Interview with Owain Service



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 Owain Service. Owain is the CEO anf founder of CogCo (the Cognition Company). His focus lies in helping organisations to build their internal capabilities relating to the behaviours of their customers and employees; and in the practical application of behavioural science. He is also an Honorary Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick University. He was previously the co-founder and Managing Director of the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team and before that was a Deputy Director of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. In his spare time, Owain enjoys cooking elaborate meals, and hanging out with his young family.


 

Who or what got you into behavioural science?

There were a number of different factors. I studied social psychology and social anthropology at university alongside politics, which sparked my interest. I read Cialdini's Influence and then came across Thaler, when giving a seminar at the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, where I started my career. And that was also where I teamed up with David Halpern (who also happened to be a lecturer on my undergrad course!).

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?

I think my proudest moment was possibly getting the results back from some of the first randomised controlled trials that we ran at the Behavioural Insights Team.

Mainly because, back in 2010/11, there was still a lot of scepticism about the potential for behavioural science in a policy realm. And we ourselves didn't know if we could make some of the ideas work in a government setting.

More recently, I've been really proud to set up my new company CogCo with Edward Gardiner and Umar Taj. It's always a big step, and great to be able to work with Ed and Umar.

If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?

I'd probably be working on a government strategy programme. We created the Behavioural Insights Team from a group of people who were originally based at the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit. So that's where a lot of my early career was spent.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? I've got young kids. And am often thinking about how to encourage them to do certain things. One simple thing many parents do, for example, is to give your child a bit of control over their choices, while also constraining the choice set. So I rarely ask 'would you like to have brocolli?' But I might ask: 'Your choice: do you want brocolli or green beans?'



With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?

I like to think about the composition of teams, rather than the skills any one person might need. But to be a behavioural scientist, you ultimately need to have a good understanding of the literature. And to be a good applied behavioural scientist, you need to look for opportunities to take that understanding and use it to make things happen in the real world.



How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?

I believe that behavioural science will evolve, much like economics has done over the past few decades, to be increasingly mainstream. So that almost everyone knows some behavioural science, but there's still a need for deep expertise. At CogCo, we also firmly believe that behavioural scientists will increasingly be integrating with people from other disciplines - especially design and data science. And so the barriers between these fields will increasingly be broken down.