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Interview with Wardah Malik



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 Wardah Malik. Wardah was the one of the founding members of BEworks in 2012, and is now its CEO! For over a decade, Wardah has been committed to helping leaders develop innovative solutions in health, wealth, sustainability, and organizational behaviour using insights and applications grounded in the science of human behaviour. Prior to joining BEworks, Wardah worked for LoyaltyOne (Air Miles), where she specialized in consumer research to inform corporate decisions. Her love of behavioural science started in University when she worked in the lab of Professor. Nina Mazar, an original partner of BEworks. Wardah holds a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from the University of Toronto, where she specialized, with honours, in cognitive neuroscience.


 

Who or what got you into behavioural science?

It seemed like a very natural progression for me. I had a natural curiosity about why people did the things they did when we would expect a different outcome. For example, why we had a spark of optimism while holding a lottery ticket, why we adopted rituals and religious customs, or why we rationalize things we know aren’t in our best interest (from terrible relationships to overspending). Observing countless situations in my personal life and amongst my friends, I knew pursuing psychology would be the right path for me. At the time, in the early 2000’s there wasn’t much out there by way of mainstream behavioural science, there were no courses in the psychology department dedicated to consumer behaviour. I had a concentration in neuroscience but was also taking business and economics courses at the same time. I knew there had to be a bridge somewhere, and though I loved the idea of becoming a researcher and professor, the outside world was also calling my name. It would be a few more years, while at the University of Toronto, that I would learn about Nina Mazar and Dilip Soman’s research at a PhD meet-up. They were looking to recruit psychology students to apply to their new program. I knew I had found my new home. I reached out to Nina following the session and asked her for some time to meet. I had some research ideas to discuss and was interested in her feedback. By the end of our meeting, she offered me a job as a research assistant in her lab. The rest is history. I would say it was Nina who truly got me into behavioural science. It’s wonderful to have a mentor that I still work with to this day, now as a partner in BEworks 15 years later. Had I not reached out to her after attending the info session, my life would probably be very different now. It’s fascinating to look back at the series of decisions and choices that were made that got you to where you are today. Ultimately, I didn’t end up pursuing my PhD. I had applied to several schools, been accepted, but happened to meet the CEO of LoyaltyOne at a conference. Bryan Pearson is a scientist in a business suit – him and I connected on the topic of consumer behavior in retail environments. I would soon join LoyaltyOne studying consumer responses to loyalty programs, points as incentives for behaviour change, privacy and disclosure, and a host of other topics that gave me unprecedented access to real-world data and behaviour change capabilities. This would be my first step out of the lab and into applied behavioural science. What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve? I would be hard pressed not to mention the pride I have in being a part of BEworks growth story over the past decade. I left LoyaltyOne after a few years and joined Kelly Peters and the other partners in building the BEworks consultancy. I went from a massive office on University Ave with all the bells and whistles, to an office we would later lovingly refer to as the broom closet where the three of us would sit. There were many long nights, lots of discussions about how to shape what it is that we do, bringing clients on board, and just trying to keep pace with the interest we were generating. Looking back from where we are today, I am proud of what we’ve built, as a key standard bearer for applied behavioral science and quality work, and grateful to be at the helm for where we go tomorrow. Over the course of the past year we’ve had several new areas of work emerge that really excite me. We’ve been involved in work to redesign physical spaces and experiences to shift mindset and behavior – whether that’s helping people navigate chaotic crowds or motivate sustainability related behaviors. I think there is a need for behavioral scientists to get engaged earlier on in the blue-printing stage, or what we are calling the Reinvention Phase. We are a product of our environment and so much of the way we interact in the built world affects our day-to-day lives in a way we often don’t realize. Take the impact of rush hour traffic or noisy workplaces and think about its effect on safety and productivity, collaboration, and creativity. Building anew as a means of changing behavior at scale. Our work in physical environments allows us to do this, and I know this work will transition into how we might collaborate with architectural firms and urban planners to design the offices, schools, and hospitals of the future in a way that further improves human outcomes. I also see a growing need for our capabilities in shaping the technology of the future. How we augment with AI, deliver 1-to-1 interventions, understand the psychology of technology and its unintended consequences. Technology companies have a very optimistic view of their use-case(s), yet for these tools to have the maximum positive impact, and minimal negative impact, for society, they need to be designed and implemented with human psychology and behavior in mind. Behavioral scientists can and should play a central role in shaping what such technologies should look like and determining optimal integration in our lives.


