Outside the Matrix: Lizzy Leigh

Lizzy LeighContinuing our interview series with people who have moved into industry after completing their PhD, this week we speak to Lizzy Leigh, a behavioural research analyst at Swiss Re in London. She has a PhD in Health Psychology from University College London, focusing on the psychological aspects of recovery from coronary artery bypass graft surgery.

Tell us about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? I work for one of the largest reinsurance companies globally.  Reinsurance is insurance for insurance companies, and as well as taking on the majority of the risk, we act as consultants, employing experts from a range of fields, who can advise on medical conditions (for critical illness insurance), predictors of longevity and mortality (for life insurance), occupational therapists (to help get claimants back to work) and so on.  My background is in psychology, and I work in a research and development team of about 10 (the majority outside of the UK) academics who take on pieces of research that will be beneficial for our clients, the insurance companies.  Though my PhD is in health psychology, I now work almost exclusively in behavioural economics.  We take insights from behavioural science and apply them to all areas of insurance where decisions are made, through live field trials with our clients.  For example, we suggest changes to underwriting (application) form questions regarding health behaviour and medical conditions, to try and encourage the applicant to be honest and accurate in their answer.  We also suggest changes to letters, websites, telephone scripts and apps, helping our clients to achieve what they’re looking for, be it better retention, faster turn around of claims or click through rates on a website.  We have the mantra of ‘test, test, test’ and we are now beginning to get some early positive results back.  So we directly apply concepts from the literature into practice, improving what we know as the findings come back.

Why you decide to go into industry instead of continuing in academia? I was in academia for 5 years after my undergraduate (psychology) and masters (health psychology), working as a research assistant in two different departments for 2 years then completing my PhD for the final 3. My decision to leave academia wasn’t a certain one. My current job was brought to my attention by a fellow PhD student, but the application deadline was the day after I submitted my thesis and the first interview was the day after my mock viva (in which my thesis was ripped to shreds). So I didn’t have much time to prepare, and didn’t think for one second that I would get the job. The company I work for is relatively unique in the way it combines academia with business, employing lots of people with masters in all sorts of subjects, and the occasional person with a PhD too, and I had no idea the opportunity existed. I now see how low my confidence was at the end of my PhD and how much higher it is now I don’t work in academia any more, and I really enjoy working in a job where I am valued and given loads of new opportunities, which is exactly what I needed following the gruelling final year of my PhD.

What do you enjoy the most in your current role? When interviewed for my role I was asked, how did I feel I would cope with moving from focusing on one project for 3 years to dealing with several all at once in the new job. I said I was looking forward to the challenge, but now that I’ve settled in I think this is one of the things I enjoy the most. That, and the fact that application of the theory happens pretty quickly. In fact, there’s barely enough time to read the literature before I’m expected to make suggestions about a client’s website/letter etc. The results still take a while to come, but knowing the client is happy and you got great results make them worth the wait.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? We have a few challenges in terms of: a) client buy in, and b) client willingness to try out tests, but even if we get great results and convince everybody that the new behavioural economic informed ways of communicating are better than the originals. Insurance is in many ways an old fashioned, and slow to keep up industry. Underwriters have decades of experience in working out how to ask people questions in a way that will elicit accurate information, and don’t necessarily agree with suggestions of new ways to do it. The majority of life insurance policies in many markets are sold via agents or independent financial advisors. If those guys don’t read the question as we’ve redesigned it then we have little control over that. Perhaps as there is a gradual move towards policies being sold online we will have better control of our application of behavioural science, but whether we like it or not, if someone wants to deliberately not disclose the truth, there’s little that insurance, as the industry currently stands, can do about it.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? The best insight I can give here is on the relationship between academic researchers and people who work in industry who are interested in research. The company I work for is very interested in topics surrounding epidemiology, medicine, economics and so on and so we have collaborations with researchers in those fields and others. From my time here I’ve been gaining some insight on how academic researchers perceive private sector companies who could possibly fund academic research and vice versa. I have been surprised and pleased to observe a very mutual respect from both sides, and not the stereotypical perceptions you might expect.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? My perception is that it’s such an interesting topic, it’s quite possible to pick it up quickly, so I would recommend not spending too long trying to understand the theory but try and get stuck straight in with doing testing (I’m sure plenty will disagree). I also strongly recommend thinking outside the box of where you could work. I have since met others using behavioural science in the insurance setting, and I believe there is a place for it in every industry, so think how you could take it to that industry.

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In The Wild: Nathalie Spencer

2014 03 Nathalie Spencer by Amin Akhtar

Photo credit: Amin Akhtar

Continuing our In The Wild practitioner series, this week we’re pleased to feature Nathalie Spencer who is a behavioural economist in the RSA’s Social Brain Centre (The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the UK), a team whose role is to explore how a better understanding of human nature and behaviour change can be applied to help overcome various challenges of today. With a business degree (McGill University) and several years’ experience working in the private sector, Nathalie returned to university to complete a Masters degree in Behavioural Economics (Maastricht University), and has since been working primarily in the third sector with the RSA’s Social Brain Centre, engaged in research and writing in various areas including behaviour change, decision-making, and cognitive biases.

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? I work in the Social Brain Centre at The RSA, as a Senior Researcher. The Social Brain Centre uses new views of human nature as a fresh perspective on some of our most enduring and persistent social challenges. We apply decision-making psychology and behavioural science more generally to areas as diverse as educational disadvantage, innovation, climate change, and financial capability (coming soon!). Understanding what motivates people, the factors that influence decisions and behaviour, where and how we pay our attention, and the barriers to behaviour change are all key areas of focus for our team.

I’m also engaged in several other projects outside of The RSA, including consulting, pro bono projects, and freelance work all in the field of behavioural science including JDM. For example, I write monthly for ING’s eZonomics website, relating concepts from decision making psychology to issues of personal finance and money management. I find writing these articles a great exercise in bringing theory right back down to a practical level.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? At one point while commuting to work in my old career, I read Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational. I couldn’t stop thinking about the book and how fascinating the research in the field was. So I realised that I needed to do something about this new-found interest and looked into Behavioural Economics programmes in Europe and the USA. Maastricht University offered an amazing programme that ticked all the boxes on my list (one year, taught in English, with a lot of student participation). The MSc in behavioural economics was so much fun and served both to deepen my understanding and to fuel my interest in the field even more. After I finished my degree, some of the professors from the programme and I ran a couple of experiments based on my masters thesis. While we didn’t get the results we expected, the experience gave me a taste for running trials and an appreciation of some of the practical constraints of conducting experiments.

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? A few years ago I would have said that RCTs in peer reviewed journals are the most useful, for their isolation of effects, rigour, and neutrality. Now, however, I appreciate white papers which have more of an injunction or discussion, and see the value in other research methodologies besides (or in conjunction with) RCTs, too. In terms of content, I’m always very interested in variations on the classic experiments or ‘games’ (dictator, public good, ultimatum, etc) which provide a fuller, richer picture of our behaviour in those settings. Something which particularly interests me right now is intrapersonal empathy gaps, because I think this concept can go some way towards improving our understanding about why it can appear as if our decisions and behaviour is at odds with our own wellbeing, and it throws up all sorts of other good questions about stability of preferences, commitment devices, and others. Additionally, I find the evolutionary perspective on our decision making and behaviour really fascinating, and am hoping to learn more about this.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? I think that some people (still) perceive these approaches as being manipulative. There is a perception that a better understanding of how we make decisions will result in abuse through sneaky or deceptive use. True, it can be used to a person’s detriment and to the benefit of the ‘choice architect’ – whether that is a commercial enterprise, a government or public body, or some other organisation. But it doesn’t have to. And, we know from the decision making psychology field that decisions are influenced by context; they never happen in a vacuum devoid of some sort of framing. So the question becomes whether you prefer decisions to be influenced by a haphazard design, as would be the case if not using behavioural science approaches, or to have some thought put into the design of the choice environment to help people to make decisions that are in their own best interest. But a consideration is still “who decides what is in someone’s best interest” (and preference instability can further muddy the waters). I think we’ll see discussions get louder around the ethical considerations of using these approaches as the field continues to grow in popularity.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? It’s a great question. The RSA’s Action and Research Centre (of which the Social Brain is a part) is a ‘think-and-do-tank’, so our work often seems to straddle academia, policy and practice. We aim to take the key insights about human nature from the academic literature and translate them into answers for the questions “why does this matter to the average person or to us as a society?” and “how does this perspective help us to understand the stubborn problems of our times?”

