Interview with Ruth Schmidt

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 Ruth Schmidt.

Ruth is an associate professor at the Institute of Design (ID) at the Illinois Institute of Technology whose work sits at the intersection of behavioral science and humanity-centered design. Her research projects and writing focus primarily on combining strategic design methodologies, approaches to complex systems, and behavioral insights to inform effective and ethical solutions to applied commercial, academic, and public policy challenges, in addition to developing new tools and conceptual models to help practitioners solve these kinds of challenges more systematically.

Who or what got you into behavioural science?

Like many of the folks you’ve interviewed, I suspect, I’m an accidental behavioral designer. I’ve always been interested in what makes us human, but I got exposed to what was then known as “behavioral economics” when pursuing a master’s degree in design strategy, around 2008. “Human-centered design” was a core tenet of design strategy when I was in grad school, and this behavioral approach just appealed to me as a brilliantly complementary way to understand people and design for them more thoughtfully. Nudge had just come out, so that was probably my initial exposure. I also went out to dinner with a college friend turned neuroscientist in town for a conference around that time, during which he described some work he was doing with Dan Ariely, before he published Predictably Irrational and went on to become a household name/superstar. So that piqued my interest as well, and I basically spent the second year of my graduate work reading everything I could get my hands on and cultivating a perspective and thesis project on how to integrate behavioral economics and design. In many ways my timing was pure luck. “Behavioral design” didn’t exist yet — I remember googling “behavioral economics design” at the time and literally nothing really came up — but as a full-time student I had dedicated time and access to academic journals, so I just inhaled as much as I could take in. It probably helped that there wasn’t nearly as much research and activity to keep up with 13 years ago!

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

As a self-taught behavioral designer/strategist, I’m most appreciative when I hear that my work or writing inspires more traditionally trained behavioral folks who are similarly figuring out how to push the boundaries of the field, whether that’s through a design or strategic lens or something entirely different. The field is such a work in progress right now. Certain things are starting to get increasingly codified and formalized, which legitimizes the discipline… but at the same time, in my opinion, there’s an equally strong need to stretch what behavioral science and behavioral design can do, where it’s applied, who applies it, and what good looks like, if it is to scale. I think there’s a growing awareness that if behavioral science is to make a real and lasting dent in significant challenges, it can’t just focus on last mile issues; if it does, the field risks solving ever more precise problems within systems that themselves may be broken.

So far as what’s still to come: I feel strongly that behavioral science has the potential to make its significant contributions to really important, intractable problems when those findings are applied more flexibly or possibly in ways that haven’t really been tried yet. Lemonade is an interesting example of not trying to solve a behavioral challenge so much as designing into a behavioral opportunity — I’d love to see and do more of that, in different domains and contexts like public policy. It’s an exciting time to be part of the conversation! But it’s going to require the field being open-minded in ways that may be uncomfortable, so I feel compelled to put my foot out to keep that door open and throw my weight behind it to keep opening it up even more.

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

I’m first and foremost a design strategist and spent a good amount of my professional life in that space, so the boring answer is I’d probably still be doing that. But even if behavioral science didn’t exist, I suspect I’d be channeling that urge into what I do — when I first stumbled into behavioral economics I had this distinct sense that I *finally* had a name and body of work behind what always had fascinated me. So I think that impetus to understand why people do the weird things we do is embedded pretty deeply into how I think, and I’d definitely be doing it in one form or another.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

This question has taken on new meaning given the pandemic! I suspect that anyone steeped in behavioral science or behavioral design has spent a pretty considerable amount of time over the past 15+ months in a kind of perpetual out-of-body experience, being a researcher sitting on your own shoulder and noticing how fascinating our adaptation to the world of Covid-19 has been. But even outside of Covid, I would say that for me it’s less that I deliberately apply behavioral science to address specific behaviors or challenges, and more that I use it as a constant, unyielding lens that flavors how I see and think about the world. I suppose that’s essentially a second-order application — perhaps I’m just less inclined to tinker with my own behavior, though there’s no shortage of situations where that might help, than in always having a meta-cognitive conversation with myself about what’s going on, or why I’m behaving or judging things in a certain way.

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

It almost goes without saying that a deep fascination with people and curiosity are core to this space, but unlike many folks who may emphasize the quant skills required to do research, I would emphasize the skills of framing problems well and connecting disparate dots to develop better hypotheses. Not surprisingly, this is also where I think a background in design and strategy are a benefit. Behavioral science does a splendid job of providing a whole toolbox of insights about why people function as they do versus how we might expect them to; what it doesn’t necessarily do is help us figure out what problems are most in need of solving. You can become a really good behavioral scientist by understanding what mechanisms lead to certain behavioral tendencies and how they might inform interventions, but to be a really great one I think you need to think more broadly about what and why you’re solving for, and who is benefitting from those solutions, and who is left out.

The best thinkers in any field can wrangle a kind of pattern recognition and intuitive sense that doesn’t strictly follow logic; it may sound suspect or contradictory that behavioral scientists need to know when to follow their gut, given that the field is predicated on following the science! But it doesn’t negate the fact that sometimes the best ideas some from looking obliquely at a problem rather than head-on, and realizing that what seemed to be peripheral is actually core to the challenge. That’s skill that comes from experience and practice, although some have a knack for it that may be easier to cultivate.

How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? In a word: systems! The field has gotten very good at thinking small — selecting well-defined, specific challenges that can deliver measurable behavioral change — but in doing so it risks losing the forest for the trees, so to speak. In a recent piece I wrote I said something about behavioral science being caught in a “tautological standoff,” which is a fancy way of saying that by being good at certain things is has sort of overoptimized itself to keep doing those things, even to the exclusion of others, which has created a vicious cycle in which those are the main challenges for which it is invited in to solve. As a result, behavioral science has a lot to say about specific kinds of problems but hasn’t been as involved in addressing the infrastructural and systemic aspects of problem-solving that can address root causes and scale up the potential for impact. Behavioral science has a lot more to offer designing for, and of, systems, but that will first require reframing what a behavioral science problem looks like. I think it will take some work, and an openness to failing first, and also being ok with giving up some precision in the interest of looking for points of greater leverage within system constructs.

That’s exciting! It may also make some practitioners uncomfortable. So another trend I see as likely is the bifurcating or splintering of “behavioral science” into smaller sub-fields, where instead of all being lumped under one banner people have the opportunity to specialize and grow a community of practice that is still part of the family, but which can cultivate norms, skills, and bodies of knowledge and application that are distinct.

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

Vishal George and Leanna Day are doing powerful work in New Zealand with indigenous populations and participatory design, and I think we’d all benefit from their non-WEIRD perspective. I’ve gotten to work with Piyush Tantia from ideas42 on a project to bring systems thinking into behavioral design, so I would love to hear how he sees strategic thinking contributing to the mix. And John Gourville wrote one of my favorite articles speculating on “why consumers don’t buy” that combines strategic thinking, behavioral economics, and innovation; it’s around 15 years old at this point but still relevant—I still assign it in my behavioral design intro class—so also worth a shout-out.

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

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!