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 Peter Slattery. Peter is a behavioural scientist at BehaviourWorks Australia (BWA). Prior to this, he completed a PhD at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) examining how to use websites to encourage volunteering and philanthropy. At BWA, he has worked on a range of projects including the BWA research database, hackathons, the Scale-up Toolkit and the Survey of COVID-19 Responses to Understand Behaviour (SCRUB) study. He also co-founded The Rapid Effective Action Development Initiative (READI) which coordinates and conducts behaviour science research to improve decision-making and behaviour for the world’s most pressing problems. Last, Peter also helps to run the Effective Altruism Behavioral Science newsletter, more about that in question 3!
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
My mother bought me Cialdini’s principles of persuasion for Christmas. It was published by business classics or something similar, so I didn’t read it for several years because I found business very boring as a teenager! However, when I eventually did, I really enjoyed it. At that point, though, I didn’t really know what to do with my new-found tool of ‘persuasion’. That insight came later during my masters, which focused on information systems and made me reflect on the ever-growing power of using technology to distribute information. At some point, I had a eureka moment - ‘what if I used new communication technologies to persuade for good?’
That's when behaviour science became a big part of my identity.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
Probably instigating and running the SCRUB project with my colleagues at BehaviourWorks and The Rapid Effective Action Development Initiative (READI). That project ran every 3-4 weeks from March 2020 until June 2021 in partnership with the Victorian Government in Australia. More than 50,000 surveys were completed including over 3000 international responses. It had a lot of impact on policy, which was really rewarding to see. We also tested a range of interventions and should soon be able to publish more findings from that work, which should help in the future.
There is a lot that I still want to achieve in behavioural science. I read something a long time ago that shifted my perspective away from believing that my personal impact (in isolation) would ever be close to the impact made through people I influence, so I have been keen on ‘nudging the nudgers’ ever since! Most of my future plans are therefore focused on supporting people and projects that have similar goals to my own.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
Various things that I found interesting and impactful. I feel that being a good social actor requires having a wide range of tools, so I don’t usually think of myself as being only a behavioural scientist. Instead, I see myself an entrepreneur who uses behavioural science and other areas of knowledge to have a positive impact and/or find meaning in life!
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I use it all the time in different ways. Mostly I channel the wisdom of BJ Fogg, McGuire and others to maximise the salience and simplicity of important stimuli (e.g., issues, tasks & goals) to ensure that I will action them and make them in habits. Here are some examples of things I do:
Tracking: I use a spreadsheet to track metrics and experiences and track my sleep, health and exercise using an Oura ring.
Task management: Everything I want to do goes in my Google Tasks and then onto my calendar.
Reflection: I reflect on trends in my experiences and productivity each week, and do one big annual review.
Goal setting: I set and monitor goals during my reflection periods, and set tasks to revisit the goal lists to keep them salient.
Reducing friction: I proactively make everything I want to do (or benefit from doing) as easy to do as possible. Example: I job around the block for just 3 minutes at lunch as a ‘tiny habit’ that is easy to maintain.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
It is probably rare enough for anyone engaging in a society to operate without a regular need to assess and change other people’s behaviour so, in a sense, we are nearly all behavioural scientists, just with different skills and interests. If you want to take it seriously enough to call yourself a behavioural scientist, then you probably need a reasonable interest in, understanding of, and ability with, people and with science. It's not overly hard to get some skill at those, but it is definitely very difficult to master them.
In terms of recommendations, I recommend only doing behavioural science in the workplace while fully dressed. You will usually get in a lot of trouble otherwise.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
Information Technology, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning will become evermore important for collecting data, designing interventions and influencing behaviour.
Behavioural science will become more widely accepted and embedded in practice as more people realise that behaviour is immediately proximal to outcomes that they care about and one of the easiest metrics to track and change.
Similar to entrepreneurship and investing, forecasting/prediction skill will become increasingly significant as there is a move to seek demonstrated performance (i.e., getting good outcomes using behavioural science) rather than signals of expertise (i.e., knowing a lot of theory).
Fields studies and research industry partnerships will increase as funding for academic researchers starts to be increasingly contingent on practical impact.
Spurred on by what happened with COVID-19, there will be a move away from publishing things slowly in academic journals using PDFs. The overwhelming benefits of faster and better dissemination using new media will become apparent, and the grip of outdated publishing systems will become weaker.
We will get more interested in inoculation and protection against persuasion and influence attempts as movements like the Center for Humane Technology gain more traction.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
Be strategic about your niche - pick something where demand will be exceeding supply by the time you hit the job market. There is often opportunity at the intersection of old theories and new practices. With a basic knowledge of behavioural science, you might only be able to become a mediocre researcher or consultant in finance. However, if you combine your behavioural science with some knowledge of say, asteroid mining safety behaviour, then you could be the brightest behavioural and best scientist in that industry and heavily in demand (in say 50 years!). Maybe more realistic examples are behavioural science informed product management, advertisement, AI use or regulation etc.
Collaborate with and connect with lots of people - at least initially. Collaboration is helpful in almost all areas of work and life. Loose connections are higher value than most people realise and where a lot of jobs and insights emerge. Success at something frequently requires integrating more ideas, skillsets and resources than you can usually get from an immediate network.
Have a hits based perspective to networking and projects, rather than only going for guaranteed winners. For instance, most new contacts you connect with may turn out to be low value, but if 1 in 100 becomes a good friend or collaborator, then it makes all that effort worthwhile.
Try some side projects, even done in secret, to learn and get a chance to pull off something impressive. I learned a lot from my entrepreneurial projects because I was exposed to challenges that I wouldn’t have had in a professional setting. I also had chances to learn what I liked and didn’t like, or could and couldn’t do well, without needing to find a way to be paid to do it.
Where sensible, be willing to delay financial reward for other more valuable resources like experience and status. For instance, if you volunteer to work with and learn from an experienced person in the field, then that can pay off much more in the long term than if you take a bad job that pays you immediately and gives you little else.
Promote yourself effectively. For instance, if you want to be employed, then make sure your online presence captures the interest of potential employers and gives them the information they need. If you have done good work then make sure you share it. Too often people have done a lot of good work or had good ideas but kept them inaccessible.
Help/support people in the community where you can, especially where the connection will be valuable. Most people probably underestimate how helpful they can be to others and how much value they can get from helping and then receiving future help when they require it.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
My colleagues who are normally too modest to participate in any sort of self-promotional activities! Maybe, Liam Smith, Sefan Kaufman, Sarah Kneebone or Alexander Saeri? Aside from those, maybe BJ Fogg or Spencer Greenberg for their ideas and practical innovations.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Peter!
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!