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Interview with Michael Hallsworth

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 Hallsworth. Michael is the Managing Director of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) North America. Before his current role, Michael led BIT’s global work on health and tax for five years and before that he was a Senior Policy Advisor in the Cabinet Office of the UK government. Michael has and has in-depth experience of both policy development and service delivery for national governments and international organizations. Michael has also been a leading figure in developing the field of applying behavioral science to government, having authored several influential frameworks such as EAST, Behavioral Government, and the MINDSPACE report. His work has been published in, among others, The Lancet, the Journal of Public Economics, and Nature Human Behaviour. So let's hear it from Michael!


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

My work has always been about applying evidence to policy, so I was aware of the rising interest in behavioral economics before the publication of Nudge in 2008. But the attention that Nudge created meant that the UK government wanted to know more about how it could be applied. I was part of the team that was asked to meet that wish, and we produced the MINDSPACE report in 2010. 

David Halpern, the head of the Nudge Unit (as people always called us) then asked me to come into government to work for two years on a specific challenge: increasing tax compliance through behavioral economics. Among the things I tested were the impact of social norms, which became a well-known example (“nine out of ten people pay their tax on time...”). After that I stayed and branched out into other policy areas, like health. 

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist?

In general, I feel proud about being part of the team that took the Behavioural Insights Team from its origins in government to an organisation of 200 people that works on issues around the globe. We hoped that making this change would allow us to do much more, but it definitely was not a sure thing - it required some good choices, quite a bit of luck, and lots of work. 

In terms of specific projects, I particularly value the work we did on antibiotic resistance in 2014-15. This was a nationwide trial that informed doctors when they were prescribing antibiotics at a higher rate than their peers. Not only was it a clear example of using behavioral science to get a new perspective, the intervention had a real and measurable effect on prescribing, and ended up being published in The Lancet. We also implemented it at a difficult time for me personally, so I was glad of the support from the team. 

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

I would be involved in policy making or public administration in some other way, probably. I really feel that we can’t turn our backs on government - we need to find ways of making it work better. I think behavioral science is a good way of doing this but, if I weren’t doing that, I’d be looking for another way! 

My first degree was in English Literature and I’ve always enjoyed both reading and writing. Whatever I’d be doing, I definitely hope it would involve quite a bit of both those things. 

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? 

One concept that I’ve found very useful is the fundamental attribution error - the idea that we too often explain someone’s behavior in terms of their personality, rather than the particular situation they are in. I often think about this when I encounter people - I suspect it’s made me less judgemental of others. 

The other thing is becoming more aware of our tendency to make rapid associations between ideas or events - I think Kahneman calls this the “associative machine”. Of course, this ability is very helpful for creative activities. But I’ve become increasingly wary of the way it can lead us to make false connections or see patterns where there are none. I’m more cautious in those situations now; I force myself to think through other possible explanations, apart from the ones that spring to mind easily. 

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

Being able to really understand a scientific paper, rather than just read the abstract. Things are getting better, but the story that is told up front in academic articles is not always identical to the one that comes through on closer examination. And if you are being judged on results, you need to know what is really going on. 

A more intangible thing is that I feel some people are particularly good at imagining how an intervention or situation will affect others. There’s a kind of imaginative projection that some comes easier to some people than others. Of course, this is just a starting point - you can’t rely on it. But I do feel that some people are more skilled at anticipating how others will react. 

More prosaically, you’ve got to be willing to put the hours in. Thinking up ideas for new interventions is the easy part. The real work is making sure you turn up at an intervention site every day, or investing time to understand the concerns of a skeptical collaborator, or working through the snags with an IT provider. That’s the stuff which makes or breaks your work. 

How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?

I’ve recently completed a book called “Behavioral Insights”, which is out later this year from MIT Press. The final chapter thinks about this question in depth. Behavioral science needs to consolidate what it knows - working out what findings and concepts can be retained, and who they apply to. It also needs to integrate more approaches from fields like human centred design and network analysis. And practitioners need to come up with new tactics to bring behavioral science upstream in the policy or product design process. There’s a lot more that can be done! 

Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?

Often it’s more senior people who get interviewed, but I’m really excited by some of the research being done by people earlier in their academic careers. For example, I’d like to hear from Elizabeth Linos, Daniella Kupor, and Alex Imas - all of whom do excellent work and would offer interesting perspectives. 

I would also be interested in reading an interview with Iain McGilchrist. His book The Master And His Emissary is a very impressive synthesis of a massive amount of neuroscience, philosophy and cultural history. 


Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Michael! I too think that hearing from earlier career reseachers provides with interesting new perspectives.

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!


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