Outside of think-tanks, I think the relationship between academics and the rest of the world is getting stronger, perhaps thanks to the popular books such as Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow which have reached a wide audience. These books pique interest in the field but also illustrate the amount of research and number of experiments that underpin the interesting insights. My impression is that practitioners and academics are working together more frequently, and this is a win-win situation. Academic consultancies, such as the Behavioural Economics Lab, can help to bridge this gap by providing the expertise to carry out experiments for organisations who want to apply insights from the field to their own work.

Networking events can be an excellent way to bring together practitioners and academics (and enthusiasts!). London seems to be a hot-spot for this right now, with the London Behavioural Economics Network ‘behavioural boozenomics’ monthly meetups, and these are branching out to other key cities like New York and Copenhagen as well. I have met so many interesting people at these events, often resulting in direct collaboration.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? Ask bigger questions. In academia you almost necessarily have to narrow your focus and investigate one very small part of a larger picture. However when working in a think-tank and hoping to influence policy makers and practitioners, you need to really understand how these insights affect the ‘real world’. You have to communicate your ideas well, in an appropriate manner to engage whichever audience you are trying to reach. In this sector, work can be more exploratory; rather than seeking to prove a hypothesis, there is value in putting forward reasonable conjectures, grounded in research, and encouraging greater discussion around and further investigation into those ideas put forward.

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Star Track: Marcel Zeelenberg

FOTO Zeelenberg GROOTThis week on Star Track we’re moving across the Atlantic over to Europe with professor Marcel Zeelenberg who is the head of the department of social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. After receiving his PhD from University of Amsterdam in 1996, he held posts at Eindhoven University of Technology and University of Sussex before moving to Tilburg in 1998 (first in the Marketing Department, and since 2000 in the Social Psychology Department). He’s also the academic director of the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research who organise an annual symposium on psychology and economics. His research interests include impact of emotion on decision making, consumer decision making and financial behavior.

I wanted to pursue an academic career in this field because… I ended up studying psychology simply because my brother did it, and he liked it. I started out studying Biomedical Sciences, but found out quickly that this was not something for me. My brother, also rather oblivious about how he was going to make a living, ended up studying psychology (I forgot why). Since he is older than I am, and I always followed his footsteps, I thought it would be something for me as well and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I had made so far. Both of us ended up majoring in cognitive psychology at Leiden University which is where we met Willem-Albert Wagenaar who was extremely influential in fueling my interest in psychology in general and in JDM research in particular. He was inspiring, supportive and super smart, and the best teacher you can imagine. I followed all the courses he taught, including one on gambling (using his own book “Paradoxes of Gambling Behavior”) and one on the psychology of decision making (using Frank Yates’ book). Later on, through social psychologists Henk Wilke and Eric van Dijk I got introduced to social decision making and economic psychology. Looking back, I think the solid basic training at Leiden University clearly prepared me for a career in academia.

In 1992 I was thrilled to be able to work on a PhD project on affect in decision making at the University of Amsterdam (supervised by Joop van der Pligt, Tony Manstead and Nanne de Vries) where my interest in emotion was formed and where I also started working on regret (and later, with Wilco van Dijk on disappointment). That is also when I met Jane Beattie, who also had a big impact on me: Jane and I had submitted a Marie Curie proposal for me to do a postdoc under her supervision at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, but before the funding came through, Jane got ill and died. In the end we got the funding, but with Jane gone, Brighton lost most of its appeal. Luckily, I found a postdoc with Gideon Keren, at Eindhoven University of Technology, and soon after that a tenure track position at Tilburg Univesity (where I still am), where I started to work with Rik Pieters.

I mention all of these people, because for me pursuing a career in academia is so much the result of working with inspiring people and being able to educate yourself continuously. What other job allows you create your own work and study things that you think are relevant or interesting?

I find the inspiration for my research mostly from… Half of it, I think, comes from observations of everyday behavior that I would like to understand. The other half comes from reading papers or seeing talks and thinking, “hmm, that does not work that way. That is actually much more simple than that!” Eric van Dijk taught me that each time you read an article and think “hmm”, you have an idea for a new article. I was skeptical when he first told me that, but over the years I have learned that he is right. I actually tell my students the same thing now and hope it helps them to come to new research ideas easier (a thing that I found difficult in the beginning).

When people ask me what I do, I say… I say that I am a psychologist, and then quickly explain that I study decision making , emotions and how those two interact. Most people find it interesting and want to learn more. I have always had mixed reactions upon telling that I am a psychologist because people more often equate it with being a therapist than with being a scientist. I could say that I am a behavioral economist because it covers most of what I am doing but because I have no formal training in economics that does not feel appropriate.

The paper that has most influenced me is… There is no single paper that I can name. I have read many interesting papers, but I can mention 2 papers that I like a lot and that I think are underappreciated.

Beattie, J., Baron, J., Hershey, J. C., & Spranca, M. D. (1994). Psychological determinants of decision attitude. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 7, 129–144.

I read this paper shortly before I met Jane Beattie for the first time. I liked it then and still like it. They introduce the concept of decision attitude (in analogy to risk attitude), which refers to the propensity to make or avoid making decisions. People can show decision aversion and decision seeking.

Jones. S. K., Frisch, D., Yurak, T. J., & Kim, E. (1998). Choices and opportunities: Another effect of framing on decisions. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 11, 211–226.

I remember seeing Steven Jones give a talk about this paper in 1997. The point they make is that decision researchers typically study decision making by confronting participants with a choice between alternatives (do you choose brand A or brand B?), while in daily life we often do not compare alternatives, but simply evaluate the attractiveness of a single option (you favorite band has a new CD out, do you buy it?). And then they show that there are important differences between choices and opportunities and that research about choices cannot simply be projected on opportunities.

I like these articles because they show that we can learn so much from looking at how people make decisions in the real world. I also admire the authors for being able to bring these ideas back into more mainstream JDM research. These are articles where I whish I had written them.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… This is a hard one. I am inclined to say that the things that we are working on today are the best we have been doing but that is not the type of answer that you would be interested in. So, what I like best is projects that evolve in something bigger: they may start out as a single paper, but then quickly new questions pop up and new studies need to be done. That has happened a few times now, first with our research on regret and disappointment and later on with our research on shame and guilt. And currently we are working on the economic psychology of greed (this is Terri Seuntjens’ PhD project) and we generate so many ideas for studies that it is impossible to run them all.

Also, over the past years we have become more and more interested in examining mundane financial decisions (insurances, pensions, poverty, etc.) which is gratifying because of their direct relevance. There are so many interesting problems to study – it is an embarrassment of riches.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… The justice system and the law have always intrigued me. During my undergraduate years I have taken some courses in law and forensic science (what we would call CSI-studies now).  I think I could be a lawyer.

The most important quality for a researcher to have is… Stamina! I mean we are all smart and well educated, but I think a large factor in success is to simply do the work that is needed. There are so many obstacles in our work and the delay of gratification is extensive. It can take years to become an expert in something and many studies to give the insights that you hoped beforehand. Data collection can be difficult. Journals do not always like your work. Also, especially in the beginning of a career jobs are often temporary and you may need to move several times before getting a tenured position. Without stamina you will give up.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… That must be solid science. We need to change how we do research and how we report about doing research. There are many good initiatives (archive data, share materials, increase transparency about data collection and analysis, facilitate replication; basically things that we all learned as undergraduates and that the open science framework is doing now) and we need to journals to take responsibility as well (Jon Baron is doing an excellent job with Judgment and Decision Making, by also publishing data and materials with the articles). We also we need to accept that results are most often not perfect, so we should not demand perfect data. And, because we are not p-hacking anymore (Simmons, Nelson, & Simonsohn, 2013), we need larger sample sizes and should accept (or embrace) that we can publish less papers.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… Find a topic you really like and go for it. Do not get demotivated because no one else is studying it. I never recommend a student to investigate something that is fashionable. The risk is that by the time you get your work done, either someone else has been working on the same questions, that people got bored with it and the topic is not fashionable any more, or worse, that you are not really into it and your work shows that.

