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 Vishal George.
Vishal works at Behavioural by Design. In his practice, he makes behavioural science tools more accessible for social impact, financial wellbeing and sustainability. This combines behavioural science and human-centred design for enabling positive sprinkles of behaviour change. His work spans a multitude of domains and topics such as running experiments with government to evaluate evidence-based strategies for businesses to reduce their carbon footprint; co-designing interventions to improve the patient experience at hospitals in New Zealand; and building capacity in large organisation to apply behavioural science tools at scale. Vishal has also just written a book: "Money Mindsets". The book is about the human potential to rewire our mindsets towards financial wellbeing. And it promises to be a damn good read!
Note: this interview is a little different from normal - as I'm trying out new formats to see what works best.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
Having graduated with a mathematics and economics degree, went into the world of microfinance. I was very curious to explore and use economic models to understand behaviour and understand what’s driving people; what's encouraging people to pay their loans and what's discouraging them and to see if there's any patterns I can find out. Turns out everything which I learned from economics was pretty useless for understanding some of the nuances of the psychological behaviours taking place.
Some of the examples which come to mind here are that their repayment rates were extremely high [in India]. Interestingly, there was no paperwork. No documents, no guarantees, yet people were extremely cooperative. The way this system worked was that you had a group loan. So you had joint liability versus individual liability. Living in a culture [India] where people look out for each other, where there's a strong sense of community, repayment for these loans was actually really, really high, which defied everything I had just been taught. So I thought I needed to go back to the textbooks to understand some of these influences such as social norms.
Did you essentially go back to your textbooks? Or how did you approach you diving into behavioural science?
I wanted to strengthen my knowledge and my skillset. Around 2011-2012 I saw this big gap in what these sophisticated economic models and regressions, predictive models etc. could offer. What was actually missing for me was having the right tools to actually interpret some of the data coming across these models. So I did see economics and psychology at the time as two very, very helpful tools to understanding human behaviour.
So I did go back to the textbooks. I was looking at what's out there in terms of programs that combined economics and psychology. And at the time Warwick was one of the few programs which offered the masters in behavioural science. So that was my rabbit hole into behavioural science.
How did you like the masters? It was phenomenal. I think it challenged a lot of what I thought I knew. The learning was incredible. And I think maybe a, a big difference was that these were learnings which I could directly apply into an everyday role versus something which is too abstract and distant from reality.
So what happened after the masters?
Oh yeah, I took a U-turn then and went into the world of investment banking.
I see. As you would in London to pay off your student debt. I did that for six months. At the time, I had met Rory Sutherland as he was doing a talk and I started engaging with him, as well as with the co-founder of the Ogilvy behavioural science unit, Jez Groom. And they had taken this liking of how do we incorporate some mathematics and psychology to actually getting better at predicting and understanding behaviour. So as an outcome of the one incident of running into Rory Sutherland, I decided to take another U-turn, leave investment banking and join Ogilvy, which was setting up their behavioural science unit at the time.
There you go. I feel like now we're pretty full circle. It's a very good backstory. Several U-turns. I love a story with U-turns. I love a plot twist. Or two.
Onto the next question… What is the accomplishment that you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve as a behavioural scientist?
I can't pick out a single biggest achievement. But one of my big ambitions has been to consolidate all the things I've learned, especially in the intersection of behavioural science and personal finance. So I've recently got my material for my book together [coming out soon]. I let people on LinkedIn decide what my book title should be. I’m glad I didn't land up with a title like “Booky McBook Face”.
I feel like you clearly had a more invested network.
Yeah I have a very supportive and kind network. And so “Money Mindsets” became the title of the book. So I'm super excited to see that project come into fruition.
When is it coming out? The book's not yet launched and I'm curious to see where it goes. I'm taking pre- pre-orders cause I was trying to navigate and get a sense of who’s interested in it.
A large part of the book is inspired by some of the work, which I've been doing with ASB Bank out here. Which is the recent work which I'm most proud of. This is the whole idea of how do we make an organization more behaviourally informed.
How does one make an organisation more behaviourally informed? One of the constraints, which I recognized quite early on, is when you have a dedicated behavioural science team, all the pressure gets put on the dedicated team. As you may have experienced [Merle works in such a team herself]. So I have been playing with the idea of flipping this around: what if all teams [in a company] were more behaviourally informed? They may not be designing their own randomized control trials, but if they're comfortable and confident in the language of behavioural science that can go a long way in helping, for example, product managers, marketing and communication.
We're now seeing a lot more bottom-up behavioural innovation within the organization [ASB] and I'm super proud of playing a part in facilitating that.
