How to Become a Behavioral Science Professional

On Tuesday, November 7, Action Design Chicago hosted a panel discussion with four Chicago-based expert behavioral science practitioners. The title of the discussion was: “How to Become a Behavioral Science Professional. Topics included the various ways our expert panelists currently utilize behavioral science in their companies and how to run experiments; advice for how aspiring professionals can break into the field; and what they think the future of this field has in store for us all.

The panelists included:

Stephen Wendel is a behavioral social scientist who studies financial behavior, and how digital products can help individuals manage their money more effectively. Steve serves as Head of Behavioral Science at Morningstar, a leading provider of independent investment research, where he leads a team of behavioral scientists and practitioners to conduct original research on savings and spending behavior. Steve is the author of Designing for Behavior Change (November 2013) and Improving Employee Benefits (September 2014).

Linnea Gandhi is the Managing Partner at BehavioralSight, a boutique consulting firm applying insights and methodologies from behavioral science to everyday business problems. Her past work includes decision aids for complex consumer products, processes to reduce error in human capital decisions, and strategies for fairness in pricing. Outside of BehavioralSight, she serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor and Teaching Assistant for the Executive MBA course “Managerial Decision-Making” at the University of Chicago and is a regular contributor to the blog for Richard H. Thaler’s book Misbehaving: 'The Making of Behavioral Economics.’

Sam Evans is Director of Strategy and Innovation at Egg Strategy, where he specializes in helping Egg clients focus brand strategy and innovation to design products and services that change behavior and drive growth. Sam has more than 14 years of brand-building experience from multiple perspectives, including several years at PepsiCo and extensive agency-side experience across major consumer brands like Merck, Kimberly-Clark and Kraft.

Erik Johnson is the Marketing Optimization Manager on Morningstar’s Behavioral Insights Team, where he applies behavioral science principles to marketing processes and communications. The Behavioral Insights Team is a group of researchers and practitioners who use behavioral science to help Morningstar better serve investors and be more effective as an organization. Erik previously held roles at ideas42, IBM, and co-created ProductPsychology.com.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

What are some of the challenges you face in your careers?

EJ: I want to build on what Steve said about organizational and structural change. This stuff seems really easy on paper, like ‘Let’s just implement a nudge!’ Change takes a long time and you have to look at this work as a behavioral problem in and of itself.

SW: I think it’s really about staying true to how little we know. There’s great temptation to sell snake oil. To be very frank. And there are a lot of people who do in our field. And the challenge is that much of the research we draw on is not in the context of which you work. So what do we do with that? We have answers that can help you, but at the same time, we’re not sure. It’s a very difficult stance to take. And there’s always temptation to have more confidence than the data says.

LG: I’d build on what Steve said. People read about this, they get excited, and they think that behavioral science is a silver bullet. A majority of industries I work with, pharmaceuticals, financials, the publishing business, etc…how do you reeducate people that we don’t know if this is going to work? We don’t want to tell people they’ve been sold something that has limitations. We can’t be sure this is going to replicate, persist over time, persist if everyone puts this stuff in place…And even if we can check the box for all of that, can we even scale this? All of these ideas of generalizability are hard to articulate because there’s uncertainty involved, but they’re also neat. This is our way of giving back to academia. But it’s a challenge.

SW: I can add on to that. One of my heroes in the field, Dean Karlan, has a book called ‘More Than Good Intentions’. He took down micro-credit and micro-lending. Because after thousands of people with good intentions went into developing countries and said, ‘What we need is to give small value loans at high interest rates, and people said, YES – This is helping!” then Karlan went in and said, ‘OK, but how is this working? Where is the control? Are we really helping people?’ He went in to study this and ran some of the first randomized control trials to test the impact of these interventions. And what he found was that the effect was nothing to negative. What’s another name for unsecured debt at high interest? Credit cards! So when I think about this, the work we’re doing is relative to people basically going blind. Running into a problem blind and saying, ‘We have our good intentions, we have an answer, we’re going to go and do it!’ But we know that most of people’s efforts are a failure and a waste of time, and ten years later they’re going to realize this. And while it’s really hard to take the stance of a structured humility, it’s a lot better than looking back after ten years and saying, ‘What the hell did I just spend my time doing?’ So it’s a very difficult stance to take. We know we’re helping, but it’s the not the silver bullet.