The one thing I’ve found most challenging is… When I was a PhD student I constantly questioned whether I would have good ideas, or better, ideas that were good enough to acquire a position. I felt comfortable about my skills because I found the education at Leiden University to be thorough but my capacity to ask the right questions was never really put to the test before I started my PhD project and then I felt that it all came down to being creative and smart and that made me uncertain.

It also did not help that JDM research is not main stream at most departments, causing me to be peripheral with respect to research in most places I worked. It takes so long to get feedback from the field (you need to develop your studies, run them, write them up, get them published, and only then people can read them), that for a long time I feared that one day someone would found out that they made a mistake by appointing me (I think I suffered from the imposter syndrome.). That did not happen, and slowly I found out that there were people that liked my work and that there were good students that wanted to work with me.

It took some time to find out that what I was doing was good enough and interesting to others. Thus I think the most challenging thing was to be persistent and believe that my own ideas were worthwhile investigating.

The call for papers for 13th TIBER Symposium 2014 is now open: deadline for abstract submissions is 18th May. The symposium itself is on 22nd August with keynote speakers Shane Frederick from Yale University and Richard Zeckhauser from Harvard University.

Departmental webpage

Outside the Matrix: Dan Lockton

danlockton_5This week we’re returning to our Outside the Matrix series with Dan Lockton who is a senior associate at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, a specialist research centre at the Royal College of Art in London, and does freelance work as Requisite Variety. He received his PhD in Design for Behaviour Change from Brunel University, based around the Design with Intent toolkit, and has worked on behavioural research projects, particularly on energy use, at the University of Warwick and at Brunel, before his current role in a collaborative project between the RCA, Imperial College London, the Institute for Sustainability and a number of European partners. Before returning to academia, Dan worked on a range of commercial product design and R&D projects; he also has a Cambridge-MIT Institute Master’s in Technology Policy from the University of Cambridge (Judge Business School), and a BSc in Industrial Design Engineering from Brunel.
Tell us about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? All design necessarily embodies models of people’s behaviour—assumptions about how people will make decisions, and behave, when using, interacting with or otherwise experiencing products, services, or environments. It’s a fairly basic component of design, although it’s perhaps only rarely considered explicitly as being about decision making psychology. Whether or not designers think about their work in these terms, it is going to have an impact on how people behave, so it’s important to try to understand users’ decision processes, and how design affects them (or should be affected by them). So both in research projects themselves, and in teaching design students how to do ‘people-centred’ design research, psychology plays a big role in my work.

Understanding how different people make decisions, through research in real contexts, becomes even more crucial when trying to do ‘design for behaviour change’, of course. You end up (hopefully) confronting and questioning many of the models and assumptions that you previously had, and develop much more nuanced models of behaviour which usefully preserve the variety of real-life differences.

In my current main project, SusLab (which is a small part of a major European project), I’m working with Flora Bowden on reducing domestic energy use through a combination of technology and behaviour change, but we’re taking a much more people-centred approach than much of the work in this field has done previously—doing ethnographic research with householders to uncover much more detailed insights about what people are actually doing when they are ‘using energy’—the psychology of the decision processes involved, the mental models people have of the systems around them, and the social contexts of practices such as heating, entertainment and cleaning. We then co-design and prototype new products and services (somewhat grudgingly termed interventions) with householders, so that they are not test subjects, but participants in developing their own ways of changing their own behaviour. This is the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design’s forté —including people better in design processes, from ageing populations and users with special needs to particular communities underserved by the assumptions embedded in the systems around them.

Reducing energy use is a major societal challenge—there is a vast array of projects and initiatives, from government, industry and academia as well as more locally driven schemes, all aiming to tackle different aspects of the problem. However, many approaches, including the UK’s smart metering rollout, largely treat ‘energy demand’ as something almost homogeneous, to be addressed primarily through pricing-based feedback, rather than being based on an understanding why people use energy in the first place—what are they actually doing? We think that people don’t set out to ‘use energy’: instead, they’re solving everyday problems, meeting needs for comfort, light, food, cleaning and entertainment, with a heavy dose of psychology in there, and sometimes with an emotional dimension too.

Equally, people’s understandings—mental models—of what energy is, and how their actions relate to its use, and their use of heuristics for deciding what actions to take, are under-explored, and could be extremely important in developing ways of visualising or engaging with energy use which are meaningful for householders. This is where ethnographic research, and in-context research on decision-making in real life, can provide insights which are directly useful for the design process.  

The overall project covers a broad scope of work and expertise, including environmental scientists and architects alongside design researchers, and benefits from ‘Living Lab’ instrumented houses in each country, which will provide a platform (albeit artificial) for demonstrating and trialling the interventions developed, before they are installed in houses in real life.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? I first got interested in the area while doing my Master’s back in 2004-5. For my project, I was looking at how technologies, and the structure of systems, have been used to influence (and control) public behaviour, and as such, approaches such as B.J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology were very relevant. While Persuasive Technology has tended not to employ ‘behavioural economics’ techniques too much, it was initially through this angle of ‘persuasion’ that I read people like Robert Cialdini, then followed the thread through to learn more about cognitive biases and heuristics, from authors such as Scott Plous, the Russell Sage Foundation-supported collections of Tversky, Kahneman, Gilovich, Slovic et al’s papers, then Gigerenzer and the ABC group’s work. Herbert Simon’s work has also been a huge influence, because his multidisciplinarity enabled so many parallels to be drawn between different fields. It was partly through his work, I think, that I became interested in cybernetics and this whole body of work from the 1940s onwards which attempted to draw together systems across human psychology, technology and nature, but which in public consciousness seems mainly to be about people with robotic hands.

In parallel, I was familiar with concepts such as heuristics, affordances and mental models from the cognitive ergonomics literature, one of the other main intersections between design and psychology. Here, the work of people such as Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen is hugely influential; this had first become interesting when I was in industry, working on some products which really would have benefitted from a better understanding of the intended customers’ perceptions, thought processes, needs and abilities, and I was hungry to learn more about how to do this. The idea of applying psychological insights to the design process greatly appealed to me: I had something of an engineer’s mindset that wanted, Laplace’s demon-like, to be able to integrate all phenomena, social and physical, into something ‘actionable’ from a design standpoint. While I now appreciate my naïvety, the vision of this ‘system’ was a good inspiration for taking things further.

For my PhD—supervised by David Harrison (Brunel) from the ‘design’ side and Neville Stanton (Southampton) from the ‘psychology’ side—I tried to bring together insights relevant to behaviour change from lots of different disciplines, including behavioural economics, into a form which designers could use during design processes, for products, services and environments, with a focus on influencing more sustainable and socially beneficial behaviour. Various iterations were developed, via lots of workshops with designers and other stakeholders, ending up with the Design with Intent toolkit. This is still a work in progress, though it’s had to take back seat to some more practical projects in the last couple of years, but I hope in 2014 to be able to release a new version together with, perhaps, a book.

Why you decide to stay in academia instead of going into industry?
I like to think I’ve found the best of both worlds: the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design acts as a consultancy for many of its projects with commercial clients, but also (as part of the Royal College of Art) works as part of many academic research projects (though always with a practical focus). During my first six months here, I’ve worked on commercial projects for new startups and a mobility products manufacturer, as well as two academic research projects. Alongside this job I also do some freelance consultancy in industry, which often involves running workshops on design and behaviour, writing articles, and generating early-stage ideas for companies interested in including a ‘behavioural’ element in their design processes.

There are advantages and disadvantages of academic and industrial work contexts. The freedom to pursue ‘pure’ knowledge (whatever that really means), and indeed more open-ended research, with longer timeframes, is a wonderful aspect of academia, a luxury that most companies cannot really afford given the constraints of the market. However, I found the bureaucracy at both Brunel and the University of Warwick crushingly slow: there was a lot of research that just never got done because the system made sure it took too long, or involved too much paperwork to bother with. That was deeply frustrating, when there are many very good researchers at both institutions who would thrive given a bit more freedom to do things. The RCA (perhaps because it’s so small) is refreshingly fast: it’s possible to decide to try something in the morning and go and do it in the afternoon, or even immediately.

