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Interview with Tim Houlihan

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 Tim is just great when it comes to SEO (if you want to find him for behavioural science purposes), because his music career comes up first. When digging slightly deeper (clicking the third link) we find that Tim is Chief Behavioural Strategist at BehaviorAlchemy, which he founded as well. Not only did he found that, he also co-founded Behavioral Grooves, the podcast discussing all things Behavioural Science. Let's dive into what such a creative mind has to say to my seven questions:


Who or what got you into Behavioural Science?

About 20 years ago, I joined a firm to design sales incentives and my colleagues taught me that my company believed (and pitched to customers) that non-cash incentives were more effective at generating motivation and performance than cash. It’s a counterintuitive position, so I asked why they believed that? They said it’s what they had observed over years of designing and operating programs, and I should take their word for it.

That explanation didn’t satisfy me. So, I asked my boss, his name is John Jack, if there was a better explanation than “that’s our observation.” He rifled through a file cabinet in his office choked full of papers and handed me a copy of the 1997 Taxi Driver Study by Thaler, Babcock, Loewenstein, and Camerer. It blew my mind. That paper fueled my curiosity like a gateway drug. And around that time, Danny Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize, which caused me to drink behavioral economics studies from a fire hydrant.

Shortly after that, I discovered my second-most influential paper: The Tale of Two Markets, by Dan Ariely and James Heyman. James was teaching at a university near me, but for some reason I didn’t reach out to him. At least at that time. But I happened to meet up with Dan after a lecture at the University of Minnesota and we hit it off. In no time at all, Dan and I were organizing field studies with my clients. Many years passed before I finally met James, but we have since collaborated, as well.

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist?

First off, I don’t consider myself a scientist. I am not trained as a researcher and my research projects have been sporadic over the years. When it comes to the science part of the appellation, I think of myself more as a passionate enthusiast. However, I would like to consider myself scholarly in my understanding of the application of behavioral sciences.

My client work with Dan Ariely stands out among my favorite projects so far. (I say “so far” because there is so much ahead!) Dan and I convinced an international telecommunications firm and an international retailer to conduct field studies on incentives and goal setting. Every project we ran yielded findings that were consistent with the existing literature as well as my company’s belief: tangible rewards were significantly more effective than cash rewards. Regrettably, the clients disallowed us from publishing the data as it was not consistent with their “corporate culture,” as they told us. Dan remarked quite ironically, “Well, people are irrational.”

Next, about 7 years ago, I started some field research on risk, goal setting, and confidence with George Loewenstein and Saurabh Bhargava from Carnegie Mellon. The work has yet to be published but these men have been incredibly inspiring to work with.

Lastly, I am proud of my co-development of the Behavioral Grooves podcast with Kurt Nelson, PhD. We started the podcast to expand the community of people who were interested in behavioral sciences, but we are regularly reminded that we love acquiring new information and fresh insights from the researchers and practitioners that we interview.

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

I’d be a full-time musician. Write, record, tour, rinse, repeat. I have the heart of an artist and I’ve written, recorded and performed music in North America and Europe for many years. I’m currently writing songs in the Americana lineage for my seventh self-published record and I perform between 30 and 60 gigs each year. If I were able to make a living at it, I’d be writing songs and playing music. (Note from Merle: Make sure to check out Tim's stuff here!)

Coincidentally, this facet of my DNA has been influential in the creation and execution of the Behavioral Grooves podcast with co-host and co-creator, Kurt Nelson, PhD. Asking behavioral researchers and practitioners about their musical likes and dislikes is like a secret door to their inner lives. It’s fun to talk about playlists. And of course, Kurt and I are gathering data on whether people listen to music while they work and, if they do, what sorts of music do they listen to. As we gather more data, we’ll share results!

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

Goals are tremendously powerful if we approach them with some good behavioral science. My life is better off because of a mix of long-term goals (sometimes referred to as BHAG’s or Big Hairy Audacious Goals) and short-term goals (referred to as bricks). Goals may be a luxury available to those who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, but they are tremendously powerful once we engage with them. (However, that comment is not based on research…just an opinion.)

Goals have helped me accomplish many things in life and have helped find interesting and rewarding side streets where, without the goal, I would have simply been on a meandering road.

Also, behavioral science is contributing positively to my worldview. With greater knowledge of behavioral sciences, I’m kinder person, a gentler commuter, more willing to listen and be open to new ideas and I am more willing to be gracious to strangers. I’m also better at realizing that a decision I am making is being done in a particular context and I can – sometimes – ask myself if this is the right context to make this decision or what that context might be inflicting on my decision.

