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 Yee Siang.
Yee is the Behavioural Insights Lead at Singapore’s Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment. His work focuses on using behavioural science to support the ministry’s mission in making Singapore a sustainable and liveable home. He holds an MSc in Cognitive & Decision Sciences from University College London, a BSocSc in Psychology and Marketing from Singapore Management University, and a Specialist Diploma in Data Science from Singapore Polytechnic. In his spare time, he keeps a blog to discuss a variety of topics in science, social science and data science. A cheat sheet he created on statistical analysis is now one of the top Google search results.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I was first introduced to the field of behavioural science, or rather decision-making psychology, very early in my education at Singapore Management University, when I was taking a module in cognitive psychology by Professor Shenghua Luan. He was the one who opened my eyes to the work of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and Gerd Gigerenzer, and from then I knew that this was the area of psychology I wanted to specialise in.
I later pursued an MSc in Cognitive & Decision Sciences at UCL, where I had the privilege to learn from the top decision-making researchers in London, as well as gain exposure to the behavioural science community in the UK.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I don’t consider myself to have any particular outstanding accomplishment, but I am very proud to be a behavioural scientist working in the sustainability space. Ever since I joined the sustainability space, I was able to find joy and meaning in the work I do, by applying my knowledge of behavioural science in solving real-world problems. I have written a blog article on how to use behavioural science to make recycling easier and better.
The issue of sustainability and the climate crisis is a complex one – while a lot of it has to do with systemic change, behaviour change also has a very important role to play. I hope to contribute more in this area and do my part in helping to alleviate the crisis.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
If I wasn’t a behavioural scientist, I might have been interested in becoming an evolutionary biologist. Once I understood the concept of evolution, it completely changed the way I see and interpret everything that happens around me, from animal behaviour to cultural transmission. Even my interest in cognitive and decision-making processes are grounded in evolutionary theories, as I have always been curious about how people come to behave the way they do.
Evolutionary biology would have been a natural inclination, and I have even written a blog article to help demystify what evolution is really all about.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to improve my environment using behavioural science. For example, real estate agents in Singapore have a bad habit of spamming apartment residents with flyers to convince them to sell their apartments. Having no intention to sell my apartment, I decided to place a flyer box with a notice outside my apartment, informing flyer distributors that I am not selling my apartment and I will recycle their flyers. While this didn’t deter all flyer distributors, I certainly started receiving fewer flyers than my neighbours.
Another example where I applied behavioural science to my environment was when Neighbour A complained to me that he was receiving second-hand smoke from Neighbour B. Knowing how it’s not possible to simply ask Neighbour B to stop smoking, I helped Neighbour A to design a friendly notice to paste at Neighbour B’s smoking haunt, which not only showed that we understood his situation, but also provided him with alternatives on where he could smoke.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
A good behavioural scientist requires many skills from having a strong theoretical foundation to being familiar with statistical analysis. But if there is only one thing that we can pick, I would say having empathy and being able to think in the shoes of others is the most important.
While job descriptions don’t often list this as a requirement, constantly asking ourselves “how would someone else make sense of this” not only guides behavioural design, but also helps us to craft better survey questions and nudge interviews in the correct direction. Knowledge and skills can be easily picked up, but the quality of having empathy is the most precious.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
In my opinion, applied behavioural science in the next 10 years will become an integral part of various domains such as healthcare, sustainability and information literacy. Even with the advent of data science and machine learning, people are starting to realise that answering questions without context often doesn’t make sense, and that is where behavioural science comes in.
However, I foresee that behavioural science won’t be treated as a solution by itself, but as a technique in a toolbox with other complementary approaches. What this means for applied behavioural scientists is that we cannot rest on our laurels and think that our method is superior. We need to constantly demonstrate how we are adding value to the domains we serve.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
My advice to those who are new to the field and excited about diving into this area is to not forget about the broader outlook. Hone your skills in behavioural science, but at the same time, learn about what’s going on in other disciplines to have a more holistic perspective, instead of thinking that behavioural science is the answer to everything.
It’s not necessary to become a jack-of-all-trades, but find out how behavioural science overlaps with and differs from other schools of thought such as economics, data science, design thinking, user experience, and marketing research. If you’re able to speak the language of these different fields, you will become a more versatile and adaptable behavioural scientist.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I would look forward to reading an interview with Cassie Kozyrkov, Google’s Chief Decision Scientist. Cassie’s background was in psychology and neuroscience, but amazingly she managed to pave her way in decision/data science and become a respectable thought leader in the tech industry. It would be extremely valuable to learn from her experience.
Another behavioural scientist I would like to hear from is Stephan Lewandowsky. Stephan made significant contributions in the area of correcting misinformation using behavioural theories, long before the term “fake news” was popularised. His work on climate change and conspiracy theories would also be particularly relevant in this day and age.
A similar researcher, Gordon Pennycook, would also be interesting to interview, as his work revolves around finding out who is susceptible to misinformation and how to solve the issue.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Yee!
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!