Skills, rather an important topic to talk about in this series. For this specific article, I asked the Next Gen’ers what skills they think are important for being a good behavioural scientist. And which skill(s) has helped them out the most! This will be especially helpful of you are thinking of moving into behavioural science. Which is another topic our interviewees gave advice on!
Also make sure to read the previous next gen articles! Article 1 introduces the Next Gen, article 2 finds out why they went into behavioural science, article 3 finds out HOW they got into behavioural science, article 4 shows how they actually apply behavioural science and article 5 tells you what our new behavioural scientists actually want from behavioural science. Quite different perspectives!
Flora Finamor Pfeifer “Apart from the specific ones, there are two general skills that I believe are important to behavioral science applications. The first one is networking. To conduct a project, you must be able to gather research from multiple areas and multiple contexts and it is good to do so when you are connected to fellow practitioners and researchers. The second skill is being able to abstract concepts: it allows you to transform theory in practice and better adapt interventions to a specific context.
The skills I have mentioned above were extremely crucial to my development in behavioral sciences. Besides the technical skills required to apply a behavioral science project and a strong will to do so, you can benefit a lot with these abilities. I will illustrate this with an example of our most recent project at São Paulo City Hall.
With the COVID-19 pandemics, we designed a text message intervention to incentivize the behaviors of wearing masks and stay at home. Since it was a new challenge in the world, the literature in the field was scarce, and we were not able to simply replicate something. Given that, being able to abstract concepts allowed me to prototype a solution and a methodology that was adequate with the resources available. In the process of designing the intervention and the test, I contacted multiple experts in the field to give us feedbacks. It greatly increased the quality of the project, apart from capturing external resources to scale the project.”
1. Great knowledge and application of psychology
2. Designing, deploying and managing experimental designs
3. Data analysis using statistical tools like R, PYTHON or STATA
Having worked in Human Capital Management, I support the application of complimentary skillset approach in hiring. Not every trained behavioural scientist is going to embody all the requisite skills. It is wise to cherry pick as per one’s ability to compliment the teams’ skillset. Passion and curiosity are my two unorthodox traits that tip any skill one may have in behavioural science. Both imbues what we know as personal mastery.
The skills that helped me most are the designing, deploying and managing experimental designs, and my knowledge of psychology. Lastly, product management has been really valuable to my job.”
Robert Haisfield “Behavioral scientists need to be able to assess problems effectively and set up feedback loops for themselves. When their assessments turn out to be right or wrong, they should update their mental models for future contexts. We can’t just throw interventions at a problem without thinking about what the best intervention is for the problem.
Additionally, what’s published from academic behavioral science is a limited subset of everything that humanity knows about people and how to influence them. You need to be able to evaluate sources of different types (experiments aren’t everything 🤭️) and distinguish signals from the noise. Anthropologists, game designers, product designers, managers, marketers, historians, etc. all have valid insights about behavior even if they were reached through different methods, so we would be served well by talking with them so everyone can actionably learn from each other.
If you’re in industry, you need to be able to figure out your own journey and find mentors. I used to think that I had an atypical career path, but applied behavioral science is still young enough that nobody’s path is “typical.”
I write everything down. Ideas, questions, reflections, decisions. If I’m working on a specific problem, I try to ask myself if I can abstract my solution or problem understanding questions so I’m able to use them in other situations. When I apply those abstractions to other specific problems, I’m able to see whether they work and what the nuance might be. Because I write this all down and reference it regularly, I’m able to speed up my learning from the varied projects I undertake and papers I read. It’s very likely that my work 10 years from now will be similar to my work today, and I would hate for my thoughts and questions at that point to be largely informed by recent memory. The way that I write notes and self-reference means that my thinking will accumulate over time. I’ve had the opportunity to work on 13 different products in the last two years, and I’m writing notes into my personal wiki to ensure that what I’ve learned continues to be helpful in ten years.
I’m also not afraid to reach out to people. I’ve had the privilege of talking with and learning from dozens of fascinating BeScis. As a general piece of advice, if you’re going to send a cold email, I recommend reading some of their work, tell them who you are briefly, and ask them an interesting question or two about something they’ve published. If they take the time to talk with you, always send a thank you note.”
Sarah Bowen “I value reflexivity as an important skill. I am particularly skilled at getting in my own way (this definitely has not helped) – to answer your question properly, I would say resilience.”
Gabriella Stuart “Curiosity, intellectual openness and diligence. I would also say social skills and being comfortable to cooperate and work with others, primarily because behavioural science is interdisciplinary to its core, why a behavioural scientist most likely will have to collaborate with specialists from other fields and disciplines. The skill that helped me most is being genuinely interested in understanding why humans behave like we do and a will to change things for the better.”
Garrett Meccariello “First and foremost, it’s important for a behavioral scientist to be confident. There are many occasions where an applied behavioral scientist will be in a position that requires challenging the status quo in an organization. Without confidence, it’s hard to get stakeholders on board for experiments outside of the lab or survey - whether in a field experiment or an A/B test. Aside from confidence, it’s important to have a strong understanding of the relevant literature and analytical tools necessary to get the job done.
My entrepreneurial spirit has helped me most. I’ve always fancied myself an entrepreneur. At the age of thirteen, I ran a hot dog cart, and to this day, advise on projects connecting behavioral science to commercial activities. I entered the behavioral job market when there weren’t open positions for non-Ph.Ds. Knowing how to sell myself empowered me to create my first behavioral science role and champion the power of behavioral science in industry.”
