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Interview with Serene Koh


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 Serene Koh.


Serene is currently the Director of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in Singapore. BIT Singapore works with a number of government agencies and non-governmental organisations to adopt a more behavioural approach to policy implementation. Its work covers the areas of health, community and philanthropy, skills and employment, home affairs, and finance to name a few. Serene leads BIT's domestic consultancy work as well as its capability building across the region. She was part of the pioneering team which helped found BIT Singapore in 2016. Since then, she has worked on more than 100 behavioural insights (BI) projects and trained more than 5000 civil servants and practitioners in BI with organisations such as the Singapore Civil Service College, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and Bank Negara Malaysia. Before BIT, Serene was a researcher with the Ministry of Communications and Information where she led the department’s work in behavioural and social research. She received her PhD at the University of Michigan where she studied the political socialisation of young children.



 


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I wish I could say there was an a-ha moment or some epiphany which launched me into this field, but in reality, I stumbled into it. If pushed, I’d probably say there were three key catalysts that nudged me down this path.


First, I had been working in government for a few years after getting my PhD and that was about the time governments were warming up to the idea of applying behavioural insights (BI) to public policy. My then line manager encouraged me to read “Nudge” and to also attend the very first BX conference in Sydney in 2014. That got the ball rolling and I started to do small projects within government that integrated BI into various communications and programmes. But it was only ever at the edges of things and I remember wanting to go deeper and do more.


The second turning point came in 2016, when I attended a behavioural science workshop at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy conducted by Rory Gallagher-- now my colleague and Managing Director of the Behavioural Insights Team APAC-- together with Owain Service and Samuel Hanes (all pioneering members of the original BIT within the UK Cabinet Office).


It was an intense week-long programme during which I was exposed to a body of applied behavioural research with extraordinary social impact-- placing people in jobs, debiasing recruitment, increasing pension contributions, etc. It gave me a glimpse into a universe where someone could do academically-informed social science research that also tries to solve challenging problems. I was incredibly inspired.


Related to this is the third catalyst: the person who was instrumental in bringing this programme to Singapore. My friend, Donald Low was then Associate Dean of the public policy school. In addition to inviting BIT to deliver the workshop, more broadly, he has always been a strong advocate for integrating behavioural economics into Singapore’s public service. His writings on-- and our conversations about-- behavioural science made the field intuitive and compelling, and its role in policymaking, critical.


At the end of this week-long programme, I found out that BIT was in the midst of opening a Singapore office and that they were hiring. I applied, interviewed, got the job, and have been in love with it ever since.



What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist?

Two things come to mind: one, is the applied nature of what we do. I’m really proud of the fact that we are actively helping people solve problems-- we help people attend health screenings, make workplaces safer, support citizens to save more for retirement; these are life-changing challenges that we have had the privilege of helping people address.

The other is capacity-building. At BIT Singapore, we do a lot of training and to me, that is as socially impactful as running projects. If we want people to make behaviourally-informed decisions or design behaviourally-informed programmes and policies, then they need to be taught the tools to do it on their own. That is how long term behavioural change can be achieved.


 


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

There was quite a bit of soul-searching before I took on this job. As inspired and attracted as I was to the field, I was also 40 when I was offered this opportunity and part of me wondered if it was too late in my life to be making a major career switch. But looking back, I think turning 40 that year made it more likely that I would take this job; as Hengchen Dai and Kathy Milkman have shown, temporal landmarks like milestone birthdays inspire people to make “fresh start” decisions that they might otherwise not make, like career shifts. And so, even if I didn’t become a behavioural scientist that year, I might still have moved on to do something else-- probably still involving research and social impact, with some element of teaching; I really enjoy helping people learn and gain new skills.



How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

On our child. All the time. The moment she was old enough (I think she was three…), I did the classic Marshmallow Test with her. She barely let me finish my instructions before popping the marshmallow in her mouth. I was devastated; I was convinced our child lacked all executive function skills and was doomed to a lifetime of crime.


But then I tested her again when she was seven. This time, not only did she finish listening to the instructions, she bargained; she asked whether I would give her more marshmallows if she could wait longer. I said yes, she waited an hour, and I gave her four. I am happy to say, at 14 today, she is fairly well-adjusted and displays what you would probably consider an adequate level of self-control (for a teenager…)


As part of my work, I am expected to be more conscious of people’s motivations, what drives their behaviour and what their barriers might be. And I tap on that a lot as a parent, especially of an adolescent-- when she tells me she doesn’t need my help with schoolwork even though she could clearly do with it, where does that come from? As a behavioural scientist, I try to give pause to my first instincts (System 1) and activate my System 2 to consider why else our child might be responding this way. I don’t think this necessarily makes me a better parent; maybe just a more empathetic one.