Perhaps also, despite being relatively knowledgeable about behaviour change—one of the biggest buzzwords of the last five years!—I was very reluctant to go straight into a commercial application of the work which has no social benefit. I don’t want to use insights to sell people more things they don’t need, or exploit biases and heuristics to segment and profile consumers to target them with more advertising. I apply John Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ wherever I can: I hate it when advertisers and marketers make assumptions about me, and my likely behaviour, so I don’t particularly want to do that to other people. That rules out a lot of organisations who want people with ‘behaviour change’ credentials.

What do you enjoy the most in your current role? While doing lots of projects is a lot of work, and there’s a tendency for this sort of thing to take over your life, in all honesty this is a very enjoyable job. Meeting lots of different people—members of the public—and actually involving them in the research: designing with them rather than for them, is incredibly satisfying. Also, I think most of the people working for the Helen Hamlyn Centre, because their jobs involve so much research with the public, are actually genuinely nice people.So they’re great to work with.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? Most designers are not trained in psychology, so there is always a barrier to adoption. There is also the risk that highly popularised approaches and trends, such as what Nudge has become, lose their nuance and the cautious scientific approach when they just become another soundbite or quick-fix ‘solution’, applied to any context without doing any actual user research. And I’m aware that Design with Intent was essentially this, a context-free toolbox of ideas to apply to any situation, and I now see it as a major flaw which needs to be addressed in future versions.

But if I see the DDB/VW Piano Stairs video one more time used as a kind of example universal panacea for deeply complex social problems (“Design can fix anything, just look at how they made taking the stairs fun!!!!”) then I’ll scream, or more likely mumble something grumpily at the back of the room.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? Design isn’t really an academic subject in itself—it’s a process. I might have a PhD in it, but I’ll be honest and say that it’s lacking in a lot of formal theory. That isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—again, Herbert Simon (in The Sciences of the Artificial) and then Donald Schön (in The Reflective Practitioner) did good jobs of explaining in different ways why it is aqualitatively different approach to knowledge the natural sciences—but what it does mean is that the most interesting and useful research for designers is often not in design at all, but in other fields that overlap. Designers need to be learning from psychologists, anthropologists, social researchers, economists, biologists, and actual practitioners in other fields. It also means there are a lot of design research papers which are basically restatements of the “What is design? What does it mean to be a designer?” question, which are fine but become tiring after a while.

So, to return to the question, academic ‘design’ research is generally very poor at being useful to practitioners. Part of this is the eternal language / framing barrier between academia and practice—there are so many assumptions about terminology and so on which prevent easy engagement—but there is also the access problem. Design consultancies very rarely subscribe to academic journals, and even if they do subscribe to design journals, it’s probably journals from outside the field (see above) that would bring more useful insights anyway. When I did a brief survey on this, these were a few of the points which came up.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? I would very much like to see more designers drawing on the heuristics work of Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter Todd, et al, and exploring what this means in the context of design for behaviour change and design in general, given that bounded rationality seen as a reality, and essentially adaptive, rather than a ‘defect’ in human decision-making, seems to marry up quite well with the tenets of ethnography and people-centred design. Some people have started to do it, e.g. Yvonne Rogers at UCL, but there is a massive opportunity for some very interesting work here.

Also, consider cybernetics. Read Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro’s work and think about systems more broadly than the disciplinary boundaries within which you may have been educated. In general, read as much as you can, outside of what you think ‘your subject’ is. The most interesting innovations always occur at the boundaries between fields.

More than anything else, work on projects where you do research with real people, in real, everyday life contexts, rather than only in lab studies. It will change how you model behaviour, how you think about people, and how you understand decision making.

Visit Dan’s website: http://architectures.danlockton.co.uk/dan-lockton/

Viewpoint: Why I’m Leaving Academia

fishbowl cropped This week we’re featuring a guest post from Ben Kozary, a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle in Australia. After getting to know Ben at various conferences over the past year, the InDecision team was disappointed to hear about his decision to leave academia – partly because he’s an excellent and passionate researcher, partly because we wouldn’t benefit from his jovial company at future conferences! However, his reasons for leaving echoed many dinner conversations we’ve had with fellow PhD students so we asked him to write about his experience and his decision to move to industry. Over to Ben…

To say I’ve learnt a lot during my PhD candidature would be an understatement. From a single blank page, I now know more than most people in the world about my particular topic area. I understand the research process: from planning and designing a study; to conducting it; and then writing it up clearly – so that readers may be certain about what I did, how I did it, what I found, and why it’s important. I’ve met a variety of people from around the world, with similar interests and passions to me, and forged close friendships with many of them. And I’ve learnt that academia might well be the best career path in the world. After all, you get to choose your own research area; you have flexible working hours; you get to play around with ideas, concepts and data, and make new and often exciting discoveries; and you get to attend conferences (meaning you get to travel extensively, and usually at your employer’s expense), where you can socialise (often at open bars) under the guise of “networking”. Why, then, you might be wondering, would I want to leave all of that behind?

My journey through the PhD program has been fairly typical; I’ve gone through all of the usual stages. I’ve been stressed in the lead-up to (and during) my proposal defence. I’ve had imposter syndrome. And I’ve been worried about being scooped, and/or finding “that paper”, which presents the exact research I’m doing, but does it better than me. But now, as I begin my final year of the four year Australian program, I’m feeling comfortable with, and confident in, the work I’ve produced so far in my dissertation. And yet, I’m also disillusioned – because, for all of its positives, I’ve come to see academia as a broken institution.

That there are problems facing academic research is not news, especially in psychology. Stapel and Smeesters, researcher degrees of freedom and bias, (the lack of) statistical power and precision, the “replication crisis” and “theoretical amnesia”, social and behavioural priming: the list goes on. However, these problems are not altogether removed from one another; in fact, they highlight what I believe is a larger, underlying issue.

Academic research is no longer about a search for the truth

Stapel and Smeesters are two high profile examples of fraud, which represents an extreme exploitation of researcher degrees of freedom. But what makes any researcher “massage” their data? The bias towards publishing only positive results is no doubt a driving force. Does that excuse cases of fraud? Absolutely not. My point, however, is that there are clear pressures on the academic community to “publish or perish”. Consequently, academic research is largely an exercise in career development and promotion, and no longer (if, indeed, it ever was) an objective search for the truth.

For instance, the lack of statistical power evident in our field has been known for more than fifty years, with Cohen (1962) first highlighting the problem, and Rossi (1990) and Maxwell (2004) providing further prompts. Additionally, Cohen (1990; 1994) reminded us of the many issues associated with null-hypothesis significance testing – issues that were raised as far back as 1938 – and yet, it still remains the predominant form of data analysis for experimental researchers in the psychology field. To address these issues, Cohen (1994: 1002) suggested a move to estimation:

“Everyone knows” that confidence intervals contain all the information to be found in significance tests and much more. […] Yet they are rarely to be found in the literature. I suspect that the main reason they are not reported is that they are so embarrassingly large! But their sheer size should move us toward improving our measurement by seeking to reduce the unreliable and invalid part of the variance in our measures (as Student himself recommended almost a century ago). Also, their width provides us with the analogue of power analysis in significance testing – larger sample sizes reduce the size of confidence intervals as they increase the statistical power of NHST. 

Twenty years later, and we’re finally starting to see some changes. Unfortunately, the field now has to suffer the consequences of being slow to change. Even if all our studies were powered at the conventional level of 80% (Cohen, 1988; 1992), they would still be imprecise; that is, the width of their 95% confidence intervals would be approximately ±70% of the point estimate or effect size (Goodman and Berlin, 1994). In practical terms, that means that if we used Cohen’s d as an effect size metric (for the standardised difference between two means), and we found that it was “medium” (that is, d = 0.50), the 95% confidence interval would range from 0.15 to 0.85. This is exactly what Cohen (1994) was talking about when he said the confidence intervals in our field are “so embarrassingly large”: in this case, the interval tells us that we can be 95% confident the true effect size is potentially smaller than “small” (0.20), larger than “large” (0.80), or somewhere in between. Remember, however, that many of the studies in our field are underpowered, which makes the findings even more imprecise than what is illustrated here; that is, the 95% confidence intervals are even wider. And so, I wonder: How many papers have been published in our field in the last twenty years, while we’ve been slow to change? And how many of these papers have reported results at least as meaningless as this example?

