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 Osman.
Sarah is Founder of Osman Advisory Services, a boutique consultancy firm that specializes in applied behavioural science. She is a cognitive psychologist and global development specialist with 18 years of experience working in Europe, Africa and Asia. She is an expert in social and behaviour change; health psychology; behavioural insights; behavioural design and human-centred design. She has worked with these skills in many thematic areas including diaspora, migration and development, sexual and reproductive health and rights and education. Clients she worked with include World Vision, Save the Children, the Danish Refugee Council, Girl Effect and many others. Sarah holds a Master of Science degree in Cognitive Psychology from Maastricht University and a Master of Science degree in International Development Studies from Amsterdam University. And she has been nominated as Content Creator of the Year by the top behavioural design newsletter, Habit Weekly. So let's hear it from this power house!
Who or what got you into behavioral science? I was born in Sudan, but my mother married a Dutchman when I was around 10 years old and we moved with him to Zambia. I didn't speak a word of English at the time, so I had to learn English, adapt to an entirely new culture from a very young age. Three years later we moved to the Philippines. So we had to start all over again. Four years after that, we moved to the Netherlands. If you have to start making new friends all the time, you need to figure out what the codes are; what the social rules are. I became very adept at analysing people because I wanted to know I could befriend them, essentially. And the interest just grew from there. I started studying psychology at Maastricht University, which I think was just the most phenomenal education ever. I enjoyed it so much that I still go back to read the research of the professors I studied under, their work is just foundational to what I do. And then I wanted to apply that psychology to International Development. We had the opportunity to do an elective in our third year and I had chosen global development as my elective. I just became very much enamoured with the humanitarian development world. And I really wanted to apply what I had been learning to an African context. And then I got the opportunity to do my research in Ghana, on condom use amongst young people. We did formative research and then made recommendations for future programming. And then I thought; “well, fab then I can just apply to NGOs and they'll think this is amazing and they'll hire me!” But this was 2004 - 2005 and nobody understood what I was talking about essentially, as behavioural science was still so new. Non-profits were doing information campaigns, but they weren't informed by behavioural science at all, and that link wasn't established yet. And that’s how my journey started with behavioural science. I did another master's degree in International Development studies after that at Amsterdam University and that got me into the development sector.
What are you proudest of as a behavioural scientist so far and what would you still like to achieve? I think I'm very happy with how I've been able to apply what I learned. You know my background in behaviour change and health psychology to the work that I'm doing now, with NGOs and non-profits. So from having that stint of trying to understand the development world.
I really managed to understand how behavioural science would be of best use in the way that NGOs do their work, so it's very easy for me to come into an organization and know exactly at which points to plug, which methodology to implement. It's knowing what they would normally do and how I can help them elevate that. I’m very proud of my ability to apply that level of nuance and that attention to detail while also being able to do that with very little jargon. I’m obviously not the only one doing this kind of work, but maybe one of the few independent ones. Which also makes me proud.
One of the things that I would love to create would be an encyclopaedia of what behavioural scientists in the Global South are doing. What theories are there? They may not be super different in terms of cognitive biases, but there might be different social psychology theories that are out there that we don't know enough about. I feel like there's just a big knowledge gap that I would love to contribute to filling.
And I think that will also help us do better work in combining behavioural science and International Development to give it a bit more contextualization. So that, for instance, if we're doing a project in Zimbabwe that we're really using theories developed by Zimbabwean behavioural scientists.
What is that one of your biggest frustrations with the field as it currently stands? I feel like we could do better in terms of expanding the toolbox or how we understand things. I don't see that we're making enough of an effort to get those voices in the room. I know that there has been some progress. Like for instance, the 2022 CBC conference. There were some researchers from Latin America or from Asia. And I thought that was a really good effort and obviously because things are online now, it's much easier to include different voices. But I feel like we do it as a token often. I feel like there's a lot of tokenization going on. We could just try a little bit harder to include, or to dig a little bit deeper to really understand what those perspectives are. This is not an exclusive critique on Western researchers or Western institutions. I feel like organizations based in the Global South don't do that themselves enough either. If I were a big non-profit that has offices in Kenya for example, I should be making that effort to create those spaces for researchers that I know of in the region. And we need to take initiative ourselves and make that pitch or bring those voices forward.
What do you think the biggest challenges are in the field currently? One of the things that I encounter often is that either we're taking a theory at face value; we're gonna just take it and copy paste it, and dump it in there. And then just use this single theory as a perspective, driving how we're understanding a project. The way I was trained is that we always needed a multi-theory approach because no one theory is going to be adequate enough in helping you analyse a problem. So I feel like we tend to just lean onto 1 framework that will always use for everything or one theory that we're just obsessed with. And that's all we want to use. Another challenge is us being more open to other disciplines and how they can contribute to behavioural science. So I was in a very big conference in December [the social behaviour change summit], which is the event for anyone working on social and behaviour change and International development. And one of the researchers was talking about how she applied a Critical Pedagogy by Paulo Freire to how she understood and analyzed the problem and it had never occurred to me to look at an educational theory or another entirely different area of social science essentially, and how that could be applied to trying to understand a specific problem. That was a light bulb moment for me.
