An interview conducted with Merle Van den Aaaker on Behavioural Science.
Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisation, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Nuala Walsh. Nuala is an experienced strategic adviser/NED, currently with MindEquity, working with organisations to create reputation, commercial and cultural change. She is a global leader, an award-winning marketeer and behavioural scientist. Nuala has nearly 3 decades of strategic, commercial and governance experience in asset management, investment banking and consulting. All her strategic solutions are informed by decision science & behavioural frameworks. With such a track record, let's see how Nuala answers these questions!
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
My entry into behavioural science has been fairly circuitous. I have always thought that if you don’t know yourself, you can’t know others. So as a teenager, I read a lot of psychology books. Like many others, I was also fascinated by the deviant behaviour of serial killers and genocidal leaders so after my undergraduate degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Business, I studied Forensic Psychology. The justification and disengagement strategies used by criminals are stubbornly persistent in many other domaines.
This grounding was surprisingly useful across three-decades in financial services, consulting and sports marketing where I led global brand, business, culture and behavioural change. As former Chief Marketing Officer of a FTSE-50 investment management firm, I applied psychology principles as standard practice to consumers, employees and stakeholders. The biggest challenges were not the well-signalled reputation or operational risks but the unconscious overweighting of IQ over EQ.
The behavioural spark was reignited by Richard Zeckhauser’s course at Harvard. I shifted direction, completed a Masters in Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and founded MindEquity, a brand and behaviour consultancy.
Today, I also advocate for human rights on the Board of UN Women (UK) and the Inclusion Advisory Board at The Football Association. Both organisations are hugely committed to reducing discrimination - areas where behavioural science can make a material impact.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist?
I would have to say my research into bystander decision-making in organisations as it was a tough process but findings can be applied to companies. I tested the effect of dynamic-norms on whistleblowing and the results challenge the traditional compliance-based strategies that companies rely on to mitigate misconduct. Pointing to an opportunity for personalization and affect-based messaging, this led to design of the R.E.F.R.A.M.E. model to facilitate targeted shifts in behaviour. I think the whistleblow-vs-bystand decision are two sides of the same coin and a hugely neglected area that can destroy not just company reputations but the lives of those affected.
I am also proud to have recently co-founded the new Global Association of Applied Behavioural Scientists with a team of amazing experts. It fills an important industry gap, providing both a quality-seal for companies who offer these services and a quality-filter for companies using them. Our Advisory Board includes phenomenal thinkers like Daniel Kahneman, Robert Cialdini, Jennifer Lerner and Paul Dolan.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
So many alternative selves! On my first visit to Washington DC’s FBI building, I could see myself as an agent solving murder cases or addressing a jury so certainly something along the scientific path. But just as attractive is the idea of being a Hollywood location scout. Combined with my hobby of photography and extensive travel over the years, I could select stunning spots for films and then of course, be on location. However, in the real world, it is much more likely that I will just watch films and courtroom dramas instead!
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
As a perpetual observer of human irrationality, I try to make sense of the behaviour around me. I play ‘spot the bias’ in myself, friends and colleagues. It is now almost as a default mode. I have found the spotlight effect a great leveller to bring balance to those situations where we think we have messed up and everyone is watching us.
The peak-end rule also offers a pragmatic perspective when retrospectively analysing events or experiences. Consciously creating as many memorable peaks as possible in life has to be a good thing!
Counteracting loss aversion in my own investment decisions, and those of clients, has been instrumental to steer decisions towards the best strategy rather than the easiest one. Once aware of the powerful influence of these biases, you simply can’t ignore them.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Success is always that curious combination of experience, skills and attitude in any given context. Is there an ideal? I see five skills that may make the difference between a competent and exceptional behavioural scientist.
1. Empathy for others and genuinely wanting to improve people’s lives, including your own.
2. Curiosity to explore what makes people tick and how to reduce regret-filled decisions.
3. Resilience as it is too easy to give up and hard to make long-term change.
4. Analytics. Large-scale analytics can be outsourced but the ability to interpret is critical.
5. Storytelling. Sceptics struggle to appreciate the benefits to individuals and organisations.
Someday, these skills will help resolve the complex, socially relevant issues of domestic abuse, age discrimination, suicide prevention and political populism. Relative to other fields, behavioural science appears under-utilised,under-promoted and under-appreciated. Some countries leveraged it well during the pandemic – like New Zealand, Switzerland and Ireland.
As scientists, do we practice what we preach enough? We should use the principles and practices to amplify the benefits to enhance people’s lives and livelihoods. In other words, make science salient, frame it and induce loss-aversion in the slow adopters.
How do you think behavioural science will develop in the next 10 years?
On balance, behavioural science is likely to explode in popularity, especially in business. It is already happening. High-performing companies are realising that it can be a significant commercial contributor and deserves greater attention. Like corporate strategy, it is cross-functional and underpins decision-making at all levels. Some healthcare and financial services companies have already created behavioural science in-house teams. More will follow.
I expect that this trend will continue for three reasons. Firstly, Chairs and Boards are increasingly demanding behaviourally-informed solutions to shape culture change in toxic organisations. Secondly, competitive organisations openly mimic others for advantage. That won’t change. In a post-pandemic world, behavioural science applications will be more critical to re-establish reputation and waning cultures. Thirdly, people love to learn about themselves and behavioural science affords this introspection. Digitisation will enable exploitation of these mega-trends as social proof leads the way. Let’s hope the industry is ready!
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
An industry bursting with talent. I like to balance the views of well-established voices with lesser-known emerging talent who see things differently and offer valuable insights. This requires removing our own blinkered lens to embrace alternative views. This is the ultimate test as to whether we are restricted by a narrow focus on ourselves, our experiments and our preferred narratives.
Thank you for these great answers Nuala! I'm glad you recognise the width and breadth of skills needed for the field, and potentially its limitations. Moreover, you've suggested an interesting approach to doing these interviews, which is definitely something I will consider!