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Interview with Luis Artavia-Mora



Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisations, 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 Luis Artavia-Mora. Luis is an applied development economist working as consultant on topics of global development, with ten years of experience providing technical support in social and behavioral change projects. Luis has collaborated with private sector, research centers, governments, and international organizations to promote the social and economic inclusion of vulnerable groups, and to strengthen health systems and indicators. Luis has been managing director of the Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences and research affiliate at the Center for Social Norms and Behavioral Dynamics, both at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently affiliated at the Center for Social and Behaviour Change at Ashoka University; and he is editor and co-author of the book Behavioral Science for Development: Insights and Strategies for Global Impact. By training, Luis holds a Ph.D. in Development Economics from Erasmus University of Rotterdam with a specializations in behavioral science and impact evaluation.



 



How did you get into behavioral science?

I feel very lucky and grateful for the way I started. I went to the Netherlands to do an economics slash development studies degree, which was a bit more open than mainstream economics, but still with the rigorousness that you need. And literally in the first month, I went into the library, and I saw a wonderful red book, which I jokingly call my Bible. It was the ‘handbook of contemporary behavioral economics. It called my spirit, and the description really touched on my intellectual interests. And in the next two or three months not only had I read the full book, but I also went into most of the references, and I read all of those as well. I wanted to figure out how to apply all these new insights during my master program.

Also, in that same year the World Bank Development report called: “the Mind, Society and Behavior” came out. So, it further fuelled this interest.

 


After this moment, and throughout the rest of your career, what would you classify as your greatest achievement in behavioral science?

That’s a super dense question! But I believe my greatest achievement so far is the book I wrote together with Zarak, ‘Behavioral Science for Development’ (2023).  First, because I'm extremely grateful for all the amazing leaders and experts around the world who have inspired my own career and who also agreed to contribute to the book. And second, because it’s out there for everybody to read. It's now a resource that everybody can read anywhere as long as they have internet access and some English skills! My journey started with a book, maybe someone else’s career starts with this book.


And what is it that you would still like to achieve?

To improve the lives of people everywhere. I don't claim that I am the one that's going to make it happen, but that's what really calls me. As a more tangible achievement, I would like to start a center or group in Costa Rica to try to promote the field in my home country.

 How do you think behavioral science is going to develop in the next 10 years? And is that a good thing?


I would say it's an awesome time to be in the field. We have new tools and new frameworks to reassess old questions, and find new answers. I believe we are going to come up with new evidence, new tools, new underlying mechanisms that we can influence to generate impact. Hopefully we can develop new frameworks from that. And there will be more input into these frameworks as we’re now also studying Asia, Africa, and Latin America. New research insights will come about as well as new solutions, new knowledge that we cannot even foresee at this moment. So, to your question, I think it's a great moment to be in the field working on this; especially in my primary areas of work in health and improving the inclusion of vulnerable populations.



 


Do you foresee any challenges getting there?

The big challenge often is how to scale up. How can you scale up a pilot that you did in a small neighborhood, and then take it out to a much larger urban area or vice versa. How do you generalize results from one study in one particular population in migrants and women in one particular area, to an entire population?


Well, I also want to highlight that challenges are also big opportunities to learn. It’s great to identify the level of discrimination towards a minority group in a market; even better if it has not been studied. But the interesting thing is not to identify the effect size of the discrimination, it’s to actually come up with a solution; how can we decrease, avert, or overcome it? And if we look at topics such as discrimination, everyone approaches these with their own background, formed by their own areas of experience. But we need to start thinking more globally. And that comes with challenges in culture. The challenge of seeing people beyond the ones you already know and finding ways to work together.



Let's do a sliding doors moment; what do you think would have happened if you hadn't found the red book? Do you think you always would have found your way into behavioral science? 

I think it was a matter of time. I started noticing how much psychology can influence the smallest of decisions which can have massive impacts from a young age. Kids do certain things because their families asked them to do them. Sometimes you don't do things because of self-interest as neoclassical economic theory assumes. It's because your mom tells you to do it. So, something as simple as that. At that moment, I was not aware that phenomena like that were studied in a field called behavioral economics or behavioral science. When I had my hands on that book, everything just clicked. Even if I never knew that behavioral science existed, I would have been a ‘standard’ development economist, doing academic research and consulting, but still working on social science issues to improve the lives of people.



 


Do you think your journey is easy to replicate? Would you recommend this path to someone more junior to get into the field?

No, because the field is now fully established and mature. My first recommendation is to pursue a master's or a program specifically in the field. Beyond that, ask your network, whoever you know, even if you don't know them, just send them an email, for opportunities. Try to get as many internships as possible to make sure that you like the field and to learn to apply behavioral science.



What do you think is a skill set that a behavioral scientist really needs? And then given your previous answer, do you think that's a skill set that you might only get through education? 

That's a tricky question.


I would say, first of all, you have to be a scientist or at least a rigorous researcher at heart. You definitely have to have some good research skills and also a genuine interest in research itself. Another thing that helps a lot is interdisciplinary knowledge. If you can have some economics, statistics, or psychology, that’s a good thing. That's one of the most beautiful things of my career is that I have been exposed to not only multicultural, but also multidisciplinary people and you learn so much from them. The way to move forward is to combine everyone’s disciplines, lenses, methods, and frameworks, in a rigorous way, and try to come up with new solutions.


Furthermore, if you have a business mindset, that also helps. But that just helps in life. Researchers want to do things well, almost to perfection, but sometimes you just need to make things happen; take action. We put this in several parts of the book, that you need to, in the end, take action. You cannot have an idea for 50 years, and by the time you finally feel ready to test it, the world has changed. Or someone else has done it for you. That's another risk.



 


Is that a personal frustration of yours? Where there’s people slumbering on good ideas for 50 years?

That was perhaps an over-exaggeration. I'm biased because of my interests, which I stated at the beginning that I like applied work. I want to see results in the short term, but not every sector of behavioral science works like this. It’s not a personal frustration, more of an anecdote. I think academics are super important and I feel super lucky and especially grateful for the field and for the people that I have had the opportunity not only to meet, but also to collaborate with, including academics. I am constantly working in academic research as well. Actually, I am excited about some of my upcoming publications.

 


Do you apply behavioral science to your own life at all to your own life?

That's a good question. I think I will have a sip of coffee. Get 10 extra seconds to prepare for that answer sips.


I use it in alerts and reminders. I use them a lot. Otherwise, I would forget many things. I employ ‘calendarization’: every time I must schedule a meeting, every time I have to even meet my family, I put it in and make sure that my Google calendar is updated. Due to working with different emails and different organizations (security restrictions) I cannot merge my calendars, so I must literally go from one email from my company to the organization to my own personal email to make sure I block that area out. I even have an alert to call my girlfriend, who's in the Netherlands right now, because we have a 7-hour time difference and I want to make sure I call her before she goes to sleep. 

 


That is very cute! Who else has inspired you in behavioral science? There's a really slipshod way of asking who you want me to interview next. And Zarak (co-author) is already on that list, don't worry.

I know, he told me haha! Well, you can pick up the book on “Behavioral Science of Development”, close your eyes and just select any of the authors from the contents list. They have all inspired me. Perhaps I could mention Paula Rossiasco and Lorena Levano specifically, they’re doing great work at the World Bank in Latin America. And then Pavan Mamidi, who's the director in the Ashoka Center, who is doing a great work as well. And lastly, I would say Professor Enrique Fatas and Paulius Yamin are great experts in the field too.

 


 


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


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!














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