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 Olivier Sibony.
Olivier is Professor of Strategy (Education Track) at HEC Paris and Associate Fellow of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. Previously, he was a Senior Partner of McKinsey & Company in France and in the U.S. He is the author of fourbooks, includingthe NewYork Timesbest-seller Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment,co-authored with Daniel Kahneman and Cass R. Sunstein, which has been translated into 35 languages, and You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake. He is a sought-after keynote speaker and serves on several corporate, advisory and investment boards. Olivier is a graduate of HEC Paris and holds a PhD from Université Paris PSL-Dauphine.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I was a management consultant for a long time and one of the first things that I observed was that my clients were amazing people. They were CEOs of big companies, business unit heads, and big functional heads. The problems they were dealing with were really important. They really mattered to them.
We were working hard to get to the right decision. And from time to time, they would just completely ignore what we were telling them. And sometimes, of course, there was good reason for that. It could be wrong. But often, in fact they would say, ‘I totally understand what you're saying, it makes sense, but I'm going to ignore it'. I couldn't understand that. So I entered my puzzle mode which continued until I stumbled upon behavioural science in the late 90s.
To get deeper into behavioural science I started reading not yet popular books as well as scientific papers. I reached out to some academics of which there were not many at the time, at least not in management research. These were the people trying to create what are now existing subfields of behavioural strategy.
And after a while I got so interested in this that when I got tired of consulting after 25 years, I thought it would be a good second career. Behavioural science would be a good fit for my second life. So I went and got a PhD, which I had never thought I would do! And I became a professor, which I also had no idea that I would become one day. And here I am.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist?
Generally speaking, I feel lucky, not proud. If there is one thing I feel I should be proud of, it is writing ‘Noise’. Just writing the book with two such great co-authors (Danny and Cass) is a very important achievement to me. Now, what I've contributed to the content, I am reasonably proud of; but I am mostly proud of having driven this process and made this team work. One of the things that you do learn when you're a consultant, that you don't necessarily learn in an academic setting, is to make three people, including two incredibly smart and talented and opinionated people, work together in a way that actually produces something. So I'm proud of that humble contribution to a team effort.
…And what would you still like to achieve?
My aspiration here is actually quite simple yet quite ambitious: I would like to make the practice of management more science-based. And behavioral science is a large part of that, of course.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
The obvious answer is I would still be doing the same thing I was doing before. I could very well still be a management consultant. The alternative if I wasn't a management consultant now and I wasn't teaching and doing research either, would be for me to be an investor with a focus on venture capitalism. This would certainly include investing in businesses that try to make money out of insights from behavioural science. I fact I do that in my spare time; it's just not a full-time job for me. Perhaps if I wasn't doing this, I might actually have founded one of those businesses. I would be an entrepreneur in behavioural science.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? In my personal life, I try to minimize the decisions that I have to make. I think that's actually the best advice you can give people about their personal life. Don't make too many decisions. The fewer decisions you make, the better, because you will have more time and more brain power to make them. And you also won't overreact and so on. For my own retirement savings, I'm not deciding anything anymore; it's all taken care of and I'm not even looking at the statements. Which behavioural finance tells you is the good thing to do, but very few people actually do it. And the last thing, although it’s not behavioural science per se, is that I try to, and would recommend anyone to, get enough sleep!
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? I think one set of skills that behavioural scientists need is the ability to play the role of evidence-based change agent within organizations. This requires a mix of qualitative insights, quantitative scientific methods, and management skills to influence leaders and drive change. An effective behavioural scientist is not just a scientist – it is someone who encourages innovation, who drives new ways of working, who pushes new programs and processes, who introduces new methods. That’s how you make organizations more efficient and more innovative. What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field? I would advise them to develop a range of skills which enable them to play that sort of role. Typically, when you're a behavioural scientist, you've learned everything about behavioural science. You have your quantitative methods, you know everything about cognitive psychology. Great. Now get yourself a job at McKinsey or BCG. and learn how to effect change in an organization for three or five or ten years. Then you can put these two skill sets together and you'll be a great leader of a Nudge Unit.
What are the biggest challenges for behavioural science? I'm not the best person to answer that but one challenge that I clearly see is behavioural scientists trying to get into practice. Look at how many programs are now producing graduates in behavioural science. This just leads to a sudden influx of said scientists. Now I don't know how many masters there are or how many graduates they produce. But judging from the number of people who call me and ask, ‘where outside of academia can I find a job as a behavioural scientist?’ I wonder if the field is not becoming a victim of its public appeal. I can imagine that an undergraduate thinks this is a fascinating field to study. But it's still fairly specialized here. It's not management. It's not medicine. It's not psychology. It's a fairly narrow, specialist field. In some countries it's perfectly okay to have studied something very narrow and then to go get a job in something completely different. The UK would be an example of this; you may have studied history and then go work for a bank – which is brilliant – other countries should emulate this. But in many other countries, if you study behavioural science, you are expected to work in something related to behavioural science and you yourself probably have the expectation that you're going to be applying what you learned in school about behavioural science. And there simply aren't that many jobs out there that have anything to do with behavioural science. In academia, there are a few, but not that many either. Outside of academia, there are a few consultancies. But there are really not that many behavioural science departments within corporations (yet). And I worry that we're going to have a sort of backlash of young, well-trained behavioural scientists saying ‘I've learned something very interesting, but not very useful’.
What are your biggest frustrations with behavioural science, as it currently stands? If I have a frustration, it is with some of the internal strife. All of the back and forth about if something works, if the right methods were applied, if everything was replicated as required. I see why it's necessary. I do. In the spirit of being evidence-based, I'm not going to criticize the people who challenge the evidence and who insist on high standards of quality. People looking at this from the outside should see it as a sign of quality. The fact that there is internal challenge, to me, is a sign of good science. But, when you read about this in The Economist, or about the debate about the effectiveness of nudges, for instance, well what does someone who is not in behavioural science take away from this? ‘Oh, science now says nudges don't work’. Of course that’s not what people reading the actual papers would take from this. It is healthy to have debate between people who have different views on how to measure the effect of various interventions. This is how science progresses. But the adversarial tone that is sometimes used in those debates is not beneficial when it gets picked up by the outside world, by the general media. It has a counterproductive effect for the field in general.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? Hugo Mercier is really good, and Francesca Gino will also make for a great interviewee. Another great person to interview would be Gordon Pennycook.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Olivier!
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!