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 Wändi Bruine de Bruin. Wändi is Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology, and Behavioral Science at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, and director of the USC Behavioral Science and Well-Being Policy initiative. Her research aims to understand and inform how people make decisions about their personal health, their carbon footprint, and their household finances. She previously served on expert panels for the National Academy of Sciences on Communicating Science Effectively and for the Council of the Canadian Academies on Health Product Risk Communication. She is co-leading a national USC survey that is tracking people’s risk perceptions and experiences associated with COVID-19.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
Gideon Keren was the person who got me into behavioural science.
As an undergraduate in psychology at the Free University Amsterdam, I originally thought that I wanted to be a therapist. So, I took introductory classes in clinical psychology. But the introductory classes in clinical psychology I took seemed to lack an evidence base about what works. It frustrated me that we were taught about therapeutic approaches without statistical information about how well they actually helped people. I therefore made a drastic switch to the most statistical area in psychology. At my university, that was cognitive psychology. As part of the cognitive psychology program, I took a class in judgment and decision making that was taught by Gideon Keren. I loved it. I ended up doing a master’s thesis that was supervised by Gideon. And he convinced me to apply to Carnegie Mellon University for grad school. I got accepted and ended up working with Baruch Fischhoff for my PhD. And that's how my behavioural science journey began for me, thanks to Gideon Keren.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I want to continue my work with practitioners and policy makers, in the hope of having positive societal impact. There are two projects I want to mention.
One of the first projects I worked on was a sexuality education program that I developed with a team of medical doctors and behavioural scientists led by Julie Downs and Baruch Fischhoff. We created an interactive video that taught teenage girls to think about what they wanted, recognize decision points in their interactions with their partners, and then talk with their partners about what they wanted. Our approach differed from most other sexuality education, which just told recipients to avoid sex -- or use a condom if they did have sex. In interviews with teenage girls, we had learned that they found it difficult to talk about these topics with their partners. We found that, compared to controls, recipients of our video intervention were less likely to have sex, and more likely to use condoms if they did have sex. Our video intervention also marginally reduced the rate of testing positive for Chlamydia. The intervention won several awards because it is rare for sexuality education programs to actually change sexual behavior or outcomes.
One of the most recent projects I worked on covered public understanding of climate change terminology. For this paper, I collaborated with the United Nations Foundation, which supports the premier global climate science body -- the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The project was initiated and supported by the USC Dornsife Public Exchange, which fast-tracks collaborations between academics and the public and private sectors to produce research with impact. We asked leading climate scientists to identify the eight most common terms relevant to climate change communications, and then asked members of the US general public to explain those terms. The terms included mitigation, adaptation, carbon neutral, sustainable development, and so on. We found that people felt that climate scientists were talking over their heads. Confusion arose among both climate-concerned and climate-ambivalent participants. We have presented our findings to climate scientists and published them in a climate science journal, to show that their expert terminology is not widely understood. We recommended more straightforward everyday wording for describing these terms in climate change communications targeting general audiences.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I would probably be working on a flower farm in the Netherlands. I grew up on a flower farm in the Netherlands. Many people in my family are flower farmers. I am the black sheep in the family.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
One of the key insights from behavioural science is that people have to make do with the limited time and cognitive ability they have available. So, I try to be forgiving of my own limitations and those of other people. Rather than being upset about our human limitations, I try to find ways to get along despite our limitations.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Behavioural science brings the promise of making a difference in the world. For societal impact to happen, behavioural science research needs to be conducted in collaboration with the practitioners and policy makers who could stand to benefit from the findings. Such collaborations help to make the research more practically useful, easier to implement, and more widely recognized among practitioners and policy makers. So, I think it would be a great idea to train behavioural scientists in how to collaborate with practitioners and policy makers. And for universities to set up organizations such as the University of Southern California's Public Exchange, which support collaborations between academics and practitioners so that our findings do not just end up in academic journals, but actually get implemented in the real world.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I am hoping that behavioural scientists will continue to use behavioural insights for policy impact. When I started in this field, applied research was frowned upon. I am delighted to see that this has changed, and hope that we can make a real difference in the world.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
I have a lot of advice, but it would require a separate blog post! So I’ll focus on one tip: Try to work on topics you care about, and with people you like. If you like your work and your colleagues, it will help you stay excited and motivated in the long run.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I recommend interviewing Allison Zelkowitz. I have recently started collaborating with her, and have been impressed by her work. She is the Founder and Director of the Center for Utilizing Behavioral Insights for Children (CUBIC), which is part of the international nonprofit organization Save the Children. CUBIC is the first behavioural insights initiative in the world to focus on helping marginalized children around the world.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Kate!
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!