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Interview with Philip Fernbach

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 Philip Fernbach.

Philip is a professor of marketing in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a cognitive scientist who studies how people think, and applies insights from his research to improve public discourse and help consumers and managers make better decisions. He is also co-director of the Center for Research on Consumer Financial Decision Making, an affiliate of the Institute of Cognitive Science, and the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility, and an external advisory board member for McKinsey & Company. Last, Phil is a co-author with Steve Sloman of the 2017 book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, exploring why we think we know so much more than we do, and the profound implications for individuals and society.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

When I was younger I had two big interests in science, theoretical physics and cognitive science. Those seemed like the two most mysterious topics to me. I studied philosophy in college, and then I ended up going to graduate school for Cogsci (after working in the real world for a few years). In grad school I studied high level cognition and started finding myself drawn to the Judgment and Decision Making community and then I got a job in a business school. So now I try to do work that is informed by cognitive science, but also has observable and meaningful implications for the real world.

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

I published a book in 2017 (with Steve Sloman) called the Knowledge Illusion: Why we never think alone. I think we succeeded in writing a book that has depth but is also easy to read and that, for many people, makes them see cognition in a new light. I am quite proud of that. I tend not to spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to accomplish in the future and instead follow my nose, searching for paths that seem interesting in the moment.

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

Probably playing bluegrass music.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

Perhaps the most important thing I've learned from my own research is to habitually check my understanding and moderate my views or positions when I find myself to be overconfident. More generally I try to avoid falling victim to the traps and Illusions I study. That said, I am rarely successful. For instance I am a sucker for sports gambling and fantasy football.

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

You need to be able to read, integrate and absorb the academic literature. You need to understand multivariate statistics and experimental design. If you want to do field experiments you need good organizational and clerical skills (which I do not possess).

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

I think the field is in the midst of trying to understand which results and findings are sufficiently robust and context independent that they end up mattering to real practice. I think this process will go on for some time. As we develop a better understanding and can prove our solutions work, behavioral science will begin to be adopted more broadly in business and public policy. But we are in the early innings.

What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?


Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?

Paul Rozin is bound to say some strange things, so that is an interview I would enjoy reading.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Philip!

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!


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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