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 Melina Moleskis.
From mathematics to behavioral economics, Melina is the founder of meta-decisions, where she uses behavioral economics to improve the process, and results, of decision-making in businesses. She draws from her decade+ experience in consulting that gave her a front row seat into workplace decision-making. She holds a PhD in Managerial Decision Sciences from IESE Business School, MBA from NYU Stern with a specialization in Strategy, and a BSc in Math & Economics from LSE. She founded meta-decisions in 2021 to help bridge what she felt is an important gap in modern business (and beyond): knowing how to decide. In support of this mission, she is a certified corporate trainer, visiting Professor and regular columnist at The Decision Lab, Insider and Forbes. She also co-leads the European chapter of the Global Association for Applied Behavioral Science (GAABS). Once a member of the young women’s national basketball team, she loves the sport, is an avid fan of Olympiacos Piraeus and aspires to, one day, write a book about decision-making in basketball.
Who or what got you into behavioural science
I’d love to answer “logic”. But it was probably the financial crisis. When the aftermath of the 2008 global crisis hit Cyprus in 2012, I could not make sense of how we ended up in such a mess. Nobody could. That’s when behavioral economics started coming into the spotlight with the publication of Nudge and Thinking, Fast and Slow, and prominent personalities making reference to the field. I sensed that I had a major gap in my knowledge about how we really make decisions, and how we can make better ones. Trained as a mathematician, economist and corporate strategist in some very good schools, I was still baffled. I felt that I had no good answers. So I applied for a PhD in business schools in Europe, and chose IESE where, I was lucky to be academically nurtured by some amazing professors, notably Miguel Canela, Inés Alegre and Miguel Ariño. With their guidance and throughout my PhD in Managerial Decision Science, I discovered heuristics and cognitive biases, predictably irrational behaviors, and how to measure them.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist?
There’s a long way to go to reach the big goals. These are: (1) for decision-making to become part of formal education, at all levels, globally and (2) for the Cyprus government and private sector to take up behavioral science, ethically.
So far, I take pride in the opportunities I have co-created, notably: (1a) the creation of a MSc-level decision-making course infused with behavioral economics and technology, (1b) the collaboration with an EdTech company for bringing decision-making into high school curriculum, (2a) the discussion for opening up the first behavioral scientist role within the government, and (2b) the kick-off of corporate trainings on behavioral economics to Big Four clients.
Behavioral science is practically non-existent in Cyprus – most people are oblivious while others find it obvious, which means there’s many different battles to fight. A lot of the work I do is on raising awareness and getting people interested on how they can use behavioral science in their work. To that end, I founded meta-decisions, a behavioral science boutique, through which I deliver services such as training and guest speaking. I also post a weekly newsletter and monthly articles at the local Forbes & Insider magazines – it’s great to see the enthusiasm and positive feedback sparked so far.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
My inner child would say a detective!
Realistically, I’d probably carry on with my career in one of the Big Four as strategy consultant. According to feedback I received over the years, I have a knack for doing research and bringing information together in a way that serves the client well. Though I am not too sure whether I would thrive in such an environment though – lots of politics, perverse incentives, diversity feeding gossip. Perhaps, had I not become a behavioral economist I would not have paid so much attention to these…Well, there’s no going back.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I try to apply it in most of my decisions, big and small.
What has been very important for me personally, is learning to decide how to decide (“meta-decisions”). There are some decisions that we can go fast and some that merit more thought – I had trouble distinguishing between them. Also, we are now blessed with many behaviorally-informed tools that we can use to decide, that make room for factors such as biases and emotions (ours and others). I will be forever grateful to behavioral science for this knowledge and it’s part of my mission for others to benefit from it too.
Another big thing is that I’ve learnt to recognize when I am prone to present bias and prompt myself to think “how would I like Melina to be [tomorrow/ in five years/ …]”. This trick has helped me develop better habits, such as going to bed at a reasonable time, and quit harmful ones such as the occasional smoke. I also love drawing from books such as How to change, Influence is your superpower and How to have a good day.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
To borrow from an HBR article by Dan Cable, it’s not about what you find easy to do, but what fascinates you enough so that you keep coming back to it, even if you’re bad at it at first. In the case of behavioral scientists, people, decisions and behaviors should seem fascinating. This means that you may not be good at socializing, influencing or making good decisions, but if you find yourself diving deeper and deeper to find out more about these, then you probably have the makes of a worthy behavioral scientist.
