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 Torben Emmerling.
Torben is Founder and Managing Partner of Affective Advisory and the Inventor of the D.R.I.V.E.® framework for behavioural insights in strategy. He is an accomplished trainer, keynote speaker and lecturer in Behavioural Science and Consumer Psychology. Torben has over 10 years of experience in business strategy, organisational development and customer relationship management. Torben thinks that at the heart of strategy should be the understanding, interpreting and shaping of human behavioural drivers based on psychological insights, robust scientific methods and evidence-led approaches. Let's see how he answers my 7 questions!
Who or what got you into behavioural science? I believe it was my great interest in human decision-making and interaction that got me into behavioural science. I have always had a keen interest in understanding the drivers of human behaviour and the ways they can be activated and changed.
I remember that already in my undergraduate studies in economics I started taking courses in organisational psychology to study alternative models to the traditionally quite rigid model of rational agents. When I later picked up the now famous books by Lindstrom, Kahneman, Ariely, Thaler & Sunstein, and Co. it immediately struck me that the emerging field of applied behavioural science, bridging social psychology, economics, decision and neurosciences, was exactly what I wanted to do. So I began reading anything and everything I could find on the topic and began experimenting with some ideas on smaller scales besides pursuing a career in finance.
Five years and two postgraduate programs later, one of which was a fully specialised behavioural science degree at the London School of Economics, I realised the huge potential for behavioural science insights in public policy and strategy, particularly in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Building upon my professional experience, as well as two first projects in behavioural public policy and behavioural finance, which I ran in parallel to my job, I began drafting the idea of a specialised behavioural science advisory boutique, dedicated to the application of behavioural science in public policy and business strategy.
With the help of fellow friends and academics I later dared to take the chance, left the comfortable corporate environment for an entrepreneurial venture and launched Affective Advisory in 2017 - coincidentally exactly on the day that Richard Thaler was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Economics. In hindsight, this was probably the toughest, but at the same time the most exciting and rewarding professional project I have realised so far. I still enjoy the same fascination for the field as I did ten years ago and am grateful for every opportunity to bring this fascination to all clients and partners we work with.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? Professionally, it is certainly the founding of Affective Advisory and the development of our innovative frameworks for applying behavioural insights in strategy, for example D.R.I.V.E.®. The successful establishment of this unique setup is the result of a wonderful synergy of different ideas and talents and a lot of hard work by many colleagues and friends. I am proud that, as a small and highly dedicated team of qualified experts, we are able to advise many renowned organisations and research various exciting new ideas for increased customer, employee and citizen engagement today. It is amazing to see the transformative potential behavioural insights can bring to organisations and society at large and to observe how this field is growing internationally.
More generally, I am most proud to contribute to the further establishment and recognition of behavioural science in public policy and business strategy with the work we have been doing, particularly in German speaking Europe. We are still doing a lot of pioneering work here. Moreover, together with a couple of like-minded practitioners and leading academics we are in the process of establishing a global network for applied behavioural scientists. I believe the field now needs a professional association that sets the right standards for technically and ethically-sound applications of behavioural insights by professionally qualified people and I am very happy to be part of this unique group of experts taking up this very timely and important challenge. If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? This is a great question, yet not easily answered. If I had stayed in my job, I would probably be managing business development and tech projects in finance. From my experience, this industry is only slowly realising the huge potential of behavioural science, so I would have potentially hired outside expertise to support the integration of behavioural insights early on.
If you ask me what I would have pursued to become outside of behavioural science, in a sort of blueprint, I would probably answer product designer. I think it is fascinating how thoughtful product or service design can evoke and support human behaviour. Architects and furniture designers have tested and cultivated the insights for creating deliberate environments for centuries. I truly admire the great talents like Arne Jacobsen for example and I see their craft as a great source of inspiration, from which we 'behavioural designers' can learn a lot. How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? We all know that it is incredibly hard to spot the flaws and biases in our own decision-making. Kahneman’s famous 'what you see is all there' unfortunately also applies to those people who should know better. And so of course, in hindsight, I catch myself taking decisions or doing things in situations in which I could have behaved better.
I try to get around this as much as possible by applying simple models and follow procedures when making important decision. I also force myself to analyse situations from different perspectives, to better understand why family members, friends or colleagues, for example, might act in a certain way (and not to fall for fundamental attribution error). Moreover, I try to think in scenarios and use evidence-based approaches whenever possible. This can be as simple as trying different options, such as a specific diet or way of communication for one week, followed by a different option in the following week. Identifying, validating and learning from such small and often secret self-experiments can actually be a lot of fun. You really don’t have to tell anybody that you are collecting evidence to become a better version of yourself, do you? With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
First of all, I think you generally have to be very interested in the judgement and decision making process of other people. Simply put, you need an interest to understand why a specific behaviour arises and how you can change it.
Secondly, you must enjoy the analysis and (statistical) evaluation of data and the identification of potential causal relationships. You need to be a researcher, analysing situations with the eyes of your target group.
Thirdly, you should have a creative talent to come up with innovative ideas for applying behavioural insights in practice. You have to be able to take existing information and contexts apart and connect them in new ways.
Fourthly, you need perseverance in order to implement creative ideas in practice and successfully master the sometimes lengthy and complicated validation processes of a behavioural intervention.
Last but not least, I am convinced that strong and speedy comprehension and communication skills are essential to successfully translate the often complex academic contexts and make them accessible to practitioners. You need to have a good academic qualification paired with a practitioner-oriented and hands-on mindset.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? I hope to see more behavioural science at the heart of the strategic process in public and private organisations. A better understanding, interpreting and shaping of human behavioural drivers based on psychological insights, robust scientific methods and evidence-led approaches is a key component for a better social, organisational and individual development. Rather than focusing (only) on the implementation of strategies, policies and campaigns in a behavioural way, we should work towards the behavioural science-informed development of such strategies from the very beginning.
For this to be the case, I hope to see the field further consolidating and validating its vast insights, models and approaches in a more consistent and practitioner-oriented way. I also wish for a greater integration and critical examination of the many influences from related fields such as design, sociology, learning, etc. Furthermore, I am looking forward to see the successful establishment of professional bodies safeguarding the quality of good and ethical behavioural interventions and facilitating the exchange between academic and applied behavioural science.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? Since I would describe myself mostly as a practitioner, I especially appreciate the work of academics conducting applied field research. Big names that come to my mind in connection with practice-oriented approaches are for example Robert Cialdini, Adam Alter, Dilip Soman and Dan Ariely.
Furthermore, I am a fan of stringent frameworks that transform complex relationships into simple and intuitively accessible processes. An outstanding expert for frameworks and practical applications, especially in the field of public policy, is Pelle Hansen. Another great interview partner in this area would be Wiam Hasanain who is doing great work in the Middle East.
Finally, I very much appreciate the exchange with experts who implement behavioural science expertise in non-behavioural organisations. Antoine Ferrere at Novartis, for example, is a great representative of that group and certainly an interesting partner for future conversations.
Thank you for these great answers Torben! You've suggested some really big names for me to interview. I'll try my best! Luckily, I've already managed to get an interview with Dilip!
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!