Kathryn Ambroze “Since behavioral science encompasses so much, collaboration is inevitable. Be comfortable in recognizing you may not have all the answers and lean on experts in their craft. Learning never stops and more often than not, research findings just lead to more questions. The research is likely going to change for some reason; therefore, it helps to remain flexible.
Overall, research runs better when everyone has some level of involvement in the design process. Guiding clients or students through the process makes it easier to rationalize the reason for certain decisions, while also finding the balance of compromise. Each component of the research process should include informed decisions, but variability is unavoidable since humans are imperfect. That being said, imperfection is part of why humans are so fascinating to study in the first place. 😊
Skillsets are very subjective based on an individual’s interests, since certain roles require unique qualifications. Personally, I find effective communication as a universal skill crucial to success in behavioral science. Translating information by conceptualizing initiatives, policy changes or applications of data to different audiences is necessary. The presentation of information will vary based on if you are addressing a member of your team, a client or a layperson. Learning how to “speak someone’s language” will help your ideas or suggestions be well-received.”
Peter Judodihardjo “The same skills as any other scientist, I think. Meticulousness, rigor and patience. However, I think behavioural science is an exceptionally creative field also. The ability to observe a result from one lab study, see the underlying cause, and apply it to another context. It’s a skill that needs to be trained like a muscle, and its one I pride myself on being quite good at.
My own strong suit is the obsessive absorption of knowledge. I spend hours every day consuming and re-consuming interesting behavioural science content. This constant priming of my brain to seek behavioural information, I think, is what has been at the heart of my small success so far.”
Natasha Oza “I’d group the skills under 3 main categories: people skills, thinking skills, and process skills.
PEOPLE SKILLS: e.g., communication, self-awareness, collaboration, managing emotions. Given how collaborative research, planning, and execution has become, working well with people of varied backgrounds has become essential to achieve any outcome. It’s more than just coexisting: it’s tapping into each person’s strengths to co-create, building on each other’s inputs and ideas, being open-minded in discussions, and creating a judgement-free environment that is nurturing for people, thoughts, and perspectives to grow. It’s these skills that turn disagreements into constructive debates and, eventually, ideas or proposals that have been thoroughly thought through. Communication skills are a large part of this category, without which ideas would never be translated into plans or executed into action!
THINKING SKILLS: e.g., critical analysis, creative thinking, decision making, pattern recognition, curiosity, and first principles thinking. As with any role that involves multiple stakeholders, many projects, and a hundred things to do, problems are sure to arise. When faced with a roadblock or hurdle it’s about approaching it with a solution-oriented mindset and breaking it down to its fundamental parts so you can identify where the gaps are and design targeted and effective solutions. Behavioural science also involves dealing with large volumes of data. Data without interpretation or analysis is simply a group of numbers and words. So an incredibly important skill is to add meaning to this data - applying logic and critical thought to infer what the information represents and drawing smart conclusions from it.
PROCESS SKILLS: e.g., project and time management. Behavioural insights come from rounds of rigorous research, designing experiments that address the questions you’re trying to answer, executing them, and collecting data - all while juggling numerous other tasks. Staying on top of everything and maintaining the quality of your work while ensuring you don’t burn out is no easy feat! This is where your process skills come in. They help you identify how to manage your time, resources, energy, and thought wisely across all the things you want to achieve without it coming at the cost of your mental and physical wellbeing.
A lot of useful hard skills aren’t on my list. This is because I believe these skills can, and will, be learnt. However, these “soft skills” are what I see as the building blocks, without which no amount of technical training will help a behavioural scientist be successful!
I’d like to talk about a skill I have had difficulty with but, with conscious practice, know I’m making progress in such that it benefits me and my work. Although being empathetic and leveraging personal experiences is essential to form connections and build trusting relationships with people, it can also come in the way when trying to be objective or truly understanding a situation from another person’s perspective. Actively putting myself and my personal views, beliefs, and biases aside to dig deeper and identify gaps or pain points was something I found challenging (especially when working with people on issues that I felt passionately about). However, it’s this I feel has been my biggest achievement and, now hopefully, strength where I can tap into that human side to foster relationships for honest discourse but also step back and put my personal views aside when assimilating and analysing the information.”
Sofia Mardiaga “A behavioural scientist should have core knowledge in data science, economics, psychology and policy. This is essential since it is the backbone for the field (policy in case that is an interest, but I also find it crucial to promote your research to get funding). Skills such as coding, interviewing, communication, writing, public speaking, project management and cognitive flexibility are also very important. Coding will get anyone a long way in almost any field today and as a behavioural scientist it will help you be able to explore your own data or other data sets for insights. Nothing like doing the analysis or at least understanding things well enough to do it productively with another person. Writing will of course be key for publications or articles. Communication and Public Speaking will also be crucial, especially now that science communication is threatened by fake news, among other things. Papers are not the most accessible resources to some of their (sometimes key) intended audiences, so communicating things effectively outside of journals is a must. You must be a good science communicator as well as a good scientist today. THis not only increases the impact and reach of your work but also your capacity to inspire others. Project management will be useful in managing research projects and funds, even more important if you’re working with a government, company or NGO (it’s useful for your daily life as well).
By cognitive flexibility, I mean having the ability to change your mind and look at things from other points of view. Above all, the most important thing a behavioural scientist should have is curiosity about the world. You will have to learn much more than you expect along the way.
I would say writing and communication are two skills that have helped me along the way. Also my curiosity about the world in general has proven very useful to explore problems and learn new t