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 Pete Dyson.
Pete is Principal Behavioural Scientist at the UK Department for Transport, having joined in 2020 to establish a dedicated 7-person behavioural science team to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, sustainable behaviour change and emerging transport technologies. Having studied Human Geography at University of Cambridge, his work started at Ogilvy in 2011 as a founding member Ogilvy Change, the Behavioural Science Practice. Pete went on to specialise in consumer behaviour, sustainability, factory safety and charitable giving.
He has co-authored a book, ‘Transport For Humans’, with Rory Sutherland published in November 2021. It makes the case for applying behavioural science to improve travel choices and experiences, to re-think this engineering led sector from the traveller’s perspectives.
Pete is also a semi-professional Ironman triathlete, and in 2021 he broke the record for the fastest non-stop cycle from Land’s End to London (290 miles in 11 hours 49 minutes). Next time he’ll take the train, probably the overnight sleeper train. Let's see how he cycles through my questions!
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
Travel and tourism. When on holiday with family and friends, I’d always wonder why going places enabled people to try new things, think differently about themselves and the world around them. Wind forwards to my dissertation research and I found myself compelled to study this in more depth, what do tour guides show to tourists and what they leave out? What reinforces people’s beliefs about a place and what challenges them? Do people act differently as a result?
Having joined Ogilvy, I suppose it was inevitable I would be bowled over by Rory Sutherland and Jez Groom, who were just establishing a vision for a behavioural science team when I started. I’ll be forever grateful for being the right enough person, at the right time and place, with special people who cared so much.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
The ‘hand stamp’ we created in 2014 to improve hygiene in food processing factories. It was early in my career, but in retrospect, had all the hallmarks of strong applied behavioural science. A persistent and deeply human problem, well-evidenced insights, a creative workshop with experts in the field, and an in-field factory trial. The idea was a washable ‘nasty bacteria’ ink stamp on the back of employee’s hands before they entered the wash station. Randomised microbiological testing found a 63% reduction in instances of dirty hands. It was simple, popular and got rolled out across many facilities. It's on several behavioural courses. I wish we could have got permission to publish in a journal.
Still to achieve? Now I’ve specialised in transport and travel, I want to see a future with dozens of behavioural scientists embedded in car, train, bus, plane, local transport and government organisations. I want to see compassionate, creative and minimalist ideas that make time spent travelling more valuable, sustainable and dignified. Treat travellers as humans, not cargo. We have superpowers and super-shortcomings!
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I’d be in an adjacent field, probably urban design or transport planning. While the field of architecture scares me for its obsession with aesthetics over compassion for normal people, there are people that have forged a different path. I’m a big admirer of Jane Jacobs (New York) and Jan Gehl (Denmark) for their approach to sustainability and urbanism.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
Creatively and persistently.
Take my kitchen, for example. I’ve found myself blind taste testing tea and coffee, re-purposing soap bottles to dispense washing up liquid, watering plants based around when I shop for specific groceries, and leaving myself morning reminders in the cereal cupboard. For bigger life decisions I also turn to psychology. For better or worse, I think behavioural scientists have a bigger toolbox than most professions for looking at challenges and opportunities from different perspectives. Sometimes it works of me, though other times I get caught up in knots and am grateful to the family and friends that help untangle me.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Reading / Listening – lots of papers, books and talks from people years ago and people active right now.
Numbers – if you’re not running the analysis yourself, you really need to know the fundamentals of statistics to be a part of some big conversations in the field.
Writing / Talking – communicating succinctly and accessibly. If you’re going to make something happen in this world, expect a lot of emails, meetings and talking to people. It takes a sizeable village to raise an intervention.
Presenting / Powerpoint – talking to an audience takes some practice. Skills in teaching, visualising, chart-making and slide design are great crafts to hone. Some latitude for creativity here too.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
Let’s take travel and transport – it’s a sector undergoing a revolution of electrification, digitisation and automation. I’ll make two big bets:
Less individual, more societal – we’ll overcome the tendency to orient travel decisions just around the individual, and instead look at the level of households, communities, workplaces and social groups. For instance, expect employers to ask how employees travel to work (and maybe incentivise certain options), and for local authorities to wonder how an entire street might share electric chargers. Big interventions will happen in the social world that surrounds the engineering; start-times, appointments, delivery slots, sharing instrastructure and more.
Data on behaviours – sorry, I know this is predictable, but surely in the next ten years better information will be developed on how people actually travel. It’s pretty sparce right now, relying mostly on diaries, surveys and sales data. Paying for public transport on apps and driving cars that log information digitally will create a much richer picture of people’s travel choices and habits. That’ll shine a light on the messy repertoire we all maintain by blending staying at home, travelling locally and going long distances.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
First, take a longer view of the discipline. The term ‘behavioural science’ might be new, but the fundamentals have been studied for millennia, centuries and decades. I think it takes effort to avoid getting caught up in the latest fads or trends, to invest time in broader understanding of philosophy, the scientific method, sociology and statistics. I think that keeps us humble and inoculates against becoming merely an ‘evangelical behavioural scientist’.
Second, be evidence-led and evidence-generative. If you’re going to be an applied behavioural scientist, it will never be enough to simply ‘follow the science’, hoping a literature review will uncover what to do. Since context is crucial, evidence is a guide, not a constraint, on testing new and novel approaches. Being ‘evidence generative’ also means paying back to the community; publishing and presenting what worked (and what didn’t).
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Vishal George – for being a brilliant, socially driven behavioural scientist and entrepreneur, making life happen in New Zealand.
Eric Hekler – for blowing my mind when presenting at the 2021 UCL CBC conference – systems, tuning and adaptions, a refreshingly ecological approach.
Grace Lordan – for making diversity and inclusion programmes compelling to big organisations.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Pete!
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!