A Guide to Career Paths in Behavioral Science

When people ask me how I ended up working as a behavioral scientist in a tech company, I always say it was pure luck: when I was doing my Masters in Behavioral Science, not too many people knew about the subject and even fewer were offering jobs in this specialization. In my case, my company just happened to be looking for a behavioral scientist, and I was in the right place at the right time.

But things have changed over the last few years. With more and more people actively taking up behavioral science, there’s much more demand from both the public and private sectors, and graduates now have a number of different career paths to choose from.

The behavioral scientist in me is nudging me to add that having a multitude of options could also mean a paradox of choice for students. Still, it’s reassuring to know that this subject, which literally burst on the scene only a few years ago, has gained acceptance around the world, and students brave enough to study it now have a career to look forward to.

So, what kind of career options exist in behavioral science?

Let’s start by dividing the career options into 2 distinct categories. One route is academics, and one is practitioners. In each of those routes, there are various types of profiles that emerge, as shown below:

The academic route

In academia, you have the option to study further, equip yourself with a Ph.D., specialize in certain aspects of behavioral sciences, and then start teaching. Most of the “rockstars” of behavioral science today followed this route: Dan Ariely, Katy Milkman, Angela Duckworth, Laurie Santos, John Bargh, and so many more. 

For academics, teaching and research most often go hand in hand. All of the above names are professors at prestigious universities, but they also head up notable research organizations. Increasingly, these research arms are engaging actively with the private and public sectors to solve real-world problems. The Behavior Change for Good Initiative, the Center for Behavioral and Decision Research, and the Center for Decision Sciences are great examples of research wings within universities that have been doing this successfully. For instance, work done by Behavior Change for Good on boosting vaccination rates has been adopted and deployed in various parts of the world.1

So, if you are interested in gaining deeper knowledge of an aspect of behavioral science—or working with people with such expertise—this route is perfect for you. To prepare yourself for this route, start researching specific topics that interest you in behavioral science, and keep an eye out for research positions and Ph.D. intakes related to those.

The applied behavioral science route

If you choose, however, to enter the big bad world of applied behavioral science, the career paths open to you are completely different. I generally tend to divide the world of applied behavioral science based on the nature of work done by the organization and I have found this distinction to also exist in behavioral science education. This distinction is on the basis of the private and public sectors.

Behavioral science in the public sector

Understandably, the type of problems that public sector behavioral scientists tend to focus on are related to governance, public behavior, adherence, etc. This includes goals such as getting people to pay taxes on time, encouraging more environmentally conscious behavior, and so on. Different types of organizations solve these in different capacities.

Governments

Many countries now have behavioral insight units within government ministries. This includes the UK, the USA, and Singapore, to name a few. Within a few days of Joe Biden taking office, his administration released a memorandum on the importance of behavioral insights and evidence-based decisions in policymaking, giving a huge boost to the uptake of behavioral science in governance.2

Today, per the OECD, there are more than 150 governmental organizations actively leveraging behavioral science.3 Government departments regularly advertise open positions for behavioral science associates and leads who can help run behavioral science initiatives at the department level. 

Organizations

The adoption of behavioral science by organizations such as the UN, the WHO, and the World Bank has to be one of the biggest positives to emerge over the last few years. That such major international organizations are creating dedicated behavioral science teams is a testament to the power of the subject to create real impact.

The UN has led the way with the establishment of the Behavioral Sciences Group, and with their recent Behavioral Science Week. The UN Secretary General’s Guidance Note on Behavioral Science shows the organization’s commitment to this.4

Consulting

There are also organizations that are dedicated to supporting governments in their behavioral science endeavors, such as the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) in the UK, the first-ever governmental behavioral science team. Other consulting organizations such as Ogilvy Consulting also engage with government projects on behavioral science.

Non-profits

It is heart-warming to see the number of non-profit organizations that are investing in setting up behavioral science teams. This sector needs more behavioral scientists, and the fact that these organizations are attempting to get funds to do this is worthy of appreciation.

Over the last year, with COVID-19 causing havoc, non-profits have shown the way to apply behavioral science to real problems, from vaccine hesitancy to adherence to health and safety behaviors. Save The Children, the Busara Center, and Ideas 42 are just a few notable organizations. If you are interested in doing real, impactful work in applied behavioral science, this is the place for you.

