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 Matt Wallaert.
Matt has been applying behavioral science to practical problems for over 20 years. After leaving academia, his career as an executive lead from startups to the Fortune 500 and back again, before joining frog as the Executive Director of Behavioral Science, where he focuses on helping organizations build their own applied behavioral science capabilities. He is also the author of Start At The End, detailing how the cycle of behavioral strategy, insights, design, and impact evaluation can help us build products and services that change behaviour. Matt blends humor and science, in projects such as MediocreWhiteMen, to help work toward change. Let's see what he has to say in this interview!
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
This is sort of a two-fold answer. Behavioral science itself was clearly Andrew Ward, at Swarthmore. I was in his psychology of self-control class, we read the IAT paper by Greenwald and Banaji, and while I didn’t dispute the method, I felt the conclusion overreached the data. And Andrew said something really magical: “Most of the field agrees with this interpretation. But this is science, and so there is an orderly way to respond, which is by testing your own alternative hypothesis. And if you want to come and use my lab to do that, you’re welcome to.” That was huge. Suddenly, instead of truth flowing from whoever was most eloquent or privileged or powerful, you could have a process for having a dialogue around the way things work. And as a first gen college kid, that really appealed to me.
The second big pivot was when I left grad school; I’m reinterpreting your question as when I got into “applied” behavioral science, which ultimately I think describes my current methodology. I had a really terrible first year in my PhD program, on pretty much every possible level, and there was a ton of individual animosity that made it the worst of my life by a fair margin. And at the same time that academia was so incredibly hostile, industry was so incredibly kind: Thrive, the startup I eventually left to work for, treated me with dignity and respect and aligned outcomes. That isn’t to say all academic environments are bad but I think we lose sight of just how many kids drop out of PhDs. 50%! Imagine if any other industry had that attrition rate; we’d be losing our minds.
So I got lucky in some ways: the inhibiting pressures in one arena helped me find the alternative behavior that was right for me.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I’m not a very prideful person. Not because I’m humble (anyone who knows me would laugh) but because I tend to be very focused on what comes next and pay very little attention to what came before. Probably I’m proud of having created a process that most people can apply with relatively minimal training; that’s a big deal for me, because it means that we aren’t simply locking away behavioral science behind the doors of privilege. And that is certainly what I want to focus on and continue to achieve: driving behavioral science into the mainstream so that everyone sees behavior as the outcome and science as the process.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I honestly don’t know; I’ve been doing it continuously since college. Even the things I’m tempted to say, liking being a Head of Product, are just behavioral science with a different title. So I suppose that’s the answer: rather than trying to get others to apply behavioral science, I’d choose a role and simply do it using behavioral science.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I try to do it as a parent, although like most intentions in parenting, the intention-action gap is larger than in other parts of my life. Probably the biggest single revelation is using competing pressures to find my blind spot. Let’s stick with parenting for a second. When we want more of a behavior, we have a natural tendency to gravitate toward adding promoting pressures; when we want less, we add inhibiting pressures. Stepping back and reminding myself of the reverse often helps. If Bear isn’t doing something, what inhibiting pressures are preventing it? If he is, what promoting pressures are causing it? Turns out if you address why your kid is crying in the first place, instead of telling them not to cry, life gets a lot better.
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 know how experienced I am: to me, one of the interesting things about behavioral science is its relative youth, at least in the applied sense. But if we take behavioral science as somewhat of the intersection between quantitative and qualitative skills with design and experimentation skills, I think you need depth in one and breadth in the others; I’ve always liked the idea of T shaped people. And I try to spend explicit time on both deepening my legs and widening my arms - the first keeps me grounded, the second helps me fly. And while my legs are likely the design and experimentation bit, that doesn’t mean I think that is “right” - it just happens to be my history.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
The reason I pilot interventions is because I’m so bad at prediction. But if history is any guide, I think we’ll start to see some of the same things we saw with data science: a more cohesive view of what it is and isn’t, more standardization and thus more proliferation, and likely more democratization. The things people used to think of as exclusively the domain of data science have, through training and tools, become relatively commonplace in the daily work of a diverse set of roles. I hope we can do the same thing with behavioral science: that more people will articulate the outcome of their work in behavior change terms and use experimentation to arrive at those outcomes.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Someone I’ve never heard of - isn’t that the point? We’re a very White field, so I hope to one day read more interviews from a diverse set of people and that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we highlight people outside the same dozen or so big names, the more likely we are to have even more big names to talk about.
Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers 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!