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Interview with Michael Kasumovic

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 Michael Kasumovic. Michael is associate professor at the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences at UNSW. His research explores how the social environment shapes the evolution of individual traits and behaviours. This broad research question results in the use of many different animals, including humans. His work using insects and spiders explores how changes in the density of males and females affects developmental decisions, and the outcome this has for how individuals perform and age. His research on humans explores how our evolutionary history can explain gender differences in the video games we choose to play and how this affects how we perceive ourselves and behave.


Who or what got you into behavioural science

I wanted to be a dentist when I first started university. But it was an elective course - animal behaviour - that really blew my mind. I found it fascinating to explore why animals behaved the way they do. Not just in a superficial way like nature documentaries do, but in a way that explained why they look and act the way they do. That really sparked an interest in wanting to understand more about what can explain individual behaviour.

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

It's definitely a paper of mine where I explored what makes men more aggressive towards women. It was a great collaboration where we identified that it's status and a fear of losing status that makes men behave more aggressively towards a woman. This is my most widely read paper and it still comes up in social media every once in a while. Which makes me smile.

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

Who knows! I own a business as well - Arludo - where we create games to help engage students in science. I love cooking a lot, although I don't know if I could handle the stress of a high performing restaurant. There are a lot of things I enjoy that could have been a career. But I was definitely not destined to become a dentist. So I' glad I didn't go down that path!

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

Saying 'apply' sounds like I use it as some advantage that others don't because I understand what may trigger certain behaviours. It's less like that and more like "oh yeah, I understand why people behave that way" or "yeah, I can explain why that happened". My exploration of behaviour started in non-human animals - birds, crickets, spiders - which I feel has given me more of a solid foundation because of the centuries of research on non-human animals. We tend to look at non-human animals as 'simpler' than human. But once you start applying the same theories and ideas on humans, you begin to realise there is less and less that makes us 'special'. The same rules that have led to the evolution of all animals on the planet have also resulted in the evolution of humans. So the same rules and explanations apply to us. Once you accept that, it's really quite humbling and allows you to see the world - and our place in it - more objectively. Which I feel is a really important thing.

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

The most important thing is just this insatiable desire to want to understand. If you have the desire to understand, then you will gain the skills you need to learn more about the world. There is so much to still discover about the world. We need curious people that are willing to explore concepts more objectively so that we can better understand our place in the world.

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

I think behavioural economics will take more learnings from evolution. The two fields are strongly linked with one another behavioural economics has taken quite a lot of ideas from evolution. It would be great to see more interaction and collaboration between the two fields. At the same time, I think some of this new and exciting research will be powered by AI to some extent. We are collecting a massive amount of data around the world on human decisions. The problem, however, is that these data are owned by private companies. Which means that the insights are seen as economically valuable, and will unlikely be shared with researchers. It would be great to see more trust between researchers and industry in this regard, but I think these data have so much value that it is unlikely that they will be shared. And that makes me sad as there is an incredible wealth of knowledge there that could help us understand humans better.

What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?

Figure out what you want to do and why you want to do it. There is definitely money to be made in this field, but you need to ask yourself what you are willing to sacrifice. I see a lot of behavioural economics, psychological theories, and even evolutionary theories being applied to situations to allow industry to make more money. And there is now evidence that these approaches are starting to affect young people and society in general. I think young people need to ask themselves whether they really want to be a part of a world where human knowledge is being used to take advantage of people, some of whom are very vulnerable. I think there is a lot of opportunity for behavioural economics to do good in the world. But it is easy to be corrupted.

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

Khandis Blake at the University of Melbourne is doing some really cool stuff exploring the intersection between economics, evolution, and social media. You should check her stuff out!

What are the greatest challenges being faced by behavioural science, right now?

I think I alluded to that above - the misuse of information for economic advantage by industry. I think it's extremely problematic because of the power that these companies wield. It has the potential to lead to behavioural science being seen negatively in the eyes of the average individual as they'll see it as something that companies use to make more money (which they do).

What is your biggest frustration with the field as it stands?

Other than the strong ties between behavioural science and industry, I don't really have any big frustrations. There is a lot of potential for behavioural science to do good in the world. And I think people just need to remember that.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions 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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