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 Max Mawby. Max joined Thinks Insight & Strategy, a global insight and strategy consultancy, founding their Behavioural Insight and Advisory team. This follows successful stints establishing the Behavioural Practice at Kantar Public and the Financial Behaviour team at the Behavioural Insights Team. Max's interest in financial decision-making stems from his work running the Financial Capability Lab for the Money and Pensions Service collaborating with a wide range of financial institutions and fintech to apply insights from behavioural science literature and primary research to improve customer outcomes. Max’s work on the Financial Capability Lab, and his involvement in launching the Plain Numbers project, is mentioned multiple times in the UK Financial Conduct Authority's new Consumer Duty.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
Back in 2008 or 2009, a book called Nudge was reviewed in The Economist magazine. At the time I was a civil servant working for the UK government. Often, the challenges we grappled with were essentially behavioural questions, such as ‘government policy wants people to do X. How do we achieve this?”. When I read Nudge I was introduced to a completely different paradigm to the one I was used to when thinking about these behavioural challenges. It took me five years, but I eventually went off to study in Copenhagen, and that was my in. I spent a lot of time there with the people who did experiments in the economics department and tried to learn everything I could.
After the masters degree I successfully applied for a job with the Behavioural Insights Team. I was managing the Financial Capability Lab, a big programme of work producing ideas informed by the behavioural science literature to help people make better financial decisions. That's where I first worked with colleagues to run online experiments testing ideas to help people save, manage credit, and get help and guidance when they need it, which was a fantastic experience and has been a big part of my career in the field since.
Recently, Thinks Insight & Strategy reached out, wanting to build out a full behavioural team designing and testing interventions from their existing strengths in behaviour change communications. So that is what I will be doing now. Building and leading that team to deliver practical and creative solutions for our clients.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what would you still like to achieve?
I'm proudest of helping clients in both private and public organisations make confident investment or product design decisions using online experimentation. We can give clients evidence that allows them to take action, or indeed not take action - which a lot of people forget is an option! Testing before you roll something out is really important to allow you to avoid spending millions on a product or service that doesn’t really do what you want it to do. I’m genuinely proud of it all because I just really love the work! I have learnt such a lot from working with people in the field – whether they are design, insight or experiment focused - there is always something to learn from every project team.
What I want to achieve now is success with Thinks Insight & Strategy. All of us buy products and services from the private sector. I think there are many, many companies out there who don't have a dedicated behavioural science function to help them apply insights from the field to their products or to their services and produce some evidence for whether these are working so they can make their build, test and learn loops work even better to improve customer outcomes and grow their business. I think that's a really interesting place to be.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? I suppose if I hadn't found the article in The Economist and decided that this is what I wanted to do, I would still be working in the UK Civil Service. I would probably be managing some big delivery project or organisation. I would have had a very different kind of impact compared to what I've been able to achieve on the projects that I've worked on.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? I do actually try to use checklists that draw on the experience of experts wherever I can. This ranges from remembering all my kit for a cycle tour, to remembering all the things I need to do to get control of my various workplace pensions! Also, I try to be kind & humane to myself, and not expect too much in terms of goals and expectations. That’s probably the thing I took from the field that I find most useful – being kind to yourself and expecting yourself to be a human not an econ.
A lot of people have a lot of anxiety and difficulty with setting themselves goals which are too difficult or just not achievable in terms of time. What I've learnt from working in the field is that you can be a lot more humane if you understand the boundaries of rationality and the boundaries of cognitive capacity. Obviously, we don't understand those explicitly all the time, but the field gives us much more of a feeling for them. That feeling allows me to be much kinder to myself in my personal life.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field? I think what I would suggest to them is that it's never too late to go and throw yourself into learning something. I'm evidence that you don't have to take the traditional route of finishing a psychology or an economics undergrad and then doing your masters followed by doing your PhD. That traditional route exists but it is only one way in.
I do think you should probably be clearer than I was about what aspect of the field you want to work in. Try and make sure that you train yourself in the skill set for your target team. Do you want to be in a private sector team or public sector team? These skill sets do differ, and they will tailor your journey.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
I have mostly worked as a consultant, so I’m going to take the question from a consultancy perspective. I tend to be there at the start when you're trying to make something happen. You’ll need to ask, “what are the behavioural elements here?” And given the behavioural elements, “how are we going to explore those?”. You need to know your methods, whether they are quantitative, observational research, data science etc. How do we turn our observations about our desired behaviour into ideas and then design, test and iterate those? So that’s very much the consultancy skill set.
If we’re going broader, what I'd say is the most important skill above all else is the ability to creatively apply the literature that's already available. Because if you don't have that overview of what people have done, which interesting findings already exist and what they based their work on, then all you are offering is research methods which are important, but they are important because they help you to produce useful findings. I think what you need to do is to be able to have that broad overview of the findings in the field, because that is what allows you to take a novel and different approach as a behavioural scientist from whoever else might be working on the same problem.
What are the biggest challenges for behavioural science?
I think the replication crisis has touched everyone. So, I think that's the number one challenge; figuring out from our existing literature what work we can rely on, and what tools we commonly use to make our products or services work better may actually need to be re-evaluated.
The replication crisis is a challenge to be as rigorous as you can be. Wherever you're doing experiments, make sure that you are recording and sharing your analysis plan and sharing, and as far as you're able to, your data. I understand that for people working in private sector organisations, this is very difficult, but at least having the aspiration to do that I think is really, really important. Even if you don’t end up doing the whole open science approach, adding in this rigour does mean that your work is just that much more likely to stand the test of time.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I have worked with fantastic people whose work you don’t often see in the published reports. For example, a colleague producing fully labelled data sets that could be shared and reanalysed by anyone. This is such important work that often doesn’t get done, or recognised. And that’s wonderful to see. I’d like to see more of that dedication to sharing the detail wherever this is commercially possible. I also hope that, in line with the paper by Loewenstein and Chater, we move to looking at broad, more system-level changes, rather than doing small nudges only. Are we going to continue to fiddle at the level of an interface in the ‘banking world’ or are we actually going to completely redesign the product or when and how it is offered? That kind of development, I think will be really interesting in terms of impact of the field over the next 10 years.
What are your biggest frustrations with behavioural science, as it currently stands?
I do have a frustration with the field: people not being clear about what they want! I think that if you want to do work that is optimised to be published in journals, be clear and honest with yourself about that. If your priority is applied behavioural science to build the best products and services – then be clear about that too. Don’t try to do it all, and don’t consistently mix up the two in a way that you can neither deliver the best academic output, nor be able to move at the pace of the commercial or public sectors.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
You’ve already interviewed everyone! Including Paul Adams and Kristen Berman, who would have been my picks for this question! What about some people only just now graduating and thinking about a career in the field?
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Max! Ages ago I did do a series with younger behavioural scientists, Next Gen, the start of that series can be found here.
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!