What is a Behavioural Economist?

The behavioural economist. It is a peculiar animal difficult to find in the wild. It often looks lost, trying to merge economic methodology with psychological insights, and hopefully some practical applicability. Oh yes, it is a wonderous creature. Despite its constant confusion the behavioural economist is not a shy creature. No, it is a creature which is prone to write popular science books, ranging from Freakonomics to The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty. It also often has a podcast, or at least an active blog. Magnificent. All jokes aside, when talking to people who know of behavioural economics or behavioural science, what happens is that those terms are used interchangeably. Issue is, they aren’t the same thing. So how are they different? What makes a behavioural economist? And what makes a behavioural scientist?

Let’s start with behavioural economics, because it is the easiest. Why? Because it does what it says on the tin: economics. To be considered a behavioural economist you need to have had training in economics, meaning at least an undergraduate degree, but often also a postgraduate degree which had a strong focus on economics. This might seem quite rigid, but economists tend to be quite rigid in who’s “in” and who’s not. So how do you go from being an economist to a behavioural economist? Well, it would help if you specialized towards behavioural approaches in your economics training. Even if you didn’t, there’s hope. Simply research economic phenomena using behavioural scientific (or psychological) insights, but with predominantly economic methods, and you should be good. This research doesn’t have to be academic, it can also be within industry, for the exclusive use and purpose of industry. Both are fine. If you have a set of economics degrees and training and apply that knowledge to behaviour, whichever behaviour this may be, in academia or industry, congratulations, you are a behavioural economist.

So the first creature has been defined, so what is the second? What makes a behavioural scientist? The behavioural scientist is more difficult to define as the behavioural economist. Why? Because the behavioural scientist is a bit of a mutt. Don’t take offense, I myself identify as such. Now why is this creature such a mutt? Well, because its heritage can be quite varied. QUITE varied. Anyone with a degree in the social sciences, sometimes even the applied humanities, can become a behavioural scientist. What is needed is a degree in a field that practices the study of behaviour. The most notable fields here are psychology, cognitive neuroscience, social biology, consumer behaviour, marketing, management etc. (list not exhaustive). These can function as both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Once someone has these degrees and continues to study or research human behaviour, you can continue calling yourself a behavioural scientist.

You might have noticed that in my definition the behavioural economist can go beyond academia and research, but the behavioural scientist doesn’t. There is a reason for this: the term behavioural practitioner also exists. A behavioural practitioner is even more of a mutt than the behavioural scientist. Why? Because there is a pedigree (should I stop with the dog breed jokes?) to being a scientist: degrees and a continuation of research. Academic research. This is a distinction that many may not agree with, but it is distinction from the social sciences. The behavioural practitioner is someone who practices behavioural science. Again, does what it says on the tin. Issue is, that says very little about degrees or necessary training. And that is quite an issue. And this is an issue I’m diving into in the next article, when we will discuss how easy it is to label yourself a “behavioural scientist” when in reality, you’re not a (social) scientist, not are you really practicing behavioural science.

For some of you this distinction is really irrelevant. Practitioners and scientists are not differentiated between, and a behavioural scientist does similar work to a behavioural economist, regardless of whether those titles mean the same or not. But to me this does matter. Maybe it’s snobbish of me. In my opinion, if you don’t hold the right degrees, in combination with the right experience, you can’t claim to be a behavioural scientist. It’s for that reason that I don’t claim to be a behavioural economist, because I don’t hold degrees in economics. I can claim to be a behavioural scientist, because my first degree was Liberal Arts with an economics and psychology specialization, and my MSc was in Behavioural and Economic Science. Now, I’m doing a PhD in behavioural science. I’ve got my bases covered. It is also the fact that you need to hold quite a few degrees that makes me more defensive of the title. You can’t just do 5 years of reading behavioural science books and do three online courses, then call yourself a behavioural scientist, that’s almost offensive to those who have gone through the training and have the degrees. But more on that in the next article where we discuss the Mislabeling, misrepresenting and mismarketing of behavioural science! Well, that was my two cents on the matter, what do you think?