 

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

Be curious. Read widely. Be humble.


A good behavioural scientist is good because they are interested in people. You want to know what makes them tick, what makes them behave in one way and not another. So you need to keep wanting to learn about them, be curious about them, ask questions about them.

Then you read; be familiar with the research. This helps you help the people you now know so much about. And not just what conventionally belongs to the behavioural science canon-- read neuroscience, biology, business, history, literature. Human beings are complex and the kinds of solutions we must design will have to draw from a diverse range of research as well.

And finally, have the humility to admit you were wrong. As you read and consume new research, be willing to update your views when evidence changes. As researchers, we are of no use to anyone if our opinions-- and our egos-- become more important than the problems we hope to solve.



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

I would first recommend that your readers look at BIT’s Manifesto published earlier this year by my colleague, Michael Hallsworth, Managing Director BIT Americas. In it, he offers ten proposals for where the field of behavioural science needs to evolve in the next decade. I highlight two that are particularly salient to me:

  1. Replication, variation, and adaptation: There are some perverse incentives that motivate researchers to claim that their successful findings generalise to entire populations. But we know that in many cases, this cannot be true. Human beings are complex and the world is a diverse place. If behavioural science is to have true universal impact, then behavioural scientists need to be more open to studying how an intervention’s results are related to its context, and that heterogeneity in results is worth digging deeper into. We will need to learn how to adapt solutions to different settings without diluting efficacy.

  2. No view from nowhere: As researchers who study human biases, behavioural scientists must recognise that we are prone to our own biases as well. The manifesto cites various steps we can take to self-scrutinise and protect ourselves from the potentially biased influences of our gender, race, physical abilities, sexuality, and geography: i) find ways for people to judge researchers and decide if they want to participate in research; ii) increase co-design approaches where you involve the people your interventions will affect, and iii) improve the cognitive diversity of the field by building networks across professional bodies and geographical boundaries.


 


What challenges do you think behavioural science will have to face to make that future a reality?

I think we will have to face the challenge of the replication crisis in one way or another. Our credibility and legitimacy rests on people's ability to see behavioural science as a rigorous field. If we do not frame our work as being universal insofar as it is adaptable to different contexts, then it becomes a very narrow science. Then there will be large populations of the world that will not benefit from the good that behavioural scientists can do because we have not run experiments or projects in a way that is respectful of their cultural contexts.



Do you have a personal frustration with the field?

Maybe it's some people's misunderstanding, but because BIT was initially known for revising letters and SMSes, there are certain groups of people who still think of us as communications people. And my frustration is not with the field so much as with maybe either people who are very happy to just keep doing that or people who expect us to just do that; they don't see beyond to all the other things behavioural science can do. And sometimes I wonder if that limitation is not something a few amongst us have put on ourselves, that there are practitioners who are very happy to just tweak SMSes and letters because it seems the easier thing to do. It's much harder to fix systems and processes.


 


How would you advise someone to best get into behavioural science?

When I first started, there was no established pipeline of graduates to the field in Singapore. Even now, we don't have a behavioural science programme per se. So the way someone might enter the field may be through the problem they are hoping to fix. I read your interview with my colleague, Alex Gyani who heads BIT Australia, and he said ‘to fall in love with problems’. I think that is such good advice because you should always ask yourself-- what is the problem you hope to solve? How much do you understand your problem? And then ask yourself, is behavioural science the right tool to help you to address this problem? Maybe it is, maybe it’s not; maybe you have to study something else-- neuroscience, perhaps, or anthropology, but don't fixate on the lever. Put the problem at the heart of your endeavour first rather than anchor on the solution.



Who would you like to read an interview by? Who were you really inspired by, as a behavioural scientist?

I was trying to find someone you haven't interviewed yet-- and you’ve interviewed many people, so that was quite difficult-- but I’d really like to read an interview with Iris Bohnet, who studies gender and behavioural insights at Harvard. We haven't had the opportunity to do a lot of work on gender and inequality in Singapore, but when I read her book (‘What Works: Gender Equality by Design”) I fell in love with everything she wrote. Her ideas are just so intuitive and it blew my mind that more of it hasn't been implemented.



 


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


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!


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25 oct 2023

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