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 William Mailer.
Will leads the Behavioural Economics team for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. The team was established in 2016 to help improve the financial wellbeing of customers and communities. Prior to joining CBA, Will established and led the PwC Behavioural Economics team. He has twenty years of experience consulting to large private, public and non-profit organisations. He is a regular speaker and trainer, and his team’s work has been represented in both popular media and academic outlets, and has won a number of innovation awards.
Prior to founding the PwC and CBA teams, will studied Behavioural and Experimental Economics at the Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics (CeDEx) in Nottingham, UK.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I’d really enjoyed undergraduate economics, but just wasn’t sure where I wanted to take it next. It took me a few years to find my way to a number of books that created a real spark for me, and which would ultimately lead me to behavioural science via a few different routes.
Examples from that time were: Origin of Wealth (Beinhocker), Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (Gintis, Bowles, Boyd, Fehr), Blink (Gladwell) and Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox (Gigerenzer, Selten). This was before ‘Nudge’ and some of the other more popular breakthrough books in the field, so I felt like I was kind of feeling my way around in the dark, but it did feel like it was leading to something much bigger. When I eventually came across an article discussing the field of behavioural economics it was a kind of penny drop moment for me. It was like a thread pulled everything together and it felt really exciting.
Coincidentally, I was invited to play in an amateur soccer tournament in Nottingham (UK) at around this time (2008/9), and I’d noticed that there was an excellent behavioural research group at the University of Nottingham (CeDEx). I sent what I thought was a long shot email to Professor Chris Starmer to see if I could meet with him while I was in town for the tournament. I received a prompt reply from Chris, who invited me to meet with him when I was in town. We got along really well, and not long after that I would quit my job in Sydney and move to Nottingham to start my postgraduate studies in behavioural economics. This experience would set me on an incredible new career path for the next ten years, and was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The team at CeDEx are incredible, and I have such great memories of this time.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I’ve set up two different applied behavioural units over the last ten years. Both in large organisations, and in both cases starting without any staff, resources or roadmap.
The first was in a management consulting context with PwC (Australia). I was introduced to a colleague named Jason Collins in around 2013/2014, and together we established the PwC Behavioural Economics practice. This team went on to win PwC’s global innovation award, deliver a number of great projects across a range of sectors, and launch new satellite teams in Toronto and London.
More recently I was approached to start a behavioural economics team for Australia’s largest bank, with the purpose of improving financial wellbeing for customers. Now five years old, this team is still growing and evolving in really exciting ways. We have partnerships with some of the world’s leading behavioural science research groups, and collaborate with leading practitioner organisations. We’ve produced some great research, and developed a number of banking innovations that have had positive impact on the financial health of millions of Australians.
Neither of these teams would have been possible without the support of the many mentors, leaders and incredible staff that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with over this time. Special thanks to Jon Williams (ex PwC) and Mohamed Khalil (CBA) for vision, bravery and support as we set these teams up.
I’d like to play a role in helping others to set up similar units, and to grow the size, health and rigour of the applied behavioural science community. I regularly speak with counterparts from other organisations around the world to learn from them, share lessons from my own experience, and to offer support where I can.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? I had a range of jobs out of university, including management accountant, retail consultant and corporate strategy executive. Certainly, the parts of these jobs I enjoyed the most were those that required some level of understanding of human behaviour or economic motivation. For example, across these roles I developed experience in: designing incentive plans for large sales teams; advising on remuneration plans for senior executives; designing shopping centre layouts; forecasting the economic impacts of retail developments on communities; conducting ethnographic research on staff and retail customers. If I hadn’t found my current specific career path, I probably still would have pursued one of these related directions in incentives, observation or design.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I try to organise my days around my energy and mood levels. My golden hours are early in the day, so I schedule more important and complex work and life events for then, and schedule less demanding tasks for afternoons or end of week.
I try to avoid echo chambers by deliberately following people or reading books that run against my current beliefs or positions.
Similarly, while I do take steps to eliminate some small routine decisions (wardrobe), I also try to design some serendipity into my life architecture, avoiding too many safe and standard policies that can prevent discovery and growth. When exciting opportunities come up, I’ll often bias towards a quick yes and work out the details later. When in a new city, the first thing I do is often go for a long run (without directions), and let others order the food.
I’ll wait 24 hours before making final decisions on big shopping purchases, and let trickier emails sit in my draft folder overnight before reviewing and sending them (or not sending them).
At work, my team and I have taken a lot of time to de-bias our critical decision making moments. We blind incoming case study interviews when recruiting, and run very structured / behaviourally informed interview processes. In meetings leaders speak last, and we take steps to build an environment of constructive challenge and psychological safety around the team.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Speaking in the narrower definition of becoming a career Behavioural Scientist, of course strong experience and training across the behavioural and social sciences and methods would be required.
For those with a broader interest in being part of an effort that is contributing to the development, synthesis, application and scaling of behavioural science insights and experimental programs across sectors, this requires a very wide community of experts working together.
Many of the applied behavioural science units around the world will have a coalition of behavioural insights experts, data experts, technology innovators, business domain experts, community partners, designers, anthropologists etc. The best of these units do also keep the science at the heart of their work with strong connections to academic groups and transparency in how they develop, share and test their work.
For those looking to lead applied or practitioner teams it is helpful to be ‘T-shaped’, with a deep expertise in behavioural science, and some level of appreciation of many of the other skills required to move from research to sustained and scaled impact. For those coming from different backgrounds, it will be helpful to build some foundational level of understanding of the behavioural sciences.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
Ten years on from Nudge and the first behavioural units, it’s exciting to see some new and positive developments from the thought leaders: moving beyond nudge, global ethical and quality standards, addressing more complex societal challenges, cross-sector collaborations and open platforms.
But unfortunately, I think we are still yet to see a good number of organisations adopting even the fundamentals. In-house behavioural science units are certainly not yet the norm, and you don’t have to look very far to see a large organisation running very expensive and ineffective customer or employee initiatives despite all that we now know (e.g. diversity and inclusion, retirement saving, consumer decision making, management decision making). Is your organisation running (or even testing) SMarT?
I think competitive and efficiency pressures should play a role in seeing more organisations incorporate behavioural insights in their work over the next ten years. It is hard to see exactly what form this would take, whether in-house units, partnerships, or more decentralised models with experts embedded across many functions.
Given that most of the important challenges we are all facing have human behaviour at their heart (e.g. COVID, climate change, employee performance, customer outcomes), I think it’s safe enough to say that there will be a an increasing demand for quality behavioural insight and effective behavioural interventions generally speaking, in the next ten years.
We’ve seen the earliest moves from global tech companies in developing much closer working relationships with universities and behavioural researchers, and I think this will increasingly create competitive tension for others to follow, or be left behind.
Fortunately these trends are coming at a time when there is a much greater supply of talent and training than we’ve ever had before. The number of good training programs, graduating talent and