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Interview with Scott Young

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 Scott Young.

Scott is Principal Advisor, Head of Private Sector at the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) North America. Prior to assuming this role, he was Senior Vice President of BVA Nudge Unit and earlier spent 20+ years leading Perception Research Services and PRS IN VIVO, a global shopper insights agency. He is also the author of three books and over fifty published articles on Behavioral Science and Consumer Insights. He is a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE) and he frequently guest lectures at Masters & Executive Education programs.

Scott is passionate about finding “win-win-win” opportunities (that benefit companies, people and society) – and in developing programs to help organizations and individuals to learn and apply Behavioral Science. He is a graduate of Duke University and the Kellogg School (MBA) at Northwestern.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I spent the majority of my career, in fact, about 20 years or so leading a shopper insights agency, partnering with many of the big consumer marketing firms such as Unilever and Procter and Gamble. Day in and day out, I saw, across all these different countries and product categories, this gap between what people said they wanted to do and what they actually did. For example, we would show people a new product and they'd have all kinds of opinions and reasons of why it was wonderful and why they might buy it, et cetera. But then when simulating the introduction of that product, people would walk right past it and grab what they're used to buying. I had a very keen interest in learning more about this disconnect.

And then somewhat by happenstance I connected with Eric Singler, when he was leader of an agency in France, which was essentially a competitor of ours. Eric was very passionate about behavioral science. He was setting up a small agency and we ended up merging our companies, applying behavioral science to the shopper research that we did. Ultimately, I ended up joining Eric in what's now called BVA nudge consulting.

So with BVA nudge consulting I was doing consultancy work for private sector organizations. And the work had become broader than consumer goods and shopping; really across the spectrum of different categories from financial services to health care. But I did want to gravitate away from marketing, more towards social purpose and get deeper into some of the issues and challenges that to some degree I had exposure to. The BIT was looking for someone to lead their engagement with the private sector. That had always been a consistent stream of work, but there was really never anyone who kind of woke up in the morning with that as their primary mission. So now that’s me.

What achievement would you say you are most proud of?

I think the thing I’m most proud of is trying to help organizations, build their capabilities and engage more people in behavioral science. Not in the sense of just teaching the main concepts; that does not necessarily mean it's going to translate into people actively applying this in their work lives or perhaps in their personal lives. But the things that I've been the most excited about or proud of have been some programs I've done, both at BVA and now at BIT, that have involved applying behavioral science to the teaching and application of behavioral science. How do we get beyond just sharing information and giving people the concepts? How do we actually get them applying this in work and then start reinforcing those habits.


What do you still want to achieve?

Well, I think very broadly speaking, I’d really like to see behavioral science have more inroads in the private sector. There's just a ton of opportunity for good. There are a lot of situations out there where it truly is win-win-win. If we can promote positive behaviors, it's to everyone's benefit. I think we're just scratching the surface of what this can accomplish or what this can help accomplish. Think of healthier behaviors, more sustainable behaviors, safer behaviors. My mission is to make that happen on a broader basis and in more organizations.

What challenges do you still foresee for behavioral science?

I think there's tremendous challenges in the private sector, and two challenges that come right to mind. One is that behavioral science can be a threat. If we're looking at things through a behavioral lens, it’s possible that the behavioral consultant critiques all the prior work being done, saying it wasn’t done right.

I think a second challenge, and maybe you see this more on the marketing side, is that a lot of people already think they are doing behavioral science. It's quite easy for a marketer or perhaps anyone to apply a heuristic or a tactic somewhat haphazardly and declare that they've read a book or two and they've done this once or twice and they are practicing behavioral science. There's a related challenge there as well, which is that if folks are doing this haphazardly and poorly and not seeing results or documenting them this can sabotage broader efforts. An organization can decide that they've already done ‘behavioral science’ and it's failed, which is definitely a larger concern.

I think a third challenge, and I could probably ramble on for much longer, is there's a real definition problem or challenge, in the sense that behavioral science can be applied to so many different things and areas that it may not have a ‘home’. It may not link very easily and clearly to an organization’s budgeting. Certainly there are organizations that have centralized and created functions and units. But beyond that, it can be very difficult for behavioral science to work its way into budgeting and planning processes, and then it can be difficult in terms of really institutionalizing behavioral science.


How do you think behavioral science is likely to develop in the next 10 years?

Well one road to success may mean disappearing in the sense that it's not this separate entity of behavioral science and a behavioral science unit and a behavioral science team, but rather it's integrated into the way people think and do their work and it's more akin to Design Thinking or other areas where, again, it's not something separate and additional and budgeted. It's built into our processes.

What I'd love to see is may be more threefold. One, there are centralized units within organizations that are providing knowledge and support and identifying opportunities, et cetera. Second, there are more and more functional leads, whether it's the head of sustainability or the head of human resources becoming educated and working to integrate behavioral science into their functions and their businesses, their roles. And then three, it's even more just integrated into rethinking fundamental issues like budgeting and performance reviews and other issues around employees in particular. So a three pronged approach to behavioral science in the private sector.

How would you recommend people get into behavioral science?

Well this actually links back to how I would like to see behavioral science develop. I think the best way to do that is within your own job area already: identify a business problem and then add behavioral science to it. The ideal to me is for someone to find an issue or a challenge that they're truly passionate about and then ask themselves, “how can I apply a behavioral science lens to this?” I think that's a better formula for success than the other way around, where someone is fascinated by behavioral science and then has to find something to apply it to.


What is the skill set you need to make a good behavioral scientist?

To me what really stands out is the ability to understand business or perhaps organizational problems and challenges. And to really come at it from that perspective, understanding those issues and perhaps some of the realities and constraints and dynamics that exist within these organizations and then apply solid behavioral science thinking to those problems. Understanding what's going to be feasible and what's going to really make a difference in influencing employee behaviors or getting something funded for that matter at an organization.

Do you have a personal frustration with the field where you're just like, why is this still happening?

I feel like because we can be applied to everything, sometimes that leaves us being applied to nothing. I feel as though the field and perhaps individuals need to probably end up focusing more on specific issues and challenges and use cases and make that commitment and have that be the way that ultimately we will grow.

And I feel like sometimes we lead too much with the behavioral science. The exciting experiment is the main focus, not the problems and the issues and the frustrations that we're that we think we can help solve. Nothing wrong with a fun example to get people's attention, and get them excited and engaged. But I think it has to move very quickly to what the organization is already worried about and thinking about and trying to solve. And I don't think as a field, we do that as well as we could.


What do you think would have happened if you'd never found behavioral science?

I think there's a couple of different possibilities. Either I may have stayed in consumer and shopper insights and done behaviorally grounded approaches to that. I think a second possibility would've been gravitating earlier towards teaching and education. Or, random option three, I could have maybe become a travel writer because that's what I really like to do. I love to travel and I love to write. So that, that's kind of the fun alternative reality that I never really embraced.

Do you actually apply behavioral science in your own life?

I wouldn't say no, but I would say, and I'm guessing you've heard this from others, less than I would like to, and less than I intend to!

I do try to do it around the classic things you would think of exercise and habits, using triggers and positive reinforcement. I won't say I'm as good at it as I would like to be!

Who has really inspired you as a behavioral scientist?

Eric Singler from BVA of course! Dilip Soman is another great behavioral scientist. My colleague Michaels Hallsworth has been a great inspiration. And if we have space for a 4th, it might not be an individual, but I'm really always fascinated listening to and speaking with people who are successfully making behavioral science happen at organizations, because there just aren't too many of them really!


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

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

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