This article was written by Canadian Undergraduates in Behavioural Science
Tell us a little bit about your journey into the field, what got you interested, and how that interest has changed over time?
I was pursuing my Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, studying long-term memory networks, when I came across Dan Ariely’s TED talk, which fascinated me. I still recall him describing asymmetric dominance and thinking about all the applications this finding could have in the real world. However, at the time, I wasn’t sure of an immediate application to my research or how to start working in that space. I decided to pursue my post-doctorate at McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute and continuing to study memory. This was an easy decision to be frank, since I had the opportunity to do my fellowship with one of the founders of the cognitive neuroscience field, Dr. Brenda Milner who I greatly admired. There, I became interested in consulting as a career option. I became involved in a program run by McGill which partnered with McKinsey and Company, where I gained experienceconsulting for a not-for-profit organization. This interest in consulting led me to BEworks, where I was able to apply my scientific knowledge to improve business outcomes for a variety of organizations.
Why did you decide to do a Ph.D.? What was that like?
As an undergraduate, I enjoyed what I was studying and I wasn’t sure what job I wanted at the end. I just wanted to continue studying psychology. When I received my offers from grad school, I was undecided between a program in organizational behavior or one in cognitive neuroscience. In the end, I went with a new psychology program at Ryerson where I could specialize in cognitive neuroscience.
What are some of the challenges of conducting research?
With academic research in cognitive neuroscience, whenyou get results with no statistically significant findings, a lot of journals will not publish them. So, if your goal is to get your work published, as would be the case if you are seeking an academic career, then this can be challenging. Also using neuroimaging tools such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) require large competitive grants since they are very expensive to conduct. If you don’t obtain a grant, it can be difficult for you to be a productive researcher.. In addition, I wasn’t certain whether the research I was conducting would have any impact in the near term to improve the wellbeing of others- in other words, I’m not sure my work ranked highly on ecological validity. This is what led me to consider working in an applied context.
With applied research within an organization there are also numerous challenges. Often, it is difficult to convince organizations to take a scientific approach. Data could be very difficult to gather and individual-level randomization might be impossible. In most organizations systems are not set up to support the scientific method. However, this is something that is changing as organizations are starting to understand the power of running controlled experiments to test their ideas.
How did you find the area of research you were most interested in pursuing? How did you come up with your research topic?
I did a lot of reading on my own and found work I would be interested in pursuing through my undergraduate courses. I partook in an independent research project related to memory as an undergraduate in my third year. I also had a lot of discussions with my PhD supervisor when I started grad school and this helped me build my research portfolio. I was lucky to have a motivational and supportive supervisor who was open to me exploring a variety of ideas.
What was your research topic?
I looked at pattern separation, which is a memory process that allows one to distinguish between two very similar memories. Specifically I was interested in how the brain distinguishes between memories for similar locations and memories for similar points in time. I looked at how a region of the brain called the hippocampus, known for its role in memory, connects to different regions of the brain during these processes.
Why did you decide to switch into industry after?
I felt that my academic work was quite basic (rather than applied) and I wasn’t sure if it would lead to a near-term improvement of individuals’ well-being. I was hoping moving into business and policy would allow me to make a greater direct impact.
So why did you choose to do behavioral work in the public sector as opposed to the private sector or academia?
I worked in the private sector at BEworks where I was a Senior Associate, consulting for public and private sector organizations. Gaining this exposure to the work done in the public sector helped me decide that my next move would be to work for the Ontario Government.
The opportunity to apply behavioural science to federal government initiatives is incredibly exciting. With the mandate for experimentation, there seems to be a very positive energy around the use of Behavioural Insights, randomized controlled trials, and data analytics. The potential for rigorous science and impactful evidence-based policy is higher than ever!
So, you worked at BEworks. Can you tell us more about your experience there?
BEworks was a dynamic and fast paced environment and had very unique offerings compared to the work that other consultancies do, since the focus was on applying behavioural science to organizational challenges. It was a start up which was a departure from the slow pace of academia. Decisions had to be made fast, but you received instant gratification, unlike in a postdoc where things tend to progress slowly since there are often few concrete deadlines. There was a variety of different types of projects to work on, this allowed me to gain exposure to a variety fields and industries, which was perfect right after academia.
What is it like doing public sector work on a provincial versus a federal level?
There are more similarities than differences between doing this work at provincial and federal level. In general, there is now a growing demand for experimentation and integrating behavioral science in policy at the federal government, so it’s an exciting time to be a behavioural scientist here!
How big is the federal government team?
We currently have two policy advisors, our manager, and four behavioural scientists working in the Impact and Innovation UnitBehavioural Insights Team. The scientists are working as part of the Impact and Innovation Unit’s Behavioural Insights Fellowship program where they are each placed in a department to help embed the behavioural science approach in the department’s policies and programs.
What would you say are some of the limitations or difficulties that you are having as a behavioral scientist to the federal government?
A big part of my job is helping people in my organization understand why adopting a higher standard of evidence is necessary, and the merits of the scientific approach. Sometimes people initially won’t seethe benefits of using the scientific approach, especially since it’s often incorrectly perceived as costly or risky. In organizations, people are used to making decisions based on their experiences. When that is the accepted standard for decision-making, then it can initially be difficult to understand why a different standard would be advantageous. The scientific method allows us to make decisions not just based on our experiences but based on evidence- identifying what works and what doesn’t and being able to draw causal conclusions about what treatment led to an outcome of interest. The initial goal with a new partner is to just run that first trial. I find that after the first trial, individuals are usually convinced that this is a great approach to gathering evidence, and are much more likely to ask if we can try another one!
What do you enjoy?
Working with an organization new to experimentation feels a lot like you’re at a start up. I’m really lucky to be at the forefront of this exciting time at the government when standards for gathering evidence are improving and experimentation is explicitly being valued as a tool to generate knowledge. The Behavioural Insights Team that I work with are an amazing group of people that are always thinking about the bigger picture and passionate about integrating the scientific method into policy.
What are the current projects and challenges you are working on?
I’m working on a number of different projects but my focus is on working to improve gender mainstreaming+) in policies and programs in the government.Specifically, I am looking at how we can improve integration of gender and other identity factors into the government’s policies and programs. To achieve this, I’m using quantitative and qualitative methods in the behavioural sciences to uncover underlying behavioural barriers and to identify solutions.
I was wondering of all the famous Behavioral Economics books out there, which one would you recommend to our readers and why?
The book What Works: Gender Equality by Design by Iris Bohnet is a fantastic read to learn more about how behavioural science can concretely be applied to improve outcomes in inclusion and diversity. Another good read is The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior by Shlomo Benartzi and Jonah Lehrer. As the world becomes increasingly digitized, it’s important to consider how we behave online and how we can design digital processes to create optimal systems that account for human behaviour.
As a closing question what piece of advice would you give our readers.
If students are interested in getting into the BE field, I would advise them to get research experience in the field of their interest, whether that’s an honours thesis, summer job or even a volunteer position in a lab. If you’re aiming to get into the job market soon, and you can score an internship with an organization that does behavioural science, that’s even better. “Dipping your toe” in the field in this way will help you not only have something great to put on your resume/CV and help build a network, but also help you understand if this is something you’re interested in pursuing further!