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Interview with Michelle Handy

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 Michelle Handy.

Michelle is a Behavioral Scientist with over 9 years of experience leading research at tech companies and in academia. Her research has spanned the full range of behavior — from climate change to weight loss to political persuasion — providing her with a deep understanding of how humans think and behave, which she leverages to inform business strategy. Michelle is passionate about helping organizations optimize their program, products, and processes through Behavioral Science. She cares deeply about mentorship and supporting others to constantly grow and evolve. Outside of work, you can find Michelle at her local yoga studio or outdoors with her two pups in Southern Rhode Island!


How did you get into behavioural science?

I've always been really interested in psychology since I was a kid and I wanted to understand ‘the why’ behind everything I was observing and experiencing, particularly things like ‘why would good people do bad things?’ or ‘why are there cliques in school?’. I was even reading books on that in middle school. Then I took an AP psychology course in high school, and that confirmed that I love the subject. I went to the University of Maryland to major in psychology and to go into a career as a clinical psychologist. And when I was doing an honors thesis I became very interested in social cognitive theory and the thought process that people engage in that gets them to reach long term goals, particularly Construal Level Theory. I've been obsessed with that theory throughout the years. I then took an honors seminar with Arie Kruglanski, who's a prominent social psychologist, loved it and I went to his office hours and he was basically just like, ‘you should become a social psychologist, not a clinical psychologist, that's a lot more interesting’. And then I walked out and applied to social psychology programs. That’s what got me interested in social psychology. And after my third year, I realized that I didn't want to go into academia at all. Due to the reasons you have highlighted [ directed at Merle]. I heard a funny interview with you where you said that academia is like a pyramid scheme. And I thought to myself ‘that's like a good way to put it’.

That statement will forever haunt me. But I stand by it. 

It put my feelings into words perfectly. There was a lot I didn’t enjoy about academia. I just wanted to get out there and help people, and engage with people. And that's what led me to explore Applied options. From there my career has progressed.

All right, well talk me through that aspect then. 

After I decided that I wanted to leave academia, I started to just tailor my experiences to try to get my foot in the door. I was on grant with a professor where we did some research for the PBS (public broadcasting services) and I also was a researcher at See Change Institute, consulting. And those experiences were really valuable and they helped me get my foot in the door into tech. I got an internship at Weight Watchers, working with Julie O'Brien. I learned a lot from her very quickly. Now I'm at FM global, which is a commercial property insurance company, but they really identify themselves as an engineering company. And they're going through a digital transformation. They're designing technology for their internal employees, as well as their clients to use to communicate with one another. And behavioral science is really relevant to insurance as well as risk compliance.  Getting clients to install sprinklers at their facilities and identifying variables in the context that would prevent people from doing so. As well as leveraging behavioral science principles to design a better experience for the users going through digital transformation and address their barriers and resistance as they go through this large behavior change.


So throughout this journey, what would you say so far is your crowning achievement? And what is it that you still want to achieve in behavioural science?

I've been thinking a lot about it myself recently and I think something that I'm just proud of is succeeding as a sole behavioral scientist. The first time at this large organization, one year out of academia, being thrown into a leadership position, leading behavioral science, and getting buy-in and creating a workshop series and starting to change the ways that people think here.


And because of all that I'm now developing a workshop series around stakeholder management, and  so the direction I think I want to go is wherever these workshops will take me. I really, really enjoy teachingand helping others apply behavioral science to their work, as opposed to conducting research and experimenting. So I want to go down that path. I think a lot of people are interested in stakeholder management and it's a necessary part of all of our work, in order to be influential in getting our research and designs, or any initiative, implemented. So I'm interested indiving deeper on that topic. In general, I want there to be more behavioral science at a leadership level.


Do you think that it is realistic for behavioural science to infiltrate leadership level? Or, in general, how do you see behavioural science develops in the next decade? Is that a development that you want to see or that you think you're likely to see?

I think that the way that behavioral science will continue to develop in the next decade is that more behavioral scientists will start to infiltrate into roles that are not named ‘behavioral scientist’. And just kind of influence  their way into tangential positions. And it will become more widely embedded into organizations that way. I hope to see that there will be CEOs COOs with a background of behavioral science that will advocate for behavioral science teams or using behavioral science methods across organizations from  HR to marketing to UX to strategy.  There’s so much opportunity and I think things could run more optimally if behavioral science were embedded throughout the organization.

Any challenges on the way to get there?

The main challenge or frustration is that people think behavioral science is cool and sexy, but they are not ready to change their existing ways of working or timelines in order to benefit from the value of behavioral science. That’s a major challenge.

