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Interview with Ryan Hamilton

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 Ryan Hamilton.

Ryan is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. He received his PhD in Marketing from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He has consulted on matters of pricing, branding, and customer experience with Walmart, FedEx, Home Depot, Caterpillar, ConAgra, Cigna, Visa, and Ipsos, among others, and has been a keynote speaker and trainer on various topics in marketing and decision-making. He has also co-authored a book and co-hosts a podcast, both called The Intuitive Customer, which apply the insights from consumer psychology to effectively managing customer experiences. In 2011 he was named one of “The World’s Best 40 B-School Profs Under the Age of 40”. Ryan has an eclectic background that includes both an undergraduate degree in physics and time spent performing stand-up and sketch comedy. He is the proud father of five children, which means he spends much of his time exhausted and slightly rumpled. In his spare time, such as it is, he is an avid woodworker. He has never run a marathon and has no intention of ever doing so.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I did my undergrad in physics. But I knew I wasn’t going to be a physicist forever so when I graduated I moved into business. It wasn't until I started working in the real world that I came to appreciate psychology. I kind of dismissed it as an undergrad, thinking it wasn't all that all that interesting. When trying to figure out what businesses do and how things operate, I realised that questions about how people make decisions were actually the most interesting things to me, and so that is what led me to Graduate School, where I got my PhD in marketing, specifically focusing on judgement, decision making and behavioural decision theory. So I wouldn’t say it was a single thing or person getting me interest, it was just me trying to figure out what might keep me interested for the next 30 or 40 years of working.

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

There's just this huge understanding gap between people who do research and people who want to understand it and do something practical with it. I heard a statistic that the average academic journal article gets read zero times in its lifetime. Some papers do get read, but only by a small slice of humanity, some of whom are reading it with hostile intentions, to be able to prove you wrong later. It feels like we're not doing the good that we could. So in addition to continuing to research, because it's my job, I would like it to make some actual impact. So I have been trying to focus a little bit more time and effort on bridging that communication gap. I do a podcast where we try to explain behavioural science stuff. And I found that to be really rewarding. I find my work on bridging that gap really rewarding. I think trying to help more people understand the basic fundamental stuff that can do them some good. I’m proud of that. I still hope to find wonder and excitement in the work. In part because of some of the scandals that have happened in psychology over the last several years; we're all a lot more sceptical about what's coming out, and I think some of that is very healthy and very good for the science. But it has had this effect on me, and I suspect on other people, of taking some of the joy out of it. When I was early in my graduate student group, my mind was constantly blown by all of the implications of what people were finding. Just that excitement when reading about some finding that is really counterintuitive or that really opens your mind. And there's still some of that there, but what I hope to continue to achieve, or rather what I hope to continue to experience is that kind of joy of discovery; whether it's something that I find in my own research or more often something that I learned that other people have done.

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

In terms of like a career path, part of the reason that I got into the academic career path is that when I was working before, I went back to Graduate School. I didn’t see myself work another 20 years to get my bosses job, so I switched lanes. So I have a feeling I would’ve always found behavioural science. But if we’re assuming I really wouldn’t have. While I was on undergrad, I got interested in performing stand-up comedy and so I could have seen a career path doing that. I don’t think it would have made me happy in the long-term. I don't think that living out of a suitcase and travelling from town to town would have done it for me. I'm very much a homebody. I'm an introvert. I like my space. But I do actually get to teach a short class to my MBA students on joke writing and public speaking, doing comedy. And it's a lot of fun.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? I try to. I have kids that I need to persuade. I have co-workers that I try to understand. There seems to be the argument that by learning about decision biases and other things, it gives us the capacity to become more rational and therefore lead a better life. To ‘debias’ ourselves. But this is not my philosophy. I think a lot of these biases we can’t escape. We can mitigate some of them to a certain extent, but really, by studying them we can just better understand them. And I just take comfort and an interest in that perspective. Just knowing myself better. Forgiving myself more for mistakes that I make when I realise that this is just embedded in my neural circuitry. And like I work with that as best I can. So the use of behavioural science helps me find the world more interesting and understand myself a little bit better and understand other people a little better. I think it's made me a little bit more understanding and a little bit more patient with my fellow human beings.

