Interview with Michael Barbera




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 Michael Barbera! Michael is an award-winning consumer psychologist and business strategist for Fortune 50 companies. He is the chief behavioral officer at Clicksuasion Labs, helping clients to better understand consumer influence and consumer behavior, both online and in person. He is a leading expert in the complex factors that drive the entire consumer decision-making process, including consumer behavior, emotion, and experience. In 2015, the White House recognized Michael for his many contributions to entrepreneurship. On top of all that, Michael hosts the Clicksuasion podcast as well. Take it away Michael!




Who or what got you into behavioural science?

So, no sh*t, there I was…


A 13-year old drummer in a rock band in New York City. Each year, our guitarist held a Halloween party in his backyard. Having a backyard in New York is kinda a big deal, so we took advantage of this real estate. One year, the guitarist’s parents were selling their home, so we couldn’t use the backyard for a party.


I believed there were other venues where we could host the party and our band could still play. I got on the phone (pre-internet days and I am aging myself) and called many venues throughout New York City, including the Roseland Ballroom, Limelight, local veteran’s facilities, and the Knights of Columbus. I found a nightclub on Staten Island: The Caves. The Caves were a former brewery that was built into a maze of underground tunnels. The venue had two stages and five bars, which was more than enough space for a Halloween party with several bands. 


I went to The Caves to meet the owner of the club. Now, at 13 years of age, I looked like I was 22. As long as I didn’t drink alcohol or abuse my privilege to be at the club, I doubted anyone would pick up on my age (because teenagers know everything, right?). The owner of The Caves and I agreed that I would rent the venue for an all-day event.


The party was planned with 22 bands on two stages and five bars slinging drinks. Each of the bands marketed the event and on the day of the party, more than 300 people attended. The party was a success and for the first time in my life, I had money beyond the allowance from my parents. At that age, all I knew about business was revenue minus expenses equals profit...don’t spend more than you earn. 


The owner of the club asked if I were willing to host another event. As an easily persuadable 13-year old...the answer was yes. We hosted another concert, and another...and another. During these events, I would watch customers make decisions that didn’t seem to be in their best interest. I reflected and pondered about these observations. At this point, what I had created was a business and a platform for curiosity. I continuously hosted concerts around the greater New York City area for years. When I was 17 years old, this company was acquired by Catalyst Promotions.  


This was a significant success story of my young adult life and the catalyst (no pun intended) to many failures ahead in entrepreneurship. My failures in entrepreneurship outweigh the successes. I continuously learn from the failures, yet it was the awkward and quirky decisions that consumers made that piqued my interest. 


As I ventured through my entrepreneurial journey, my curiosity continued to circle back to customer decision-making, and I wanted a formal education in business. I began my academic journey studying business strategy and eventually discovered behavioral economics, and human judgment and decision making. 


This is where my passion for entrepreneurship met with my curiosity for human behavior. I wanted to combine the two and find ways to apply behavioral science to real-world challenges in marketing and communication. In 2014, I started a research firm, and seven years later...Clicksuasion Labs continues to be my happy place. 




What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?

But...there is so much more work to do! Okay, I’ll answer…


My proudest moment as a behavioral scientist isn’t one specific study or the applied results of science...it’s making other people smile. When I am given the chance to stand on stage and talk about behavioral science, it’s my opportunity to teach and entertain. My proudest is seeing others laugh and learn about their own irrational or quirky behavior, and facilitate learning from self-reflection while being in a quasi-stand up comedy environment. 


Yet, the work is never done. There are several social challenges that I would like to solve. First, I’ve been researching and advocating for the reduction in bias and greater acceptance of gender-neutral restrooms. More than 100 organizations have adopted the recommendations of our work and we continuously observe increases in the acceptance rate. Beyond the restroom, I’d love to see a change in the naming convention for hurricane names. Hurricane Mary doesn’t scare me and isn’t likely to influence the majority of people to evacuate for safety; however, Hurricane Deathron 3000 is likely to persuade people to seek safety. There is plenty of work to be completed here and we’re battling government bureaucracy. This challenge might take some time. 





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

My dream job is to be the mascot at a professional sporting event...it’s an opportunity to be a fictitious character and still bring joy to many people. Anyone hiring?





How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? I attempt to use my behavior to my advantage rather than force behavior change where it may not be beneficial. At work and at play, I believe in ASR: actionable, sustainable, and relevancy. Since these three apply to nearly everything that I do (even when I justify my actions like a true human), goal setting is the area of my personal life that benefits from BeSci. I have a rolling 20-year goal. The 20-year goal is loaded with action items that are relevant to each objective. Additionally, each objective is designed to be sustainable in structure and timing by conforming to my personal biases (yes, behavioral scientists are biased) and my personal behavior. 





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

There are probably two important skills that are needed. First, be a nice person. Secondly, be a Seinfeld fan. I’ll explain…


Imagine you’re the hiring manager at your organization. You’ve had 500 applicants and you’ve narrowed it down to two people: person A and person B. 


Person A knows everything about behavioral science, human decision making, and knows how your organization functions. Person A can start tomorrow and doesn’t need any training. They are a total BeSci rockstar. However, Person A is a jerk. 


Person B knows a little bit about behavioral science, human decision making, and knows a little bit about your organization. Person B will need some training and coaching. However, Person B is a really nice person. 


I’ll ask two questions, (1) who would you prefer to sit beside on a five-hour flight from New York City to Los Angeles? And (2) who would you prefer to hire? There isn’t a correct answer, yet most people would choose Person B. 


The majority of my human behavior curiosity revolves around the minutiae of daily life, which is eerily similar to living in a Seinfeld episode where we are surrounded by close talkers, re-gifters, and double dippers. If you enjoy Seinfeld, you’ll probably enjoy behavioral science and vice versa. 





How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? Two words: applied and relevant. Most social sciences are stuck in the publish or perish culture; however, there is a growing shift in behavioral economics and behavioral finance to apply the work rather than publish. Together we can make a positive impact on our communities, neighbors, and the global citizen. 





Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? I’ll suggest five people:

  1. Maria Genualdi, behavioral economics and consumer behavior;

  2. Ashley Gardner, I/O psychology and employee burnout;

  3. Stevie Pena, employee engagement and leader behavior;

  4. Julie Miller, behavioral economics and litter reduction, and

  5. Larry David, co-creator Seinfeld.




Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Michael!

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!


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