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 Shai Davidai. Shai is an Assistant Professor in the Management Division at Columbia Business School in NYC. His research examines people's everyday judgments of themselves, other people, and society as a whole. He is interested in the forces that shape and distort people's subjective perceptions of the world and their influence on judgments, preferences, and choices. Let's see how he approached behavioural science!
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
We all have stories of how we got to where we got, but as a behavioral scientist I’m acutely aware of how these are just reconstructions rather than fact. Nevertheless, if I had to describe my journey into behavioural science in three moves it’ll be this: First, during my second year as an undergrad in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, I took an 8:15, early morning Judgment and Decision-Making class with Ilana Ritov. It was the only class in my entire undergrad experience where I voluntarily chose to sit in the front row, and the fact that I was able to pay close attention so early in the morning tells you everything you need to know about how great of a class it was. Next, when it came time to choose a lab to work in (for extra credit), I found my way into Ilan Yaniv’s lab. I still had no idea what I was interested in and admittedly did the work because it felt like easy course credit, but I immediately fell in love with the subject matter. Working with Ilan (and his grad student at the time – Shoham Choshen-Hillel) gave me my first exposure to how research was being done! Finally, as a lost undergrad who knew he enjoys learning about these topics but had no idea what he wants to do with his life, I read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. Reading this book gave me the closest thing I’ve ever had to an “epiphany” – for the first time in my life, I felt that there was something that I was actually interested in doing!
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
Wiser people than me have said that one should be proud of the process, not the outcome. So, I try to take pride in every manuscript I write before it gets submitted rather than link my feelings to the outcome. However, one the things of which I am most proud is the potential effect my work may have on others. In 2016, I gave a short interview for The New Yorker about my work on beliefs in social mobility, in which I mentioned that I’ve always hated the children’s book The Little Engine that Could because some engines can’t, and it’s not their fault. Bob McKinnon (host of the Attribution Podcast), who was teaching at The New School at the time, read that interview and reached out to me. Inspired by my and others’ research, Bob wrote an incredible children’s book called Three Little Engines which retells that original story in a more fair, compassionate, and societally-conscious way. The book was published by Penguin Random House, the publishers of the original book. I much prefer Bob’s rendition!
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
The honest answer is lost. Despite all their faults and flaws, I love behavioural science and I love academia. I’ve always been fascinated by history, so I might have delved more deeply into that.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
This is a difficult question, because that answer must be “in every way possible.” I can’t see how one can learn something important and useful and not apply it to their lives. For instance, learning about the power of dissonance reduction helped me overcome my fear of commitment when I was wondering whether my wife and I should get married (we’ll be celebrating our tenth anniversary this July!). I also really see the power of channel factors in my life, and when I want to do something, I try to make sure to remove all obstacles from my path. I once took up indoor rock climbing (and loved it) for three straight years just because I lived one block away from the gym. It was the longest I’ve ever kept to a workout regime. I strongly refuse to own a television, because I know that just having it sit there at home will make me watch more of it. Or, when I set up a goal for myself, I try to tell as many people as possible, so that I feel compelled to keep at it. There are so many insights from behavioural science that can make our lives better, in big and small ways, I’m surprised not more people are doing so.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
My sample of behavioural scientists is small and skewed. I simply don’t know of all the amazing people out there who had to leave the field through no fault of their own. So, I think that it would be disingenuous of me to give out any recommendations. My graduate school advisor used to say that the most successful academics he knows treat rejections as challenges rather than threats. That seems like good advice that I’m still trying to learn.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
Coming from a field that teaches us the folly of long-term prediction under uncertainty with imperfect information and personal bias, I am hesitant to make such a prediction. But I do know how I want it to develop. I’d like to see more work using behavioural science to tackle big societal problems such as economic inequality, racial inequality, gender inequality. The field has so much to give, and I doubt if we’re maximizing our potential at the moment.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
Again, always wary of giving advice. But when I used to teach Introduction to Social Psychology, I ended the semester with the following advice: Be like Dave Grohl. Dave Grohl is unarguably an incredible musician – first as a drummer for the punk band Scream, then as a drummer for the legendary Nirvana, and finally as the front man for the Foo Fighters. He has also collaborated with amazingly talented musicians (including Paul McCartney, John Paul Johns, Tom Petty), hosted TV shows, and directed documentaries (including the incredible Sound City). Yet, despite all of his accomplishments, when people think of Dave Grohl they think of him as the nicest guy in rock and roll. Seriously. The guy is an incredible musician, yet people first and foremost think of him as an incredible guy. So, what can behavioral scientists learn from Dave Grohl? Warmth is as important as competence. Take your work extremely seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously at all. Find the right people to work with. Invest in your children. Leave a big tip. Have fun.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Three people come to mind: Tom Gilovich (my graduate school advisor at Cornell University), Amit Kumar (my graduate school office mate and best friend in academia, who is currently at UT, Austin), and Daniela Goya-Tocchetto (a graduate student at Duke, who is one of my favorite collaborators)!
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Shai!
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!