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 Neil Lewis, Jr.
Neil is a behavioural and intervention scientist at Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medicine, where he is an assistant professor in the department of communication, division of general internal medicine, and graduate field of psychology. He also co-directs Cornell's Action Research Collaborative, which brings together researchers, practitioners, community members, and policymakers to address pressing issues in society. Lewis's research examines how people's social contexts and identities influence: (1) how they interpret and make meaning of the world around them, (2) their motivation to pursue their goals and success in goal pursuit efforts, and (3) the implications of these processes for interventions and policies to promote equity in social outcomes. He received the Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions from the Association for Psychological Science (2022), the Cornell CALS Research and Extension Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Science and Public Policy (2021), and the SAGE Young Scholar Early Career Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (2020).
Who or what got you into behavioural science
I somewhat stumbled into my career as a behavioral scientist. I went to college to become a lawyer (that seemed like a practical thing to do at the time), but after taking a class in the law school, I realized I didn’t actually want to be a lawyer; the idea of being a lawyer that I had in my head turned out to not match the day-to-day reality of that career path. After that, I explored business and…realized I didn’t want to do that either. Finally, I decided to give research a try since I enjoyed reading about it in my classes. That turned out to be something I really enjoyed doing and was good at, so my mentor suggested I consider going to graduate school. That’s how I got on this path—by process of elimination.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist?
I’m most proud of the intervention work we’ve done over the years. In the education realm, we’ve done some work that has helped students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the struggles they often face in the higher education system; in the health realm we’ve done some work on getting people to engage in a variety of health promotion behaviors—including recent work on increasing vaccine uptake. The work that helps to move the needle on some of the pressing issues in society is the work that tends to energize me.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I think I would be working in government if I weren’t a behavioral scientist. There are a number of issues in society that trouble me—inequities in education, health, environmental outcomes, to name a few—and right now I study those issues and what to do about them. If I weren’t doing that, I think I would enjoy working on the other side—working in government agencies on crafting, implementing, and evaluating evidence-based policies to address those issues.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
One of the umbrellas that my research falls under is goal pursuit—figuring out strategies for helping people and societies achieve individual and collective goals. There are a number of strategies in that literature that can help at an individual level, so I try to apply those in my life. For example, I am a somewhat meticulous planner, and use calendars to map out all of the things (both personal and professional) that I have to do, and that helps me with curtailing effects of the planning fallacy. Before committing to new projects, I open up my calendar and ask myself “when would I actually do this?” If I don’t see enough time in my calendar to do the project with the effort that it deserves, I say no; that keeps me from becoming too overwhelmed and from disappointing others by not following through. That’s just one example of a way I think about what the research literature says about issues that keep people from achieving their goals, and then implement strategies to address those issues in my own life. It doesn’t always work, but it works often enough to leave me better off than if I didn’t try to put the research into practice.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
It’s difficult for me to prescribe one concrete set of skills because I think there are multiple ways of being a good behavioral scientist. I often see people say things like “you need to learn R” and…sure that can help in some circumstances, but that mistakes the tool for the substance of what we’re here to do. I think to be a good behavioral scientist you need to be inquisitive and humble. Human beings are remarkably complex creatures and it takes a lot of time to understand the variety of forces that influence their behavior. You have to be willing to sit and observe them, to interview and engage in dialogue with them, to survey them and put them through experimental scenarios—both in highly controlled settings (like laboratories) and out in the messy world (field studies). Those are different skillsets, and few behavioral scientists will have them all. That’s okay! That’s where the humility part comes in—we can use our particular skillsets to study the components of behaviors that we are best suited to, and just know that there are other parts we’re missing, and we should work together with others to get a holistic understanding of the bigger picture.
How do you think behavioural economics will develop (in the next 10 years)?
That’s a really good question which is hard to answer, in part because so much is changing in society at the moment that it is hard to know how those changes will affect the field. One thing I think we will have to wrestle with is the role of artificial intelligence and other technologies that will surely affect people’s behaviours. AI will be a challenge for us because we will need to know something about the underlying algorithms to make sense of their effects on behavior, and most behavioral scientists (myself included) are not trained to think about those technological dynamics. A related issue is an issue of how to deal with the mass amounts of data that now exists on people’s behaviors. We have more data than ever before, but in some ways that makes the job harder—we’ll need better theories that can help us make sense of it. And it also raises some ethical issues we’ll have to wrestle with—more data means we’ll be able to do some new things that we couldn’t before; but having the ability to do things doesn’t necessarily mean it is ethical to do them, so I think that is something we will have to devote more attention to in the future.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
I think it is important to keep up with not only what is going on with your own field, but also other fields that study people (and even social systems of other species). I have learned just as much, if not more, from reading papers and books from the fields outside of my immediate area of research—it gives me new ways of thinking about things which inspires new studies, and new ways to think about applying research. You of course have to keep up with your own subfield, but don’t let your discipline narrow your view of the broader world.
Which other behavioural scientists/economists would you love to read an interview by?
Cydney Dupree, Susan Dynarski, Ivy Onyeador
What are the greatest challenges being faced by behavioural science, right now?
Same issues that were raised in Q6
What is your biggest frustration with the field as it stands?
It’s hard for me to separate problems with the field from problems with academic institutions, but the common thread that is coming to mind is disciplinary boundaries and silos. The world’s problems do not rest in any one discipline, but the way that we study them are. That, I think, hinders what we learn, and what we can do with our knowledge.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Neil!
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!