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Interview with Swee-Hoon Chuah

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 Swee-Hoon Chuah. Swee-Hoon is a Professor of Economics at the University of Tasmania. She holds a PhD in behavioural and experimental economics from the University of Nottingham. Prior to UTAS, Swee-Hoon was an Associate Professor of Economics at RMIT University, where she was a founding member of the Behavioural Business Lab. Swee-Hoon’s research expertise lies in two broad areas of experimental economics: cross-cultural and online behaviours. Her publications in the former have appeared in journals such as European Economic Review, Journal of Economic Psychology and Experimental Economics, and the latter in journals such as Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization and Decision Support Systems.


How did you get into behavioural science?

Well, my husband Rob Hoffmann is also a behavioural scientist; before he was my husband, he was my lecturer during my master’s in 2001. I was looking for a thesis topic. In my international business course, I had learned about Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. And Rob taught me strategic interactions in my game theory course. Those two courses just meshed together in my head. And I thought it would be interesting if the players interacting in the games were from different cultures. I thought: surely the player from the collectivistic culture would be more cooperative than the one from the individualistic culture in the prisoner’s dilemma. Same for the battle of the sexes: surely the player from the more masculine culture will be more assertive than the one from the more feminine culture. Very naïve I know, but I took this idea to Rob and he encouraged me to pursue it and so I did. This led me to doing a PhD at the University of Nottingham, at CeDEx, with my supervisor Chris Starmer (I noticed you interviewed him too!). I think I was one of the first people in the field using incentivized experiments to look at the impact of culture on behaviour in different economic games. When I finished my PhD, I continued working at the University of Nottingham for 10 years. Together with Rob, we started a lab in the Business School of the University of Nottingham, to be the more “business” side of experimental economics, since CeDEx sits in the Economics School. However, we didn't get too far before Rob was offered a professorship in Melbourne at RMIT, and I a lectureship – we were explicitly recruited to start a lab. So we did, and it’s called the Behavioural Business Lab. So that was our second lab. And then in 2016, I met Tara Oliver, as she was just starting BETA. She got me thinking that the labs that exist in Australia (at that time) were all more testing economic theory, rather than looking into policy. I became more interested in the latter, looking at behavioural insights and how they could be applied to policy challenges. And so, after a few years at RMIT, I actually went on a secondment to BETA. Then, just before COVID hit, I was offered a job at the University of Tasmania, based on building those two labs, and my experience at BETA, to come and start a third lab!

In terms of your achievements as a behavioural scientist, what are you proudest of? And what do you still want to achieve?

It’s not that I found a cure for a disease or anything, so I don't know if there's anything that's really proud worthy, but I'm actually very proud to have built this lab in Tasmania. It's taken three years because of COVID. But since it was launched earlier this year, it's really taken off. And that gives me great satisfaction.

In general, generating awareness of and interest in behavioural science, developing different courses at different levels to train the next generation, to train the policymakers – those are things I’m also proud of. I am proud to have played a role in setting up the means for Tasmania to leverage the potential of behavioural science going forward.

In terms of next achievements, I would like this lab to gain more traction, in the sense that I would like to see it contribute at the state level. We’ve got a really exciting project coming up working with the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, using behavioural insights to preserve a certain species of fish which is depleting. We also have a project with the Multicultural Council here trying to address unconscious bias in the hiring process. And these projects are hopefully a great start to have the state embrace behavioural insights.


So if you were to recruit behavioural scientists, what is the skill set that you would be looking for? What is the skill set that you think makes for good behavioural scientists to function well in a lab?

For me, what I look for is motivation and drive. I want applicants to have a genuine interest in people and a genuine interest in why they do what they do. They need to believe that human behaviour is important, that it plays a fundamental role in driving the bigger things. That at the core of everything lies human behaviour. And I would like them to actually want to improve the human condition.

In terms of actual skills, I think they need to be able to think clearly and logically and cut right through to the problem. Our subject matter (human behaviour) is complex enough, we don’t need the added complexity of a fuzzy thinker. It’s important to be able to see the forest through the trees and have a really high tolerance for “noise”.

And of course, teamwork. There's no way we will have all the skills we need in one person. And everyone needs to be able to accept that this is what I'm good at, this is what I'm not so good at, this is what they are good at, and then respectfully, combine the skill sets to solve whatever it is that we need to solve.

What have you noticed has changed and how do you think that's going to impact the future of behavioural science? Where do you see it all go? And is that for better or for worse?

When I first started out, the majority of the work in behavioural science was identifying anomalies - there was this patchwork of papers just giving you evidence of anomalies. Then the field moved towards trying to explain these anomalies - coming up with theories that could unite or draw some of this patchwork of anomalies together.

Then came Nudge. Behavioural Insights Units started developing. We began to use and apply the insights rather than focusing on discoveries. It started with small things like ‘paying taxes’ and then moved on to improving outcomes for households, such as saving for retirement. And then it moved on to improving outcomes for society, for example recycling - it may not be very convenient for you, but it’s good for society and the environment overall. And we are still in this space, but you do see increasingly more companies applying it to improve outcomes for their customers.

But it can be internal facing as well - improving internal processes, organizational design, to make things run more smoothly and also improve the experience of the users inside organizations. And that is where I think a lot of behavioural science is (hopefully) going, where we will use behaviourally informed interventions to support organisations, especially advancing the diversity, equality and inclusion agenda, solving these unconscious biases. More and more, I'd like to work in this field.

But I would like behavioural science to go even further: the climate crisis, conflicts, wars, escalating tensions. I feel that more and more we have to look at decision making in these extreme situations: urgent, high risk, uncertain, yet where the consequences of each decision is very significant. And of course, in AI. There's no way we're going to escape AI.