Starting your career in the public sector

To develop a behavioral science career in the public sector, you’ll need to gain some experience with research (e.g. conducting in-depth literature reviews, designing experiments, collecting and analyzing data, and so on). You’ll want to be especially familiar with low-cost research methodologies that work without requiring massive investments.

You’ll also need to learn how to “sell” behavioral science to others. Public sector work often involves applying behavioral science in not-so-obvious contexts, so you may often be in a position of needing to convince stakeholders of the effectiveness of behavioral techniques.

Behavioral science in the private sector

Slow to adopt, but now picking up fast, the private sector is where a lot of the action is happening in the behavioral science world. These roles require an understanding of how to apply behavioral science to business problems. Interestingly, in the private sector, the types of roles advertised also vary based on the nature of the organization.

Tech companies

Tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix have been at the forefront of applied behavioral science for a long time. Today, even smaller tech companies, such as Headspace, Calm, and Robinhood, often employ behavioral scientists.

In fact, the latest additions to this growing list are companies founded on the principles of behavioral science. One notable example of this is Lemonade (where Dan Ariely himself is involved). Using consumer behavior data and mass experimentation, they have been able to learn a lot about human behavior and use that knowledge to improve the quality of products and services they offer.

There are, of course, questions around the ethics of applying behavioral science to certain problems. But I would argue that even to answer these ethical questions, we need more trained behavioral scientists in such organizations, who can also help set up ethical codes.

There is a variety of behavioral science roles within tech companies. These can be in the form of behavioral scientists, behavioral data scientists, user researchers, consumer insight specialists, and so on.

To pursue a career in behavioral science in tech companies, you need to start developing skills in data wrangling, basic data science, experiment design, behavioral design, user research, and most importantly, converting complicated academic research into simplified practical knowledge that can be used by the company.

Non-tech companies

Well before we got machine learning and data science, some companies had been using behavioral science in their marketing efforts. Leading this pack were companies such as The Coca-Cola Company, Apple, and P&G. How did they make their products habitual purchases? What makes people so willing to spend so much on Apple products? Somewhere in the company, someone was focusing on gleaning customer insights that drove important marketing and product decisions.

Another contender in this space is banks and financial institutions. Some of the most interesting problems being solved using behavioral science have a financial “flavor” to them. From nudging people to save more, to helping them develop better personal finance habits, financial institutions are increasingly looking to build behavioral capabilities into their offerings. Many such institutions across the world now hire behavioral scientists. Commonwealth Bank Australia, Morning Star, and ING are a few examples.

These roles are now merging with behavioral insights. Most of these companies now have behavioral science teams dedicated to understanding consumer behavior and guiding marketing and product development. If you are interested in learning how traditional industries are adapting to the world of big data, while still maintaining their positions as marketing leaders, this would be a great career option for you.

Note that these roles might be advertised under different names. Some might call it “human insights,” some might refer to it as “consumer insights,” and some might just call it good old behavioral science.

Starting your career in the private sector

To get into this career path, the most important skill to learn is bridging the gap between academic research and consumer insights. Private sector companies have been doing consumer research for much longer than we can imagine. The difference a behavioral scientist brings here is the ability to back up consumer insights with data and evidence.

Consulting

Consulting also exists in multiple forms: 

  1. As consulting firms dedicated to behavioral science, including organizations like The Decision Lab, Affective Advisory, and Irrational Labs. These firms work on both private and public sector work. Recently, Irrational Labs did some amazing work with TikTok to reduce the sharing of fake news and misinformation,5 while The Decision Lab is currently leveraging behavioral insights to help develop a government-funded platform for digital mental health services.
  2. As large consulting firms with a small arm dedicated to behavioral science, such as Deloitte Monitor and McKinsey.
  3. Freelance consultants who are working with various companies.

To get into the consulting field, make sure you are rock solid on behavioral science concepts and frameworks, which behavioral consultants often leverage in their work. Most consulting companies have their own frameworks, or adopt external frameworks.

Final thoughts

As you can see, the career options in behavioral science have now exploded. And this list is in no way exhaustive. Depending on what interests you, you can now choose which field you would like to pursue. There’s no one path better than the others. Yes, there would be differences in terms of financial outcomes, but in my opinion, that should be secondary. As far as the nature of work is concerned, there’s no dearth of opportunities. Like many have said, behavioral science is coming of age, and if you’re interested in getting into the field, there’s no time like the present.

How Loss Aversion Affects Our Perceptions of Weight

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide health or medical advice. Consult your doctor about making changes to your diet or exercise routine.

