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Interview with Tara Austin

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 Tara Austin.

Tara is a consulting partner at the Ogilvy Behavioural Science Practice. With a decade in brand, business and behaviour change strategy behind her at Publicis and Ogilvy, Tara has experience creating integrated campaigns and programmes for clients across the public and private sectors. She is also a certified trainer of Edward de Bono’s lateral thinking techniques and highly awarded creative strategist. Tara has extensive experience of training and innovation processes and running behavioural science-led client workshops for problem-solving using government behavioural frameworks such as COM-B, MINDSPACE and EAST. Now back at Ogilvy Tara works on tobacco cessation and maternal nutrition. Let's see what this year's shining star of Nudgestock has to say to my questions!


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

Well, that was Rory Sutherland, really. I got brought into behavioural science by the boss man. He was the president of the Institute of practitioners of advertising the IPA. And his agenda when he was there was really bringing the behavioural sciences into communications and advertising. I was a junior brand planner in Ogilvy, and he was the vice chairman of the group. They, Rory and Jez Groom were setting up what was then called Ogilvy Change, which became the behavioural science practice. I was a brand planner in the Ogilvy planning department, and Ogilvy Change was born out of the planning department. So originally, it was just Jez and Rory and they sat in the planning department. Rory was enthused about the behavioural sciences and shared a lot with the agency about behavioural science, and it was phenomenal. I still believe that to be a good brand planner or a good strategist you have to understand human behaviour, you have to understand the behavioural sciences. So I became very engaged with the behavioural sciences.

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

I suppose a lot of my achievements have been we've been around pitches and winning business based on strategies I've sold people, rather than necessarily ever having the kind of achievement in terms of results that I would like to see. I think I've been used as a as someone to write strategy to bring in business but what I say there's like one project, and that means that I’ve kept moving. One day I’m at Coca-Cola, the next I'm in Public Health England. I don't get to see through as many projects as I would like to have results and deliverables that I would say I'm really proud of. But that does mean that seeing a project through from start till finish is something I’d really like to do. Additionally, another thing I’d really want to achieve is probably a little bit left field, but it's very closely related to the rest of my work. I am a lobbyist for psychedelic medicines. So I'm working on a campaign at the moment that is going to try and shift the social norm, so that people have greater awareness of psychedelic medicine, psilocybin particularly, and we can put more pressure on government to act and change the legislation around this type of medicine. So this is why I'm genuinely going to try and stand for Parliament as a conservative and with a view to drive a safe access of psychedelic medicines.

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

I thought about being a diplomat a long time ago, but, but that was about before I went into communications. I absolutely love business and brand strategy. And for me, the solution to business and brand strategy is behavioural science. I am an applied behavioural science practitioner, and I take all the behavioural science to make a business decision. For me, behavioural Science provides, lateral creative solutions for these challenges, and often at very low expense, which is really, really wonderful.

But as you’ve gathered from my previous answer, I'm going to be an MP.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I think in my own life, I'm very manipulative, especially with children. I don’t have a child myself, but my ex-boyfriend had children, and I would use a lot of principles like the IKEA effect. His dad would constantly go “Oh he's not going to eat these muscles”, or something like that and I'd be like: you just watch me! I’d explain to him how to actually get out the muscle, and how you have to do all yourself. And it takes him like 10 hours to eat this but he absolutely loved it. Same with prawns or whatever, you have to de-shell them yourself. And now he thinks they’re absolutely delicious because he's made the effort. And there were loads of things I would do to you know, sort of placebo him as well on stuff like about sleeping or, you know, getting the special sleep spray, some sort of priming, and loads of stuff. Just little making, you know, making something easier or framing something I would frame something like if he didn't want eat this thing. I'd be like, oh, but you know that’s the steak is for Taureans, and you're Taurus right? It’s specific to you, there's a fit with you, and therefore you want it and I would do that to him all the time. I do loads of reverse psychology, reactance type stuff. So I do use it in my life. Absolutely. Wherever I can.

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

I suppose the key is curiosity. You have to be really genuinely curious about human behaviour, and very open minded to where the solution may lie. I think the more you can think - I'm a big fan of lateral thinking and training, especially Edward de Bono's lateral thinking techniques. And when it comes to the research, it's rigor and attention to detail that are critical. And I do think in my world, which is more commercial, that we have to be careful about how we apply behavioural science both rigorously and robustly. It’s important that people know how to apply theoretical insights and bring it together with real world business challenges or real world government challenges, which is my favourite stuff, really.

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

I believe in the next 10 years we will see behavioural science at the heart of all organisations, because it’s going to start to shape how we think about ourselves as human beings beyond just our “working worlds” it informs how we understand ourselves and our relationships. I have often framed the “behavioural science training” I do instead as “therapy” as I believe what we are understanding applies usually first and foremost to ourselves . I think this thinking is going to invade our culture in a deep way that means thinking about human influence and predicted outcomes will be more central to human society – and with more emphasis it will be more nuanced than ever before with more experimentation happening. The pandemic was a good example of behavioural science used badly to dictate a strategy (without evidence) rather than inform. I happen to believe that a new age of more evidenced-based government is not far away too and that behavioural science will have an important seat at the table as part of this.

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

The advice I’d give is read as broadly as you possibly can and potentially look at the many different ways behavioural science is being utilised rather than getting stuck thinking about it within one model or sector – most of all stay flexible in your thinking. The field is still burgeoning and there are doubtless optimisations ahead – don’t be afraid to be creative and try something a new way. Oh and data science – get as knowledgeable as you can about the intersection with data science – after all, data “is just human behaviour in disguise”

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

I’m a huge fan of Philip Zimbardo and his work on Time Perspectives (though he is better known for the Stanford Prison experiment) he’s no spring chicken now and I’d love to hear what he has to say about where we are heading 😊


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Tara! I've been most curious about your work since I saw you host (and spontaneously present!) at this year's Nudgestock :)

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!

1 Comment

Wilfred Waters
Wilfred Waters
Nov 15, 2021

great interview Merle!


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