I suspect that part of the reason for the slow adoption of estimation techniques is due to the uncertainty they bring to the data. Significance testing is characterised by dichotomous thinking: an effect is either statistically significant or it is not. In other words, significance testing is seen as easier to conduct and analyse, relative to estimation; however, it does not allow for the same degree of clarity in our findings. By reporting confidence intervals (and highlighting uncertainty), we reduce the risk of committing one of the cardinal sins of consumer psychology: overgeneralisation. Furthermore, you may be surprised to learn that estimation is just as easy to conduct as significance testing, and even easier to report (because you can extrapolate greater meaning from your results).

Replication versus theoretical development

When you consider the lack of precision in our field, in conjunction with the magnitude of the problems of researcher degrees of freedom and publication bias, is it any wonder that so many replication attempts are unsuccessful? The issue of failed replications is then compounded further by the lack of theoretical development that takes place in our discipline, which creates additional problems. The incentive structure upon which the academic institution is situated implies that success (in the form of promotion and grants) comes to those who publish a high number of high quality papers (as determined by the journal in which they are published). As a result, we have a discipline that lacks both internal and external relevance, due to the multitude of standalone empirical findings that fail to address the full scope of consumer behaviour (Pham, 2013). In that sense, it seems to me that replication is at odds with theoretical development, when, in fact, the two should be working in tandem; that is, replication should guide theoretical development.

Over time, some of you may have observed (as I have) that single papers are now expected to “do more”. Papers will regularly report four or more experiments, in which they will identify an effect; perform a direct and/or conceptual replication; identify moderators and/or mediators and/or boundary conditions; and rule out alternative process accounts. I have heard criticism directed at this approach, usually from fellow PhD candidates, that there is an unfair expectation on the new generation of researchers to do more work to achieve what the previous generation did. In other words, that the seminal/classic papers in the field, upon which now-senior academics were awarded tenure, do less than what emerging and early career researchers are currently expected to do in their papers. I do not share this view that there is an issue of hypocrisy; rather, my criticism is that as the expectation that papers “do more” has grown, there is now less incentive for academics to engage in theoretical development. The “flashy” research is what gets noticed and, in turn, what gets its author(s) promoted and wins them grants. Why, then, would anyone waste their time trying to further develop an area of work that someone else has already covered so thoroughly – especially when, if you fail to replicate their basic effect, you will find it extremely difficult to publish in a flagship journal (where the “flashiest” research appears)?

This observation also begs the question: where has this expectation that papers “do more” come from? As other scientific fields (particularly the hard sciences) have reported more breakthroughs over time, I suspect that psychology has desired to keep up. The mind, however, in its intangibility, is too complex to allow for regular breakthroughs; there are simply too many variables that can come into effect, especially when behaviour is also brought into the equation. Such an issue is highlighted no more clearly than in the case of behavioural priming. Yet, with the development of a general theory of priming, researchers can target their efforts at identifying the varied and complex “unknown moderators” of the phenomenon and, in turn, design experiments that are more likely to replicate (Cesario, 2014). Consequently, the expectation for single papers to thoroughly explain an entire process is removed – and our replications can then do what they’re supposed to: enhance precision and uncover truth.

The system is broken

The psychology field seems resistant to regressing to simpler papers that take the time to develop theory, and contribute to knowledge in a cumulative fashion. Reviewers continue to request additional experiments, rather than to demand greater clarity from reported studies (for example, in the form of effect sizes and confidence intervals), and/or to encourage further theoretical development. Put simply, there is an implicit assumption that papers need to be “determining” when, in fact, they should be “contributing”. As Cumming (2014: 23) argues, it is important that a study “be considered alongside any comparable past studies and with the assumption that future studies will build on its contribution.”

In that regard, it would seem that the editorial/publication process is arguably the larger, underlying issue contributing (predominantly, though not necessarily solely) to the many problems afflicting academic research in psychology. But what is driving this issue? Could it be that the peer review process, which seems fantastic in theory, doesn’t work in practice? I believe that is certainly a possibility.

Something else I’ve come to learn throughout my PhD journey is that successful academic research requires mastery of several skills: you need to be able to plan your time; communicate your ideas clearly; think critically; explore issues from a “big picture” or macro perspective, as well as at the micro level; undertake conceptual development; design and execute studies; and be proficient at statistical analysis (assuming, of course, that you’re not an interpretive researcher). Interestingly, William Shockley, way back in 1957, posited that producing a piece of research involves clearing eight specific hurdles – and that these hurdles are essentially all equal. In other words, successful research calls for a researcher to be adept at each stage of the research process. However, in reality, it is often that the case that we are very adept (sometimes exceptional) at a few aspects, and merely satisfactory at others. The aim of the peer review process is to correct or otherwise improve the areas we are less adept at, which should – theoretically – result in a strong (sometimes exceptional) piece of research. Multiple reviewers evaluate a manuscript in an attempt to overcome these individual shortfalls; yet, look at the state of the discipline! The peer review process is clearly not working.

I’m not advocating abandoning the peer review process; I believe it is one of the cornerstones of scientific progress. What I am proposing, however, is for an adjustment to the system – and I’m not the first to do so. What if we, as has been suggested, move to a system of pre-registration? What if credit for publications in such a system were two-fold, with some going towards the conceptual development (resulting in the registered study), and some going towards the analysis and write-up? Such a system naturally lends itself to specialisation, so, what if we expected less of our researchers? That is, what if we were free to focus on those aspects of research that we’re good at (whether that’s, for example, conceptual development or data analysis), leaving our shortfalls to other researchers? What if the peer review process became specialised, with experts in the literature reviewing the proposed studies, and experts in data analysis reviewing the completed studies? This system also lends itself to collaboration and, therefore, to further skill development, because the experts in a particular aspect of research are well-recognised. The PhD process would remain more or less the same under this system, as it would allow emerging researchers to identify – honestly – their research strengths and weaknesses, before specialising after they complete grad school. There are, no doubt, issues with this proposal that I have not thought of, but to me, it suggests a stronger and more effective peer review process than the current one.

A recipe for change

Unfortunately, I don’t believe these issues that I’ve outlined are going to change – at least not in a hurry, if the slow adoption of estimation techniques is anything to go by. For that reason, when I finish my PhD later this year, I will be leaving academia to pursue a career in market research, where obtaining truth from the data to deliver actionable insights to clients is of the utmost importance. Some may view this decision as synonymous with giving up, but it’s not a choice I’ve made lightly; I simply feel as though I have the opportunity to pursue a more meaningful career in research outside of academia – and I’m very much looking forward to the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead for me in industry.

For those who choose to remain in academia, it is your responsibility to promote positive change; that responsibility does not rest solely on the journals. It has been suggested that researchers boycott the flagship journals if they don’t agree with their policies – but that is really only an option for tenured professors, unless you’re willing to risk career self-sabotage (which, I’m betting, most emerging and early career researchers are not). The push for change, therefore, needs to come predominantly (though not solely) from senior academics, in two ways: 1) in research training, as advisors and supervisors of PhDs and post-docs; and 2) as reviewers for journals, and members of editorial boards. Furthermore, universities should offer greater support to their academics, to enable them to take the time to produce higher quality research that strives to discover the truth. Grant committees, also, may need to re-evaluate their criteria for awarding research grants, and focus more on quality and meaningful research, as opposed to research that is “flashy” and/or “more newsworthy”. And the next generation of academics (that is, the emerging and early career researchers) should familiarise themselves with these issues, so that they may make up their own minds about where they stand, how they feel, and how best to move forward; the future of the academic institution is, after all, in their hands.

 

Outside The Matrix: Paul Picciano

pmp.headshotIn our first 2014 Outside The Matrix interview  we meet Paul Picciano who is a Senior Human-Systems Engineer at Aptima, Inc., a leading human-centered engineering firm based near Boston, MA. At Aptima, he applies a diverse set of cognitive engineering methods to improve human performance in the military, intelligence community, air traffic management, and health care. His approach to supporting humans operating in complex environments leverages system design and training to enhance decision processes. Dr. Picciano earned a Ph.D. in Cognitive and Neural Science from the University of Utah, a M.S. in Human Factors and Ergonomics from San Jose State University, and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Tufts University.

Dr. Picciano was also one of the speakers at the InDecision dinner for young researchers organised at the recent Society for Judgment and Decision Making conference in Toronto. 