If you weren't the behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I’m a complete sourdough geek. So I would be a baker if I was not a behavioural scientist. And partly why I'm saying that is because I love the process of experimentation. Each bread is a complex system. There's so many variables involved: temperature, the strength of the dough, some days the start is strong, some days there's too much humidity. Each loaf is different. It's kind of like running an intervention. You have no idea how it's gonna go. You really have to open the oven and see whether you have got a Frisbee or have I got a little big open crumb loaf?
I feel like from there on, I can maybe guess the answer to the next question, but how do you, if at all, apply behavioural science to your personal life? So experimentation is a big one for me. I might break it down in terms of say my process for writing the book. I've used lots of cues from behavioural science to encourage and motivate and support myself. One of the things I recognized is that I’ve got limited cognitive bandwidth. And if this book becomes just something which I do after work, I'm quite unlikely to be motivated at 6:00 PM to do it. So I've taken one day off every week for the last year. Assigning myself a writing day. I also used behavioural science to motivate myself to complete the book: if I just say “I have to write on Wednesday”, it doesn't feel good. But if I go to a nice cafe with a good view and treat myself to a croissant, I’m suddenly “Oh, this book writing life is pretty awesome.” Another way behavioural science trickles down for me is in creating a starker line between work and personal life, as we’re working from home. Part of it is to have good habits and rituals in place. When I get trapped or stuck in a problem, I'm staring at the screen too long, not able to come up with an idea for an intervention or some way to synthesize findings, I like to go out for a walk. Leave that problem aside. Go somewhere with a good view, climb up somewhere where I can get panoramic vision and I can see broader. It allows me to get a different perspective and to be a little bit more creative in my work, when I get back to it.
So tell me, with all your experience, what would you say are a couple of skills that you really need to make for a good behavioural scientist? Are there recommendations that you would make for people who would like to get into the field?
Something which I think is missing at times in terms of skills for behavioural scientists is humility. It’s taken me a while to realize this but I think it's a good skillset. We don’t always know the answers to everything. Being able to say that you don’t know. And feeling comfortable in saying that you don't know. That doesn’t mean you get to be lazy about it. A second good skill is to be curious. And to be curious outside of your own field. Looking at studies from across different fields. The answer may not be in a psychology journal, the answer may have been explored in a book about anthropology. The answer may have been picked up completely elsewhere. I think having that creative curiosity is something which I think is super helpful and sometimes missing for the not-so-humble behavioural science practitioners. A third skill following from that is reaching out to people. think that's a very crucial skill for behavioural scientists going forward to engage communities within the process of designing interventions. It helps us to better co-design when working with communities to design interventions, as it also helps identify our own blind spots.
On the topic of humility being required for behavioural science to develop further, how do you think behavioural science is likely to develop as a field?
I see behavioural science being embedded more into different parts of organizations. I think we're going to have the language of behavioural science be used throughout. We're going to have teams, marketing teams, for example, who are very familiar with, um, some of the heuristics and biases which hold people back. We're gonna have product designers who are more equipped and more familiar with conducting randomized control trials. I think we’re going to see a transformation within organizations of just becoming more competent in behavioural science. To the point where I don't think that we might need a separate word, or a separate division. It's just gonna be part of our everyday lives. So in the super long term, I think the term is going to be disestablished. We're not going to see it all happen at once. I think what we will start seeing is that organizations which are more behaviourally informed will start to outperform others. I think McKinsey did a similar study on design thinking and design led organizations, and found that they tended to perform far better. Ultimately, hopefully competition should encourage organizations to become behaviourally informed or run out of business.
Given all that we have discussed so far, what advice would you give to young behavioural science to, to progress into the field?
Something I like to explore is the idea of not being constrained by behavioural sciences. Some of the behavioural science practitioners who I really admire are the ones who bring in divergent thinking, so thinking from other fields into behavioural science. I would encourage folks to bring in two passions, not just behavioural science and they'll support each other, but they'll also build each other. I think having that divergent thinking will add a lot of creativity and passion to what we do and how we apply behavioural science.
Which other, if any, behavioural scientists have you been inspired by? Which is very much the same question as which other behavioural scientist would you love to read an interview by? I find if I ask people about behavioural scientists and inspired them, I get much better answers.
Leanna Day. She's a behavioural designer. I think she does awesome work combining the worlds of design and behavioural science. Similarly, someone who's been a big influence in me is Ruth Smith. She also is in behavioural design, and this is filling some of my own blind spots to better understand the design process, especially as I’m coming at it from the quantitative, mathematical lens.
Someone who's work I also really admire is Thomas Dudek. He sits in the intersection of behavioural science and data science. He's an upcoming behavioural data scientist so you can expect to see a lot more of his research in the decades to come.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Vishal!
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!