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 understand anything you need a couple of different categories of knowledge. You need an understanding of, I'll call it the model. So you need some kind of theoretical understanding of what you're interested in. And then you need an understanding of the data or the findings. And so my advice would be, if you want to be trained up on this, it is important to get both. And so there's a lot of opportunities for getting both types of information. There are a lot of great popular press books out there, a lot of academic articles that that people can access to get kind of a up to speed on. These two sources should give you insights into the big important ideas in behavioural science, so kind of that approach for how people are thinking about the way people make decisions - what are academics and practitioners and others researchers talking about when they talking about behavioural science? What are the latest findings on that? The third set of skills I would add to that are just skills and experimentation. So learning how to run experiments is not that hard in terms of cognitive capacity. It is really counterintuitive though. For most of us, there's a reason it took humanity millennia to discover the scientific method, right? It's just it's not the way that we're wired to do so. I remember my first experimentation class in grad school. I had a background in in the hard sciences so I'd run experiments before. So I figured I’d know what they're on about. But actually getting to run experiments and seeing the kind of nuance in how it’s done; the ins and outs, that’s different. So that would be a third set of skills if you want to be a serious behavioural science practitioner and advise people on this. You need to understand the basics of experimental design. Ideally field experiments – and be able to design them.

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

There's a hard swing in the direction of artificial intelligence as a tool for understanding people, which is totally understandable. It's such a powerful and an amazing tool now. I suspect at some point we will start to realise the limitations of those tools in that most AI models are kind of black box models. An AI model is only as good as the data that it was trained on. I think that if we can tie the theories of behavioural science with the findings of some of these interesting empirical findings from AI and other technologies. If we can marry both of these things together, we’ll see some great research develop. At least, that's my hope. That's where I hope that the field continues to go.

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

When I got started getting interested in it, there was the academic path and that was the way to get into it. I don't feel like that's the case anymore. In fact, there's several paths now: You can work in a Business School, you can work in Psychology department, even behavioural economics is another, and that’s just the academic path diversified. There are consultants who do this work full time, and there are people who work within companies who have this kind of specialty. So I think it depends on what type of behavioural science career that you want. If you want one doing pure research, I think it's still the path is still you get a PhD, you try to work for a research institution or for university. You publish your findings all that; that path is well known, well understood.

If you want to get into it in some other way, I think there are more options; a PhD is still very useful, as you know [directed at Merle, who has a PhD], you could do a lot with a PhD and you don't have to be stuck inside of a university. There are also, as I understand it, a number of specialty master's degrees where you can kind of warn some of the more practical side of it. There are also increasingly self-training and mentorship routes to a certain extent. If you want to be a consultant in a specialty area. A lot of it is just convincing other people that you understand and that a degree helps with that. But there are other ways of doing it. So I do encourage people to actually learn this stuff well before they started advising others on how to do it. But I think we're at the time when there's multiple paths we're getting into this. If you're interested in behavioural science. If I discovered the interest early enough, then getting some kind of undergraduate degree in a related discipline, economics, or psychology or, behavioural like economics, would have been my way in. My time in Graduate School was where some of the best years of my life, especially when I was taking classes. It was just there was this amazing time and I loved it. But it's not for everybody and it is really inefficient. And so, I think if I were interested in jumping into a career in the behavioural sciences, that didn't absolutely require a PhD, I personally would probably look into some kind of specialty master’s.

What are the biggest challenges for behavioural science?

What I tell my students is there's no theory of behavioural science that applies to everyone all the time. There's nothing that we can make universal, which means that all of them have boundary conditions. And so there are certain replication crisis examples where we're very clearly within those boundaries and we should have replicated this, and we didn't. And that's the cause for concern. Because it suggests that there's something wrong happened there. But there's other replication problems that I've seen where like it's not clear to me that we're still within the boundaries of the original theory like we're now talking about a different population, or at a different point in time, or with a different set of stimuli. There’s been some change in method or approach which may not have been a trivial change. Now we might have crossed over the boundary into a different set of theories, and so for those types of replication problems it seems to be more a problem in the way we're thinking about a theory, rather than it being about dishonesty or carelessness with the way studies have been run. And those should be less of a problem. There should be opportunities for defining more of those boundary conditions. Defining these boundary conditions will be a challenge for behavioural science, especially as we’ll have to do it amidst the replications crisis and the scandals.

What are your biggest frustrations with behavioural science, as it currently stands?

I've gotten real frustrated with the peer review process, and this is a shared frustration among my research peers as well. All the people I talk to are all similarly frustrated that reviewers are not converging on what they want as often as we would like them to. Meaning, the standards for contribution haven’t been ‘set in stone’. Yes, people have become more cautious given the scandals we’ve had, justifiably so, but we haven't really coalesced around like what it is that we're looking for now. And that makes the review process a lot longer and more complicated. And there's some question about how often it results in a better outcome from a validity standpoint. Yes, we need to uphold scientific rigour, but we should do so in a way that still allows for the work to actually get out and be seen.

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

So when I was in my first year, still trying to kind of decide what to do and I read this paper on asymmetric dominance effects. I read the original paper by Huber, Payne and Puto. That was the first paper that I remember just blowing my mind. It opened my mind to a whole new approach of doing research. So they would be my recommendation.


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

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!


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