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 Samuel Salzer! Sam is a Behavioral Designer & Habit Expert. One of his many job titles includes being the Chief Behavioral Officer for Nordic Wellth, leading the way in personalized digital health. More generally, Sam helpes organizations build user-centered and habit-forming products and services by applying the latest behavioral design insights. Sam is also the co-author of "Nudging in practice – How organizations can make it easy to do the right thing" and of course the curator for the massively popular Habit Weekly. The newsletter to which I'm sure all my readers are already subscribed. Take it away Sam!
Who or what got you into behavioral science?
Firstly, I probably have my research professor from Norway to blame as he is the one who, one day started to smuggle me books on behavioral economics. It was a sneaky thing to do, especially since I was at the time completing my final year of commerce studies at the Australian School of Business in Sydney, Australia, had never heard about anything related to behavioral science, and already had a job in corporate finance lined up. Still, when I came to his office one day, he said, "Hej (Scandinavian for ‘Hey’), read this new book" and he gave me Thinking, Fast and Slow. He later proceeded to give me Nudge and Animal Spirits, if I recall correctly. Reading those books started to slowly kindle a curiosity for my own and others' behavior. I realized how little I knew about our lived experience and why we do what we do, and I began to develop a fascination for the nuances of human decision making.
Fast forward a couple of months, and I was quite miserable working in my corporate finance graduate job. However, I started noticing that I was not the only one struggling, as many in my life had different issues they were dealing with. Often it seemed like they had a good intention; to lose weight, manage stress through meditation, or start exercising. But rather than seeing their good intention transform into a good habit, it often resulted in them failing and then proceeding to blame themselves for the failure. This was difficult to watch, and I became interested to understand if there was a way I could support them, maybe through this behavioral science thing? This led me to spend a year or two of late nights and weekends diving into the academic research on habit formation and beyond. I was eventually able to support my mom in building a 100-day meditation habit, and I had also started to learn more about how these insights could be scaled and used for good. Seeing my mom so happy and proud of herself definitely became a core part of my drive to better understand how I could use behavioral science for good and help others too. I eventually quit my job in finance and decided that I was going to learn everything I could about applied behavioral science with the aim of creating a scalable positive impact in the world.
That was how it all started for me, and I've since been tremendously fortunate to build a successful behavioral design career, worked on behavioral projects across five continents, collaborated with and learned from fantastic people all around the world, and recently co-authored a book on how organizations can start putting behavioral insights to practice. Still, the greatest positive feeling from any of my work can't compare with the simple thing of helping my mom build a meditation habit. What has fueled my flame has always been understanding how I can better support the people around me.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioral scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I'll tell you the accomplishment, but first, I’ll share some fun backstory.
After having been away from Sweden for almost six years, I eventually decided to return with the hope of growing the field back home. I had envisioned that I would start the first behavioral consultancy with the mission of using behavioral design for good. However, a couple of weeks after coming home, a friend of mine says, "Hej, have you heard about Beteendelabbet (Behavior lab)?" After googling them, I found that not only had they set up shop just a year before (becoming the first behavioral consultancy), but their mission also was to change behaviors for good.
So I now need you to keep a secret, can you do that? The thing is that I've honestly never told the Beteendelabbet founders this, but it became obvious to me that I needed to do everything I could to work with these amazing people. We wanted to do precisely the same things, and they had a head start, so I thought, "why try competing when you can join forces, right?" However, I was a nobody at the time, and I estimated the chances of them bringing me on board to be quite slim. Instead of reaching out to them, which can sometimes come off as desperate, I decided that I would see if I could get them to reach out to me. So I started adding as many of their LinkedIn connections as possible with the hope that the LinkedIn algorithm would do me the favor of saying to one of them, "Hey, check out this guy - you have A LOT of shared connections." A moonshot, I know. But less than two weeks later, I received a connection request from the head of HR and recruitment at the time. I proceeded to pretend that I had no clue about what they were doing but thanked her for reaching out and suggested we grab a coffee. Four weeks later, I became the first one to join their team.
This was honestly more luck than anything, but I'm still incredibly thankful for being brought on board in such an early phase. The Beteendelabbet founders Ida, Linda, and Kajsa, proved not only to be fantastic teammates and colleagues, but incredibly kind and inspiring individuals. I learned so much working with them in what can only be described as a behavioral start-up. And that is the accomplishment I am most proud of - spending almost three years working hard to establish the behavioral field with them in Sweden, literally through blood, sweat, and tears. It was hard. Super hard. But I'm very proud of what we accomplished and doing our part in putting the field on the map here in IKEA country. While I mostly work outside of Sweden these days, Beteendelabbet are still going strong and keep doing amazing things - check them out.
As to what I still want to achieve, where to begin... To keep it short, I would say it falls into two categories:
Work on big problems that can create a big positive impact globally. Especially in regards to supporting people around the world to create lasting behavior changes and build good habits.
Help make it easier to enter the field and getting started with doing behavioral design for good. Especially making it easier than it was for me. That is why I started Habit Weekly, and there are many more things on this topic that I'm hoping to launch this year and next . Using behavioral science in practice is hard, and I hope to make it easier.
If you weren't a behavioral scientist, what would you be doing?
I'd probably be part of some entrepreneurial venture aimed at building a better world. Effective Altruism is something that lies very close to my heart, and I'd likely be more closely involved in one of their fantastic initiatives.
