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Interview with Maddie Quinlan

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 Madeline Quinlan.

Madeline (Maddie) Quinlan is director & founder of Salient Behavioural Consultants, an international behavioural science consultancy, and is a co-founder and Head of Membership for the Global Association of Applied Behavioural Scientists. Her greatest passion is bridging the gap between academic insight and the implementation of impactful and sustainable behavioural solutions for business, policy, and design challenges. She is a qualified behavioural scientist with expertise spanning private, public, and not-for-profit organizations, with a broad range of behavioural work in areas such as finance, communication, health, and risk management. She holds a Master of Behavioural Science from the London School of Economics and Political Science. In addition, she holds her CFA Charter, and degrees in both Finance (B.Comm) and Psychology (B.A.).


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I think like so many that come into this field, I really stumbled into it. My educational and professional background was in finance but I also did a degree in psychology, really because I was fascinated by it, without ever expecting it to be part of my work. But after a lot of raised eyebrows in interviews and working for years in fin-tech, commodities clearing, I was pursuing my Chartered Financial Analyst certification and I stumbled upon this one chapter in this one book about behavioral finance (why do people make the financial decisions that they make? why do markets behave the way that they do? how come investors are so irrational etc). I was hooked. I saw these two worlds of mine colliding, and I had to learn more. That’s when I started looking at master’s programmes, left my finance career, and moved to London to go to LSE.

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

Founding and building Salient has been one of the most meaningful and worthwhile pursuits of my life and career. It’s been such a beautiful, organic, natural progression over time. To get the opportunity to work with bold start-ups, large multinational non-profits, banks, public policy makers. To connect with, and work for some of the most brilliant minds in the field of behavioural science and all the other industries we touch. And getting to do it while doing the work I love so much, I’m incredibly fortunate that whatever combination of initiative, and universe sparkle have allowed me to do this.

That said, I’m growing the business, I’m interested in doing work in more diverse fields, and new contexts. I want to take the issues that I care about personally, and find a way to move those areas forward using the tools and what I’ve learned in behavioural science to change people’s lives. More teaching, more public speaking, more writing. There’s so much I’m excited to do, if I start listing them, I’ll get panicky about how much there is to be done and I’ll never finish writing this interview.

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

I think if I hadn't stumbled upon that crossover between psychology and finance, I probably would've stuck to the finance track status quo, maybe corporate finance, maybe trading or marketing.

I’ve always loved business and business strategy, so management consulting may have been on the radar.

But I’m also not sure I believe in free will, so I think I would have inevitably ended up right where I am. 😊

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

As we know, behavioural scientists are just as prone to behavioural pitfalls as anyone else; we might just have a few more tools at our disposal, so I try to self-nudge as much as I possibly can. Understanding the power of defaults is something that I find very beneficial. So, putting timers on my focus mode for my phone, especially during work, really helps. I only have my phone charger in my kitchen so that when I go to plug my phone in at night, it cannot come into the bedroom with me.

I try to make things salient. I have a morning routine and evening routine, and I write them on a post-it note and it's stuck on my fridge so it’s one of the first things that I see, and over time it's less important that I see it every day, but when I'm building that habit, seeing that right away is very helpful.

You have to be a bit self-aware of your own “what works”, and I'm a person that can be a bit all-or-nothing. For me, when I realized that Twitter and other social media were taking a lot of my time, or that they were draining me of all the joy in my soul, deleting them and not engaging with them at all, has been great.

I like to bundle positive incentives for things that maybe aren't as intriguing to me. I will always have a podcast on while I am cleaning, or I go for a walk while talking on the phone with an overseas friend or my mom. If I put something that I really genuinely want to do, with something I know will feel good after, it’s much more likely to happen.

Gosh, there are so many. I feel like my entire life is just an orchestration of self-nudging, and choice architecture, and doing my best.

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

The first thing I would say is, many people have some seedlings of behavioural science in their work already, and they have their own expertise. There are so many different

fields of application for a behavioural scientist that essentially any sort of skillset that you already have is likely going to be at least somewhat applicable to a particular field of behavioural insights work. Whether or not you come from the health sector or the private sector, or you’ve worked with governments or non-profits or in marketing or technology, those things will all carry some expertise that you can apply to that particular area of behavioral science.

But in terms of specifically “being a behavioral scientist”, a huge differentiator is understanding experimental design, methodology, and research methods, Being able to collect data, understand at least how data is collected, both qualitative, quantitative, and through mixed methods. Attention to detail, being able to communicate effectively. Understanding data science, understanding how we analyze and report on data, what a quality piece of research looks like. That's the science of behavioral science.

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

More and more, we will become clear on what does and does not work; within which contexts and for what types of problems different behavioural insights are successful. We will also learn how sticky these interventions are for behavior change in the long run. The applied behavioural science field is still relatively new, especially for some fields, and long-term habit and behaviour change is really difficult. I think we are going to have to look ourselves in the mirror and get really honest about what a lot of these interventions are doing, what the mechanisms are, and be able to interrogate failure transparently.

I think that any solutions that are considered panaceas are going to fall away. The understanding that you need to get really specific about the population of interest and the context in which you are working and applying any behavioral interventions is going to be paramount.

I hope that bodies such as the Global Association of Applied Behavioral Scientists (GAABS), continue to grow, continue to bring a voice to best practices, sound methodologies, professional qualification in the field to make it clear who is using these insights rigorously, to ensure that we are all exemplifying the best of this field, and building trust of the general public.

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

At your core, you have to be interested in people. The best behavioural scientists have an insatiable curiosity about why people, and the world, are the way they are. It’s about not taking “oh that’s how we’ve always done it” as an answer. Behavioural science requires measured, deliberate, and bold ways of thinking that have the ability to change long-standing approaches, and a large part of what we do is asking the right questions to get at the right answers.

If you have the opportunity and the ability to pursue some kind of degree or qualified certification in behavioral science or a closely related field, absolutely do it. But your network and the people that you engage with will make or break your career. And this is true, I think, in any field. The nice thing about behavioural science in my experience has been that people are extremely open to helping and collaborating. People are extremely open to share versus compete. People want to see other people succeed, and behavioral science is a young enough field that you're only one or two degrees of separation away from some of the most prominent, successful practitioners.

Getting out there, engaging with your network will make a much bigger difference than having a certificate or a degree; there has to be a drive, a willingness behind it, to be part of the field of practice. So, get out there to events, sign up for all of those newsletters, get in front of other people, with curiosity and not expectation.

I think what some young people in general struggle with is, they say they want be mentored, but really all they want is a job. And if you go in thinking you’re going to have some kind of professional relationship with the goal of, “I want to get a job from this person”, it's not going to work. If you come in with, “I want to learn as much as I possibly can”, everything else will happen. That genuine curiosity will serve you in not just the work that you end up doing, but in all of the relationships that you build along the way.

Being able to be open, and to be honest. These things are going to see you progress in not just behavioral science, but in your life. These are skills that are completely non-negotiable - the things that they don't teach you in university: that you need to be able to communicate well, you need to be able to be vulnerable with people and tell the truth and be yourself. And it sounds cliché, but I promise you it’s true: everything else really falls into place.

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

You’ve done so many that were on my wish list! My mentor, dear friend, and the one who really supported me from day one to get into this field, Daniel Crosby would be a great addition. And Paul Dolan, I could read/listen to him talk about these things all day.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Maddie! I'll make sure to add Daniel and Paul to the list :)

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!


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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