With vaccination rates increasing and the country opening up, I considered flying to a neighboring province to enjoy some version of a vacation. Much to my delight, I found flights at ridiculously low prices—only to check back the next morning and discover that the cost of a ticket had doubled.

And so began my morning of obsessively tracking, refreshing, and searching for cheaper flights. The original price became my “ideal price,” and anything higher felt like a loss. It wasn’t until hours later I realized that I had fallen prey to loss aversion (with a hint of anchoring bias).

Loss aversion in everyday life

One of the key tenets of behavioral science, loss aversion is a concept that comes out of Kahneman and Tversky’s prospect theory. This theory demonstrates how we register losses more acutely than we do gains, and that we tend to make decisions in the interest of avoiding potential losses. This knowledge has wide implications in several domains, especially in finance, insurance, and economics.

But how does this bias shape decisions that aren’t related to money? Early research shows that prospect theory and its related behaviors may extend to how we view weight loss.

Loss aversion and weight loss

A group of researchers from the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri surveyed college students, gathering data on their BMI and eating behaviors, and assessed whether they believed they were in control of their weight.

Participants then participated in a decision-making task where they chose between a risky gamble (with a 50% chance of winning) and a guaranteed reward. (Note that in both cases, the rewards were hypothetical.) Some of the prizes were monetary (e.g. winning $10), while others related to body weight (e.g. losing 10 lbs).2

Participants showed similar risk preference and loss aversion attitudes to weight as they did to monetary choices—in other words, people who were averse to losing money also demonstrated a weight gain aversion.

Notably, this result did not differ between participants who were satisfied with their current weight and those who were not. In other words, the way in which people valued potential weight loss did not correlate with their actual body mass. Moreover, the threat of weight gain loomed larger than the opportunity of equivalent weight loss: people registered it almost twice as much.

Implications

So, early science suggests that we may react more strongly to weight gain than weight loss. These findings have important implications for weight maintenance recommendations.

For starters, many experts recommend daily “weigh-ins” for those trying to lose weight. Studies have shown that those who weigh themselves daily lose more weight3 and maintain that weight loss for a longer period.4 The underlying reason is thought to be that regular weigh-ins may help individuals “catch” the weight gain early on, and adjust their behavior accordingly.5 This habit serves as a way of obtaining feedback, which is an important tool for behavior change and improving self-control.6

However, there isn’t consensus on this recommendation, and recent research has found that people who regularly monitored their weight did not lose significantly more weight than a control group.8

Moreover, what we know about loss aversion suggests that daily weigh-ins may not be a good idea for those who are especially loss averse (or in this case, weight gain averse). It’s important to recognize that weight fluctuation can be as unpredictable as the stock market: the amount of salt, food, and water somebody consumes, hormonal fluctuations, and even changes in the weather can cause a weight spike.9 By regularly checking weight on the scale, we may be unnecessarily exposing ourselves to fluctuations that are beyond our control.

Creating the conditions for loss aversion to rear its head could ultimately backfire, because as with so many other cognitive biases, it doesn’t always lead us to make the best decisions. Loss aversion influences our ability to perform well financially, narrow down options in a decision or even design a pizza. When losses loom, we may act irrationally and make choices that aren’t in our best interest.

How might these behaviors manifest in weight regulation? When faced with weight gain, some individuals engage in several dangerous behaviors, such as unnecessary dietary restriction, yo-yo dieting, and overtraining, which can be counterproductive when trying to achieve a weight-related goal.

Managing weight gain aversion

The reality is, sustainable weight loss is a long-term game. Similar to recommended investment plans, finding a health plan and “staying the course” is often the best strategy, but we risk exposing ourselves to more fluctuation by doing so. “Crash diets” are popular because they promise a simple solution to the problem at hand, but they are never sustainable (and are often damaging to our health).

Our knowledge of prospect theory and loss aversion has helped us improve our financial decision-making. Likewise, this preliminary evidence on weight gain aversion can help us develop strategies for coping with weight fluctuations.