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

It’s hard for me to pin-point exactly, but I am extremely interested in architecture and design. I think changing environments and creating new spaces can be a powerful way to create behavior change.





How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

think as a behavioral scientist you become naturally introspective. I not only look to understand the behavior of others, but also myself. How am I responding to “rewards” in my environment? How am I structuring my environment and what kinds of behavior is it driving? In what situations might I be tempted to over-spend?

By asking these reflective questions, I can try to use what I know about behavioral science to address them. For example, I have scheduled automated savings aligned to every second pay cheque. Healthy food is positioned at eye-level and fruits are washed and cut for easy access in the fridge. Weights are next to the tv and I set a minimum active movement timer for the duration of a show I like. I set joint goals with friends and report my activity. I have one social media application and it’s hidden on my phone, several scrolls and a few button clicks later, I’m able to access it.

It can apply to every aspect of life as we know it, from parenting to relationships and healthy living.


With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?

  1. Be Curious: Behavioural science in practice requires a host of skills and the cultivation of other attributes. For one, a relentless curiosity about human behaviour is essential. Tackling challenges from a behavioural lens requires deep thinking and those that are most driven to understand are more likely to find solutions.

  2. Stay Informed: So many brilliant minds are working toward understanding and changing human behaviour and knowing this work is hugely beneficial in finding the best solutions.

  3. Be Open to Collaborations: Behavioral scientists also need to be collaborative. We work closely with professionals and experts of different backgrounds in diverse sectors and working well together and appreciating what other sorts of experts have to offer enhances our work.

  4. Seek Challenge: Putting the other three points together, the real need is to ask questions about the way the world works today and to seek out better alternatives and solutions for the messy problems we face. Pose big questions, seek out the right partners and experts, turn to the literature, and inject your own creativity to devise hypotheses, design interventions, and testing new strategies. The skills to scientifically dissect practical challenges are as important as ever.



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

The future of behavioural science is bright. I anticipate that much of the current discourse around moving from a focus to individual behaviour to systems level change (as Chater and Loewenstein have called for) and a shift from making changes to well-established systems toward being participants at the blueprint stage (as Thaler has called for), will come to fruition. We are seeing more behavioural scientists recognizing the utility of our field for bigger questions, leading to bigger ambitions, and the widespread success of the field so far will give us chances to make good on those aspirations. To make this real, I think the next ten years will see a much more collaborative behavioural science, one in which we work more closely with other kinds of experts (from designers and architects, to artists and programmers).

Behavioural scientists are incredibly good at diagnosing barriers to desired behaviours and conceiving of nudges and other types of interventions to close the gap. But if we are to truly take on the world’s toughest problems, we cannot go it alone. We need to work with the right talents to help us build the behaviourally-informed systems of our imaginations in tangible, creative terms. Technology and creative expression will align with our scientific understanding of humans to build better healthcare systems, help people have better financial security, lead more sustainable lives, and overall, improve our collective well-being on Earth.



What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field? My advice to aspiring behavioural scientists is to cultivate your own unique assemblage of skills and to reflect often on what parts of the job are most inspiring to them and best aligned with their dispositions.

There are so many different aspects to this field. One can be a methods or data expert or use the written and spoken word to communicate the science broadly. While it is important to cultivate the broad necessary skills across a project life-cycle, we are likely to see more room for specialization as the scope of our projects increase over time.

Also, I encourage people to read as much as they can from the behavioural sciences literature to ensure they are staying current with the field, but also to read widely across other areas and to make time to learn from others outside the field. One never knows where inspiration may come from, and if the future of the field is indeed more collaborative, those who better understand other areas of inquiry will have an advantage.



What are your frustrations with the field as it currently stands? I’ll caveat by saying my sample is quite small for the purposes of this statement and what I am about to say is probably not representative of all programs out there, but I find that many psychology programs still perpetuate the belief that remaining in academia or becoming a psychologist are the two main career pathways with the degree. Every tier of post-secondary education should be doing its part to prepare its students for the real world. Not everyone will have the means or the interest to pursue these careers tied solely to academia or clinical psychology. Many students struggle to draw parallels between their training and the impact it can have in industry – be it government, private sector, or non-profit. . I am hopeful that more undergraduate programs will look to create and encourage applied streams of work in the future.



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

Nina Mazar. Besides the personal and professional relationship I have with her, she is one of the brightest minds in the field and the reason for countless individuals, beyond myself, that have entered into this field. Her piece would be wonderful to read and would likely inspire others to pursue behavioral science.


 


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Wardah! And don't worry - the interview with Nina Mazar is coming up!


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!


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