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 Nick Hobson!
Nick is Chief Behavioral Scientist at The Behaviorist, and a behavioral science strategist and designer. If you don't know him as that, you'll probably know him as the podcast host of 'It's All Just a Bunch of BS'. He holds a PhD in behavioral neuroscience from the University of Toronto. He's also a leading research expert on a number of topics including mental performance, ritual, emotions, motivation, and learning. He consults budding entrepreneurs and founders on how to reach their full psychological potential using leading scientific practices and data-driven techniques. In his "free time" he also casually writes for Forbes, Quartz, and Psychology Today, among others. It's a miracle he's found the time to write out this interview, so let's have it!
Who or what got you into behavioural science? I was pre-med student in my undergrad. Psychology/behavioral science was nowhere on my radar. But in my junior year, I had to take a compulsory Intro Psych class. It was taught by Professor Dick Day. I didn’t know it at the time, but the man was a teaching legend.
He only wore sandels. Sandels and socks in the (Canadian) winter. Sandels and barefeet in the spring. Fortunately for his students his teaching and fashion sense were inversely correlated, probably at r = -0.98. After the first few classes, I remember thinking to myself, “this is what I want to do with my life.” The ‘this’ was a vague, undefined direction of ‘doing psychology’, whatever that meant. It was, I guess, to be like Dick Day one day. Minus the sandels of course. Though it would be many years later that my path as a behavioral scientist and practitioner found some direction, I know for certain it was his inspiring teaching that got me completely hooked on the field right from the get go.
I often think: this guy’s been teaching Psych-101 since the 70s. Each yearly cohort has between 1000 and 2000 students enrolled in his intro courses. How many other psychology professionals, like myself, are doing what they’re doing as a career because of this man? I emailed him last year to tell him all this, and to thank him for the impact he had on me. His email back is one of my favorite replies I’ve ever received.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? I am proudest of leading a mixed team of researchers – including psychologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and management scientists – who worked on a theoretical model of the psychology of ritual. This work that formed the basis of my PhD dissertation research. Then, as I made the leap out academia and into practice, I took this research with me and have been successfully applying it to client work for the last few years.
This also touches on a general ethic in the work that I do. I am proud to be in a position to translate scientific research for applied work. Though I may not be the best researcher, or the smartest statistician, or most savvy experimentalist, where I do my best work is right at the intersection of where science and practice meet. That’s where I feel most comfortable. That’s where I find my flow.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I’d be a musician. Or a music producer … involved in the music industry in some way. Actually, I still engage in this different version of myself from time to time. This alternative ego of mine is a fun form of escapism - a brief respite from the uber-analytical mindset of the stereotypical boring, lab coat-wearing scientist. It’s the doing mode versus being mode. The scientist versus artist. I am, by trade, a scientist. But I like to bring my artist back online every now and then. We all have multiple selves. In fact, we know from research that this ‘self-complexity’ is a good thing. So when I grow tired of the Nick-as-scientist identity, I’ll pick up a guitar and pretend for a brief moment that I’m a free-spirited folk music artist. Not a very good one mind you.
Of course, I don’t believe these two things occupy two opposing psychological spaces. I know plenty of scientists who do their science in a highly creative way. And I know plenty of musicians who do their music in a highly analytic, almost mathematical way. So there’s that.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
Any success I’ve had in my life is the result of 50% luck. The remainder is 10% raw intelligence and, most importantly, 30% habit systems (with a little bit left over for error variance). I am a big fan of the habit literature in social psychology, including the seminal work by Wendy Wood at USC. I rely on the science to help me create context-sensitive systems that “turn on” a script for achieving the desirable behavior that I know will likely produce good outcomes in the long-run.
That could be, for example, intentionally setting very early meetings with clients overseas (to get up early), or creating running lists on notepads (prioritizing tasks), or buying the world’s most high-strung dog (to go outside for walks in nature), or buying only the grocery items that make it into a planned dinner (to eat healthy), and so on.
