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Interview with Robert Slonim

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 Robert Slonim. Bob is a Professor at the University of Sydney and holds a PhD from Duke University and MBA and BA degrees from the University of California Berkeley. Robert is recognised as a pioneer in the areas of experimental and behavioural economics. He has been very innovative in his use of experimental methods that have theoretical importance and important empirical findings for matters of public policy. His research has focused on a broad range of policy topics, including extensive work to understand charitable behaviour. Robert is currently co-editing the new journal for the Economic Science Association and is the current director of research for the Behavioural Economics Team of Australia (BETA).


Who or what got you into behavioural science? I was starting my third year of my PhD in economics and attended the Economic Science Association (ESA) annual meetings in Tucson. There were about 50 attendees and recall how welcoming they were, how engaged everyone was, how exciting and interesting everyone’s research was, how much I felt like something very special was going on, and how friendly and encouraging everyone was. In these early days, one felt like being on the ground floor of the next generation of discoveries. What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve? Starting in 2001, working with Mario Macis and Nico Lacetera, we began what turned into 13 years of work looking at whether blood donations could be increased with rewards (small incentives) for showing up to donate. At the time we started our work, the vast majority of the behavioural science literature, mostly from surveys and lab experiments, indicated that offering incentives would crowd out volunteering activities, including blood donations. This conclusion of the literature stemmed from some original articles from the late 1960s to the time of our work. However, despite the general consensus in the literature when we started our work, there had actually not been any actual direct test. When we started, we kept an open mind; either offering incentives would have a negative effect as the literature was indicating, or incentives could potentially offer a solution when there are blood supply shortages. We ended up writing a series of papers based on empirical evidence and a couple of very large scale field experiments that were essentially the exact opposite of the literature. I am proud of the collaboration we had with each other and the American Red Cross for supporting us throughout our decade+ work, proud of our relentless analyses and re-analyses to make sure we were getting everything right as best we could, and proud that we found a practical solution to increase blood donations (and that others have replicated our core findings across many different contexts. I still hope to achieve work that has impact on making society better through increasing knowledge that can translate to improving people’s lives. I am working in a few directions to achieve this goal, including continuing to pursue academic research (with an eye towards policy), and working more directly with policy-makers in the public and private sector who want to improve societal welfare with a broad range of methods.

If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? At this latter point in my career, I am not sure I would do anything else professionally. I expect I would spend more time in the wilderness/bush, read, learn a language, cook and spend a lot more time with friends and family. How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? I do not often directly apply behavioural science to my day to day life, but I do like to discuss behavioural science any chance I can with anyone who likes a good thoughtful discussion.

With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? When I was starting off, I recall that students wanting to get an MBA and work in the business world were being strongly encouraged to first get specialization in a core field, be in economics, psychology, engineering, philosophy, etc., and then get a business education. I think the same way about behavioural scientists. I would recommend first having some core field expertise that might or might not be directly a behavioural science area, and then learning behavioural science in relation to your core expertise. I think that one of the key lessons for doing good work in the behavioural sciences is also to get up to speed on expertise on the context you are wanting to apply Behavioural Science know-how to. It is easy to apply behavioural science in the abstract, but is not going to be likely to be highly effective unless you know the context in-depth. How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? If I had a crystal ball, … The field continues to diversify into new areas, that it is hard to say where it will be in 5 years more or less 10 years. Whether the field moves in this direction, or goes in some other directions, my preference would be to see behavioural sciences take on a more “general equilibrium” perspective; right now, the field still feels mostly stuck on how program/nudge/treatment X affects some outcome Y, rather than the entirety of X’ impact beyond Y. E.g., if a nudge causes people to gamble less, smoke less, save more for tomorrow, what effect does that have more generally on the market demand, and hence equilibrium for gambling, tobacco products, and interest rates, and also if people gamble less, smoke less, save more, do they change any other behaviours also.

What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field? There are a ton of popular books one can read on just about any behavioural science topic. One can also read dozens if not hundreds of reports from various behavioural science government units (e.g., BIT in the UK, BETA in Australia), you attend annual conferences and meet people who currently actively working in the space (this is a very approachable community, happy to help and encourage each other), and you can now take masters level courses. While a background in economics or psychology are still the leading core disciplines, there are other areas that are of increasing interest such as cultural studies, anthropology, statistics, neuro-science, and maybe many others that could be a good background to add to the growing dimensions of behavioural science. Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? I would find it interesting to hear from non-economists and non-psychologists as I think they would have some novel perspectives. No one comes to mind, but to hear from people with novel backgrounds would be great.


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

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

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