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 Sasha Tregebov.
Sasha is the Director of BIT Canada, the Canadian office of the Behavioural Insights Team. BIT Canada works with a wide range of public sector and non-profit organizations to apply behavioural insights in pursuit of better social, economic, and environmental outcomes. Before establishing BIT Canada, Sasha worked in BIT's New York City office, overseeing the organization's large program of work with US cities. Prior to joining BIT, Sasha led Deloitte's behavioural science capabilities in Canada and worked as a policy advisor in the Government of Ontario.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
In 2011, I was working as a policy advisor in the Government of Ontario. Someone shared a report with me called “Fraud, Error and Debt” by an organization I had never heard of before – The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). The report was utterly fascinating and helped me understand policy implementation failures I was seeing in my day-to-day work. I started reading everything I could find about applied behavioural science. It has been an obsession since that point, and it was a dream come true when I was able to join BIT in 2017.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
Opening a Canadian office for BIT in 2019 felt like the culmination of nearly a decade of hard work, good luck, and tremendous support from colleagues and partners. Seeing our team grow and make a tangible difference in Canada has been even more gratifying.
It’s hard to pick a favourite project or trial – we’ve done a couple dozen projects since opening and each one has been challenging and rewarding. Last summer, we helped a local non-profit called Oak Park Neighbourhood Centre (OPNC) increase recruitment for free tax filing clinics by using active choice framing in its outreach. The change helped low-income families access tens of thousands of dollars in government benefits and led OPNC to rethink how it communicates with its members more broadly.
The next major goal is around scale. My colleagues and I want to help realize a future where Canadian families benefit from applied behavioural science day in and day out. Our kids are doing better at school, our parents are able to age in their homes, our friends can find work faster and face less discrimination. The Canadian BI community has the talent and experience to achieve this vision, and I think we’re seeing more and more buy-in from senior decision-makers in government, business, and the non-profit world.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I think I would be a civil servant. That was my graduate school training and the first several years of my career. It still fundamentally shapes how I see things. I believe that smart policy and good government can play the biggest role in addressing our most pressing challenges--reducing inequality, increasing wellbeing, mitigating the impact of climate change.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
Not as well or as consistently as one might hope! Like many others, I struggle to exercise regularly, eat well and sustainably and find time for things that best support my wellbeing. I do, however, have better post hoc rationalizations for why I struggle than most!
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Applied behavioural science is an almost impossibly challenging job. We are trying to do meticulous and creative experimental design, data analysis, and qualitative research, while also having deep expertise in behavioural economics, social psychology, and adjacent disciplines. We strive to be knowledgeable policy practitioners, clear and accessible writers, good project managers … the list goes on. Given that no one could possibly be strong in all aspects of the job, it is important to be self-aware, intellectually curious, and a great collaborator.
For those looking to break into the field, I would focus on developing a clear and quite precise understanding of key concepts in the field and a more broad-based view of the different ways those theories have been applied.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
This is quite a challenging question to answer given how fraught predicting the future is! Elspeth Kirkman and Michael Hallsworth set out a nice framework in Behavioural Insights, arguing for three priorities in the coming years: consolidate, prioritize, and normalize. I’d recommend interested readers dig into that further.
Personally, my wish list includes 1) seeing behavioural science evidence routinely integrated into policy and program decisions, 2) developing stronger theoretical foundations to link the empirical data we are gathering, and 3) integrating methods from data science and human-centered design.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
I would encourage newer behavioural insights practitioners to really hone their understanding of fundamental concepts in behavioural science. While I am overall blown away by the level of talent entering the field, I find that the excitement around emerging findings and new results is sometimes crowding out precise understanding of the most central, well established theories. I would also advise people to value the knowledge and experience that they bring into the field. The work we do is inherently multidisciplinary; for example, understanding how government policy is made is hugely valuable when applying behavioural science in government! I anticipate that this will be even more true in the future, as the fields of design and data science, in particular, are more fully integrated.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Julian House, Elspeth Kirkman, Dilip Soman, Jiayang Zhao, Ashley Whillans
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Sasha. I'm glad to know about all the good work being done in and by BIT Canada!
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!