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Interview with Zoe Chance

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 Zoe Chance. Zoe is Assistant Professor at the Yale School of Management, where she teaches the popular elective called Mastering Influence and Persuasion. Prior to Yale, Zoe managed a $200 million segment of the Barbie brand at Mattel, acted on stage and film, and earned her bachelor's degree from Haverford College, her MBA from USC, and her PhD from the Harvard Business School. Her book Influence for Nice People: The New Science of Making More Friends, Money, Impact—and Joy will be published by Random House as a lead title in early 2022. I'm looking forward to her book, but first, this interview!


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

What got me into the field was random chance, and then a book. A few days after giving a ride to a stranger who had gotten caught in the rain, her friend at Mattel called out of the blue, offering to interview me for a brand management job. I took it. Working on the biggest girls' brand in the world, it was surprising how much we didn't know. I kept being surprised by senior management decisions too, they just didn't make sense. So I started reading about psychology. When I got to Marty Seligman's book Learned Optimism, it opened my mind to the possibility that just maybe I could be a researcher too. Maybe I could find answers to some of those questions.

Who got me into the field, though, was Dan Ariely. When I was interviewing for the PhD program at MIT, he picked me up at the airport. He had told me to wear a funny hat, and he showed up in I think a propeller beanie. I was like, "these are my people." He hosted me at his house and spent the whole next morning brainstorming ways to test my ideas. He's one of the kindest and most creative people in the field, so this experience wasn't exactly representative ;-) And he left MIT after my first year. But we kept working together and he left me in the capable hands of Mike Norton, who was so funny I feared I'd someday pee in his office from laughing so hard. And who was also unrepresentatively kind and creative. I was super lucky.

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?

One of my proud achievements has been creating a framework for applying nudges that was adopted by Google's food team as the basis for their global food policy, to help people make healthier choices by accident. They have 135,000 employees, and it's a privilege to get to work on any kind of big project with a chance for meaningful impact. Especially when so many academic papers are for an audience of like ten people. That project was with Ravi Dhar. A close second, though, was when some guy named Phil read a paper I wrote with Mike Norton and Cassie Mogilner on how spending time to help other people can ironically make you feel like you have more time in your life (because you feel more effective). Phil launched a web site called the Good Time Project and recruited a bunch of other people to do weekly good deeds. Warmed my heart.

My current main project is a book I'm reeeeally excited about, called Influence for Nice People, coming out in January 2022. Just finishing the manuscript now. It's sciencey (of course), practical, and deeply personal too. Based on the class I teach at Yale. The one-line summary would be: Dale Carnegie for the 21st century, backed by science and written for a diverse world.

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

I know I wouldn't be a housekeeper or a file clerk because I was fired from both of those jobs. I know I wouldn't be a nude masseuse or working in a factory cleaning audiobook covers with a toothbrush because I quit those jobs on my first day.

It would be amazing to be a psychedelic therapist, to help people have transformational experiences that can bring them out of depression, or free them from their fear of death, or help them meet God. When I talk with friends working on psychedelic research at Yale, I'm inspired, humbled, and maybe a wee bit envious. What a gift to be able to give.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

The nerdiest be-sci application in my personal life was when Shane Frederick and I were choosing a name for our daughter. We had the theory that people form an impression of you based in part on your name, so they treat you accordingly, and there's some pressure to conform with those expectations. Your name could thus influence your personality. Thus, we wanted to pick a name according to the associated personality people would imagine. So we sent a survey to fifty friends and family members asking them to make quick, binary choices as they reacted to each of our eight favorite names. "More like a cop or more like a robber?" "More like a toddler or more like a grandmother?" "More like a stripper or more like an accountant?" Then, without looking at which name was which, we mapped out the data to create visual personality horoscopes for each of the eight. The personality we liked best turned out to be Sophia, but we learned that was the #1 most popular girls' name at the time. So we went with our second-favorite personality horoscope, which was Ripley. She has turned out to be smart, funny, sneaky, and fun--just as we had hoped.

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

There are a lot of viable career paths practicing behavioral science in academia and in industry, and they can be really different from one another. So I don't think there's a particular required skill set. When I read your question, my first thought was, "you just need to think clearly and express yourself clearly." But my second thought was, "nope, I guess that isn't true at all!"

If anyone reading this is thinking about getting a PhD, please understand that most people hate it. In the US, 50% of PhD students quit before getting their degree. So please get some research experience before you commit. And since it's a long, laborious road that can be lonely, choose a program with people you'll enjoy. I would have dropped out if I hadn't adored my collaborators and classmates, I'm sure.

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

I've been inspired to see how the pandemic has influenced research to take a huge leap forward in terms of speed and the scope of collaboration. Researchers in many disciplines including behavioral science have been working together in large groups scattered across the world, tackling big problems together--and it's really working. To name just one example, Jay van Bavel and *41 other behavioral scientists* published a joint paper in Nature Human Behavior only a month after the lockdown, on how to use behavioral science to support the pandemic response. Ten months later, it had been cited 1200 times. The researchers in our field have come together to help with the pandemic response, and the world has seen that public health is a behavioral issue.

We still have some work left to do on this one, but we're already gearing up for our next group project: climate change. Count me in.

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

First, I'd love to read an interview by a PhD student whose work you find really interesting. So often, PhD students did most of the work on a project and their advisor is the one getting interviewed about it. Second, I'd love to read an interview with LeeAnn Renniger, the CEO and founder of LifeLabs Learning. LifeLabs conducts interesting research on what makes great teaching and great learning. LeeAnn teaches the faculty at Yale, and even my curmudgeoniest colleagues are impressed.


Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Zoe! I'm excited for your book, as well as for reaching out to LeeAnn. And kudos to you for being really honest about the process of doing a PhD, that's the type of honesty we need!

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!


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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