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!