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 Sara Bru Garcia.
Sara is a behavioural scientist and postdoctoral researcher at The University of Sheffield. She has always been fascinated with why people behave in the way they do, which has led her to research behaviour from different perspectives by using mixed research methods, experiments, or eye-tracking. In the past years, her research interests have leaned towards applying behavioural insights outside of the lab. This has involved embedding behavioural science insights and methods within organisations as well as working on behaviour change interventions that address complex challenges, such as condom use or the correct disposal of compostable packaging. Aside from that, Sara also enjoys science communication and is part of the Habit Weekly PRO team.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I have always been very curious about people, and about understanding the motivations and influences that shape our behaviour. When I was 5 or 6, I took a bunch of notes from my mum’s purse because I noticed that she had many of the same colour and I thought she wouldn’t mind. I saw her frantically searching around, looking really stressed and I remember thinking that her reaction to me taking what to me was simply a bunch of colourful paper (but to her was the money for the rent) was a bit over the top! This curiosity about human behaviour has underpinned all my formal education. After doing my masters in psychology, I had the chance to stay at the university and work as a research assistant in different projects. This just confirmed to me to me what I had known since I was a kid, I’m passionate about all things behaviour, from group processes to how we learn about stimuli in our environment. After that, I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to fund my PhD. My PhD was great, it mostly involved running experiments in the lab and doing some modelling. But I always felt like there was something missing, and this led me to become more and more interested in what happens outside of the lab, and how these insights could be applied to other, way messier, settings. Since then, I’ve been navigating more towards the applied side of behavioural science, working at the intersection between academia and industry, and that’s how I got to where I am.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I’m really proud of having created some behavioural science capability in an organisation, training colleagues on how to use frameworks like COM-B, how to “think like a behavioural scientist” and incorporate evidence into their practices. I guess I’m not yet proud but I’m very excited about my current project and about the prospects of influencing people’s behaviour around sustainability.
I’m hoping to continue to be a versatile researcher and to be able to take behavioural science to more organisations, working at the intersection between academia and industry.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I think I would still want to be in a field that nurtures my curiosity and allows me to learn. I could see myself as an archaeologist, digging out bits of history, or as a curator in a museum. Alternatively, I could also see myself having a small pottery studio in the middle of nowhere.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I’ve been obsessed with behaviour change frameworks for the past couple of years, so I often find myself thinking about people’s (including myself) capability, opportunity and motivational factors to do or not do something. As a trained psychologist, I’m very aware about how critical our interaction with the context and our learning history are, so I always try to think about those factors rather than attributing behaviours to dispositional factors. I also try to use it as a way to develop healthy habits, with varying levels of success!
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
In terms of formal training, and given how all my background is in psychology, I would say get some training in psychology and research methods. This isn’t to say that you can’t be a behavioural scientist coming from other disciplines (and in fact, many good behavioural scientists come from other disciplines), but if you are aiming for the scientific study of human behaviour in one way or another, psychology will give you some very useful tools. I think there is a lot to learn from other disciplines as well, so whatever field you choose for your formal training, be open to learning from others.
I find this question challenging to answer because I think it really depends on your area of expertise and where you want to work as a behavioural scientist (private sector, public sector, academia…). I also think that the definition of what it means to be a behavioural scientist can vary between roles, and some skills (for example design skills) might be needed for a role but not others. My recommendation would be to think about what you want to do and where you’d like to do it, and then research what skills are going to help you get there.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I think there will be more cross-disciplinary work and collaboration between academia, the public and the commercial sectors (at least I would love for this to be the case).
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
I would say get involved in research whenever you have a chance. The field of behavioural science is broad, there’s a great deal of methods and tools to learn and a growing number of areas to apply them to, so try to be open and not pigeon-hole yourself very much.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
There’s a lot of great people out there… I would suggest Sarah Osman.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Sara!
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!