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 Vanessa Bohns.
Vanessa is a social psychologist and professor of organizational behaviour at Cornell. She holds a PhD in psychology from Columbia University and an AB in psychology from Brown University. Her research on social influence and the psychology of compliance and consent has been published in top academic journals in psychology, management, and law (e.g., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Yale Law Review), and has been covered by numerous media outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and NPR’s Hidden Brain. Her first book, You Have More Influence Than You Think (Norton, Sept. 7, 2021) will be published this fall.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, probably the most influential person in shaping my path toward behavioural science was Erving Goffman. I read The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life in an undergraduate sociology course, and as I took the winding path from my undergraduate days to a stint in advertising, later in sleep research, then eldercare, and to my eventual career in behavioural science, Goffman’s ideas kept popping up at various points in unexpected ways. Now they are a big part of my research!
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I’d always dreamed of writing a book, but never had a topic I felt like I could write authoritatively enough about until I’d spent over a decade doing research on the same topic (social influence). So, I would have to say my forthcoming book, You Have More Influence Than You Think, is my personal proudest professional accomplishment as a behavioural scientist.
As I look forward in my career, my goals have shifted away from being about what I personally hope to achieve and more toward helping others to achieve their goals, and toward shaping the academy and the field to make it more inclusive and egalitarian.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I would probably be doing research and writing in some capacity. I originally thought that after my PhD I’d go back into advertising in a different capacity, e.g., in market research, so that was a path I can see myself having taken instead. Or, now that I’ve written one book and really enjoyed the process, I could also see myself as an author writing about other people’s research instead of my own.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
A lot of the research I read and write about shows how underconfident people tend to be in social situations. So, I am constantly reminding myself of those findings whenever I find myself obsessing about how awkward I must have seemed in an interaction or something stupid I said in a meeting. Behavioural research is like a good friend telling me whatever I’m feeling insecure about most likely wasn’t as bad as I think it was!
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 the most important skill is a willingness to honestly engage in challenges to your assumptions and beliefs. So often in research the data tell a different story than the one you have in your head. Or, other researchers offer legitimate critiques of your ideas. While there are a lot of people who have or can relatively easily acquire the basic skills needed for behavioral research, e.g., statistics, logic, an ability to clearly communicate your ideas, I think that openness to being challenged—and even being flat-out wrong—and not digging in your heels, or, alternatively, falling apart over it, is something we don’t focus enough on developing as a skill.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I hope that registered reports, where peer review occurs before any data is collected and there is a guarantee of publication regardless of the results of a study, will play a much bigger role in research development and dissemination. Most of the people I know who have done research that way have found that it improves both the experience of the peer review process and the research itself, and I think it is consistent with a shift toward more collaborative, open research practices.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
So much knowledge of both the actual research process and the process of succeeding in this field is passed along through informal channels. My advice would be to seek out those channels. Talk to people who are where you want to be in two, five, ten, twenty years. Collaborate with them on research projects, ask them to explain all the behind-the-scenes stuff of getting publications, jobs, awards, etc. Most of what I know now about how the field “really works” I learned from my graduate school cohort and various mentors in the kinds of casual conversations you have with people in between conference sessions or during late nights in the lab. Find those people. Ask them questions. Let them talk (people love to dish on how things “really are”).
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
My amazing colleague, Neil Lewis, Jr.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Alena!
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!