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Interview with Sarah Watters

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 Sarah Watters.

Sarah is a Senior Consultant and Behavioral Scientist at Wellth, a health technology company focused on driving healthy behaviors among complex, chronically ill, individuals. Her primary focus is at the intersection of healthcare, technology and behavioral science. She received her MSc and PhD from the London School of Economics, where her research focused on how individuals make trade-offs in health-related treatment decisions when it comes to quality and duration. She’s led international research initiatives, including the MonAMi project which focused on evaluating the use of telehealth in seniors’ homes across several European countries and has chaired the Steering Committee for the journal Behavioral Public Policy.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I grew up in a healthcare-centric family which apparently rubbed off on me as I went to college focusing on pre-med. Not long after my first year, I found myself switching to become a psych major, fascinated by my cognitive neuropsychology class, in particular. It wasn’t until I was pursuing my masters degree that I came across behavioral science. The class was (and maybe still is!) called Valuing Health. It blew my mind since it merged the two areas in which I was most interested: understanding our decisions and behaviors through the lens of health and healthcare. The lecturer of Valuing Health, Adam Oliver, eventually went on to become both my Msc and PhD supervisor. Among many, many other things, he taught me how to ask good questions and, equally, to question the research I came across and situations in my own life from a behavioral science perspective.

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

Currently, what I find most deeply satisfying is impacting many thousands of lives each and every day at Wellth, where I work today. My day-to-day involves researching and applying behavioral science to drive healthy behaviors among chronically ill individuals who typically have multiple conditions that they need to manage. It’s a privilege to use what I know really well to affect important changes in these individuals’ lives, improving their quality of life and that of the people around them as well. This work keeps me really engaged everyday.

What I’m looking to achieve moving forward is to better enable people of all health statuses and conditions to feel empowered to take care of themselves and feel confident that they can be successful. Sustained behavior change - particularly when it comes to health - can feel very pie in the sky, given what the evidence base currently tells us. I’m bullish, however, that there are still many avenues to explore when it comes to yielding this sustained change and I’m grateful to be able to think about this meaty challenge every single day.

Another problem I’m chewing on right now is how do we drive people to get routine check-ups, cancer screenings, blood tests, and the like. As a healthy individual, I don’t have a strong mental model for these actions, but I should! I might get an email or letter from my health plan, but there’s very little else that is reminding or encouraging me to engage in these really important preventative care activities. So, I’m trying to figure out how we can create mental models around these health behaviors for myself - and other health folks - and also for people in relatively poorer health.

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

Ah, the sliding doors moment when I didn’t elect to take Valuing Health during my masters degree… Spreadsheets and reports probably. I’ve made it sound mundane but I do really like these sorts of things, secondary research and writing (ideally paired with some form of primary research). I’d probably be a lot more focused on the health economics and policy side of things, potentially not in the private sector, as I am today.

In another life I’d be a writer, going deep on topics that appeal to me (though I guess not behavioral science related) - hopefully off the beaten path - and sharing my observations and insights in an approachable way. It’s possible I’ve just put a pin in this until later in life…

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

As cheesy as it sounds, I’m always trying to do things that my future self will thank me for, whether that’s tidying up, putting dishes or laundry away immediately (grinning and bearing it, to be sure), or prioritizing a ten minute at-home workout when I can’t get my usual time in the gym that day. A big one that I try to embrace is to start small whenever I’m trying to make any changes. I, like everyone I know, wants change to be quick and easy, but it’s (almost always) not. I’ve been getting better at reading in bed at night, for example, but the very first step that’s helped me a lot is not allowing myself to start a new episode of anything after 9pm.

Whenever I’m out and about, I - like all behavioral scientists - love watching how others act, react, and interact. I try to be aware of some behavioral affects that I might be susceptible to; understanding how my environment might be influencing my choices and behaviors. One of my favorite examples that I’ve witnessed time and time again is people eating on planes. The moment someone makes a bag crinkle or a lid pop, everyone else is reaching for their snacks, too. I think that features of our social environments remain underappreciated when it comes to influencing our behavior.

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

Curiosity. To state the (extremely) obvious: behavior is context dependent; so if you’re interested in a particular area of problem, chase after it. More simply, don’t be shy about pursuing areas of research that others haven’t yet made strides on. We need behavioral scientists out there trying to better understand behavior in all contexts: in different industries, different cultures, etc.. Find what sets your brain on fire: which is what I say when I’m super excited and thinking a million miles a minute about something.

Another one is seeing the whole picture and empathy - to the extent possible - trying to put yourself in the shoes of the person whose behavior you’re trying to understand. There are so many diverse factors that drive behavior and the more we appreciate what’s happened before, what’s happening in the moment, and what’s going to happen when it comes to a particular behavior, the better picture we can paint ourselves to understand the true drivers.

And certainly, as many others have mentioned, having a strong grasp of how to conduct high quality research, from asking good questions, experimental design, and analysis.

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

There's been a decent amount of discussion lately around why behavioral phenomena aren’t replicable. But, as behavioral scientists, we know that our actions don’t always manifest to the same degree or in similar ways across different contexts; we can’t copy and paste our interventions, we need to get our hands dirty to figure out what works for this person or this group of people in this environment at this point in time.

I believe that trying to discredit behavior science research and insights is missing the trees for the forest, so to speak. Yes, the reverse of missing the forest for the trees. There’s always been a decent hang up, particularly when non-behavioral scientists look at the field, about the absence of a widely agreed upon unifying theory.

My hope is that behavioral science will continue to permeate various industries, driving efficiencies and better experiences. There’s so much room to run in terms of understanding why we do or don’t execute certain behaviors. In the grand scheme of things, we’re still very early in our understanding and in the application of our insights and my hope is that current and future behavioral scientists don’t lose their drive to discover despite a few headwinds.

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

Similar to my response above around necessary skills, but it’s definitely worth repeating: research what interests you. Very early on in my research career, I was apprehensive that my own ideas maybe didn’t hold enough weight or I was trying to interest myself in the sexier applications of science. Don’t feel the need to follow the pack or focus on where there’s ongoing research, necessarily; if there’s a behavior or problem that interests you, go deep! It’s old news by now that behavior is wildly context dependent, the more we can learn about how different behavioral affects present themselves in different situations, the more informed we can be in how we interact with one another, how we create and maintain relationships and institutions, and, broadly, how we can lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

You don’t need a PhD but you do need research chops. I read something recently about how we are all scientists and more recent generations have lost sight of this by thinking that in order to conduct research - and be scientists - we have to secure tons of funding and jump through a series of approvals and reviews. But this isn’t true. We can all experiment, even with very few tools at our disposal. Don’t get caught up in what you can’t research (right now), focus on the interesting questions you can answer and go from there.

Finally, reach out to other behavioral scientists whose research interests you, even if you’ve only read a paper or article or two of theirs. Most of us (I hope!) are in this field because of a genuine fascination with human behavior. If someone wants to talk about this topic, we’re ready and willing. At least I know I am!

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

I’ve been really fortunate to connect with behavioral scientists working on a diverse set of research areas. Jeni Miles has, and continues to do great work with Google, and Adam Bulley, who is now working with the Australian Behavioural Insights Team.

Additionally, as I've been privileged enough to know them and their research rather well, Matteo Galizzi, Sanchayan Banerjee, and Andriy Ivchenko.


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


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