconomic backgrounds or looking to understand subtle gender differences.
I think behavioural science will become even more professionalised. It’s already come a long way from where it was. In 2010 there were very few post-grad courses even. Now there are many high quality courses as well as undergraduate modules and executive education too. In the applied sector there are still too many people claiming expertise having only read a few popsci books, but it is becoming better regulated too and I think we will see even more in-house behavioural scientists and in-house teams. In the past few years we’ve already seen teams growing within banking, regulation, international development, retail and of course government.
It’s difficult to separate out what I would *like* to see happen, from what is likely to happen (a common psychological flaw!). However, I think we may need to think harder about where ‘nudges’ are appropriate and where the benefit outweighs the costs. Beyond using defaults, which is an incredibly powerful tool to change behaviour, sometimes it may make more sense to use pricing tools, or taxation, or regulatory changes that provide an almost 100% change in behaviour rather than chasing marginal gains. The climate emergency may be a good example of that - we don’t have the time to eek out 1% behaviour change here or 2% there. We need a revolution.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
At The Behavioural Architects, we notice that the people who are best at applying behavioural science in our client work, are those who are good at identifying how it affects their own lives and the world around them. Analyse your own decision-making, your behaviour, what you see in the world around you and you’ll automatically get good at applying it in your work.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Oliver Hauser (Exeter University), Nina Mazar (Boston University), Stefan Hunt (CMA), Rohan Grove (CMA).
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Liz!
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!