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 Nina Mazar.
Nina is a Professor of Marketing at the Questrom School of Business. As a behavioural scientist, Nina has been named as one of “The 40 Most Outstanding B-School Profs Under 40 In The World” by the business education website Poets&Quants in 2014. Nina investigates consumer behaviour and how it deviates from standard economic assumptions. In addition, she studies moral decision-making and its implications for policy. Her research topics range from irrational attraction to free products, the paradoxes of green behavior to temptations to be dishonest.
Who or what got you into behavioural science? Profs. Dan Ariely and Drazen Prelec. I had the great fortune to visit MIT Sloan first as a phd student from Germany and then as postdoc. Those years from 2001-2007 were formative. In addition to Dan Ariely and Drazen Prelec, I got to interact with Shane Frederick, Ernst Fehr, and so many others right after Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize. It was an exciting time: I soaked up books such as Choices, Values, and Frames, was exposed to amazing guest speakers ranging from Richard Thaler to Eric Johnson to George Loewenstein to Gert Gigerenzer to Elder Shafir. It felt like JDM/Behavioral Science on steroids. I learned a lot.
And then I was very lucky to start as assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management where I found mentors in my dean Roger Martin, who believed in me and my work, and my colleague Dilip Soman, who cared in particular for external validity and social impact and with whom I eventually went on to co-found BEAR (Behavioral Economics in Action at Rotman) and to work closely with the government of Ontario. Around that same time I was approached by a couple of entrepreneurs (Doug Steiner and Louis Ng), who suggested applying the behavioral science insights from academia to help for profit organizations be more effective when trying to create behavioral change, and we went on to co-found BEworks (together with Dan Ariely and Kelly Peters).
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve? Two of the accomplishments I am proudest of are to have cofounded BEAR in Canada (in the early 2010th), which ended up being a catalyst for behavioral science efforts by the government of Canada, and to have helped establish The World Bank’s behavioral insights unit (from 2015-2017). I think a lot of good and impactful work has been coming out of these two initiatives, and I am proud that I was a part of them in their formative years.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? Good question. I went through various phases. In particular, in parallel to pursuing my PhD, I was enrolled for a while in media studies because I was interested in becoming a film producer. Given my affinity to research and social good, I wonder if I may have ended up producing documentaries if I had gone down that path...
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
Isn’t there a saying that says one studies that one needs the most help with? :-) In terms of financial decision making, I have set up automatic savings : so every month, right after my paycheck hits a certain amount goes into various savings accounts such as a college savings fund for my child, etc. I am also very conscious of time management and am trying to use pre-commitments as well as insights about rituals and habit formation to use my time wiser but, so far, I would say there is still lots of room for improvement.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? Depends on if we are talking about academic or practitioner. As academic it is important to have a command of the existing literature, experience in designing experiments and its potential pitfalls. I also think that more and more quantitative skills are needed not only to truly assess the effectiveness/impact of interventions but also to dig deeper into heterogeneity and personalized treatment assignments (e.g., through the application of machine learning algorithms).
As a practitioner I think it is important to have a good understanding of how to interpret academic research (e.g., understanding that there is publication bias, that many details of studies are sometimes missing at least from the main text, that details matter a lot, understanding the voltage drop that John List talks about in his latest book, etc.). Dilip Soman and I present some of these issues in our co-edited book “Behavioral Science in the Wild.”
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? I hope that behavioral science research will be much more interdisciplinary, including e.g., computational social science, lawyers, political studies, ethicists, statisticians (not only economists, psychologists, and b-school academics). This is important if Behavioral Science wants to contribute to tackling the really big problems (e.g., climate change, AI, misinformation, polarization, poverty, etc.) and in particular, wants to have impact on, as Chater & Loewenstein call it, the s-level (system-level). I also hope that we continue to expand our incentives for and acceptance of publishing papers that are attempting to translate or scale existing interventions and test the generalizability of effects. If we want to have real-world impact we need to take on the responsibility to support the gathering of more evidence of our effects including their robustness and possible side-effects (positive and negative). I definitely understand that it doesn’t feel good if one’s own effects don’t seems to generalize or replicate, but at the end of the day, we should be wanting to truly understand the robustness of effects and the underlying mechanisms to get a better understanding of when, why, and for whom certain interventions work versus not and what effects sizes to realistically expect, so that we can give better advice to practitioners on what interventions to implement at scale in the “wild.”
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field? “Get your hands dirty” as soon as possible in the real world to get a sense of the obstacles and limitations one can run into. A good way to do so is through internships with organizations such as the World Bank, BIT, ideas42, etc. Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? Ralph Hertwig, Elke Weber, Marcel Zeelenberg, Ilana Ritov
What are the greatest challenges being faced by behavioural science, right now? Generalization, theory, more advanced quantitative skills as well as focusing more on how to change behavior on the organization-level and system-level (not just the individual level) — very much in line with my answer on how the field will develop!
What is your biggest frustration with the field as it stands? That it feels at times a bit clubby and elitist making it harder for those “outside" to get attention and recognition for their work and access to field-study opportunities with practitioners.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Nina!
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!