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? Most of the work we do involves human operators that must collect data from the environment, analyze and make sense of the input, and select and execute a course of action. The conditions under which they work typically involve uncertainty and time pressure, modulated by goals, objectives, and priorities that change over time.

My favorite part of the job is getting out there and observing and interacting with the experts (and sometimes novices), performing their craft. This has garnered provided access to operating rooms, air traffic control towers, Navy ships, and various command centers for organizations ranging from the Air Force to the CDC. When it’s time to run a more controlled study, there is great access to high fidelity simulators at some of the top government and academic labs.

At Aptima, psychology plays a large part in much of our work.  We provide services such as training, organizational analysis, and system design, by employing practitioners from industrial/organizational, cognitive, and neural disciplines across our portfolio. Most of my work is rooted in cognitive science, looking at perception, attention, and decision making as a mechanism for behavior and resultant task performance. It’s critical to understand how people process information. Empirical findings continue to demonstrate the magnitude of the influence of environments and decision architectures on the human operator in all domains.  Many operators confront stressful situations, data overload, and conflicting objectives, so having a grasp of these psychological aspects help us design more accommodative systems and better training programs to prepare them. But of course, we don’t always get it exactly right…

Why you decide to go into industry instead of continuing in academia? I was in industry before I went to graduate school – I worked for five years after college, and thought I would just go back for an MS and return to the workforce. Plans changed when I realized how much I enjoyed being back in school and doing applied research (at NASA Ames). I found Aptima during this time and was tempted to leave, but  I decided to continue school.
One might ask why I didn’t change my target over the next few years. First, I was committed to completing the PhD program. Second, I continued to be enamored with the academic environment. It is a great opportunity to interact with bright colleagues and an energetic student population with the benefits of a flexible schedule. I was even able to coach lacrosse in grad school and that may have been an option if I had chosen to work on campus long term.
However, I really enjoy the diversity a consulting role provides, interacting with customers in a wide range of domains and problems. I believed industry would provide me more of those experiences and greater opportunity to travel to see different types of operations. I was also very fortunate to find advisors that supported my path away from academia.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? Psychologists run such clever experiments. That’s probably what hooked me. The experimental designs and results from people like Milgram, Festinger, Tversky & Kahneman, Loftus, and Ariely are not just fascinating, they’re also actionable. Designers of systems, policies, and organizational structures can leverage these finding to make things better.

I view so much of behavior as a result of decision making – whether it be implicit or explicit, automatic or deliberate, intuition or reason mechanisms as the driving force. Even at the perceptual and instantaneous level, these reactions I still see as decision making. In the heart of the NFL playoffs now, the analysts always talk about quarterback decision making. These are trained, perceptually-driven, goal-directed actions that are dictated by the environment, expectations and training. Similarly, coaches are making decisions on fourth down and general managers are making draft decisions. For all of these decision types, there is a great deal in the scientific literature that could improve these decision processes (if any NFL owners are reading this I can make myself available for a consulting gig!)

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? In my opinion, the most valid research emerges when we have the opportunity to marshal a diversity of research techniques that includes observations in naturalistic settings, high fidelity simulations, and tightly controlled and focused research settings. Converging evidence from these perspectives offers the best opportunity to build a strong case for your findings. However, rarely can we pull all of that off in a single project. There usually are not enough resources to cover the problem space to this degree (the government labs seem to more often have the time and funding for such investigations). It’s pretty impressive how realistic well-crafted simulations can feel to participants. We have been able to make senior physicians and air traffic controllers break into a sweat even though no human lives were ever at risk.

One of my most exhilarating days of “research” involved observing the training procedures for landing U2 aircraft. The U2 has a long nose making it difficult for pilots to see the ground. The training method involves other pilots on the ground guiding the aircraft down by calling out the number of feet the jet is above the ground just prior to touching down (“15ft…10ft…8ft…etc.). These callouts come from fellow pilots in zippy little sports cars waiting for the U2 to pass overhead and then chase it down the runway at over 100mph. I was fortunate enough to ride shotgun in one of two chase cars that followed down the runway, in formation, close enough to make accurate distance calls between the landing gear and the runway.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? There are always challenges; one constantly in need of solutions is that of establishing useful, collectible measures. Part of this requirement stems from the responsibility of presenting a strong return on investment (ROI) argument. In research and development, technology often grabs attention and funding.  It is compelling when a company makes a battery that is small and has longer life – that’s justified spending. It’s more difficult to convince a sponsor that you have improved the decision making process for a group of analysts. The bright side is the military is responsive to decision making research. There are specific programs (and funding) in place for efforts such as training small unit leaders and building decision support elements for tasks including weapons deployment, intelligence analysis, and air traffic management.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? I think the classic model is that academia is doing the ”basic science” and practitioners are applying that science, to real world problems. I believe it is much more that. We have great partnerships with universities on many active projects, and they are involved in the full range of project activities. They are more than just a place to run first year psych students through a basic experiment.  They are great thought partners and often the first to have produced or read about a new study. Many academics have security clearances, and many are consulting on the side. This makes it easy to engage them on a few levels beyond traditional roles. I also believe that practitioners can help develop new problems of interest for academics to investigate. We really enjoy our interactions with academia.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? Don’t be afraid to shape your own future. Figure out what you really like to do. Find companies and people that are doing that type of work and engage them. Don’t be frustrated by the fact that your keyword search returns 0 matching job titles. This is a growing field, and most people don’t know much about it. Tell them about it. Show them how you can be useful. If you can help them understand or even predict (with some accuracy) the decisions that will be made by their clients, staff, or management, you can be useful to them. Show that you can help them design choice architectures in their favor, impacting their bottom line, or contribute to community improvements-it will be hard to ignore you.

In my job search, I looked for companies, not job titles or employment ads. Go to conferences and interact with as many people. They won’t all help you, but many are willing. Build your network. There is so much going on out there, so many roles that we don’t even know about. Get yourself out there so you can stumble upon it.

Paul’s profile on Aptima website (incl. publications)

In The Wild: Tom Wein

35b5aeaIn our first In The Wild interview of 2014, we speak to Tom Wein who is a behavioural change consultant who has led major primary research projects to tackle counter-radicalization, aid security sector reform, plan public diplomacy efforts and design communication strategies. He currently works on behavioural change for national security, principally for the consultancy SCL. He read War Studies at King’s College, London, and has also worked for the European Defence Agency in Brussels as a communications consultant.

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? We conduct research projects for the US and UK militaries in fragile and conflict-affected states, and design interventions to reduce violence. The one thing we’re always trying to explain is that just asking people about their attitudes isn’t enough – you need to examine their psychology in order to change behaviour. So we measure concepts which psychologists will be familiar with, like self-efficacy, motivations and reward structures, to build up a much deeper picture of a group; that way we can come up with much more effective ways of to solve the problem.

Of course, nobody will pay us to do research in Switzerland – our projects are invariably in places where high quality research is difficult. We can partly solve those problems through good recruitment and training, and through building in redundancy, but crucial to the way we research is a process of triangulation. Some problems are inevitable, given the challenges, but two research strands are unlikely to go wrong in identical ways, so we focus on those findings that are confirmed by several sources. We generally use a mixture of semi-structured depth interviews and surveys (containing scales), plus a few focus groups and more free-form interviews with experts at either end of the process, to inform that process.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? Like a lot of people studying conflict, I was frustrated with the crudeness of the military’s tools in fighting the deeply complex wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – wars that were defined by our ability to win over the very people we kept accidentally killing. At the same time, I was shocked (I still am!) at how much money was being spent on projects and policies with only the flimsiest evidence base. Those two ideas were crystallized when I came to work for SCL, and found that there was a better, more intelligent way of doing things.

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? I am always, always looking for field trials. Hypotheses are great, and laboratories are wonderful places, but I want you to prove that your thing could work in the messiness of the real world (and that doesn’t mean testing on American college students!). No doubt lots of the readers will be familiar with the work of Chris Blattman, whose work in Liberia and Uganda is magnificent stuff. The younger members of the development industry really do ‘get’ evidence and research, even if they’re still sometimes fighting their elders. When I argue that you’ve got to look at groups, rather than humans in general, constantly in the background is the work of Stathis Kalyvas, who has written powerfully about the impact of very local conditions on the conduct of wars.