Another area where I apply behavioral science in my life is with emotions and emotional well-being. I studied affective science for about a decade in academia and the learnings in that field are remarkable. Consider, according to the ‘affect-as-information’ hypothesis, we know that emotions influence basic information processing. We also know the basis of the emotional effects can be incidental or integral. The ‘incidental’ being the tricky bit because the emotional experience itself isn’t tied to the current situation. Meaning that it is arising from some other unrelated source, often one that eludes us.
So, as an example, I may find myself being short with my family for no apparent reason. If I’m a good husband and father, I should pause, reflect on my mood, check in on physiological state, and trace back what happened over the last few hours. And sure enough, there will be something that happened that I forgot about (on a conscious level) but which is still lingering emotionally. And it’s usually mundane or silly.
Having this meta-awareness prevents our emotions from taking us hostage, and ensures that the decisions we make are adaptive and serve us well. I believe if the majority of the population had some training in emotions science, we’d be much better off as a global society.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
The first one may not necessarily be a skill per se, but it is, I believe, the one attribute that will make you a successful scientist in general, and that is: a deep desire to ask questions. Next, I’d say is the ability to cool off that burning curiosity with a healthy dose of critical thinking. I draw inspiration from Carl Sagan, the renowned astrophysicist when he says, “it seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas.” No doubt, you’ll be a successful behavioral scientist if you’re able to toggle between these two states.
For the more tactical, I would say that the skill of translating and communication is key. This was something my mentors drilled into me. My very first advisor in undergrad, for instance, would often say to me, “Write like you speak. And speak well.” I can’t stress how important this is for the field of applied behavioral science. By a stroke of luck and opportune timing, we’ve been given the chance to bring our science to the masses. Our work is being applied in policy, management, marketing, healthcare - you name it. We can’t screw it up. It may be our only shot. If we talk to our non-scientist stakeholders using the befuddled academse jargon, we’ll fall behind as a field. As Steven Pinker said, “The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows … and so she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.”
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
My hypothesis is that the 2020s is the decade for behavioral science. Jobs, industries, mandate, budget, talent, training, conversation, coverage – there’s steady growth, year over year. Ten years ago, could you have ever imagined the role of a Chief Behavioral Officer in an organization? Not a chance. Today, it’s a distinct competitive advantage. Even the Fortune 100s are all aboard the behavior train.
If the 2010s were the awkward teenage years for our fledgling behavioral science, the 2020s will see us enter into adulthood. The last few years we’ve been struggling with a bit of an identity crisis. What do call ourselves? How do we convince others we’re cool and relevant? In what ways are we unique? In time, we’ll outgrow this bumbling awkwardness and figure out who we really are, where we really fit in.
There are several trends and fascinating directions that speak to this, but I’ll say just two here.
Trend #1: Personality will enter into the equation. Kurt Lewin, one of the founding members of social psychology came up with a simple formula: B = ƒ(P, E). That is, a person’s behavior is a function of a the personality in the environment. Our 2010s’ behavioral insights has been all about the E and no P. It’s always been about context, context, context. But it’s (literally) half the equation. Once we begin accounting for individual differences, our behavior change interventions will be that much more impactful. It’ll take care of a lot of the heterogeneity in the effects we currently see. It’s a sensible direction. If we nudge introverted Person A, their response is bound to be very different than the same nudge applied to extroverted Person B.
Speaking of nudging...
Trend #2: If all of behavioral science insights is the entire elephant, then nudging is the tail. We’re missing out on the other 95%. There’s a whole century of insights from social psychology, cognitive psychology, evolutionary science, affective science, etc, not to mention the other social and political sciences including anthropology and sociology. The 2020s will be about consilience. Where academia has failed to create a truly interdisciplinary approach to understanding human behavior, applied behavioral insights will take up the torch. Don’t get me wrong, we needed nudging for the initial buy-in and proof of concept. But now that we have that, it’s time to broaden our scope.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Jay Van Bavel; Mike Norton; Paul Bloom; Guy Champniss; Sam Salzer.
Thank you for these great answers Nick! And thanks for doing some serious trend forecasting. I'm excited to see whether these trends will actually occur. Moreover, the interview with Samual Salzer should be forthcoming, and the interview with Guy Champniss can be read here. 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!