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Interview with Matt Battersby

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 Matthew Battersby.

Matt is an expert in understanding human decision-making and in improving long-term health and financial behaviours. Based in RGA’s U.K. office, Matt has a global role and is responsible for the development and deployment of behavioural science-informed models for use in underwriting, claims, risk management and customer engagement. Prior to joining RGA, Matt was Managing Director and head of the behavioural science team at the communications firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Matt has a Master of Science (MSc) in Behavioural Science from the London School of Economics and a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Economics and Philosophy from the University of Bristol.


How did you get into behavioural science? 

There's a lot of luck about how I got into behavioral science. I did study economics for my first degree, but that was early 2000s. Either behavioral economics didn't come into it, or it just completely passed me by. It was actually 10 years later, when I was a consultant for Hill & Knowlton, one of the big global communications firms, that I first became aware of it. Most of the clients I was working with were financial services firms in the UK. And in the early 2010s, I started to hear clients talk about behavioral economics; no consultant wants to be in a situation where their client is talking about something that they don't know about. So, I took it upon myself to read the books and the papers that were around at the time. I realized quickly that not only was it something that was relevant for my clients as financial services businesses, but actually for us as a communications firm; most communications is about influencing behavior in some form.  I realized from doing that kind of research that there were lots of things that we weren't doing that we could do better; more scientific. I also realized that much of what were already doing was effective, but we didn’t necessarily understand why, so the behavioral science research helped explain that.

I started applying it to projects we were doing and it had an impact, and it was all very positive. But it wasn't until 2014 that it really took off for me - by then I was the head of the financial services team at Hill & Knowlton and had slightly itchy feet. I knew I wanted to do something a little bit different. I'd kind of worked in that world for 10 years or so. It was one bank holiday weekend where I'd been working on a big client project, which was a difficult one and had that classic ‘wake up early Sunday morning, instantly the project is on your mind’ anxiety. So, I got up early and started working on the project. And one thing I did was look at the behavioral science angle, meaning I was doing some research on it and that's when, fortuitously, I came across the fact that the London School of Economics, had just launched their Executive Masters in Behavioural Science. I immediately forgot about the client project (for a bit) and in a space of six weeks, I managed to apply, get accepted and get the backing from Hill & Knowlton to use this to set up a behavioral science team. It all moved very quickly.

What are you proudest of having achieved purely in terms of behavioural science? 

I suppose I'm proud of establishing the behavioral science function from scratch for Hill & Knowlton, and where I am now (RGA – Reinsurance Group of America). I enjoy the strategic part of it: where can behavioral science make the biggest impact?  

For Hill & Knowlton I was proud of the variety of challenges we could apply behavioral science to. One day we would be helping a bank help their employees to adopt new technology, and then the next day we would be helping Duracell create a battery recycling campaign for schoolchildren. Then to go from that to RGA, which is much more focused; working for a reinsurer who specializes in life and health insurance. I'm proud of setting up a team in that specific context, because a setting up the team and finding out how to make behavioral science work within that specific field is actually a really interesting challenge to work on.

And I'd say the final thing I'm proud about with RGA is it's really hard. Like if you look at classic difficult behaviors, anything that involves short term pain for long term gain, life insurance is that. That is exactly what we're focused on all the time: how can we encourage you to pay a monthly premium for a benefit that will come hopefully distant in the future and won't come to you but to your family? How can we encourage you to take positive health steps now, which have benefit in years to come rather than immediately?  It's a difficult behavioral challenge we're focused on. I describe myself as a sprout seller sometimes as in selling behaviors that are good for you, you probably know are good for you, but just don't taste very nice.



What do you still want to achieve? What's next? Another team? I've interviewed someone who built three research labs, so by this stage you can build three teams if you like. 

I think two is probably enough. The challenge that interests me the most, and there's not going to be a surprise here, is the issues around environmental and sustainability behaviors. The ultimate sprout behavior. We're asking people to make sacrifices for the greater good, over the long term.

That's not a sprout. That's a cabbage.

Maybe it's a cabbage; or even a sprout wrapped in a cabbage.

Last year I completed a post grad certificate at Cambridge’s Institute of Sustainability Leadership, to try and understand more about the sustainability challenge. I think that's going to have to be a big area of focus for the next 10 years or so. Adjacent, I'm increasingly interested in helping think about how public policies and regulations are shaped with a true understanding of human behavior at the heart of them.


How do you think behavioural science is going to develop in those fields specifically and as an overall field?

I think we’re going to see more subdisciplines within al science: behavioral designers, behavioral researchers, et cetera. And I think that is a positive, particularly because behavioral science has to be more than just an insight, you have to be able to deliver the behavioral science in a context. The thing I sometimes talk about is that your behavioral science needs to be a muscle as well as a brain. You need to be able to deliver, almost like ‘behavioral science plus’. The insight plus the ability to deliver in some way is important.

All I hope for is that we don't lose the behavioral science within that. There's always the danger that then the behavioral science becomes too diluted as it becomes more subdivided.

Additionally, behavioral science already is, but even more so will be, judged on its business impact. So, developing that ability to really translate insights into impact is going to be how the field develops in the next 10 years. At least, I would hope it would. With a focus as well on behavioral science as a process rather than just behavioral science as an input. Part of that is also behavioral science going to have to continue to try and go upstream and be about designing and creating as much as it is about fixing and enhancing. I think that is going to be a key focus for the next 10 years.


Great developments to look forward to, but you said there were challenges coming. Let's hear them. 