As behavioral scientists, we need a growth mindset and courage to master each step in the behavioral science methodology, as much as possible, and stay current. It’s also important to stay humble, self-aware, ask for advice, show ethos, play well with others, see the fun of it and continuously climb the learning curve – pretty much like everything else we want to do well.
How do you think behavioural economics will develop (in the next 10 years)?
The future is bright.
Behavioral economics is one of those things that, once you understand a bit about, you can’t go back. If we glimpse back at the last five years (since Thaler’s Nobel prize in 2017), growth has been tremendous. The momentum is there - behavioral science is permeating every major challenge we are facing worldwide – climate change, productivity, health habits, pandemic behaviors, financial wellbeing, diversity and inclusion, and so on. We just need to do it right – apply it for win-win-win.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
From my experience, there can be different obstacles. Perhaps the most obvious one is about landing a paying job in the field, and that’s about supply and demand. On the demand side, it’s about what the market needs currently and what opportunities are available. Which, in turn, depends a lot on geographic location and timing.
On the supply side, it depends what motivates you. For instance, is it learning more about the human brain and psychology? Is it about how someone can make better decisions for themselves or become a better choice architect? Or is it about data analysis and carrying out experiments? Is it about why people buy or how we can save the environment? Depending on the role, some skills will be utilized more than others.
Broadly speaking, I think there’s three main ways to go about it. The first and most obvious one is to go for a behavioral science job, whether at a consultancy (established or create your own) or in-house (government, NGO or corporation). But these opportunities are few. Another way is to go into academia, provided you really like academic research and/ or teaching. And there’s another way which I’d say is underappreciated but has enormous value: use behavioral science as a specialization. Whether in HR, product management, marketing, accounting or any trade, you can apply behavioral science and give yourself (and your employer) a competitive advantage.
What can also be difficult sometimes is to explain what we do as behavioral scientists. As a new friend who is in coaching said to me, instead of describing to people what it’s all about, show them. As a coach, he can use techniques within a conversation. As behavioral scientists, we can share examples and case studies or, even better, use the environment in which are to spot examples of where behavioral science could add value. The menu of the café, our gym app, product displays and so on.
(Out of the 10 questions, this is my longest reply. Talk about how people love to give out advice!)
Which other behavioural scientists/economists would you love to read an interview by?
Some other behavioral economists I’d love to read about are Martina Cecchini and her work at Mida in the field of HR and organizational change, Laura Petschnig – product strategy at Ocado and Diogo Gonçalves - founder of Nudge Portugal. Last, I'd love to read an interview by Sebastian G. Fonzo!
What are the greatest challenges being faced by behavioural science, right now?
As with most things in life, I’d say laziness, overconfidence and a bit of misuse.
Laziness in the occasional copycatting of an intervention that worked in a different context and applying it without much critical thinking or testing. Overconfidence in terms of over-promising what the methodology can deliver, leading to inflated expectations and consequent disappointment. Misuse, such as making consumers overspend through dark patterns such as drip pricing and fake countdown timers. Instead, there’s a real opportunity for marketers and consumer journey designers to draw from behavioral science in meaningful ways (such as expecting error and giving customers control), amplifying the value of their offering.
What is your biggest frustration with the field as it stands?
It’s messy, full of gaps and duplications, but I love it.
I’d say its messiness provides great opportunities for all behavioral scientists to make a meaningful contribution, each in their own way. Folks like Samuel Salzer at Habit Weekly and Robert Meza do a great job aggregating and communicating key material. The Decision Lab has in my opinion the greatest database explaining a huge number of cognitive effects as well as thoughtful opinion articles. BIT and BAW have published treasured guides on methods as well as literature reviews on specific topics. We have open access to some great case studies by a range of established consultancies, such as Irrational Labs and Worxogo. Money on the mind blog features about 200 interviews including some of the most eminent behavioral scientists out there. To conclude, it’s a game of jigsaw and that means we can all contribute to fill in the gaps meaningfully.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Melina!
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!