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 Stuart King. Stuart is the CEO and Founder of BeeZee Bodies, a behavior change service design helping individuals develop highesst quality weight management plans using evidence-based methodologies and approaches. Stuart and the team work with local groups and authorities to implement the new Whole Systems Approach to Obesity in ensuring that the system as a whole works to benefit individuals improve their health and wellbeing, and as a result, their weight. Before he’s been a lifestyle policy implementation manager for Public Health England. Stuart is also the host of an amazing podcast called Real World Behavioral Science -- where he talks about Changing the Public's Health For Good. Stuart has a BSc in Sports Science and an Msc in Physical Activity Health and Well Being.
Who are what got you into behavioural science?
I have been involved in intervention design now for over 15 years, and I had been encountering behavioural science and behavioural economics throughout all of that time. But for the first 10 years, I just didn’t know it!
All of my interventions to change behaviour in weight management in children, young people, families and adults were guided by the best evidence of the day, experimental in nature using classical psychological theories of behaviour change and a lot of sociology too.
However, in 2013, I was working in Public Health England (PHE) as a Senior Scientist in the Diet and Obesity National Team, and worked alongside Dr Tim Chadborn, who is Head of Behavioural Insights at PHE. We worked together on using behavioural insights on the National Child Measurement Programme, where they weight and measure all children in schools at year R and year 6.
I was fascinated with concept of framing and read voraciously from the moment I became aware of behavioural economics. Beginning with Ariely and making my way through all the greats! The reason I was so obsessed with it was that it made complete sense immediately, offering insight into the previous 10 years and offering a robust framework for future innovations in my company; BeeZee Bodies. It was like a light bulb going on if that isn’t too cliché! Everything clicked.
All of our programmes are now coded using the COM B, TDF and BCT’s down to the finest of detail, which creates unparalleled attention to behavioural detail in our industry to create long-term sustainable change in vulnerable groups.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist?
I don’t think of myself as a behavioural scientist. I think of myself as a passionate behavioural science enthusiast. And the thing I am proudest of is being able to actually use behavioural science outside of the usual confines of basic intervention design or upstream interventions to increase tax compliance or attendance at screening appointments, all of which are important and interesting. But we use it in a nuanced way to support real, often vulnerable people on the ground, directly. We create internal training that allows our team to work holistically with people to change complex lifestyle behaviours and change their lives for the better. Being a linchpin between academic evidence and ‘real world’ delivery is what I am most proud of.
The Real World Behavioural Science Podcast that I host is another function of that. I started that show because I wanted other people to hear from experts from industry, health and academia, but to question them in such a way that regular people could see how amazingly useful behavioural and social science is. We have had a great reaction to this and I love creating it! What I most want to achieve in the behavioural sciences is translating the principles in a way that makes sense to people in their real lives. I think there can be a snobbery in health (and every field to a certain extent) that we need to stick to a narrow confine of 'things that are approved that work', and health is the place where you don't want to be loose with the rules as the interventions and advice you give can be life or death. But this stifles our ability to be exploratory. We are often unable to look for things that worked and then investigate why, which, as Rory Sutherland notes in his excellent book; Alchemy, is actually really common in discovering great ideas. I believe that if we can stay afloat whilst taking this approach, we can show our industry that behavioural science isn't just a buzz word, but something that can be used to genuinely improve people's lives, using a whole systems approach, but also at the level of the individual and family.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
Behavioural science is just one part of my role, so I suppose I would focus on the rest of my role more, and the team would probably thank me for it! I tend to get caught up in what I like doing at the expense of my real CEO duties, and the behavioural work often encroaches too much!
At the risk of not sounding dedicated enough to my field, it would probably be engineering. I love understanding how things work and have always dabbled with cars and similar things on the side. I spent some time at Menlo Innovations in the U.S. and absolutely loved the bringing together of those two passions. They approach all problems with a robust methodology that is behavioural in nature, because it involves how people interact with and experience products, but also with the design and function of the products themselves. I loved learning about their experiences when we were there.
But in reality, I think I could be happy doing most things. If you have a natural curiosity, you seem to always find interesting tasks and problems to solve in your work.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
Definitely to exercise and also to write the book I seem destined not to finish! I have used choice architecture quite extensively to ensure I get out of bed and complete the two things I am supposed to do each morning: Write and be active.
It’s not the ‘being up’ that's difficult, it’s the ‘getting up’. So from my phone charger being outside my bedroom door with my kit underneath, I basically walk around my house like Hansel and Gretel, following the cues I laid out the day before (coffee cup on machine ready, dog bowl by the door to prevent her groaning and waking my partner, etc.), leading me to my desk, wearing cycling shorts, ready to cycle, post-writing.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
I think the main thing is a natural curiosity. It really is essential to do great work in whatever field you are in. When combined with an open mind and a thirst for the truth, you have the potential for a genuine drive to understand and solve problems.