Do you foresee any, any challenges, like any crossroads where this can go horribly wrong?

It will go horribly wrong if we don't stand together as a community of scientists. Really stand together - psychologists, behavioural economists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists alike. We need to work together, not have these turf wars, to come up with solutions to these massive challenges. Together we can come up with unifying theories, large overarching frameworks, rather than little silos with little theories in each silo, all seemingly related, but still somehow different. I think that is a big challenge.

The other challenge is also that we need to stand together because we're being attacked. Maybe I'm being overly defensive, but I feel with the replication crisis and the cases of questionable research ethics being in the news lately, our reputation is being damaged. Haters use just one or two examples to discredit our entire body of work. The majority of behavioural scientists are ethical, and do rigorous work, good work, and we're making impactful contributions. And I think we need to stand together, keep up our high standards and keep doing good work.

So these are two more global challenges of the field. Do you have a personal frustration, like a personal pet peeve with the field?

I think there are so many ‘experts’ out there. They read one or two books, they listen to one or two podcasts, they pick one or two cognitive biases off the shelf, and they apply it to their problem. It doesn't work and then they say the science is rubbish. The problem is: they're very loud.

There is a reason why we studied, worked, and researched for many years to do what we do. You need to understand the environment and context in which you apply these things, because it is so important. You can't just do this in a vacuum and expect it to work. And I wish people would understand this better.

Similarly, another of my frustrations is that that people don't understand what we are not. We are not a silver bullet. We are not suitable for every situation. We never said we were. We never said we were substitutes for existing measures; we complement them. I wish people would stop attributing that to us. And another thing we’re not is a trend. I get really annoyed when people say, “oh, you're a trend”. Trends change. I think we're here to stay. One day we will be not a trend, we will be business as usual.


So given all these changes, how do you recommend people get into the field?

They're not going to be happy to come into this field unless they are willing and completely open to see the world through the eyes of those they want to study. They must be willing to walk in their shoes. If you're not comfortable challenging your current mindset and challenging the assumptions that you currently hold, if that's just too inconvenient for you, this is not the field for you. Because you won’t be able to understand the reasons for why behaviours exist. If you stay in your own bubble, your results and your work could even be harmful. As an example, I was recently doing work for the UNFPA, looking at maternal mortality in East Timor which is one of the highest in the world. There are clinics there, but expectant mothers are just not going to these clinics. There are ambulances, but they are reluctant go to in them. There are trained midwives, but expectant mother prefer traditional birth attendants. And you ask yourself why in the comfort of your office in Australia. When I think of ambulances which come to your door and there are two paramedics inside, fully equipped, who will bring you to a fully equipped clinic with 24/7 doctors present. Not in East Timor. If you are there on the ground, you see that in most villages the ambulance is just a normal truck, without any medical equipment, the expectant mother who is having complications is bundled into this little truck, onto a wooden bench, and driven down a bumpy hill for 1 hour to the nearest clinic,. That clinic doesn’t have running water. There’s only one midwife there who serves 15 villages and she has to walk between them. Now you see the problem that you are really trying to solve, not the one in your head.

Additionally, people need to be open to other disciplines, they need to be open to other methods. There’s no need to be tribalistic about methods. It doesn't help the people that they're trying to serve, and it doesn't help the science either.

Having discussed all of this, I'm quite curious to see how you apply behavioural science to your own life?

Well, I have really good intentions. But my actions don't always correspond with my intentions. I'm so present biased. Especially when it comes to exercise. And I love wine and chocolate. So, what I try to do is counter my own bias. So I pre-book all my swimming lanes. I pre-book all the gym sessions. I know that if I don't go, they will fine me. I think it's $25 every time I don't turn up. And I know I'm really loss averse, so I know I will go just to avoid the loss. So you counter one bias with another!

I also try not to tempt myself. I don’t keep chocolates in the house. I know my future self will be too lazy to go out and buy chocolate when she cannot find any in the house, so that's good. Wine, unfortunately I have not been able to sort out… any ideas?

However, I think that the biggest way I apply behavioural science is in my interaction with others. I always bear in mind that we are all humans. So we have our cognitive limitations, we suffer from cognitive overload, we are fast thinkers. We are sometimes overly emotional, we make irrational decisions. And because of evolution, we are in-group biased. I always try to keep all these in mind when I'm interacting with other people. It has made me more understanding of others, maybe even more tolerant of them.


But what would have happened if you never found behavioural science? What do you think you would have been?

I would still be doing something to do with humans and their condition. My first degree was in law. Maybe I'd be in the area of law and economics and looking at how people make legal decisions. I would’ve still been an academic. That is the more realistic answer. But in my dream world, I would be a winemaker. I love wine. I live in Tasmania. There's some wonderful vineyards here and I always look around and go, ‘Why can't I own one of these and make wine?’

Last, tell me which behavioural scientists have inspired you, which is a nice way for me to ask who should I interview next?

When I was starting out, I read a lot the work of Catherine Eckel and Phil Grossman. Big admirer of both of them.

Catherine is very active in promoting women in economics. Catherine was one of the earliest female behavioural economists to actually mentor and promot female economists in the field. I look up to her, I think she's wonderful. Dilip Soman is amazing, but you have already interviewed him! But that was a while ago, right? Maybe you should update it – get his perspective on the changes in the field.

Also, I am a big fan of Chiara Varazzani if you’re looking for someone in government. I worked with her when I was in BETA. She’s now the Chief Behavioural Scientist at the OECD, which is just amazing.

And also, people who are doing behavioural insights work in development in developing countries. They would definitely bring a whole new perspective to behavioural science!


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Swee-Hoon!

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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