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 Natalie Gold. Natalie is a Senior Director in the Behavioural Practice at Kantar Public UK. She is also a Visiting Professor in Practice at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics. Prior to joining the Behavioural Practice, she was the Deputy Head of Behavioural Insights and Lead Behavioural Scientist at Public Health England. She has held faculty positions at the University of Edinburgh, King’s College London, and the University of Oxford. She has over 80 publications on behavioural decision making, including both theoretical and empirical research. She has published on topics including framing, moral judgements and decisions, cooperation and coordination, self-control, and trust in finance; and in applied areas including public health, sustainability, and financial services.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I was hooked in Week 1 of undergraduate microeconomics, when we discussed the assumptions that underpin Expected Utility Theory (EUT) and whether they are requirements of rational decision making. I spent a lot of time thinking about the Allais Paradox, where many people’s choices follow a pattern that is inconsistent with EUT. What does that imply about the adequacy of EUT for modelling human behaviour? And are the deviations from EUT rational? That started me on a path that led to running experiments on decision-making.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
In terms of past accomplishments, I’m proudest of the training and support I’ve given to young researchers; that they want to stay in touch with me and that some of them even want to come back and work with me again. (Though the ex-student who emailed to say my course had inspired her to do a Graduate-Entry Medicine degree won’t be doing that! I don’t quite know how that happened, but it was nice to know I’d had an impact.) Supporting the people around us is the most impactful thing that many of us can do, certainly it has the most visible short-term results. But, in the longer term, I do hope my research will have an impact and make a tangible difference.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
Probably philosophy. That’s an easy answer, since I do have a position in a philosophy department on the side; and I used to have a full-time position in philosophy—in which I also did some behavioural science. I’ve always been quite interdisciplinary in my interests, I like having a mix of practical and theoretical things going on, but the balance has shifted back and forth at different times in my life.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
In my kitchen, the fruit is on the counter-top and the chocolate is in a cupboard on a shelf that is slightly inconvenient to reach. When I have to do something regularly that is mildly distasteful, such as the times in my life when I’ve had to do physio, I schedule a time and make it a regular habit. I always try to break down large tasks into smaller ones that seem achievable and, as anyone I work with can attest to, whenever people say they are going to do something I always get them to set a deadline.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
General critical thinking. The way that academic publication (and human attention) works tends to privilege surprising results, but they are often surprising because they are false. And people writing papers are incentivised to ‘sell’ their results. So never swallow an author’s claims uncritically. Always examine the argument. Learn enough about experimental design and statistics to be able to judge the strengths and weaknesses of the set-up and the analysis, and decide for yourself what follows from the results. Try to make recommendations that are based on a body of evidence. Otherwise you will not be successful in changing people’s behaviour.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I think we will move beyond nudge, embrace more interdisciplinarity, and apply behavioural science to systems and system change. I also think that research methods are improving, with more pre-registration and Open Science, and more nuanced data analysis. Eventually that should lead to a bit more modesty about claims. These are certainly aspirations, I hope they will be realised!
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
Always be learning. Never become too attached to a theory or a result because science is a moving target; you may come to find out later on that your pet theory is incorrect. Make one of the things you learn be some basic statistics because you will need that in order to be able to assess results, both your own and those of others.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Magda Osman, Carla Groom, Richard Amlôt, Cristina Bicchieri, Bruno Frey, George Loewenstein, John List, Nick Chater, Lucia Reisch.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Natalie!
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!