"Experimental research can’t answer every question about the human condition and decision-making"

Etinosa Agbonlahor

In 2015, I was considering a career change to study behavioural economics (while working in the NYC publishing industry). But before leaving a promising career to spend all my savings on a master’s degree, I wanted to understand what it actually meant to be a behavioural economist. What was the field actually like, how applied was the field, how much money did practitioners make, were there even behavioural economists outside academia…

I stumbled on Elina Halonen’s blog: https://indecisionblog.com and found a series of interviews she had conducted with actual behavioural scientists and economists across academia and in the field. I read every one I could find and then reached out to a few people—like Nathalie Spencer and Lizzy Leigh who graciously spent time giving me more details about the field.

Cue 2019, I’m a behavioural economist helping Australians uplift their financial wellbeing, and working with some of the best minds in the field.

Part of the reason I wanted to run this interview series was because I remember how useful Elina’s series was in helping me make a massive career move (that, thankfully, has paid off) and I wanted to set up a similar trove for future behavioural scientists. I’m thrilled to be interviewing Elina as the wrap up to our behavioural science interview series.

Elina Halonen is a behavioural change and market research consultant. Co-founder of the Irrational Agency (2012), she’s worked with blue chip clients across the world, and conducted done research projects in Ghana, Argentina, Indonesia and across Europe. Elina has 15 years experience in market research, specialising in cross-cultural consumer psychology. She’s a frequent speaker at industry conferences globally, and is the co-founder of London Behavioural Economics Network (2012) and Amsterdam Behavioural Science Network (2018). Below, we talk about her expectations for the future of the field, training her dog using behavioural science, and the skills needed to be a good behavioural scientist.
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Etinosa: What is the accomplishment you are proudest of, as a Behavioural Scientist?
Elina: I think I’m most proud of having been part of the “movement” in the UK to bring behavioural science into the commercial world: when I co-founded my former consultancy Irrational Agency in 2012, few people were applying BE commercially and we were among the first to do so in the market research sector. It was a lot of work in the early days for everyone working in this field to convince people of the value of behavioural science in business, so I’m really pleased it has taken off and everyone’s efforts were successful.

Etinosa: In what areas do you think Behavioural Science has had the biggest impact?
: Looking back, I think behavioural science has been most impactful in finance and policy. The latter is, of course, largely due to the phenomenal success of the BIT and in the finance world, I think the success is partly due to the availability of almost directly applicable research. I also have the impression that both areas were previously the domain of economists and therefore psychology was largely absent, which gives it more leverage.

In other domains like marketing and market research, psychology has been a part of the equation for a long time - at least as far as people’s perceptions go, even if in reality both fields have slightly steered away from that path since their origins. For example, there isn’t always literature that is an obvious fit with a marketing question which sometimes makes people question the relevance of behavioural science to the profession. Market research is even harder because in many cases, it requires both understanding the individual decision making (which is where most of the commonly known literature focuses on) as well as a kind of “meta-level” literature - once we know what the decision making process might be, what methods do we use to study it?

Etinosa: In your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural economist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Elina: To me, the most essential skills for an applied behavioural scientist are critical thinking and an ability to absorb lots of literature so that you have a library of concepts in your mind. You need a rolodex of ideas to solve complex client problems because every one of them will be different, yet you also need to critically evaluate which ideas are robust enough to be likely to help with the challenge you’re trying to solve.

Reading widely outside your own discipline is important - it’s perhaps a little unorthodox but I believe that experimental research can’t answer every question about the human condition and decision-making. Having said that, it’s difficult to stay on top of all the literature that comes out every year, but the best we can do is to be open to where ideas come from.

Etinosa: How do you apply Behavioural Science insights in your personal life?
: I always use the peak-end rule when planning holidays - the last day is spent doing something special, for example - and I use cool-down periods when I want to buy something. I also use reframing for negative events or experiences which is very effective. The most unexpected application is probably dog training: before I knew much about how to do it properly, I taught my dog largely with what I knew about human behaviour change and years later I realised that BIT’s EAST framework is essentially the same principles that are used in fundamental dog training (James Clear’s Atomic Habits has a lot of overlap too).

Etinosa: How do you think Behavioural Science will develop in the next 10 years?
: The most interesting development for me will be learning about the nuance: so far, much of the discourse in public as well as the academic focus has been on discovering main effects (and to some extent that will remain popular given the incentives in academia are stacked in its favour). Along with the replicability projects, we will learn more about how factors like an individual’s social class and cultural context influence their decision-making. I also think that applications of behavioural science will become more sophisticated, at a faster pace than they have in the past 10 years, and it will become more mainstream. All in all, I think it will be an exciting 10 years!

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