"I would like to see a greater culture of scepticism towards unsupported intuition, within organisations, and the prioritisation of experimentation"

Etinosa Agbonlahor

10/15/20239 min read

David Perrott is an applied behavioural science practitioner working out of Cape Town, South Africa. Over the last five years, he has tackled behavioural challenges across a broad range of sectors, but the majority of his work has been centred around working with financial service providers to drive better outcomes for their clients and staff.

David also runs capability building programmes to support teams within organisations build out behavioural science functions, and local meetups to grow the Cape Town behavioural science ecosystem. He has partnered with a variety of private and public sector leaders, including Allan Gray, Capitec Bank, Rang De, Oxford Policy Management and the Western Cape Government.

Below, David talks about how he uses behavioural science in his personal life, his aspirations for the field (everything from behavioural-science based organisations to comic books and sci-fi informed by behavioural science), and why the future of behavioural science should be hyper-local (increasingly focused on individuals using their own data to make changes).

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Etinosa: What is the accomplishment you are proudest of, as a Behavioural Economist?
David: It is less a specific accomplishment, but what I am proud of has been the contributions I have made towards developing and formalising the application of behavioural science within the private sector, especially within a developing world context.

One example of this would be the validation of direct business partnerships as a viable path to funding applied behavioural science initiatives. The application of behavioural economics and behavioural science in service of positive societal outcomes, has largely been through Government tenders or through funding linked to non-profits. However, as I and others have shown, it can also come through direct partnerships with private sector organisations, whose business objectives neatly line up with the welfare of their customers. In this context, changing behaviours improve the bottom line for the companies, while improving the lives of their customers. This makes behavioural design projects profitable for companies, and with this return on investment, a sustainable root to funding projects over the long run.

Even though applied behavioural science is still very much an emerging discipline, especially in the developing world, it is easy to forget how far it has come in just the last five years. Some highlights for me include: The explosion in the number of teams set up both in the public and private sectors; The emergence of a proven and widely used set of tools that incorporate both scientific and design thinking; An organised body of descriptive and prescriptive psychological theory that has nudged deeply held standard economic ideas off the pedestal on which they sat for decades; The lively and constructive conversation around the ethics of the discipline, and the converging set of ethical guidelines for research and practice that is starting to take shape.

I have been lucky to have had a seat in this theatre of behavioural science, watching the play unfold, and grateful that I have been able to provide useful input when and wherever possible. There is much more work to be done, but the foundation is there, solid, and ready to be built upon.

Etinosa: In what areas do you think Behavioural Economics has had the biggest impact?

David: Most of my work has focused on financial behaviour, so perhaps I am a little biased here. Other than personal finance (saving, spending, payments, investing, credit decision making, switching, debt management), I would say the areas where behavioural economics/science has had the largest impact include health (lifestyle adjustments, adherence), tax collection, charitable giving, crime, education and more recently pro-environmental behaviour (water conservation, plastic usage, moving to plant-based diets) and digital health (online addiction, social networks, sludgy design call-outs, disclosures).

Etinosa: How do you apply Behavioural Economics in your personal life?

David: In so many ways! The beauty of behavioural economics is that at its core it is about building a better understanding of human behaviour, and using that understanding to improve people's lives. It can take a while, but eventually you realise you are just as human as the people you are designing nudges for - with all the same cognitive biases, blindspots, memory distortions, social pressures, habitual tendencies and a reliance on the architectural features surrounding your every choice. When this penny really drops, it opens up a whole new way of managing yourself, your experiences and the narratives that result.

Some examples of how I have applied behavioural insights and techniques to my life:

Automation of routine tasks that I don't need (or necessarily want) to give a lot of attention to, such as automatic monthly saving/investment contributions.

Commitment to developing a new skill (e.g learning python) by setting up work groups with two friends to check-in, keep it top of mind, share learnings and apply a bit of social pressure.

Ritualising tasks, by making them fun and social (in this case reading white papers). I'm setting up a monthly dinner (similar to a book club format) where each person shares a journal paper they committed to reading that month.

Radically shifting habitual behaviour away from the status quo during a crisis. A good example of this comes from the Cape Town water crisis a few years ago, where a collection of new unfamiliar habits had to quickly be adopted to reduce the amount of water I used daily. Some behavioural techniques that assisted me with this include having a bucket in my shower and physical reminders near my taps.

Adding friction to help me manage how I use my mobile device. I use Apple 'Downtime' to block all of my social apps between 10 pm and 11 am (better sleep and deeper, more focused work during my mornings). I have also added time limits to certain apps to curb over-usage.

I have other examples and many ideas I still want to experiment with, but perhaps we can discuss this subject in more detail as part of a future post.

One last point I'll add is that at a more philosophical level, I fundamentally believe that this sort of self-focused behavioural design is the end game for behavioural science, and something the field should be directing a lot more attention towards. Perhaps it is slightly idealistic, but I like to imagine a time where individuals have a much deeper understanding of their own psychology, a sharper awareness of how the world distracts, seduces, influences and manipulates them, a clearer sense of their aspirations, goals and intentions and the know-how to be able use behavioural insights, tactics, techniques and applications to move deliberately towards these intentions.

Etinosa: How do you think Behavioural Economics will develop (in the next 10 years)?

