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Interview with Steve Wendel



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 Steven Wendel.

Steve is an applied behavioral scientist and senior leader who has helped organizations effectively use behavioral science for good for over a decade. He is the co-founder and Head of Methodology at sistemaFutura, an organization devoted to studying and shaping complex systems for social impact. He served as a Vice President at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, where he was responsible for technical excellence, growing Busara’s presence in Latin America, and overseeing the Inclusive Finance portfolio. He also previously founded and led the behavioral science teams at Morningstar and at HelloWallet, developing and field-testing hundreds of interventions to improve financial behavior. Stephen has authored dozens of publications, including three books on applied behavioral science: Designing for Behavior Change; Spiritual Design; and Improving Employee Benefits. Outside of work, Stephen founded BehavioralTeams.com and the non-profit Bescy (previously: Action Design Network), which has educated the public across North America and Europe on how to apply behavioral research in their work. He holds a BA from U.C. Berkeley, a Master’s from Johns Hopkins-SAIS, and a PhD from the University of Maryland, where he analyzed the dynamics of behavioral change in political activism. 



 


How did you get into behavioural science? 

Complete happenstance.


Many years ago, I was a software engineer and the first employee at a fintech startup named HelloWallet. Our product was beautiful and wonderful. But people didn't want to use it. so we tried to figure out why.


I reached out to one of the early behavioral scientists, Jon Zinman, to learn more about the field. And from there I reached out to folks like John Beshears and Katy Milkman. I learned behavioral science on the job by talking to people like them: they were very kind. Over the years, we talked through the studies we were developing them at HelloWallet, and partnered on joint research.  . Later I set up a group called the Action Design Network (now Bescy) to help promote applied behavioral science, and  it was a great opportunity to me as well to learn from the speakers.



But there was no specific moment that you were like: ‘behavioural science is what I want to do for the rest of my life?’ 

No not at all. I was actually doing my PhD in political science at the same time as HelloWallet. I was very lucky to study under one of the early experimentalists in political science, an awesome guy named Joe Oppenheimer. I owe him a great deal. In the beginning, I told Joe that I had no interest in experiments. And he said, “that's fine, just wait”.  And he was right.



Amazing. But how does one get from working for essentially a fintech app, learning on the job, creating Action Design, to where we are now? Because, you know, there have been some things in between, like Morningstar and Busara.

I get bored easily. That's the honest truth. At different stages of life, various career moves have scratched different itches. The reason I did the PhD because I just wanted to better understand society. I studied economics and international relations, and I wanted to dig deeper into political science. But, Matt Fellowes, the founder of HelloWallet, one day asked me, “Steve, do you want to go write another academic paper that 10 people will read? Or do you want to have the opportunity to impact on millions of people's lives?” Neither one was guaranteed., but I’m naturally focused on impact. HelloWallet, was a great opportunity to pursue that impact. Later, at Morningstar, there was a different opportunity: to grow a team and to help people enter the field. I enjoy hiring people and helping them become a behavioral scientists. Busara, on the other hand, was a chance to contribute vastly different ways: to learn about behavioral science in international development, and to try to help people who struggle in their daily lives.



 


So then looking back on that journey, and of course including the books and many other achievements, what is the thing that you're happiest with or proudest of?

The thing I'm most proud of is Bescy, and stepping back it, to be honest. It was wonderful to build Bescy (then the Action Design Network) and I enjoyed just being able to learn from others in the field. But, the best thing I think I ever did for that community was to step back and let other people lead. Bescy has grown over the years because we created a structure where people could bring their own passions and pursue what they love. They weren't contributing to my work, they were contributing to their own.   And clearly the current leaders are much better at it than I ever was!



If someone comes into Bescy, or in general comes into the field, what tips would you give them? Would you think that your journey now is something that would replicate if someone's trying to get into the field now?

I’m not sure that my own path would be useful, since it was quite a strange path.  But there’s one aspect that I hope does replicate: I strongly believe that people can learn on the job and that there are many styles of learning. Personally, I read a whole lot of books and I asked a lot of questions of people who came before me.  I've tried to be very careful to create that same space and opportunity when I’ve hired on my teams, as well.  I care about whether people can do the job, whether they are invested in the work, and I care about rigor.  And that's all that matters.  There's nothing wrong with pursuing a degree in the field; I certainly don't disrespect that, and I received a PhD myself.  But you should get any degree because you enjoy it; it’s not directly related to one’s job path.

 

In order to get a job in behavioral science, it increasingly helps to have a different skill as well. When I talks with someone who wants to enter behavioral science, the first thing I often ask is, “great, what other skill do you have?” Because most of the jobs in our field are actually in design, product, or in marketing.  There are relatively few jobs for “behavioral scientists”, but there are lot of jobs for people who have a marketing background, for example. Adding behavioral science makes other fields more powerful: it’s behavioral science plus, rather than behavioral  on its own and in the abstract.  I encourage people to honor the tradition they work in, and then add deep, thoughtful research from behavioral science to enrich it. That’s where I see the most people succeed.

 


But then what is that skill set that makes you behavioural science plus? 

It depends on what you're interested in: Behavioral science at its best is grounded in another substantive field: like finance, agriculture, or medicine . If you're working in agriculture, then it’s vital that you know something about agriculture, in addition to behavioral science! Behavioral science has had a tendency to come in and brashly say, “I can solve your problems. I don't know anything about your existing literature. I don't know anything about your field, but I have these neat behavioral tricks”. Thankfully, I think we're maturing away from that.