With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist?

Curiosity is essential to being a scientist and is the hallmark of every successful researcher I’ve met. Our world’s greatest findings come from researchers whose thirst for understanding is never quenched. A great place to start is in recognizing your own curiosities, if you’re going to be a behavioral scientist.

While there are many approaches one can take to identifying your own curiosities, I defer to George Loewenstein’s very open approach to his research: he finds things in himself that on a purely rational basis don’t make sense and turns them into research projects.

... And are there any recommendations you would make?

For those who are interested in behavioral science, my recommendation is to simply start. Try something. Push off from the shore and start rowing!

But if that’s too oblique, consider starting with one of these recommendations for reading: Chapter 4 of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational (it’s a brief 27 pages in the English paperback edition), or Dan’s and James’ paper “A Tale of Two Markets.” Or, if you’re in a major city, seek out a meetup where you can connect with like-minded individuals like Action Design Network or Behavioral Grooves; or connect with a university professor who’s doing behavioral research at a local educational institution. Most researchers (though not all) are happy to share their research ideas in exchange for lunch with a curious stranger. Or check out a podcast. If you’re into interviews, try Zarak Kahn’s and Erik Johnson’s “Action Design,” or “Big Brains” from the University of Chicago; or if you prefer more journalistic work that is behavioral-science based, try Katy Milkman’s “Choiceology,” Laurie Santos’ “The Happiness Lab,” David McRaney’s “You Are Not So Smart,” or Shankar Vedantam’s “Hidden Brain.”

Or if you find you can’t sleep at night, try my long-form interview podcast with Kurt Nelson: “Behavioral Grooves.” After our interviews, we groove randomly on the topics that emerged in our discussion, then we talk a little music, and we have a formal recap, we call a Bonus Track, of the key behavioral points in the episode.

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

There are two areas worth considering here. The first is a deeper understanding, and hence behavioral interventions, into a variety of contexts. Kurt and I have been doing interviews with freshly minted PhDs and post-docs in behavioral science for the past couple of months. We are preparing for a podcast series we’re calling New Voices (to be released in 2020). The researchers we are talking to are deeply committed to expanding the literature base around applications. Eugen Dimant, PhD, at the University of Pennsylvania noted recently that “a nudge may change your decision in a particular context, but it might not change your preferences,” and, expanding on this point he indicates that nudges impact single individuals whereas social norms have longer-lasting cultural change effects.

In other words, while moving the cookie jar from the front of the cafeteria to the back may reduce cookie consumption in the cafeteria, it doesn’t change an individual’s general desire for cookies. Eugen, and many of his peers, are interested in exploring how behavioral science can understand behavior change on a broader basis – both for individuals and for society at large.

The second is the horizontalization of behavioral science. With more research being published, and a growing interest in the field, it’s likely that more corporate executives will integrate behavioral science into their work. Although organizations such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Walmart and the British Government are known for their behavioral science units, it’s likely that more and more firms will adopt behavioral science applications into their CX, UX, Human Resource, Marketing and Sales initiatives. The future is democratization of applications.

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

There are quite a few! Dan Simons, PhD from the University of Illinois and Chris Chabris, PhD developed their work on inattentional blindness through the Invisible Gorilla project, which is still hugely underappreciated. I’d love to hear from them.

  • Dan Levitan, PhD, is an accomplished musician and neuroscience researcher at McGill University. His books, “This is Your Brain on Music” and “The World In Six Songs” are well researched and well written and his work is not in the popular press nearly as much as it deserves.

  • Regrettably, economist Alan Krueger, PhD is no longer with us. However, his book “Rockonomics” is both seriously informative and delightfully entertaining at the same time. I wish he were available!

  • Cristina Bicchieri, PhD from the University of Pennsylvania has some monumental work on social norms. Her book, “The Grammar of Society,” is remarkably insightful. She is not interviewed nearly enough!

  • Reuben Kline, PhD at UNY Stonybrook is doing great research that is expanding on Sheena Iyengar’s tyranny of choice work by seeing how people take up actions when they can choose many things from small and large lists. His work could use some focus as it is connected to climate change!

  • Scott Jeffrey, PhD at Monmouth University was an early collaborator of mine and his work in tangible rewards is outstanding. When it comes to rewards, Scott’s research has helped sift through some of the trickiest terrain imaginable. He would make a great contribution to your series.


Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Tim! We love a nice, long and in-depth interview :D.

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!


Behavioural Science

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