Maybe people feel some sort of threat to their view of how things have always run. But in my current situation, I've experienced stakeholders being very interested in behavioral science, but hoping to receive a silver bullet solution and just getting some advice on how to get people to adopt their predetermined solution, instead of willing to examine the problem from a behavioral science lens in the first place, which is where behavioral science would be most effective. Is this idea of behavioral science being a silver bullet, very nudge heavy, very easy, quick fix focused a personal frustration?


Is that something that you have encountered a lot in your work? And then realistically, how do you deal with that? 

Yes, it is something that I've encountered a lot in my work. I think that people are quick to dismiss behavioral science if they’re not incentivized to make data-driven decisions. Once I debunk that misconception that it's not just a nudge or a quick fix, they lose interest and they don't want to hear about the research proposed. I think it also depends on the type of stakeholder you're working with. In more innovative companies where they're more familiar with behavioral science and more supportive of research I think that people would understand and want the research. In companies that are very deadline driven they just want a quick fix. My other frustration is with academia. My experience is that academia consistently undervalues skills outside of research and statistics. , In actuality, communication and relationship building are extremely important in order for behavioral science to be successful. And there are so many skills and topics that academia doesn't prepare students for. And it creates a mindset where students undervalue themselves if they're not as interested in the research aspects of behavioral science  and have natural strengths in other areas that are really important for success on the job, like teaching and communicating.


So what skills, according to you, set apart a good behavioral scientist or an okay behavioral scientist from a great behavioral scientist?

Those valuable skills definitely depend on the type of behavioral scientist job you’re in or aiming for. For just general vague behavioral scientist or the unicorn behavioral scientist in an organization, what separates a good one from a great one is to have excellent communication skills; the ability to build rapport with stakeholders. Humility is extremely important. You have to be collaborative and creative and work with teammates to make sure that the initiatives that you're proposing are actually going to be valuable to them. And of course the quantitative skills are extremely important and they provide an excellent framework to help you explain and make arguments for why research is needed, but without communication, you won't be effective at getting any initiatives implemented. Also, in order to be influential, you need to be likeable. Coming across as the ‘know it all academic’ does not help with that.



So if someone wants to get into behavioral science now, what would you recommend them to do? Do you think your path is replicable?

I think about my past choices all the time. Behavioral science has really allowed me to jump a few levels in my career because I'm an expert and it's provided a solid foundation of how humans operate that I can kind of work my way into many different types of positions, where the common thread is that an understanding of people is important for job success. So I really appreciate it.

But as to whether I recommend people go into behavioral science. I think that the research skills that one gains and subject matter expertise from doing a PhD areextremely valuable. And to find a job, networking is incredibly important too.  Talking to a lot of people is really important. Just like finding other people who have a PhD in psychology, see how they got there and just seeing if they have opportunities for you. This can help you get your foot in the door into any job.


Well if that’s the recommendation, what do you think would have happened if you hadn’t talked to the right people? What you would have become if not a behavioral scientist?

Maybe I would have wanted to become a counseling psychologist. I like to help people and give advice and just unpack things and find the patterns. And more randomly, I also really love interior design and nice home spaces. My husband has a woodworking hobby. And during grad school, he would make handcrafted cutting boards and we'd go around to boutiques and try to get him into stores. So maybe I’d open up a nice lifestyle store.



How you apply behavioral science to your own life, if at all? 

I use the four tendencies framework by Gretchen Rubin, which defines how people are motivated: by internal expectations or external or combination of both. As it turns out, I'm a ‘questioner’. Questioners are held accountable to internal expectations. And in order to feel motivated or to take action on something, you need to talk to a lot of people or do a lot of research to find enough justification to convince you why something is worth doing. So it's given me some insight on why I have trouble with decision making. I feel like I do implement behavioral science into my life a lot, like particularly the psychology of happiness and well-being. I'm really fortunate to live in southern Rhode Island, and it's justsuch a lovely place. It's five minutes from the ocean, so I spend a lot of time going to the beach and a lot of time in nature. I talk to strangers a lot. I know there's a lot of research on that, that talking to strangers makes you happier. My yoga studio is 15 minutes from my house and everyone is so kind there and they have events all the time. I practice a lot of gratitude. That is probably a very, very smart thing.

Tell me who has inspired you in behavioral science? Who would make for an excellent next interviewee? 

I wonder if you've already interviewed, Julie O'Brien. Julie has inspired me a lot. She has extremely innovative ideas and just so much energy. And then also my young mentee Anushka Bhansali, who just earned her master's in behavioral science at UPenn. She has a lot of great ideas on how to incorporate AI into technology products.


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

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!

2 comentários

tom luke
tom luke
19 de abr.



Kim Morgan
Kim Morgan
29 de mar.

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