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 Robin Schimmelpfennig. Robin is a Swiss National Science Foundation graduate researcher with Charles Efferson at the Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Lausanne. He is also an affiliated researcher with the Muthukrishna Lab at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on two broad questions (1) When and how can social learning lead to behavioural spillovers and path-dependencies in populations? (2) How can policy-makers and organizations better understand the indirect behavioral effects of their interventions? In his professional career, he has lived and worked in Mexico, South Africa, Jordan, Uganda, the UK, and Switzerland. More on his website.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
The 2008 financial crisis. That was the first time I heard about how human behavior has contributed to the rapid erosion of markets that we assumed to be stable. It became clear to me that if we want to truly understand the economy and organizations, we need to start from its driving forces – us humans. Economics is not a natural science; it is a social science that does not follow set laws like gravity in physics. I want to understand what makes us humans so special, and how it led to the world we are living in today.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist?
And what do you still want to achieve?
What I have achieved: I have been invited to give an interview for this blog – isn’t that already an achievement?
Apart from this, I am very happy that I was able to write an article that my mother and father could read & comprehend. As most reserachers with parents who have nothing to do with academia, this is not an easy task.
What I want to achieve: Writing an article that my grandmother could understand and appreciate.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I am from Hamburg and one of my grandfathers was a captain on a large ship, the other smoked fish and sold it on the market and in a shop. If I wouldn’t be a behavioral scientist, I would probably be doing something in connection to the sea or with fish. Maybe working on a solution to farm fish for consumption without destroying marine life or ecosystems.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I guess I am in line with most behavioral scientists, I don’t practice what I preach. It is just as hard for me to change habits, not fall for faked price reductions, or follow up on the plan to work out at least twice a week.
But I think what behavioral science has told me is that we are all biased decision-makers. I am quite good at understanding that my behaviors are biased and being aware of this bias. This helps me with making difficult decisions because I know that no matter how much I think about it, I will never be able to weigh all information perfectly. I think we should all appreciate more often that our reasoning is biased in ways that we don’t know. Especially when we believe to be acting rationally.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
I think to be an applied behavioral scientist, it is not necessarily needed to know all the existing past research. In my experience, what we think to know about human behavior will often change depending on the context. Thus, I think it is more important to have an “experimental mindset”. So basically, having a creative mind about how to research behavior in a applied situation, for example in an organisation, and how to design solutions. Yes, it is important to know the science, but we shouldn’t be constrained by it. Collecting new evidence for a new context is more important, than knowing what has worked in the past.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
It is hard to tell. But I hope that we will see some rather grave changes. I think the “gold rush” years are coming to an end, and we have to face some honest truths. “Nudging” isn’t some panacea that can replace changes at the system level. Furthermore, it is often not clear which intervention works and which doesn’t – behavior is affected by context and culture. Just borrowing a “nudge” from some other setting and applying it in another situation will often not do the job. So I think we really need to think hard as a discipline as to how we can use the momentum behavioral science has caught in the public sphere, and improve the science and the applications. Otherwise, I would predict that people could start to lose interest if they try interventions and they are not working. I summaries some thoughts about this in this working paper.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
Understanding the methods that we use to study human behavior. I think currently too much focus is put on reading insights from past success stories and the bestselling books. This is good – the field needed this to gain traction. But behavioral scientists should also understand how they can test new interventions & prototypes experimentally (including a control group!!!), and how to analyze behavioral data. I think these will be key skills for both academics and applied behavioral scientists.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Prof Michael Muthukrishna
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Robin!
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!