A good question to ask yourself: why do you do what you do? In case of the Next Gen: what got you interested in behavioural science? The field has seen quite the development, and it managed to attract quite a few people after winning its first (Daniel Kahneman) and its second (Richard Thaler) Nobel Prizes. But despite this “status injection,” what is it that made my interviewees opt-in to behavioural science?
Flora Finamor Pfeifer “During my high school’s senior year, I managed to be accepted for a Summer internship at Harvard University, at the Lichtman Lab, the Neuroscience laboratory leading the Human Connectome Project. In this cutting-edge research environment, I assisted a Ph.D. student in his thesis on “post-trauma axon regeneration behavior”. I was exposed for the first time to state-of-the-art academic research and got in touch with Neurosciences and Cognitive Sciences areas. I got thrilled by that project and became fully convinced to, one day, “study the brain” and be an active participant in forefront research. Right after the internship, I was admitted at the University of São Paulo, where I pursued a bachelor’s degree in Economics. Being an economist enabled me to see the world from a new perspective, accordingly to the rational, logical, and organized tools economists are trained on. A great deal of my career was dedicated to econometrics and evaluation, which allowed me to understand how to measure impact and predict outcomes. During that time, I learned about the infant field of Behavioral Economics through best-seller books, such as Thinking Fast and Slow and Freakonomics, which encouraged me to take an elective class about it. In such, I’ve learned about ‘nudges’ and other research within the area. I then recognized this as a path that could tie up all my academic interests and, besides that, had the potential to improve societal outcomes. I think it is extremely interesting how the area, from the scratch, focuses on the research question/ problem, and then dive in multiple perspectives and methods to better understand it. It naturally embraces interdisciplinary and complementary thoughts, without losing its scientific rigor, which I think it is something extremely beneficial to applied sciences in general.”
Rebecca Amo “I am a trained Public Health practitioner who has worked in Human Capital for 5 years+. By mid-year 2018 I got started planning on how to pivot my career back to sciences with the thought of specializing in health economics. Then I shared my thoughts with my peer mentor who knew about and introduced me to Busara Center for Behavioural Economics work. Prior, I had never come across either behavioural science or behavioural economics.
Scheming through their website lead me to reading all their publications and case studies then I went online and downloaded loads of journals and research by Daniel Kahneman. Six months later, I interviewed for a role in human capital with them and when I got hired, that was when I got sucked into the new world of Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT’s), behavioural research reading and capstone projects in my quest to really understand behavioural science. I found everything very fascinating and intriguing. By 2019, I had come across a lot of literature and content about BeSci and one was by Kristen Berman guide on “to do a PhD or not in BeSci” and copious information on what journey one could take to get into the field professionally. Berman’s publication had recommendation list of all universities that offer BeSci at Masters level and that’s when I decided I am gonna get the requisite qualifications and training. I had one advantage, a solid experience in human capital management and my first and only choice was LSE. Here I am! Behavioural Science cuts across all disciplines from design, military, health and well-being to communications and marketing all the way to infinity. Application of Behavioural Science in any field gives you some serious super-powers! Now, that spark is what makes me marvel at how invaluable Behavioural Science is.”
Robert Haisfield “When I was in high school, I took an Econ 101 class. From this, I took all of the elegant models too far, to the point where I wanted the government out of just about everything. Oof! Then I watched a Ted Talk from Dan Ariely and read Predictably Irrational. That book blew my mind, partially because it destroyed the main assumption that my worldview was made of —the rational actor model. The whole experience was thrilling. Every few pages I would stop and tell whoever was nearby about some cool experiment I had just learned about. I couldn’t help myself. Then I found out that the school I was going to, UNC Chapel Hill, would let me make my own major in Behavioral Economics. However, we didn’t have classes in the subject, so I needed to take a sideways approach to learning the subject. I took classes in judgement and decision making, economics,the psychology of self-regulation, cognitive science, and more. I couldn’t get enough of it, and this multidisciplinary approach allowed me to understand the core questions of behavioral economics from many different angles. People are incredibly complex. We have still only scratched the surface in understanding why people do what they do, and much of the knowledge we do have identifies effects that we don’t know how to combine together. Being a practitioner means that the questions I’m asking about behavioral science are: “What do we know about people already that would increase our likelihood of making a successful decision?” “What do we still need to learn to make a decision?” and “How might our recent learnings be useful for future decisions?” This need to understand “what works” in a practical sense has led me to not hold too firmly onto any one approach or method, and to approach my research questions from an interdisciplinary angle. Human behavior is complex and the best we can do to practically understand and influence it is fill our toolboxes and know when each tool is relevant.
Really, there’s an endless amount to learn from an endless amount of sources, and the information learned is endlessly applicable.”
Sarah Bowen “I remember my Dad, who worked in retail and management, was a big fan of reading pop-psychology and BeSci books. When I was growing up, he supplied me with a steady supply of books by Gladwell, Harford, Dubner, Levitt, Thaler, and Sunstein (you know the ones). Also, my head of sixth form at secondary school was super supportive of my interest in behavioral economics – she nurtured the seed that was planted early on. I remember she invited Tim Harford to my school to give a talk about dual-process thinking, and encouraged me to interview him afterwards about his work – that was a formative moment.
If I am honest, the books got me interested in behavioural economics and psychology – but the thought never even crossed my mind that I could have a career in academia or produce the kind of knowledge I had only read about. It’s interesting because it is accessible – as long as you have lived as a human being, you can relate to many of the findings and research questions asked in BeSci research.
However, it may only be accessible because it is super WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), and I have only lived in WEIRD places… *has existential crisis off-screen*”
Gabriella Stuart “In high school I became increasingly interested in psychology and how human behaviour lies at the core of most (if not all) of the many challenges humanity faces today. I knew that I wanted to learn more about how behaviour can be influenced in order to solve these challenges.