I've already alluded to the challenge a bit there. Getting more upstream is always a challenge. When you have to prove your worth, especially when new, often you focus on those challenges where you see a problem and say, ‘okay, there is an existing product (or process, policy, etc.) that can be tweaked or enhanced. We can prove this and you can show the value and it's measurable and it's relatively quick and easy to do. I call that being like a mechanic; someone brings you a car and says, can you can you fix it? Or can you make it get faster? Can you make it more efficient? And often you can, and that's often how you have to prove yourself.  We are sometimes very much like mechanics. But what if someone brings you a car with no engine? Then there's nothing you can do to fix it. And sometimes behavioral science is the last door that someone knocks on in their organization when everything else they’ve tried has failed. But fundamentally you might have a product (or policy, process, whatever) that is just flawed from a human behavior point of view. There's nothing you can do to fix it. So rather than being like the mechanic, you want to be more like a mechanical engineer. You want to be there at the start, designing and creating products, processes and policies with the human behavior understanding. You only get there in an organization or as an industry, by sometimes proving the kind of the mechanic fixes, but you really need to be able to understand a business and industry talking that language to be there at step 1.

Second, coming back to my interests in really difficult behavioral problems: there’s lots of really good smart people who really understand behavioral science, but can they find the right problems to apply it to? There is a sweet spot for problem. You can get bogged down in problems that are just too small and perhaps not consequential enough, particularly the ones that are easy to maybe to do something with and to measure. And then on the other extreme, people are trying to tackle challenges, which are just too complex; with too many factors at play. Where it's really hard to show where the behavioral science is making an impact to it, if at all. So, the ones where we can make a demonstrable measurable impact, but it's not just tweaking little problems. So that is a challenge about finding those right problems and then finding that right level.

You've created and hired for two teams. Tell me what that skill set should look like for Applied Behavioural Scientists.

I think there is a kind of minimum academic level of behavioral science knowledge or related disciplines that you need. I don't think it always has to be a PhD, but I think masters is pretty much the kind of the minimum you need, particularly for a junior level or entry level position. You have to have expertise: a real understanding of the latest research and thinking.

In my specific world though, I suppose in both the teams I've run, if you take that as a given that someone needs a certain level of academic rigor, I say the skills that people need, maybe sounds a bit woolly, but they need to be a good consultant. And what I mean by that is being able to find where the real business need is. Where is there a business goal that a behavior is needed to achieve it? Being able to have that mindset of finding the challenges that I could probably apply this to, rather than just ‘here is my great behavioral science knowledge!’ and then communicate it and hope people do something with it. A good consultant is able to listen and learn and work out where they can make the biggest impact.


So if someone comes to you, they're young, they're junior, they like your work and they want to get into behavioural science now as well. How do you recommend they go about that?

I think there still are three ways. 

  1. There is coming in at the real entry level, and that's just following the good academic routes. I think you just need good grounding in the theory of al science. And if you've come through this route, you tend to know things about experimental design,  data analysis, how to take research  from start to finish. Those things are our core, and you will tend to get that from a good academic grounding.

  2. For those slightly more experienced, I think it's more and more that you need the behavioral science plus something. Behavioral science plus a good understanding of data science or behavioral science plus good design skills. A useful skill that allows you to apply behavioral science quickly.

  3. For those who are already experienced in another field and perhaps are wanting to change careers, I think it’s often best to take advantage of where you are first. You already know your business or industry so can you find some problems where you can apply behavioral science? Because then you can come to someone like me and say: ‘this is how I have been able to apply my knowledge already’. Perhaps I'm biased because this is what I did, but I do think it's easier.   

Do you have a personal frustration with the field or?

I work for an American company. So I am constantly switching from American to English spellings of behavior, which means forever changing documents, presentations  etc so if we could maybe get  an agreed global spelling of behavior that’d be great.


Do you feel like there is a specific sliding door moment where you could have ended up as something completely different?

That moment when I found the Behavioral Science course at the LSE and decided to go for it. I think that was more like a sliding door year. I wanted to do something different. I probably would have done so. What that would have been if not behavioral science? I’m not sure. I think I would have probably still been in the communications world, but I think I would have gone into another aspect of the research side of it. Perhaps I'd have gone on to run a research and insights team more broadly. It wouldn't have been a sliding door that would take me on to a completely new exotic destination. I think I was always going to be within a similar kind of place.

Okay, but from the way you told your story, to me is the second sliding door, because you came into touch with behavioural science because your clients were discussing it already. Imagine that somehow you hadn't been exposed to that. Do we then see much more of a different path?

Oh, good question. I think so. That was the moment where behavioral science found me. But I think I would have always found behavioral science. Maybe I would have found it later, and perhaps by then the door would have been closed. If you're talking about sliding door moments, sometimes you are in the right place at the right time. In the early 2010s, that's when the popular books were starting to come out, so it was becoming a topic of conversation in businesses and policy circles. Still relatively niche, but it was being talked about. So, it was being in the right place in the right time a little bit. If I'd have missed that and then found it four or five years later, then perhaps that timing wouldn't have been quite as good.


Do you apply any of your behavioural science learnings, teachings, applications to your own life?

I like to think that I do. You like to think you’re self-aware; that you’re trying to understand your own biases and things. I suppose in a more practical sense the stuff that I use the most is good goal setting and goal striving techniques.


Who in behavioural science has inspired you?

Given what I do, I'm most inspired by the people who are doing other forms of applied behavioural science really. So people like the NatWest team in the UK, Alex Chesterfield and Anna Koczwara. Will Mailer and his team at CBA, but you obviously know that team [Merle is part of this team]. And then Antoine Ferrere, who was on my LSE course and now runs a behavioural and data science team at Novartis. They’re doing great and interesting work! And last Dan Berry, who is now the Head of Behavioural Science for NHS England. Amazing team as well.


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

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!

1 Comment

Found an excellent essay on vocal fold paralysis - The explanations are clear and detailed, making complex medical concepts easy to understand. Perfect for anyone studying this condition.


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