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Interview with Sarah Kneebone

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 Sarah Kneebone.

Sarah manages BehaviourWorks Australia's Education and Training portfolio, leading the professional development and accredited education program for the organisation. She works with partners and clients across the public sector and private enterprise to build skills, capability and confidence in applying behavioural science tools and perspectives to policy and project development. She is passionate about creating accessible, engaging and practical training programs to provide opportunities to anyone wanting to build their behaviour change expertise, using online training programs, applied bespoke courses and impactful behaviour change 'bootcamps'. Sarah is also a fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a qualified science teacher (Cambridge University).


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I started out with a passion for the environment, I did my undergraduate in biological science, masters in environmental conservation and then my secondary school teaching qualification - working as a science teacher. I moved from schools into zoos (Bristol Zoo) and botanic gardens (The Eden Project) and whilst working for an NGO (BGCI) based at Kew Gardens in the mid-noughties I attended a conference in Germany. Now, working in botanic gardens, I spent a lot of my time focused on education for sustainability, considering 'How do we connect and teach people about the environment so they will protect it?', and was frankly frustrated at how little progress the movement had made since seminal works such as Silent Spring drew the public's attention to the unfolding environmental crisis. So, I was really primed to react when one of the conference speakers started talking about methods beyond education that could influence people's behaviour. That speaker was doctoral candidate (later founder of BehaviourWorks Australia and now professor) Liam Smith. Several years later and after a stint working at another botanic garden in Oman I contacted Liam about studying for a doctorate with him to learn more about behavioural science and what it has to offer; ten years later I'm still here!

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

Spillover theory suggests we can engage multiple psychological levers to have an 'accelerator' effect encouraging individuals to adopt a series of related, or similar behaviour. My doctoral research investigated how we can identify which behaviours this might work on, and prioritise a target behaviour to initiate this process. The decision-making tool (Impact-Likelihood Matrix) we developed and tested in a water conservation context has been applied in practical projects many times since (e.g. reducing food waste) and is a key part of The Method, BehaviourWorks Australia's project planning framework.

Now, as Education Portfolio director at BWA, I design programs to teach partners and clients how to use the different tools we have developed, including the prioritisation matrix, and really enjoy helping others harness the value of behavioural science to boost the outcomes of their work towards achieving the sustainable development goals; I want to grow our programs, increasing their availability and accessibility across Australia and internationally, to empower, build capability and confidence so behavioural science becomes a usable tool for any change-makers.

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

I would be working in education in a zoo or botanic garden; it was such a privilege to work in incredible locations surrounded by beautiful gardens, fascinating animals and all the wonderful people who dedicate their lives to protecting our planet! Honestly, next weekend, find your local botanic garden and go for a visit - it is good for you and supports pro-environmental behaviours!

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

Mostly on myself, I find it very valuable to be able to consider the things I want to do (for example personal goals around my lifestyle or my values) in terms of practicable behaviours and then consider what the barriers might be to my enacting these behaviours, and how I could overcome them - what do I need to shift in my environment, my time availability, my attitude and motivation so that I can spend 20 minutes on my exercise bike? (still working on it!!) . The behavioural science perspective is such a practical and action-focussed approach to tackling challenges, issues, or meeting goals, it provides a logical way to overcome our own illogical (or undesirable) habits or practices. Needless to say, my attempts to apply behavioural science to my 3 and 7 year old vary in their success.

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

Any time we talk about creating change, the measurement and assessment of that change becomes a core function; otherwise, how do we know what has happened, how can we understand the impact our program, project or policy has had? From an ethical perspective alone, we must be able to check that our intervention has benefitted humanity, and not backfired. Therefore, research skills, being able to investigate, analyse and draw meaning from evidence that already exists or generating new data and insights, are vital. In addition, using a planning framework, like the BWA Method, facilitates bias-free (or at least bias-reduced) project-planning; by using evidence, data and insights to inform decision-making at every step of the project development process we can avoid the influence of our own biases and heuristics and increase our chances of success.

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

At BehaviourWorks Australia we work extensively with partners and clients on specific problems that they are trying to address with target audiences. We mostly apply behaviour diagnosis and evidence review to generate audience insights and gather a detailed understanding of why a priority behaviour is or is not being performed. This allows us to co-design tailored, evidence-based, audience-informed interventions. We do sprinkle in some nudge-style tools to check for example the mechanics of the behaviour (is it easy to perform?, etc), but by narrowing in, identifying a key target audience and investigating the drivers and barriers to them performing a single selected priority behaviour, we can be much more focussed and again increase the chances of success. I think this more bespoke approach, actively analysing directly WHY a behaviour is not occurring and HOW we can support it through design is going to become more commonly used as improved results demonstrate its efficacy.

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

Build your skills and knowledge with a highly-regarded, practically focussed behavioural science unit - come and study with us! Seriously, we have an active doctoral program and are recruiting new doctoral candidates to commence their PhD in behavioural science all the time. If a 3.5 year commitment is too much - how about eight weeks - enrol in one of our accessible, engaging, online program; 'Applying behavioural science to create change' provides a really solid, practical overview of behavioural science tools and principles, and runs two-three times a year. We've had over 500 students through the program so far and received really positive feedback. Our new course, 'Designing behavioural interventions and measuring change' launches this April, so keep your eye out or enrolment details!

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

The discipline has gained its profile not least due to work carried out by some incredible men, some have labelled the 'founding fathers' of behavioural research. Many have recognised it is time to hear from perspectives beyond this relatively narrow, western demographic. We have a lot to learn about whether the behavioural science principles and theories we hold so dear work in different societies, cultures, environments and norms. For example, Monash Sustainable Development Institute is doing a lot of work in Indonesia at the moment and I am so excited to learn from my Indonesian colleagues about what tools they find most effective and whether BWA approaches are useful, usable or even valid (!) for the communities they work with. We find that our course have majority women participants, so I would also love to hear more from some of the younger women working their way through the behavioural science ranks and bursting through the still male-dominated high profile literature.


Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Sarah!

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!

Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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