Another key skill is being a good team player, though this is true of most fields! Diversity is key to unlocking the potential across different industries. Working with other people in an open and collaborative way is, and will continue to be, incredibly important in making important discoveries. The different lenses people use to approach issues, combined with successful and unsuccessful theories or practices within respective industries prevents shared blind spots or groupthink and enriches the potential of the group and the outcomes they can collectively achieve. But to do this, you have to be a good team player.
I am not qualified to answer the question applied to the academic practices of behavioural science, but my instinct is that behavioural science needs real world application. I sat next to a leading academic after speaking at the same event and we got chatting about their work. I was horrified to hear that they would never and had never applied their work outside of the confines of a research study. They felt that was the job of practitioners, to interpret the findings and use them accordingly. My take on this is that the nuances that exist within the application of theory in the real world require extensive observation, testing and iterating. We need academics who are delivering in the real world, and real world practitioners becoming involved in understanding the theoretical side of behavioural science. This is where deep domain knowledge meets an academically robust application of behavioural science.
My recommendation is that if you are an academic and you are not applying your theory on the ground, do it; and if you are a practitioner who wants to use behavioural science in your work and think you can buy it in at the last minute; don’t do it. Read books, listen to podcasts and get involved organisations like the BSPHN.org.uk and speak to people applying behavioural sciences in industry, academia and in government. Then you will have the skills and confidence to have meaningful conversations with advanced practitioners and academics about how to design interventions that are academically robust but practicable in the real world.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
As Nick Hobson (It’s all just a bunch of BS) said recently, between 2010 and 2020 behavioural science has been going through its awkward teens. But the next decade will see it become an adult, reaching into most areas of our lives.
It will likely be a strategic function across businesses, the third sector and government, seeing a much more prolific application of behavioural sciences. This will become the new normal and I think behavioural science as a field, and behavioural scientists as a profession will quite rapidly expand in the application to more and more areas. Another area that it will likely impact in the next few years is in academia. In one of the interviews on my show, Professor Chris Armitage commented that whilst they teach behavioural science in the classroom, all of the processes that go on around the classroom, administratively, course design wise, etc., remains a product of ‘the way we have always done it’. They will rethink the standard teach and learn strategies in favour of a more diverse portfolio of learning techniques and applications of technology.
This will continually iterate as we collect more and more data related to how people then interact with their home, educational, work and leisure environments.
Finally, and topically (for right now), we are creating a mini-series of our Real World Behavioural Science podcast with Professor Susan Michie (Director of Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL) and Professor Jim McManus (Director of Public Health at Hertfordshire County Council) on how behavioural science is being used to support people through the Coronavirus Pandemic that is taking place as I write this. The UK government has 3 standing committees and experts feeding into SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies): Modelling; Virology and Behavioural Science. This is encouraging as it highlights the esteem that the UK government hold with regard to ensuring that the science underpinning our understanding of the virus and the spread of it will happen in various scenarios, but also the ‘real world’ nature of human behaviour and how this will impact the spread. It is also designed to help understand how people behave during emergencies and how to create policy that brings people on the journey, rather than simply imposing laws immediately.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I think there are loads of behavioural scientists you could interview and that would be interesting. However, I am going to provide some people whose work I have applied to behavioural science in the way we deliver services to the public. Diversity, as I mentioned previously, is so important!
I love reading, watching or listening to anything Dan Ariely does so he would be great and very entertaining I’m sure.
I don’t think she would be considered a behavioural scientist but I think that Carol Dweck’s work is very important around Mindset. It is a big part of my upcoming book and the work we do at BeeZee Bodies and is something that needs more attention in the application of behavioural science.
I think that Matthew Syed would make a great interview. He is the author of black box thinking and Rebel Ideas. His writing really helps me see the value of transparent, honest curiosity and diversity in our work.
Angela Duckworth would be great. Her work on grit is an interesting corollary to behavioural science because its mines the traits that impacts achievement, something vitally important in our work to change lifestyle behaviours against a backdrop of genetics and unhealthy physical and social environments.
Brene Brown deeply impacted my thinking. Reading I thought it was just me, but it wasn’t changed the way I understood much of our delivery to families initially, then women, and then everyone!
Simon Sinek truly and deeply impacted the way I run my own business and think of our teams. Business should be done the way Sinek describes it. I am clear about why I get out of bed every morning because of the golden rule!
Martin Seligman, who is actually a psychologist so fits the brief! His theory of Learned Optimism helped greatly in changing the early delivery of our Family programmes.
To be honest I know I am not answering your actual question and could go on and on about the people who influenced me. But that is really my point of this piece. Diversity, curiosity and having a go at applying these principles in the real world. This is my best advice!
Thank you for these great answers Nick! And thanks for doing some serious trend forecasting. I'm excited to see whether these trends will actually occur. 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!