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Interview with Steven Johnson



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 Johnson. Steven is a writer, speaker and consultant working at the intersection of behavioural insights, data science and human-centred design. He is the Director of Behavioural Science within the Why? practice at BCW Global. Why? is a dedicated BCW practice focussed on the application of behaviour change science and technology. They use this specialist expertise to help change clients' lives and improve health. Over the last decade Steven has worked extensively across sectors, helping organisations, teams and individuals drive improvement through a behavioural approach to innovation. Additionally, Steven launched one of the first specialist behavioural insights consultancies in the UK in 2014, successfully growing and selling what had become an award-winning business in 2019. Last, he's a Fellow of the RSA and Founder at Considered.


 


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I started my career in public sector behaviour change comms and immediately felt the power of behavioural science to make a positive difference in the world. At the same time, I realised that whilst being an important element in the behaviour change mix, comms would only ever be part of the solution. It was at that point that I threw myself into the behavioural science space, bringing my passion for data and design with me.



What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?

It has to be the positive difference some of our projects have made to real people living real lives. I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of work with hard-to-reach communities. These projects are often addressing complex issues in challenging contexts but give you a massive opportunity to make a real difference if you get it right.


Work I’ve done with PWID communities (People Who Inject Drugs) has literally saved lives, so that’s by far what I’m most proud of.


In terms of what I still want to achieve… I think we have a responsibility to work on the discipline as well as in it. And although I’m still a hands-on practitioner, a lot of my thinking and content lately has turned to how the concepts, principles and methods of behavioural science can be strengthened as the discipline matures. If I can play a small part in strengthening the foundations of this discipline for future practitioners, I’d consider that a massive achievement.





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

Woodworking – I’d be in my ‘shop' making stuff.



How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

With great difficulty 😊 – I’ve plenty of bad habits! Saying, that I once ran 5 miles a day every day for a year to raise money for the cystic fibrosis trust. I used a behavioural design framework I’d developed called 4S which I like to think helped me get through. 4S is a basic tool that focusses on how we can make a target behaviour… Simple, Specific, Social and Special.





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

That’s a tough one, as I’m not sure anyone agrees on what being a behavioural scientist entails – at least in an applied setting - and to be honest, I don’t really consider myself to be one. I find it more useful to focus on the outcome - i.e. ‘behaviour change’ and advocate for a multi-disciplinary approach to achieving it. What’s popularly understood to be behavioural science is normally in there, but in itself will only take you so far (often not very) towards ethical and enduring behaviour change.


I’ve always thought of my approach as sitting at the intersection of behavioural insights, data science and human-centred design. If you’ve a few tools from each of those boxes, you’ll be off to a good start.



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

There’s some obvious things like increased personalisation of interventions through AI/machine learning; greater consideration of ethical issues; more cross-disciplinary working; a greater focus on professional standards and best practice.


However, coming back to the need to work on the discipline as well as in it, I’d like to see more fundamental shifts over the next decade. I think the current paradigm is cluttered with baggage from the natural sciences that just isn’t relevant when it comes to the science of human behaviour. Some playfully put this down to the ‘Physics Envy’ that plagues the social sciences.


Fundamentally, we need to ensure that the methods of inquiry are appropriate for the object of inquiry. I think it’s a popular but naïve assumption that we can just import RCTs, statistical significance testing and controlled variable methods from the natural sciences and expect them to be useful in the social-behavioural context.


Human behaviour lives in complex, dynamic, adaptive systems – contexts in which controlling for variables in such basic way doesn’t really make sense. There’s no point trying to separate signal from noise, if the noise is the signal.


Luckily, we already know a lot about how such systems work from other scientific disciplines. So I think the future of Behavioural Science lies in a long and happy marriage with Complexity Theory.



What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?

I’ve always tried build teams around the principle of T-Shaped People. A deep specialism in the vertical, complemented by breadth of understanding from complementary disciplines through the crossbar. So if you’re going to go vertical on the science, make sure you’ve got a range of other tools in your cross bar - starting with Design and Data.

Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?

I’m going to take it back to the old school and go with Gerd Gigerenzer – because I worry we forget more than we learn.



 

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

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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