Beyond subject-matter expertise, it's really hard to do thoughtful work without data analysis skills. And that's not because I'm a purist; I’ve done both qual and quant data analysis throughout my career.  Instead, it’s a necessity because almost every behavior we want to change is multi-causal. The most interesting applications of especially of behavioral science, gender-based violence or child nutrition  are complex and multi-causal. The signals that one receives, qualitative or quantitative, are very noisy: which means we need rigorous methods to determine if we have an impact: if we’re helping, or if we’re actually making things worse.Another skill I look for is scepticism.  Scepticism about our tools, about prior findings, and about our own ability to be effective, . This healthy skepticism helps us recognize when we’re wrong, and we’re not actually being effective.



 


Looking at the field as it currently stands, what do you think the core challenges that we are facing are? And what will they be in the next 5 to 10 years?

Currently, a challenge we face is that the quality of work is very uneven across our field. In part, this arises from time pressure and the structural position that many behavioral science consultants are in. When we compete on price, we don’t give ourselves the time and space we need to do high-quality work.  And so we trap ourselves.  


A second challenge is that, we're still pretty narrow as a field. In your interview with Colin (Strong), he asked: “Who controls the discourse? Who controls the agenda?” It's still very much people like me. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with people like me, but our field shouldn’t only be directed by us. . The WEIRDness of our research (originating among Western / White, Educated, Industrialized Rich Democracies) is something that I focused a fair bit on at Busara, along with many others. WEIRD people like me still shape of the agenda, and form a large part of the research pool of researchers. I'd love to see our field broaden, and have sought in my own small ways to help do so.


The third major challenge I see is replication and high profile cases of outright fraud.



For the three challenges you’ve mentioned, do you think we'll make a lot of progress towards, let's say, in the next 10 years?

The narrowness of the field (WEIRDness) is slowly changing, which is wonderful. It’s a matter of time as groups like Busara continue to grow and embrace the diversity of talent around the world.


With regards to the replication crisis and fraud, we’re slowly getting our house in order. That includes people being fired, which is necessary and healthy; ) At the same time, some of the people who latched onto behavioral science without really digging into out what it means are moving onto the next fad (AI). The field is better off not being quite so faddish. Without the temptation to generate headlines, it’s easier to focus on solid research that helps us understand the interplay between cognition and context in decision-making and behavior. And then nobody knows what's going to happen with AI and behavioral science, other than that machines are going to destroy us all. I just watched Terminator again: I think it's just a great reminder of what's coming.  Ok, joking aside, we have no idea.  We’re still learning.


Overall, I see behavioral science being increasingly normalized over the coming decade. We’ll just be a normal, natural part of the audit process at financial institutions, a normal part of the marketing processes, a normal part of UX research, etc.  



Where do you see behavioural science units specifically develop? Do you think it still makes more sense to be outside of the average company, or do you believe more in internal consultants like internal units of behavioural science in bigger companies?

I see a  mix of both? – both now and in the future.  I believe they will continue to be a heavy focus within organizations: to solve specific challenges facing those organizations However, other organizations won't have the budget or the internal culture to have a specialized group within, and that sustains external consultants..



 


What is it that you still want to achieve?

What I'm really excited about now is systemic behavioral science. How do we tackle racism? How do we address gender-based violence? How do we tackle environmental degradation? How do we get out of our rut as a field and move from small nudges and small effects to take on big social issues? That's what I'm excited about.  No one has the answer to these questions and I don't either. We do however, have some initial ideas and they are fun. Behavioral science alone can’t solve these societal problems, but our particular understanding of the mind and its limitations, and our tools to help overcome behavioral obstalces means that we can contribute in a meaningful way.


I’ve actually just left Busara to start a new company, called sistemaFutura, that focuses specifically on systemic behavioral science. We study and shape complex systems by combining behavioral science with the deep traditions of systems analysis: from qualitative systems thinking to computational simulation models.  We look the broader system in which behavioral science’s interventions are emdded: which can cause even the most well-meaning of efforts to backfire.  We don’t have any simple answers, but it’s exciting, and it’s promising.   

 


Is the rut that you keep mentioning, a personal frustration of yours with the field?

Yes. We're copying and pasting the same SMS messaging campaigns and posters again and again. What more can we do? This field is awesome. It has grown from nothing, and we’ve earned a place within companies and within non-profits. But we’re in a rut of our own making: optimizing email campaigns and nudging consumers to recycle.  We should set our sights on bigger targets: both in businesses and for social impact.



As per my previous interviews, you have inspired a lot of people. But who has inspired you? 

Joe Oppenheimer, first and foremost. Richard Feynman (long since deceased). Katy Milkman, John Beshears, and Jon Zinman as I’d mentioned before. I am grateful for many people at Busara: they're doing innovative work and I’m glad to have learned from them; they helped me see beyond my own blinders from the finance world.


I might also say my business partner, Ale De Filippo, who helped set up and run the international practice for the BIT. She's awesome. Ammaarah and Chris at Bescy..  There’s no shortage of wonderful, thoughtful people in our field to be inspired by.



 


What other pathways do you think would have been equally or more likely for you to end up as, given that your journey into behavioural science was happenstance?

Oh, I think it was only chance that I didn’t remain as a software engineer.  There is such beauty and joy in creating a simulation model or a clean software architecture that others can build on.  And I would have been a much better paid too! Ah well, the path not taken…



Do you try to apply any behavioural science to your own life, if you’re honest?

Of course. One of the reasons I’ve been so interested in behaviovral science is because of my own imperfections and failings.  I use besci in my own life to try to be a little bit  better as a person The baseline is not great. For the record, I still eat potato chips when I know I shouldn't. And I still don't exercise properly.  Netflix knows me a little too well.


On the other hand, I now pray regularly and I spend time with my kids. There are some successes, and even while other efforts aren’t.  If there’s one thing that behavioral science teaches us, it’s that we’re fallible, limited beings, and that will never change. But we can improve.



 


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


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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