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Interview with Magda Osman

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 Magda Osman.

Magda is currently a Reader in Experimental Psychology at Queen Mary, University of London. The ethos of her work has been to take a critical eye to well accepted views and challenge the status quo. As a result, her research covers a range of areas that include decision-making, learning, problem-solving, biases, risk and uncertainty, agency and control, and the unconscious. Moreover, she has already authored three books: Future-Minded, Controlling Uncertainty and New Approaches in Reasoning Research.


Who or what got you into Behavioural Science?

First, I’m inclined to say that I don’t really have a concept of what behavioural science is. I am a psychologist who studies decision-making (applied, basic, under risk and uncertainty). What I have noticed is that being called a psychologist is outmoded, so over the years I get referred to as a decision scientist, or a behaviourist, or a behavioural scientist, or a cognitive decision scientist, even a behavioural economist (!) – the list goes on. So, here and in all remaining questions, I’ll interpret behavioural scientist to refer to an experimental psychologist – in my case, one that studies decision-making.

What I can say, is that I found my way into studying decision-making (as a psychologist) much later in my career, as I had actually started off studying deductive and inductive reasoning. The main reason I veered into the domain of decision-making was through a circuitous route. This first involved getting interested in dual processes, and the problems in the evidence base in support of distinctions between conscious and unconscious processes. Getting into this revealed that the same issues extended beyond reasoning, to problem solving, and judgment and decision-making. At this stage I was also developing an interest in applied research, and so I ended working on projects looking at dynamic decision-making, which seemed to consolidate my experience of multiple areas of higher order cognition that I was fortunate to be able to investigate.

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist?

I not sure I can yet answer that, I’d like to think that this has yet to come, I don’t tend to look back on what I’ve done, I tend to focus on what is next.

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

I’d go into the legal profession. I see obvious parallels with what I ended up doing and the legal profession, given that argumentation is key to both research and the legal profession, as well as carefully utilising evidence to support a case - which is essentially what researchers do as well when determining how findings align with theory and hypotheses. Finally, understanding probabilities to determine the likelihood that evidence is used appropriately to make inferences - in support of a hypothesis, or in support of a particular outcome i.e. guilt/innocence is another obvious parallel between both professions. So, for these reasons, I have always been drawn to the legal profession, though i'd be inclined to be a lawyer rather than preside over cases as a judge.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

If I do, then I doubt I do it deliberately. Any application comes from being invited to discuss findings and insights from the domain of decision-making when I’m out with friends and family that want to talk about the subject. I think at a broader level the cross over between both worlds is the style in which I think about things, such as being highly sceptical, and always exploring the alternative.

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

I don’t think there are any skills that are specific to being a psychologist that I don’t see applicable more generally. What I can say is, which has helped me, is that I have developed a better understanding of my area of interest by deliberately talking, and eventually working with those outside of my discipline. Contextualising paradigms of research, research questions and debates, theory development, and the accumulation of an evidence base in one’s own field by looking at how other research communities work in other disciplines has been invaluable. So, the wider the horizons by which I was willing to explore beyond my own, the better equipped I was to understand and defend (or else critique) my own field of interest. The take home being, be brave, challenge what you know and trust.

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

I suspect that, whatever combination of disciplines will form, under a banner that won’t be referred to as Behavioural science, will reflect whatever new demands that society and technology places on the research community to respond to.

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

Herbert Simon. He laid solid foundations for so many disciplines that set out to explain human behaviour. Failing going into a time machine and interviewing him, Klaus Fiedler. His exacting way of thinking on individual and social judgment and decision processes is, to my mind, the most sound, and empirically robustly defended characterisation I’ve come across.


Thank you so much for these amazing answers Magda! 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!

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