Which skills do you think make for good behavioural scientists? What makes for a good behavioural scientist and especially a good applied behavioural scientist, I think is first of all being able to put jargon aside and being able to read the room and find the right level at which you’re going to have to explain a study, perspective, theory, or application to this specific audience. Second is being able to know what's out there in terms of frameworks and how they could be useful in this particular context. Having an overview of frameworks, having a good grasp of theory and specifically behaviour change tactics and how to apply those, that’s what sets apart good applied behavioural scientists from the rest.
How do you think the field will develop, in the next 10 years or so? I think that we are going to hear from voices that we haven't heard from before, which is really great. We’re seeing a lot of content creation from behavioural scientists in South America and that's really, really exciting. One of them just won Content Creator of the Year by Habit Weekly [Carlos Hoyos]. Second, I hope that initiatives such as GAABS also expand into different sectors. We have a global alliance for social and behaviour change and I requested that they set similar standards for social and behaviour change specialists. I have come into organizations where there's been a social and behaviour change consultant before and I often struggle to understand where they were coming from; what standards they were using or abiding to. And I think it would just be a good thing if we have a standard that we're working with.
I hope that there will also be less fear or intimidation when somebody says the words “theory-based or evidence-based”. There needs to be something that's informed why you've landed on these outcomes or on these behaviours. How are you going to design the program going forward? What the checks and balances are going to be? How are you going to measure success? How are you going to show that you've implemented this with fidelity? So, a lot of the work I'm doing now is trying to break down what we mean when we say theory-based and evidence-based. And what does that look like in reality from an implementer's perspective? Last, I hope that social psychology will get a bit more limelight. People have been very, very enamoured by cognitive psychology and cognitive biases. But I feel like, for instance, the work that Cristina Bicchieri is doing should get more props, because a lot of the work they're doing is really like transforming communities, and it's just phenomenal. She's a wonderful example of somebody who travels between disciplines.
What would your recommendation be for someone who's looking to enter the field of behavioural science? I think first of all you have to know whether you want to be on the research side or whether you're actually very interested in applying behavioural science. Sometimes I see young people who may have thought that they wanted to do applied work but have a very theoretical approach to how they come into an organization and that's just not very useful. It's not about trying to get everybody to understand what has taken you five years to do your masters on, that's not the point.
I would say that the application of behavioural science has no limits like you can apply it to every and anything essentially. So it's also about linking it back to what you're passionate about; what do you want your contribution to the world to be? So just having that initial interest and I think also being able to geek out about specific thematic areas or specific topics is really important.
How do you apply behavioural science to your own life, to your personal life if you do it all?
Daily. It's a daily struggle of behaviour change. Personally, I have used behavioural science for weight loss and starting new behaviours, specifically strength training. I've never been somebody who's into sports, going to the gym, lifting things, but when it had been 5 months since my youngest stopped breastfeeding and I just felt like needing to do something that's opposite to being a mom. So I got hooked onto a podcast hosted by a woman giving weight loss advice and she's incredible (the podcast is called ‘Half Size Me’). She’s lost 170 pounds and managed to keep it all for the last 15 years by focusing on habits. She is just an incredible natural behavioural scientist. She uses a lot of psychology in her advice. She hasn’t studied behavioural science, but I come across these people every now and then that are just intuitive behavioural scientists, if you will. She talks about habit formation and how do you deal with the daily struggle. The tactics that she uses are very zoomed in. She tells you how to organise your fridge, what you should do when you get up in the morning, and the value of strength training.
So, I followed her steps to get into strength training, and the key one for me was working with a personal trainer. Within weeks, my self-confidence skyrocketed, my perception of myself completely changed. Then you see the limitations you put on yourself and the stories you create about yourself. It was such a transformational experience. And I also let go of the “all or nothing mindset”, which she also talks about a lot. Lastly, I track calories. Not because it's punishment, for me it's almost like how often I check my bank account. It's the same thing for me. I always have my phone with me and I'm always looking at it, so I might as well also just track my calories on it. So I have MyFitnessPal on my phone, it's right next to my banking app.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I'd probably be working in logistics. I'm just fascinated by airport logistics for example. I'm very obsessed with systems. So being a mom is being a logistics manager actually. How am I going to schedule this week? How, where and what can go wrong? But I think I've had it even before that. I just love organizing things and figuring out what could go wrong and how it could work. And every time I'm in an airport, and Oslo Airport is incredible in that regard, it’s just magic to me how things work.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Shola Olabode-Dada who I just discovered could be interesting, she is or was involved with this organization that I really admire.And Gina Nwose who was hired byd Amy Bucher at MadPow before she left.
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!