Human behaviour is at the core of practically anything in human societies, e.g. interpersonal relationships, politics, businesses, and societal institutions are greatly influenced by how people behave and act. Furthermore, challenges and problems within these and other domains are typically rooted in human behaviour, why it is essential to understand the drivers behind a wanted or unwanted behaviour. I find behavioural science particularly interesting and valuable since it provides scientific evidence, frameworks, tools and way of thinking that facilitates a deep understanding of behavioural problems and how to develop strategies that address various challenges effectively. We have just entered a new paradigm where businesses, governments and organizations are increasingly acknowledging that psychological, social and environmental factors are central determinants for how humans act, and I predict there will be an increasing demand of expertise in behavioural science in various domains. But most of all, I find behavioural science valuable as understanding human behaviour is key for addressing burning challenges and to build a healthier, safer, sustainable and more equal world.”
Garrett Meccariello “Several years ago, I was addicted to a TV show called Burn Notice that featured an ex-spy who used his skills for good to help the local community. There was a particular scene where the ex-spy baited a bad guy into hitting him in front of the police so that the bad guy would go to jail. I was amazed with the ex-spy’s foresight and understanding of behavioral patterns. He knew exactly what to say to invoke a particular outcome. That was the moment that sparked my interest - not the violence, but the understanding of behavior and how to encourage (or discourage) a target outcome. As a young boy, my babysitter always said that I knew how to “push her buttons” (meaning that I annoyed her in sum), but always knew when to stop ahead of crossing a metaphorical line. I think that was my first dabble with experimentation, something that I still love and get excited about today. Experimentation is exciting because we can form hypotheses and either prove or disprove them on the spot. The tools, theory, and demand is all there, just waiting for the right application.”
Kathryn Ambroze “There was no definitive moment where a lightbulb went off. I knew this was the field I wanted to pursue. I view it more like building blocks, which I am continuously adding to everyday. My foundational interest in neuroscience and human behavior led me to my research in memory reconsolidation. Pairing that exploration with my experiences working within a business capacity reaffirmed my interest in interactions and reactions of people. I attempted to merge these tools and concepts together through a research design focusing on usability for my college’s website via eye-tracking and surveys. The marriage of multiple fields excited me because it felt like the research gains a fuller picture by at least having the option to use nontraditional approaches. I was actively seeking an easy synopsis for my very interdisciplinary interests and the term “behavioral science” summed it up quite succinctly.
I am constantly learning! My curiosity is never satisfied while exploring applications of behavioral science. Since the field is relatively new, I also feel empowered by contributing meaningful research, advice and critiques to help shape how the behavioral science continues to evolve.”
Peter Judodiharjo “About 8 years ago I happened upon Dan Ariely’s TED talk, ‘are we in control of our decisions.’ I immediately became fascinated with this topic and talked to my intellectual friend at school. He recommended to me the book Thinking Fast and Slow, and the rest was history. I have thought about why I find behavioural science interesting a lot. I like to think it’s because I like to do good and helpful things for others, and behavioural science is a fun and creative field that enables me to do that in a big way. However, I think deep down its likely part of an endless struggle to understand myself better. Behavioural Science tells you so much about yourself as much as it tells you about others, which is why I think so many people find it so inherently interesting.”
“Although I was introduced to principles of behavioural science in a classroom, like many, the tables were turned: it was me in the position of the teacher, learning about motivation, decision-making, and cognitive biases by observing the behaviour of my students.
I had the privilege of teaching a group of children with a variety of learning disabilities - giving me a unique opportunity to experience designing effective learning environments. I implemented interventions based on individual and collective needs of the group, witnessed how this boosted their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and the positive effect it had on how they perceived, retained and applied knowledge.
Seeing the subtle differences in the immediate surroundings and the way I said or presented information influencing the children’s response is what sparked my interest in how and why we make certain choices, decisions, and actions. A quick google search will throw up hundreds of articles and then thousands more on the applications of behavioural science. Which other field can boast of having an impact across almost every industry and aspect of life?
As problems are getting more and more complex, solutions are going to require a deeper and more cross-disciplinary understanding of the various factors and moving parts involved in order to be effective. Behavioural science digs deep to understand how and why humans inherently behave the way they do, taking into account ground realities and adapting to fit the specific situation. This field is so rooted in innate human processes that it’s applicable across fields, domains, and scenarios - like one giant interconnected web of insights with connections and uses in the most unexpected places - and that’s what I find most interesting:! playing around to take one principle and adapt it to another situation to see what happens!”
Sofia Maradiaga “UNITEC, the university where I studied my undergraduate degree in Honduras purchased biometric research equipment in the last year of my undergraduate programme. I was tasked to use this equipment for a consumer research project. Naturally, I had to learn how to use it for this assignment and when I least expected it, I was hooked on finding a new way to study behaviour. So where does Behavioural Science come into this? As I was learning to use these devices in research, I started coming across behavioural science theories and books. My very first introduction to the field came through Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman. I became so fascinated with it that I decided to do my MSc on the topic and orient my career as blending business and behavioural science. I just find it fascinating how behavioural science blends economics and psychology and then the myriad of applications that it has both in business and policy. I also find in it a compelling tool to help us understand the world around us and solve problems. Essentially almost any problem that involves people or requires having the user/consumer/citizen at the centre (and there a lot of those) can benefit from understanding behaviour to obtain better results. As a whole, behavioural science provides a set of useful lenses through which we can analyze a problem, in business or societal, and proceed to solve it.”
Well there we have it folks. Behavioural scientists at different stages in their early-career telling you why they moved themselves into behavioural science! In the next “Next Gen” article we are going to discuss what subfields our interviewees are in, and how they apply behavioural science in the real world!