Other than that, I am always more excited by elegantly written work, and by work that is open access. Those factors are much more important than the field a paper comes from. I’m also suspicious of the validity of findings in different contexts, so I’m often looking for research conducted in the country I’m studying at the time.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? There’s an awful lot of persuading still to do. In the UK, the Behavioural Insights Team has been invaluable in persuading people that they ought to do research before taking a decision, but in the US there’s a complete focus on very simplistic attitude surveys, if they do research at all. Part of the problem is that comprehensive research projects in warzones are really expensive – it’s a lot cheaper to just do a quick poll.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? We’ve been quite lucky in that respect – there is a reasonable-sized cohort of academic researchers who have been doing some exciting research in this field, and they’ve been generous with their time, especially when we’re trying to learn about and plan research in a new country. As I hinted above, I can get quite frustrated with the academic system, but that hasn’t prevented us from working well with individual academics.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? The first thing is to learn some quantitative skills. There are lots of people who can write essays out there; you’re far more likely to get an interesting job if you can also analyze data. The second, rather depressing, thing to say is that there are fewer and fewer full time jobs where you’ll get trained up – you may well have to fight for a series of short term projects before you get hired properly. Therefore, make contacts, network, and use your time at university effectively (including begging professors for introductions) – you’ll never have so much time again. Finally, if you’re in London, go to the monthly behavioural economics networking drinks!

Twitter

Happy New Year from InDecision!

It’s been little over a year since we started this blog, with the hope of attracting a couple of hundred readers. Instead, we’ve had over 70,000 hits with over 35,000 visitors from 155 countries. The top 10 countries for visitors included:

  1. visitors globallyUnited States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Canada
  4. Germany
  5. The Netherlands
  6. Australia
  7. India
  8. Singapore
  9. Sweden
  10. Switzerland

So much, so predictable! But who does JDM research in Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Vanuatu, Sudan, Rwanda, Ghana, Nicaragua, Bermuda, Bhutan, Barbados or Bolivia? If that’s you, get in touch – we’d love to speak to you and hear about JDM research in your country. This year, we’ll address one of the issues highlighted by professor Dan Ariely in his interview and start to look at what impact culture might have on decision making science through a series of interviews focusing on the challenges (and opportunities!) cross-cultural psychology might pose for JDM.

In case you missed them the first time, the top 10 posts from the year are:

  1. Research Heroes: Richard Thaler
  2. In The Wild: Rory Sutherland
  3. Outside The Matrix: Paul Litvak
  4. The Seven Sins of Consumer Psychology
  5. Research Heroes: George Loewenstein
  6. Viewpoint: The role of revealed research preferences
  7. Outside The Matrix: Jolie Martin
  8. In The Wild: Kelly Peters
  9. Research Heroes: Colin Camerer
  10. Research Heroes: Gerd Gigerenzer 

We’ve been incredibly lucky in being able to interview some amazing people in our field, and we can’t thank them enough for giving their time to answer our questions. On behalf of all the people who have thanked us for running the blog, please know that your contribution is widely appreciated and makes a big difference to young researchers around the world.

The original aim of the blog was to give young researchers a voice. We’ve taken some steps in that direction by growing the team with sub-editors Caroline Roux, Shereen Chaudry and Leigh Caldwell as well as our dedicated contributor Troy Campbell. In 2014, we’ll start to feature young researchers more regularly through a new interview series. We’ll also widen our net for career advice to include researchers who have are making waves early on in their career and shaping the field as they go.

Lulu+-+Something+To+Shout+About+-+CD+ALBUM-427621We’d also welcome submissions from readers: if you’re a young researcher and have just published an awesome paper you want to tell the world about, get in touch. Since subtle hints and words of encouragement have so far fallen on deaf ears, let us put this bluntly: blatant self-promotion is OK, and strongly encouragedOne of the main goals of this blog is to give young scholars a platform to share and discuss their work, but we cannot achieve this goal without your contribution!

Finally, one of the emerging trends in our field is the rising popularity of field studies and applying the science both in the policy and commercial worlds with many of our Research Heroes highlighting the need to connect our work with the outside world. However, such work is extremely challenging and we have much to learn from the pioneers, so in 2014 we’ll also be speaking to those who have made early inroads into taking decision making science out of the lab and into the Real World.

As always, we welcome your feedback and contribution – please don’t hesitate to get in touch and let us know what you think!

We hope that you’ll enjoy the next year with us.

Elina & Neda

Research Heroes: Shlomo Benartzi

20110427_1192As one of the last posts this year, we’re featuring our 28th Research Hero: professor Shlomo Benartzi from UCLA Anderson School of Management, a leading authority on behavioral finance with a special interest in household finance and participant behavior in retirement savings plans. His most significant research contribution is the co-development of Save More Tomorrow (with Richard Thaler), a behavioral prescription designed to help employees increase their savings rates gradually over time. Professor Benartzi has also supplemented his academic research with both policy work and practical experience through advising government agencies in the U.S. and abroad as well as helping to craft numerous legislative efforts and pension reforms.  In addition, he has also worked with many financial institutions as an academic advisor. His latest initiative is Digitai.org where he’s exploring new digital interventions that will help consumers, businesses and policymakers leverage behavioral research. 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… that you should only do research you are really passionate about. Research often requires years and years of sustained effort, so unless you have a passion for these ideas, then you will almost certainly give up. (It’s like a marriage in that sense.) There’s also something magical that happens when you are passionate about the research. Not only is the work more fun, but it somehow gets published. Don’t ask me how it happens.

I most admire academically… I’m going to cheat and give you three names. The first person is Danny Kahneman. Not only is he super brilliant, but he’s also very insightful about questions outside his area of expertise. He never gives in to pressure, and always does what he thinks is right academically. Richard Thaler I admire for the diversity of his research program, and also his ability to see the big picture. John Payne is incredibly humble, yet an unusually deep thinker.

The project that I’m most proud of is… Save More Tomorrow, a little idea Thaler and I came up with that led more than 4 million people to double their savings rate. We weren’t particularly brilliant, but we were persistent and with a bit of luck we made a big difference.

The one project that I should never had done… I’m still trying to forget that.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… I was salsa dancing at the boathouse in Santa Monica and chatted with my friend Brian Tarbox who worked in the finance industry. I told him about my idea for Save More Tomorrow; I didn’t even think he was listening. Several years later I hear from him again and he hands over an excel spreadsheet with all the data. He said I have some good news: I tried out the Save More Tomorrow idea and it works. Your program quadrupled the savings rate of these low-income people.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… what I’d really love to do is follow-up with those people in Brian’s spreadsheet. The company insisted on being anonymous, and Brian passed away, but I’d love to know how those individuals are doing now. Are they still saving more? Have they managed to retire with dignity?

A research project I wish I had done… I had this hunch that automatic enrolment in a retirement savings plan would get a lot more people to start saving, but that it might also lead to a decrease in aggregate savings, since the default saving rate is typically very low, often around 3 percent. I wanted to test out my hunch, but Brigitte Madrian tested it out first and did a superb job.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… an unhappy architect. I love good architecture, but if it was my profession then it would no longer be a fun hobby. I would have to pay the bills and deal with clients.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… is increasing our impact. How do we take these proven behavioral insights and scale them up? How do we solve big societal problems around health care or retirement savings or education? In my future work, I’m going to explore how we can use the digital revolution to accelerate the pace of change. With digitai.org, I want to test out new digital interventions that will help consumers, businesses and policymakers leverage all of this new research. I think that smartphone in your pocket represents a tremendous opportunity to help people think better and make better choices, but we have to get it right.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… not to listen to me! Every young researcher needs to tailor their journey to their particular set of skills, interests and weaknesses. Find your own passion. Don’t follow mine.

