Treating Behavioural Science as a Science, Not Story-telling: My Interview With Jason Collins

11:08:00 PM

Behavioural Economics is a rapidly expanding field with new research being developed and tested every day across academia, financial organisations, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This series (a collaboration between myself and Merle van den Akker) features 12 behavioural economists and behavioural scientists whose work and research is at the forefront of the field. My next interview is with Jason Collins.


Jason Collins is an economist who most recently led the data science team at ASIC and now leads PwC's behavioural economics practice. He holds a PhD in economics and evolutionary biology (to understand the foundations of human decision making), and has worked as a lawyer, campaigner with Greenpeace and adviser in the Australian Treasury. Jason also runs the Sydney Behavioural Economics and Behavioural Science meet-ups and is a founding columnist at the Behavioural Scientist.

If behavioural science as a field of practice is to last longer than recent corporate fads, it will rely on an ability to peer into its inconsistencies, failings and nuances. Jason's blog on economics, evolution and behavioural science, Evolving Economics is my go-to for in-depth thinking and critique of the field. From replication crises to why loss-aversion may not be the holy grail we think it is, Jason's work reveals clear deep-thinking that looks beyond lazy lists of nudges, shallow technical explanations, and cherry-picked results. 

A researcher once suggested to me that the best bits of research papers are in the supplementary material and(appendices--the acceptable file drawer for findings that don’t quite fit authors’ narratives. Jason's writing often heads straight to the supplementary material and takes a deep look into the nuances--what doesn't fit our neat explanations of behavioural science--and why.

In the interview, Jason talks about his views on the future of behavioural economics, and the areas of the field which have had the largest impact, in his opinion. Also check out the link below on how he applies behavioural science in his personal life. 

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Etinosa: What is the accomplishment you are proudest of, as a Behavioural Scientist? 
Jason: I’m not sure I would call it an “accomplishment”, but I am proud of my approach to behavioural science. 

That has two parts. The first is approaching the behavioural science literature with a degree of scepticism and rigour. You need to read papers carefully, pull their factual and statistical foundations apart, check the referenced literature, and consider the results in relation to other evidence in the field. Even post-replication crisis, I don’t believe this happens enough.

The second is (trying to) treat it as “science” rather than storytelling. Behavioural science has the potential to appear to be a list of “party tricks” - and is often presented as though this is what it is. For me, applied behavioural science is as much about the methodology as the literature that we draw on.

Etinosa: In what areas do you think Behavioural Science has had the biggest impact?
Jason: I’m generally underwhelmed by the impact of applied behavioural science to date relative to what it could be. The undoubted success is retirement savings, but the catalogue of successes at scale is somewhat small. For each story of successful trials, it is typically hard to see their effect at an aggregate level.

I put this down partly to a lack of imagination, partly to the domains where behavioural scientists have been allowed to operate. For instance, across financial services we’re seeing increased use of behavioural science in customer communications, but far less in financial product design or in designing the decision environments for sales staff and brokers. Similarly, there is a lot more behavioural science being applied to helping people submit their tax returns on time than in the design of tax policy.

One massive impact is the inadvertent (or sometimes deliberate) use of behavioural science principles by those who are weaponising social media and other digital interfaces in the competition for our attention. Their dedication to A-B testing allows them to iterate to very powerful solutions. If you were to measure day-to-day impact, it would be hard to find something more important.

Etinosa: How do you apply Behavioural Science insights in your personal life?
JasonA lot. The major way is that I create simple rules or heuristics by which I operate. Each is arbitrary and probably not optimal, but the bright line they create allows me to stay on one side. Many features on my phone are disabled. I don’t have sweets in the house. I don’t use internet on my daily commute. I do not read any news unless I am specifically directed to an article of interest. And so on.

Etinosa: How do you think Behavioural Science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
Jason: In several ways. First, the battle for our attention will become even stronger. Some of this will be through tech firms continuing to experiment with their platforms. It will also - hopefully - involve defences emerging. Those defences are going to have to be built on solid behavioural science.

Second, we’re going to see its practice become more professionalised. Many behavioural teams are created by simply giving someone that label. It’s great that people with an interest in behavioural science are given the chance to apply the concepts in their workplace. But we should be approaching the build of behavioural science capability in the same way that we build data analytics capability - deliberate builds involving a core set of skills. The growth of good behavioural science programs - especially out of the UK - is going to create the pipeline of people who can fill those roles.

Finally, I expect (hope) we’re going to see the application of behavioural science become less focused on customer or service recipient communications, and more on fundamental design questions. Design products or services for humans and the downstream communication task becomes much easier.

Maybe these last two concepts are being optimistic. I remember conversations from 15 years ago about the application of behavioural economics to public policy, and from that standpoint the growth in its application seems somewhat underwhelming. Even five years ago, I felt that there was going to be an explosion in teams, which has not yet occurred to the extent I expected, particularly in Australia. To make it happen, the people operating in the field will need to prove their worth.

Thank you for your thoughts, Jason. Readers, you can and should find Jason at JasonCollins.org, and on LinkedIn.  If you would like to get the academic perspective on behavioural science and behavioural economics, see interviews by Merle.


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