LG: Its’ the difference between insights and methods. Methods is where it’s at.

SE: You (to Steve) said something years ago that stuck with me. Rather than keepers of the deep truths, our aspirations need to be ‘Let’s be a little less wrong.’ Let’s take the pressure off and try something. That pressure hinders our ability to try something new. There’s endless complexity because humans are endlessly complex. Let’s think about what is the larger frame. I am a creative problem solver. Once we frame the problem, what is the problem our clients are trying to solve, but can’t do today? Behavioral economics is not the microwave of society. It’s a way in.

For people who might not be working in a closely related field, the aspirational behavioral science professional, what’s it like to actually work at your organizations? What are you actually doing?

SW: First, we spend time thinking about what type of problem we’re solving for people, come up with an experiment, and seeing where we’re wrong. That means working with software people, running with A/B testing, email, mail. Second, we write. And then we do quite a bit of internal consulting. We’re a small team. We started in marketing, and now we’re working across the company. It’s a lot of coming in and seeing if we can apply the research that’s out there in a thoughtful and limited way. I’m where researchers go to die – management.

SE: On my happiest days, I’m workshopping with clients and pushing their thinking. My job is to get clients down to specifics. Asking whose and what behavior needs to change. We do a lot of smart phone and in-person ethnography. I like the crazy projects which afford snapshots of behaviors. And pushing clients on the back-end about how to change the way they’re thinking. A lot of positioning, framing, and implementing.

LG: I do a mix of activities. I manage myself. I’d say that projects vary from ethnography. You have to observe what’s going on. Then it’s how to match that up with what we know theoretically. Then we have a big list of hypotheses. Then it’s about what we can control within the company. Then we choose what we can run as rigorously as possible, a test. You have to see how wrong you are. Lately, on my good days, what I love doing, is the science of doing science. I work a lot with people doing market research. This toolkit can be used for making this research better. Behavioral science can help you figure out how to tease out a bit more about their preferences. The thing is about how to get people to work better in the back room. Something I’ve been working on is akin to pre-registration, a version of that is to independently write down what people are predicting to keep people honest. How are we going to know if what we’re doing is working? You’d be surprised to see the disagreement that you wouldn’t think is there. Incorporating really easy exercises from the decision-science literature is a nifty day for me.

EJ: That covers a lot, so I’ll mention the grunt stuff. There’s a lot of grunt work too. Actually executing this stuff involves managing people. It’s keeping 15 experiments at once. It’s about navigating the data and analyzing, prepping it, cleaning, etc. Building email and websites. And then, there’s a lot of training, speaking, and writing. And talking to the wider field.

What are some skills or attributes that you’d recommend for a person looking to work their way into this field? Could they even be building up a portfolio to someone hiring in this field?

LG: I would say people skills! You have to earn the right to do the stuff you want to do. To me that means taking jobs you’re not that jazzed about and sneak behavioral science in. Building relationships. You need to sell yourself to get to do this work. Another thing is basic stats. It’s important for reading the primary literature and for getting creative about measurement. Basic statistical concepts so that you can jimmy something as close to an experiment as possible is really useful. There are a lot of people going into this field, maybe you feel there’s a proliferation, maybe even a bubble. And if the bubble bursts the people who will be left standing are the people who actually understand this stuff, who actually understand science and the methods behind this. And finally, find your sand-box. You have a sand-box right now. What’s under your control right now? You can change around the way you do emails, even the way you set up your kitchen counter. There’s a lot you can be doing, sort of an entrepreneurial spirit about what you can be doing. If you’re trying to build a portfolio – where do you not have to earn the right to play? Go and do work in that space.

EJ: One maybe non-obvious one, have a blog and write about it. That’s the first thing I did. I have no formal qualifications to do things in behavioral science. I started reading a lot and writing about it. It demonstrates you know what you’re talking about and you have enough passion to take the time to write about it. It was very helpful getting started. If you’re in a company, find a way to run experiments. Take the time to learn basic statistics. The book Naked Statistics is good to get the basics. I would also pick up a technical skill, like coding. The specifics will vary on what field you’re in, if you’re doing email marketing, UX, etc. There’s tons of free resources (e.g., Coursera, boot camps, etc.). The last thing I’d say is, build up as much credibility as you can. I helped out with Action Design. I helped a researcher build a website. I started at Ideas42 as a project manager. Think about ways to build your ways into organizations and establish credibility. It’s a very approachable field.