Departmental website | Digitai.org

SJDM 2013: InDecision team recommends…

SJDM toronto picGreetings from Toronto and the annual conference for the Society for Judgment and Decision Making! With the help of the InDecision team, we’ll be covering the best bits of the conference for you if you couldn’t make it (and even if you are here, we’ll have something for you, too). With dozens of great sessions on offer this weekend, choice overload is pretty much guaranteed. But fear not: we’ve scoured the program and selected the best ones to help you make the most of the conference. Here’s where you’ll find the InDecision team this weekend…

caroline new resizedCaroline’s picks

Research and Academia (Session #7) Questionable research practices. Misunderstanding or misuse of statistics. Lack of reproducibility. Many academic fields are currently going through several research-related crises and controversies. Different solutions are being proposed to improve the ways we conduct research, but I sometimes find it hard to keep up with all the suggested improvements for our different research practices. That is why I am always looking forward to conference sessions that can help me stay up to date with the most recent developments. The four papers presented in the session cover important issues, such as the replicabilitiy and reliability of behavioral research findings, and, most importantly, provide interesting solutions that I am really looking forward to learning more about. How to find it: Sunday, November 17, 2:45-4:15 pm, Civic South

The Relationship Between Altruism and Personal Benefits (Session #4) The existence of altruism, or whether humans can ever transcend self-interest, is an age-old question that is constantly being debated across different fields. It is a debate that I find quite interesting, so I am always drawn to conference sessions that provide new ideas, or revisit old ones, on the topic. I find this session particularly interesting because it explores the interplay between altruism and personal benefit and provides interesting findings about how perceived self-interested motives or outcomes can taint the judgment of seemingly altruistic behavior, among others. I am really looking forward to learning more about how this impacts people’s judgment and performance of altruistic or prosocial behavior, and whether there are any ways to overcome these effects. How to find it: Saturday, November 16, 3:15-4:45 pm, Simcoe/Dufferin

elina resizedElina’s picks

Applying Behavioral Economics in the Field: Nudging Customers to Pay their Credit Card Dues The fact that this session is talking about a large-scale field experiment makes this session unmissable for me to two reasons. The primary reason is that for me field experiments represent an exciting new phase for the field itself: after years spent in the lab it’s time to migrate to the outside world to see how our ideas perform in reality. It’s risky because we can’t control everything so the level of noise is likely to be high, and we have to find partners for it which brings its own complications. This bridge between academia and practice is one that I feel we need to cross to ensure the relevance of our work to the outside world, which ultimately defines the value of our work through funding. On a personal level I’m also interested in hearing about the practical challenges of running such studies as it’s close to my own research interests both as a PhD student and practitioner so I’m hoping to get some great ideas and inspiration from this talk. How to find it: Saturday 16th November, 3.15-4.45pm, Session #4 Track Ι: Choice Architecture 2 – Willow East

The Impact of Comparison Frames and Category Width On Strength of Preferences This session is definitely one I’ll be listening to with my practitioner hat on: understanding the strength of consumers’ preferences is at the heart of my work as a market research consultant. We know already that how options are presented to people changes how they perceive them, but when it comes to a real-life client scenario, it’s absolutely crucial to understand the nuances of how consumers make these comparisons to help advise our clients to emphasise the right attributes of a product. This might seem manipulative or even sinister, but just think for a moment about a product you really like: what if the “wrong” communication would have meant you’d never discovered that product? How to find it: Monday 18th November, 9.45-11.15am, Session #8 Track 2: Consumer Decision Making – Civic South

leigh resizedLeigh’s picks

Are risk and delay psychologically equivalent? Testing a common process account of risky and inter-temporal choice Research that unifies previously disparate effects is always interesting to me – because my instinct as a mathematician is to work towards ever more general and simpler (and therefore more powerful) models. If inter-temporal choice can be explained by the same process as probabilistic decisions, it takes us one step closer to understanding decisions in a coherent way. And this does seem a logical step: some accounts explain hyperbolic discounting as a rational response to the riskiness of a delayed reward – maybe if I hold off on eating the marshmallow and wait to get two of them, some unknown event will intervene and I won’t get any! However, it seems that these researchers have found evidence to counter this unification. I’ll be intrigued to hear what alternatives they put forward. How to find it: Saturday 16th November, 8.30-10am, Session #1 Track 2: Risk 1 – Essex

Partitioning option menus to nudge single-item choice This talk is interesting for me both for my consulting work with some commercial clients, and also because it feels like it could help understand how we compose small intermediate steps into larger decisions. Many complex decisions have various parts, and forcing people to unpack those individual steps (for instance by listing individual options separately rather than allowing people to integrate them into one bigger choice) may reveal some of the internal processes that are not directly observable. Classical decision theory (as used in rational economic modelling) assumes that separate choices can simply be added up to come to an overall totality of decisions, but the results of this paper seem to provide more confirmation that this doesn’t work. Seeing the differences between low-level and high-level choices may help us figure out a better way to put individual decisions together in a model and predict social behaviour. How to find it: Saturday 16th November, 10.30am-12pm, Session #2 Track 1 Choice Architecture 1 – Willow East

shereen resizedShereen’s picks

As a behavioral decision researcher, I am interested in finding behavioral solutions to policy-relevant problems. Indeed, I learned at APPAM this past weekend that there is a lot of room for behavioral research in the policy arena. With that in mind when looking at the SJDM program, I am focusing on talks that (1) investigate the practical elements that influence choice, or (2) identify either a behavioral problem or behavioral solution in a policy-relevant domain. For now, the talks in choice architecture (both of them) and financial decision-making are on the top of my list.

The first session on choice architecture addresses abstract but broadly relevant topics in choice architecture. These talks seem key to understanding basic concepts in this area such as defaults and choice sets. The second session on choice architecture delves into more area-specific interventions on choice and their effectiveness. These choice architecture talks have more direct relevance for policy, marketing, or other applications. With the recent formation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in 2011, it is clear that policy-makers are concerned about the way people make financial decisions. The talks in the financial decision-making session speak directly to this concern with a series of experiments that either identify the obstacles people face in considering their finances and/or provide some way to mitigate these problems.

How to find them: Choice Architecture I – (Saturday, Nov 16, Track I, Session #2, 10:30am-11:50am); Choice Architecture II –  (Saturday, Nov 16, Track I, Session #4, 3:15pm-4:35pm); Financial Decision Making – (Saturday, Nov 16, Track III, Session #5, 5:15pm – 6:35pm)

troy resizedTroy’s picks

Cruel nature: Harmfulness as an overlooked dimension in judgments of moral standing “Cruel Nature” promises to be a great talk and not just because of its slick title. The talk will tackle an already controversial topic (the basis of morality) and throw an additional wrench into the puzzle (people respond to animals with moral emotions). The talk will be big in scope, have a good literature review, and will to lend itself to fiery conversation (or at least that’s how the talk played out when it was presented in multi-school Moral Research Lab). Piazza and colleagues propose that “harmful intent cannot be reducible to agency.” They use scenario studies featuring non human subjects like sharks to test and show this. This talk will ultimately try to critique the Agency-Patient model of morality, a model that is already a very new critique of also still relatively new Moral Foundations model of morality. With sharks, controversy and morality, even if you disagree with the speakers’ claims (and probably many people will), you’re guaranteed to have a good time. How to find it: Saturday 16th November, 1.30-3pm, Session #3 Track Ι: Morality and Ethics 1 – Willow East

Selfish or selfless? On the signal value of emotion in altruistic behavior This talk promises to be fascinating as it shows that the general populace holds a view of morality that widely differs from the view of morality most academics hold. Us ‘rational’ academics tend to think about morality like a math equation, where people sacrifice for others and don’t get any benefits – e.g. gifts or feeling a positive “helpers’ high” emotion. However, Barasch and colleagues show this is not the case. People actually think feeling a “helpers’ high” is a authentic signal of concern for others and are suspicious of the unemotional helper (e.g. the person many academics praise). The researchers do however show a boundary of this attribution which can help us understand where people in general see the line between selfish and selflessness in helping. How to find it: Saturday 16th November, 3:15-4:45 pm, Session #4 Track 3.

[N.B. Please check all session and presentation times in the official program before attending as typos may have slipped in!]

Final notes…

  • We’re covering the conference here (with a delay) as well as on Twitter both through @InDecision_Blog and our individual contributors: @RouxCaroline, @infomagpie, @leighblue and @troyhcampbell – conference hashtag is #sjdm2013
  • Don’t miss the Graduate Student Social Event on Saturday 16th from 6.45-8.45pm at the Willow Centre!
  • The InDecision dinner (featuring talks with three practitioners) on Saturday 16th still has 4 places left – please email elina@theirrationalagency.com asap if you want to join!
  • If you have any feedback on the blog or would like to get involved, please come speak to us – we’d love to hear from you!