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 Syon Bhanot.
Syon an Associate Professor of Economics at Swarthmore College (USA), studying behavioral and public economics. He holds a B.A. from Princeton University and an M.P.P. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. His research focuses on using experimental methods to test behavioral science insights in public policy contexts. He regularly publishes his work in peer-reviewed journals across the social sciences, and is a frequent commentator in the media, with regular appearances in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and on NPR.
Who or what got you into behavioural science? For me it started with the 2004 book "The Paradox of Choice," by (then) Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz. I heard about the book while in college and promptly bought it for my mother as a gift. I hadn't read it but it seemed like something she would find interesting. Well, she apparently didn't find it interesting enough to crack open, and I saw it months later when I was home from college visiting my parents. So I read it - and it was like a lightbulb went off for me. The discussions of choice overload and regret, and the general approach to thinking about human decision making really grabbed me. As it turned out, I got a job at Swarthmore College (where I still teach) after finishing my PhD at the Harvard Kennedy School and the first thing I wanted to do was meet Barry Schwartz. As it turns out, I talked him into co-teaching a class on behavioral science and public policy with me in my first year - which as it turned out was Barry's last at Swarthmore before he retired (in 2016). So that was a nice little "coming full circle" moment for me.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? This is such a tough question. I guess it would be that I stayed true to my desire to only pursue the career that I wanted to pursue. That is, I have always been most interested in research that I enjoyed doing day-to-day, rather than trying to cater to the preferences of others in my field or the leanings of the "best" journals. I liked doing applied field experiments - and by applied, I mean actually applied! That is, I liked sitting down with people in government, business, and beyond, and developing (and testing the impact of) behavioral science inspired interventions addressing the issues they were facing (big and small). I am proud that I have been able to do that without feeling like I have had to compromise and pursue projects that better "fit the mold" of the economics profession.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? Another tough one! I think I would maybe be a golf course architect, or a comedy writer. I am not sure if I could do either of those jobs well, but I would really enjoy it. I also love to teach, so I could see myself teaching high school too (ideally in Hawaii).
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? It's funny because I think I am actually annoyingly close to the "rational agent" in economics models, in my personal life. I know other behavioral scientists report being just as prone to behavioral biases as everyone else - Danny Kahneman for example always talks about this. I'm not saying I am not "behavioral" too, but I think I am way less so than most. I really do make decisions and think about things in the world using a fairly "economically rational" lens.
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 you have to be a good scientist, first and foremost. Be ready to be wrong, and be open to insights from many different fields. Listen to and read things that are far afield from behavioral science, and think about the social phenomena that interest you first, rather than going to the journals first and deciding what is interesting based on what is in there.
How do you think behavioural economics will develop (in the next 10 years)? It is a really good question and I'm not sure I know the answer. People talk about the development of a "unifying theory" of behavioral economics but I am not holding my breath for that. I sort of hope that the field sort of melts into other subfields in economics, to an extent. That would constitute success for me, for the endeavor. Behavioral economics ideas have roles to play across economics, and I think if the field is siloed it would wither away. But that's not going to happen - we already see "behavioral" papers across all subfields of economics, and I think we will keep seeing that more and more. Indeed, I think most of the best behavioral economics papers recently are applications of the ideas to puzzles and questions in other subfields. I think that will happen more and more, and that's a good thing.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
Try to study things that matter for the "big questions" in our time. I know it's hard to do - I struggle with doing that as much as I'd like to also. It is very easy to study small problems and behaviors that, while interesting, are not ultimately very important or impactful for society more broadly. I hope we as a field can contribute in some small way (and ideally more) to the big problems in society, rather than contentedly lingering around the margins of the big issues like climate change, global conflict, pandemics, etc.
Which other behavioural scientists/economists would you love to read an interview by? I really want to hear more from the people who were there "at the start" of it all, to the extent that they are still around. In general, I think we underappreciate the wisdom of the "elders" in our society, and that's probably true within behavioral economics too.
What are the greatest challenges being faced by behavioural science, right now? I think the concern that behavioral science is too enamored of cute solutions to small problems is a big concern of mine. I see a lot of very papers (including some of my own, to be fair) that do a neat job applying behavioral science to a small problem. These papers have merit, but the worry I have is that the pursuit of these smaller challenges might be taking energy and attention away from the harder projects that matter more. I am trying to wrestle with that challenge in my own career - how to pivot later in your career away from studying tractable problems that can help you write papers to get tenure, and moving into messy, big problems that help you make a difference.
What is your biggest frustration with the field as it stands? I think my previous answers cover this to some extent. But another frustration I haven't touched on is the extent to which "behavioral economics" has become so "in" that everyone wants to jump in and work on it without the requisite background in what the field is actually all about. I have talked to a lot of self appointed "behavioral economists" who don't have an academic background in the subject, and who can't precisely define what behavioral economics means. So I do get frustrated at that, because it makes our field easy to critique. You can't just claim to be a macroeconomist because you read Keynes' "General Theory."
You also probably shouldn't be able to call yourself a behavioral economist because you read "Nudge."
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Syon!
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!