SW: I usually look for demonstrated interest in one or two areas. I meet a lot of people who say they want to be behavioralists. One of the first questions I ask them is what they have read. I want people who have shown an interest, not by reading half of a job description, but by showing they have an interest in the psychology. We have people from a practical background, a sociologist, an economist, and a political scientist. There’s no title I look for. I look for people who like understanding how people behave. The level at which they come in have different requirements. If people are coming in at entry level, I want to know that they’ve read books in the field that they can talk about. For someone who is more senior level, I want to see that they’ve had some formal training. The second is, are they consciously thinking of interventions and how to measure them? We focus on helping people, on doing something. It’s a different mindset. We have a toolkit – so ask ‘What can we do?’ That means that at the junior level, it’s the ideas. The more senior level, do they know experimental design and how to run experiments? And throughout all of that, I look for a healthy skepticism. If people can’t tell me what they did wrong, they’re out. We have to have that internal sense of skepticism; where are we wrong, and where can we learn more?

SE: I look for people who are interested and are interesting. You can’t teach passion. I want to look for people who are scrappy about solving problems and are curious, always questioning the answers. You should be reading the literature, volunteering, getting involved. I’d also mention storytelling. The best ways to really create momentum is by telling really compelling stories. One of my brands is producing really great stories. They’re not innovation strategy decks – it’s imperative to tell the story – understanding your audience and facilitating that call to action. I look for people who are masterful storytellers – and that starts with telling your story to me. What’s your story, and how are you positioning your story to me? It’s really about communications skills tied to interpersonal skills.

SW: If you haven’t seen Eric’s post about job possibilities in behavioral science: Go read it.

What are your thoughts on where the field of behavioral science is going in the near future? I don’t think a decade ago that many people would have thought that governments would have Behavioral Insight Teams. As a subset of that, what role do you think ethics will play?

LG: I kind of think there’s a bubble, because it’s not very defined right now. It’s kind of a buzzword, and I think it will pop in the near term, but I don’t think it will go away. I hope people will understand it’s just another toolkit. I think it will start specializing more, the way data science has, and be incorporated as just another tool. It’s not a magic secret sauce, it’s just another thing we do. Separate from that, I don’t think this is a bubble, is experimentation pure and simple. That is something I think is starting to pick up steam. From an ethics point of view, Thaler will always say that you have to make some choice, you have to use something, why should we just keep doing something we have always done? That’s the Choice Architecture argument. I think there’s some ethics in experimentation. There was that backlash when Facebook did that experiment on their newsfeed. I don’t have a good answer about that. I say do no harm, don’t take advantage of people’s limited resources, don’t convince yourself that what you’re doing is great, follow the Golden Rule, and be humble. We know we’re going to fail. Do pre-mortems (e.g., write the narrative of how projects will fail before starting them).

EJ: I think this field is still so new in actual application. How people do this in the real world is all over the place and very ill-defined. I think design is a good example. It’s not what companies used to think of. Same thing with data science. So people have to figure out the same with behavioral science. There are a lot of models to test outside of labs. There’s a long way to go.

SW: I think of behavioral science like Math and English. It’s not very common to find a job listing for a behavioral scientist in the same way it’s not common to find a job listing asking for a Math or English major. More often it’s in the skills you need. An understanding of psychology, an understanding of testing, and of how to help people. I see an institutionalization in companies in this way. This is happening in product, design, marketing, and HR. In terms of ethics, most importantly, I say serve your users. Are you helping them? There’s nothing wrong with helping your company, but that should be second. Consider everything you do to be public. If it was made public, would it hurt you?

SE: I worry about putting this on a pedestal. Making the focus of this field the thing itself. If we focus too much on the tool, then we forget about the point of solving problems. We’re going to be wrong a lot. So if you view all of these things as lenses we can test, I think that’s the question. Let’s have humility. I think we need to stand at the intersection of humility and credibility.

EJ: I think we need to shift the perception from the fun examples of heuristics to a process. The reason a lot of people are interested in this, but they don’t know what do with it, is that they have no idea of the process behind it. So we have to change the thinking. This is actually a process. The mind is so fickle that we’re never going to have universal laws. Maybe things work, and maybe they won’t. But we have to sell the process of solving problems.

SE: People have read the books, and we now have to help them solve the how, not the why.