Effective Altruism in short: "Most of us want to make a difference. We see suffering, injustice, and death, and are moved to do something about them. But working out what that 'something' is, let alone actually doing it, can be a difficult and disheartening challenge.
Effective Altruism is a response to this challenge. It is a research field which uses high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible. It is also a community of people taking these answers seriously, by focusing their efforts on the most promising solutions to the world's most pressing problems."
80,000 Hours - How to make a difference with your career
GiveWell - Top research on effective charities
How do you apply behavioral science in your personal life?
I have a dispenser that randomly releases M&M's when I engage in a writing task on my computer and a wristband that randomly shocks me when I spend time on social media or watch YouTube. That was a joke. But, I would lie if I said I haven't done my fair share of self-experimentation. Here are some old and new experiments:
I managed to read 125 books in a year through self-applied behavioral science.
I use the peak-end rule to my advantage. For example, I was for a long time unable to get in the habit of taking cold showers. I knew the health benefits, but it was simply too painful. This was until I began to end each cold shower with 30 seconds of a warm shower. Those last 30 seconds are so rewarding, and it helps you to deal with the cold when you know that the warm is coming. Check out Wim Hof for more on cold showering.
During quarantine, I've had a whiteboard with around 10-15 tasks that would be good for my health and wellbeing (stretch, go for a walk, meditate, kettlebell swings, etc.). I added a dot every time I completed a task, and at the end of the day, I totaled up how many points I got. This added good feedback for understanding how active I had been and also provided an easy way to find something productive to do when taking a break from work. I could just look on the board and do whatever felt the most fun in that moment.
I very often temptation bundle. For example, I listen to a specificpodcast when I go to the gym (right now How I Built This), fold laundry while calling a friend, watch sports highlights while meal-prepping.
I'd say a general principle of how I apply behavioral science in my personal life is treating the environments where I live and work as sacred spaces. I know that I'm a product of what surrounds me, so I make sure that my environments work for me and not against me. Life should feel more like gliding downstream than trying to swim upstream.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioral scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
It is difficult to say when it comes to being an applied behavioral scientist because it depends heavily on your type of work. Are you doing mostly research, or are you working with product teams to craft digital interventions, or are you designing experiments and analyzing the data (or all three?). An excellent place to start understanding this is reading the Behavioral Science Graduates Guide that you know very well given that I created together with you and Natasha Ouslis.
Still to answer the question… While perhaps more a state of mind than a skill, I believe humility and curiosity to be two essential qualities to have in our field whatever role you have. When I hire people, I also put great value on the ability to critically evaluate a problem from different perspectives. We know that a neuroscientist, behavioral economist and evolutionary psychologist will explain the same behavioral problem in three different ways, often using very different vocabulary. They stand in three different buckets and often find it difficult to see things from another perspective. But none of them have the complete answer. The ability to step out of your bucket and step into different ones is something I think is important. For example, I'm impressed if someone can explain what the COM-B, ABC, and Fogg models have in common and why they think one is better than the other.
How do you think behavioral science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
We are still in the wild-wild west era of the field. This means that there will be plenty more studies that will fail to replicate, especially as we slowly become less WEIRD and begin to test things in different cultural contexts (and not just on US university campuses with American students as test subjects). To that point, I truly hope we will become more diverse. I certainly do my best to contribute to that. Diversity is valuable in all contexts, but especially in a field like ours. The quality of our work relies on understanding and changing the behavior of people from very different backgrounds and makeups. It should therefore seem obvious that without diversity we can never achieve the best of what our field could become.
Rather than a prediction, here are five of my ten recommendations that I, together with Silja Voolma, wrote up for our project Behavioral Design 2020, and Beyond. To all practicing or up-and-coming behavioral designers, make sure to:
Consider and discuss ethical issues with colleagues, clients, and local governments to further the potential future and already emerging regulatory culture for behavioral design.
Integrate inter- and multi-disciplinary expertise to improve the impact and quality of your behavioral design work as often as possible.
Don't expect to be able to create one-size-fits-all solutions. Embrace the diversity and complexity of human behavior and consider how you can provide users with more control and autonomy.
Aim to be gradual and relentless rather than looking for quick-fixes. Anything worthwhile takes time, and this is especially true for promoting sustained behavior change.
Be bold and don't be afraid to go for gold. What is your moonshot behavioral solution to test?
With the field still being in its infancy, this means that you can still make a big difference. While we are already standing on some giants that have paved the way here, the journey has just begun and the most important problems have yet to be solved. I therefore invite and encourage you, the reader of this post, to take this chance to make the field and the world a little bit better. If that is something you dedicate yourself towards doing, then you’ll have my eternal respect and support. Reach out any time if I can be of help along that path.
As a last piece of advice, just remember; expect anything worthwhile to take time. We overestimate what can be done in a day and underestimate what can be done in a year. Like Maria Popova says “the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.” So embrace the tedium of taking one small step at a time, and perhaps most importantly, make sure to be kind towards yourself throughout that process.
Which other behavioral scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Neela Saldanha, Ganna Pogrebna, Heather Cole-Lewis, Jason Collins, Gina Merchant, Heather Patrick, Natalie J. Hallinger.
Thank you for these great answers Sam! And thanks for sharing these amazing resources, I'll make sure to check those out, and I'm sure the reader will do too. With regards to you, dear reader, did you know the commonalities between COM-B, ABC and BJ Fogg's work? Moreover, the interviews with both Neela and Ganna are already up, please click their name to read those, they were pretty epic too! I'll also make sure to work on the others, Melina and Jason are already in the works! 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!