David: This is an important question regardless of the discipline being discussed, yet it is especially important given where the field is today (2019). Behavioural science is a bit like a startup that has successfully achieved product-market fit. The value proposition has been proven and now there is a need to think carefully about implementation, scaling versus localisation, variation versus standardisation, externalities, ethical considerations, citizen sensitivities, capability building and sustainability over the longer run.

Given this premise, there are a lot of possibilities for how things could develop going forward. To accommodate this, I'll categorise my thoughts on the future of the field into three buckets: predictions, speculations, and aspirations.

1. Predictions: what I think is likely to happen, or already starting to happen

A rapid rise: I expect we'll see a rapid rise in the number of applied behavioural science teams and functions set up within private sector organisations. Important knock-on effects will result, in areas such as recruitment, training and education. This will lead to a more formalised pipeline and a larger pool of competent practitioners. Where the majority of these teams end up sitting in the organisation is an interesting development to keep track of.

New regulation: The growth in applications of behavioural insights will also unfortunately lead to an increase in the abusive use of the knowledge and tools, with the goal of achieving business gains at the expense of customers. With this in mind, I'm anticipating the reactionary introduction of more formal regulation, a louder call-out culture, ethical enforcement and behavioural audits. Again, there are signs that this is already starting to happen.

More integration: I expect behavioural science will continue to constructively integrate with the disciplines that sit at its intersection and beyond. The most promising collisions will likely continue to be with design thinking, evolutionary theory, biology (especially neuroscience), data science (Machine Learning /Artificial Intelligence) and implementation science. Additionally, and this is perhaps more speculative, I'm expecting to see more collaboration in the edutainment space (online gaming, online video and possibly even science fiction writing).

2. Speculations: developments that make sense to me, but I'm not confident enough at this point, to say are likely to happen

Behavioural thinking as a mission: I expect we might see the popularisation of behaviourally-centred business models, and therefore organisations with behavioural thinking at the very core of their mission and strategy. What this could look like deserves more attention than can be provided here, but I'll share some thoughts at a high level: The organisation orbits around a key behavioural challenge (or behaviour set) that they are trying to change (achieving these key user behaviours define their success); departments are organised around behavioural metrics that directly support the key behavioural challenge; infrastructure and resource inputs are then planned out to meet the behavioural targets for each department; external service providers are able offer performance-based payment models as their contributions become easily visible and distinguishable from other inputs.

Standardised entry points: I expect we might see standardisations introduced at both the individual and agency levels, to ensure the competency of actors, and protect the reputation of the field. What form this takes is unclear to me at this point.

Better research and practitioner integration: I expect behavioural researchers and practitioners to develop more formal partnerships, as the value of 'organisations as effective research living labs' grows. Interesting new funding mechanisms might evolve as a result of this too.

Boundary conditions, heterogenous effects: I expect we might see the surfacing of behavioural theory (simpler frameworks, models, processes, language) to make the knowledge accessible, consumable and actionable for practitioners. At the same time but on the other side, I would expect to see a deepening in researchers' understanding of particular behavioural interventions as the discipline gets a better grip on where and when these interventions work (boundary conditions, cultural differences) and how best to operationalise them (implementation theory).

3. Aspirations: Additional developments I would like to see happen and will be working towards.

A culture of scepticism: I would like to see a greater culture of scepticism towards unsupported intuition, within organisations, and the prioritisation of experimentation and other behavioural feedback systems as a way to validate assumptions and inform design decisions before they are executed. Experimentation (or at least qualitative field pilots) should be a default in the product design process.

Less false confidence: I would like to see the formalisation of new models, programmes, simulations and platforms for building the skills behavioural practitioners need to effectively move the needle within organisations and society more broadly. As I mentioned, there are programmes that are starting to emerge to meet the need. However, behaviour change is hard, humans are complex, and built environments evolve rapidly. Learners need much more than just exposure to exhaustive lists of cognitive biases, generic behavioural design frameworks, behaviour change models, elegant mnemonics and templates for running experiments. These programmes will need to inspire action, while at the same time avoid easy injections of false confidence that come with a surface level understanding of the field. A tricky balance, but one we'll need to get right.

The future is hyper-local: Lastly, as mentioned in my answer to your previous question, I believe that the distant future of behavioural science is hyper-local. We will come to view the idea of an entire population receiving the same nudge, at the same time, in the same way, as archaic. One path away from this one-nudge-fits-all approach comes through a better use of machine learning, targeting and personalisation.

However, my concern is that most of the innovation here is still directed and distributed from centralised points. I expect that we will either see this centralised approach reach its technical limits, or the breakthroughs made will push applications so far outside of the Overton Window that it will be unsettling for customers and citizens, and therefore too risky to use. An alternative path here is through digital tools that focus on customisation, rather than extreme personalisation. On this path, technology enables individuals to be the self-directed designers of their choice environments. Successful tools like Stickk, Streaks and Fabulous hint at an appetite for this sort of self-directed nudging. Running in parallel, there are leaders in the field who are starting to organise the behavioural literature in ways that support this direction, with popular books such as Think Small, How to Have a Good Day and the coming Indistractible. A lot has to happen for this approach to become a mainstream reality, and I'm aware that it seems a lot more feasible to me given my particular echo chamber and availability bias. I'm also aware that it is likely not be one path (customisation) or the other (personalisation), but rather some interesting combination of the two. Whatever ever the case, it is an exciting time to be in the field.

Thanks for your thoughts, David! Readers, you can find David on Twitter, and LinkedIn. If you would like to get the academic perspective on behavioural science and behavioural economics, see interviews by Merle.