  • Put losses into perspective: Asking what the worst outcome would be if you weren’t to react now might help reframe potential loss and stay the course of an intended decision.9
  • Be skeptical: If you’re feeling insecure, it’s easy to be tempted by “quick fixes” like crash diets. Researching these so-called “solutions” and their long-term implications may help you stick with your plans.11
  • Consider skipping the scale: Regarding investment decisions, Daniel Kahneman stated: “Closely following daily [stock market] fluctuations is a losing proposition, because the pain of the frequent small losses exceeds the pleasure of the equally frequent small gains.” Knowing that we have weight gain aversion, this advice may have utility in the weight loss field as well.12
  • Remember that our biases have a purpose: In some situations, it’s probably a good thing we are loss averse because it makes us question risky decisions. In finance, classic strategies we use to avoid losses include diversifying our financial portfolio.13 In health and wellness, similar actions, such as building healthier daily habits, could help us “hedge” against unhealthy downward spirals.

While preliminary research exists, more research is required to understand how behavioral economics concepts like loss aversion influence weight loss. Researchers may also seek to validate whether the kinds of interventions used to improve financial decision-making could also help individuals stick to weight loss–related goals.

Other questions that remain include whether or not this same behavior occurs for those trying to gain weight (e.g. trying to bulk up and put on more muscle). As well, the use of neuro-imaging and other tools from neuroscience may be helpful in better understanding this phenomenon. But for now, it may be helpful to consider that our current knowledge of loss and risk aversion extends beyond the realm of finance and into our other day-to-day behaviors.

Is Generation Z More Future-Oriented?

For many of us, making decisions in the interest of our future selves is easier said than done. We know we should save for retirement, maintain healthy diets, or devote an extra hour to organizing on Sundays in the service of a low-stress work week, but we often struggle to follow through with these future-oriented tasks. Why? Because humans have an inborn tendency to favor the present over an abstract future. This present bias can mean that individuals are more likely to choose a proximate reward over a longer-term but potentially more substantial payout.1

An excellent example of this pattern in action is the (now infamous) marshmallow test. First coined by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel during the 1960s, the marshmallow test describes a scenario in which an adult places a marshmallow in front of a child and tells them that if they can wait fifteen minutes before eating it, they can have a second one. The experimenter then leaves the child alone to wrestle with the temptation to devour the treat sitting before them.

It was once thought that “passing” the marshmallow test predicted success in later life. Though these findings have since been discredited, Mischel’s study remains an illustration of the inexorable pull of the present, and the challenge of shifting behavior for the benefit of one’s future self.2,3

As adults, we are constantly faced with metaphorical marshmallows, such as splurging on a new pair of shoes today versus saving for a vacation six months from now, or eating a third cookie despite our goals to maintain a healthy diet. Similarly, when it comes to changing our behavior for the future benefit of the planet, we often struggle, opting to drive rather than walk, ordering a juicy steak instead of a vegetarian option, or springing for some new clothes when our old wardrobe is still in great condition. Though the long-term reward may be less exciting, ultimately we would all benefit from changing our present behaviors to be less environmentally damaging.

What remains to be seen is whether there are generational differences in individuals’ abilities to sacrifice present reward and take action for the future, especially when it comes to combating climate change. Consider Generation Z: born between 1997 and 2015, thus far this cohort seems to be highly aware of the future and is making decisions to benefit their future selves and the planet. Eighteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, for example, has renounced air travel and adopted a wholly vegan diet to reduce carbon emissions.

While Thunberg is a highly visible example of climate activism, data suggest that others in her age group are making similar choices. A recent report conducted by the British Food Standards Agency found that individuals in Generation Z “are more likely to be changing their behavior around meat consumption than any other age group, and they are more likely to say they are doing this for environmental reasons.”4 It is evident that Gen-Zers are keenly aware of the present and future environmental impacts of human activity and are willing to shift their behavior accordingly.

Interestingly, this future awareness does not necessarily equate to long-term patience, at least not when it comes to our choices of what to purchase. As consumers, both Millennials and Generation Z are characterized by short attention spans and a need for immediate reward:5,6 brands need to be “fast, engaging, and relevant” in order to attract young shoppers.7

So, how do these consumptive patterns square with the younger generation’s future-oriented activism? Though today’s adolescents and young adults are known for being swift shoppers, they also want to support businesses that have strong ethical grounding and good moral practices. Gen-Z expects fast gratification, but not if it comes at the expense of people or the planet.8

What can we learn from this young collective? When it comes to shifting their actions for the good of the planet, Generation Z is ready. They are willing to change their day-to-day behavior in the interest of the future world and make their consumptive choices accordingly. If tomorrow’s marshmallow is a cooler, healthier planet, we would all benefit from resisting the urge to indulge today and focus instead on acting in the interest of the collective benefits to come.