Developing The Global Economy With Behavioral Science: Zeina Afif

If basically, we were completely transparent with the participants or the target group of what the intervention is, what is it’s intention, would we still do the intervention? And if my answer is no, then for me, there is an ethical issue here. But if we can be transparent over the interventions to let people know why we’re doing this, and how we designed this intervention as well.

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Zeina Afif is a Senior Social Scientist with the World Bank’s Mind, Behavior & Development Unit (eMBeD), within the Poverty and Equity Global Practice at the World Bank. Zeina is currently working on applying behavioral insights to improve women’s access to finance and jobs, reduce youth unemployment, reduce gender-based violence, promote social cohesion, and improve access to public services and programs in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Latin America & Caribbean region. Prior to joining the team, Zeina provided operational communication and behavioral insights support to World Bank projects and has worked in countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, and Yemen in the areas of taxes, social protection, social accountability, and citizen engagement. Zeina holds a MBA from George Washington University, and a M.Sc. in Behavioral Science from London School of Economics.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Zeina’s work at the eMBeD unit at the Bank.
  • How the behavioral science approach of eMBed changed the way the Bank approaches problems
  • Challenges of differentiating the value of behavioral science compared to other social sciences 
  • Evolution of behavioral science at The Bank
  • Why an RCT is not always the most appropriate approach in a development project
  • Why empathy is a key skill in working in applied behavioral science
  • Zeina’s take on the private sector applying behavioral science

Key Quotes

The paternalism of government nudging

“In Mexico, we worked closely with the World Bank environment team to understand what are the barriers rural women are facing to access grants that allows upstarts to expand their micro enterprises. At the beginning, it was more like a diagnostic study to outline [the] kind of the difference between the structural, behavioral, social barriers that women are facing at every single step through the process. From hearing about the program, aspiring about it, following through, applying, all the way to obtaining it. And through the study, which included a lot of field work in the Yucatan and Oaxaca.. What we found is that women face additional barriers than men. Not just because of distance. Again, these are rural women living in the forest or a secluded area. But also because they have additional responsibilities toward traditional gender roles.”

How behavioral science complements World Bank projects:

“I think one of the things that we bring in is, we introduce a different process on how to look at projects, I can illustrate that with another example: worked with the Disaster Risk Management team in Haiti, and they’re designing a new project for the World Bank. And they had a lot of information through survey conducted before. They’ve had experience working in Haiti for many years, working on disaster risk management. But they were still having issues with people actually responding to early warning systems and also going to the shelters. After we did the desk research, we conducted extensive field interviews and focus groups. And we were able to get a picture. Through that we walked the team through the journey map of what the household specifically goes through: From hearing about the early warning system, all the way to accessing the shelters. So what are the different barriers through their journey that they experience? And what we were able to do is look at the problem not just from the citizen point of view, but also what’s happening with the different key players, such as the central government? What are some of the issues there that are not working that’s basically impeding to this problem? And then we looked at the local government. What are some of the systems put in place there, are not working well, and why?”

A systematic approach to the problem

“We use a systematic approach to look at the problem. And we also help really narrow a lot more concretely what the behavioral issue we’re trying to do. So a lot of times the projects are trying to, for example, improve education outcome. Well, we want to go deeper. What is it? Is it that kids are not going to school? Is it that kids are not performing? Is it the repetition? Within the repetition, why is there high repetition? Is it that they’re not studying? So we really try to tackle very precise, the actual behavior that we are trying to change that can lead to the outcome that the project is trying to achieve.”

The challenge in conveying the differential value of behavioral science

“Getting project leads on board, embedding behavioral science on that project, was a bit of a challenge. Because it was a new concept. And even for me at that time, we’re talking 2015, 2016, I was also having a hard time. How do you explain it? What are the barriers of behavioral science versus psychology versus all the other areas that the bank has already been using in their projects. It’s not like the first time we leveraged psychology and social psychology, anthropology, in the bank projects. But I wanted to know, what was kind of the difference? How do we tell the story about behavioral science can do?”

Behavioral science can improve the way we design projects

“The value would be improving the design of the projects. And in doing that, you also build the capacity of the project teams to understand the behavioral approach, as well as the government. And maybe in five years, ten years, we won’t need to even talk about a behavioral approach. The projects are automatically designed that way.” 

It’s not just about RCTs, it’s about doing projects effectively and efficiently

“The number one priority is not to conduct randomized controlled trials. It’s to design really good projects that can be as effective and efficient. But then how do we know they are? And this is where I would say that when we do the diagnostics—for example, we come up with ten, eight ideas. And some of these ideas could be automatically implemented and are not possible to conduct an RCT on. When you’re doing an intervention for improving contact based interventions within areas where there’s inter group conflict, you cannot say, I’m going to choose this kid, but this other kid is going to another program. Or I’m going to choose this city. So sometimes it’s very hard to conduct an RCT on some interventions.”

RCTs raise many ethical issues in development projects

“Not to give this person the [treatment] but I’m not going to give it to the other person.There’s ethical issues there. The idea is to work with them on where does it make sense to conduct an RCT? Where it doesn’t make sense? And where we have to use other ways to evaluate the impact of the project—to see if there’s any difference, even though it may not meet the golden standard.”

On transparency and ethics

“If basically, we were completely transparent with the participants or the target group of what the intervention is, what is it’s intention, would we still do the intervention? And if my answer is no, then for me, there is an ethical issue here. But if we can be transparent over the interventions to let people know why we’re doing this, and how we designed this intervention as well.”

It’s not about changing social norms, it’s about facilitating their choices 

“But we’re not here to basically say, no, women have to work after 5:00 PM and men, you have to change your role in the household and play a more active role. What we want to do is we want to help society transform as it’s transforming organically, but maybe a little bit faster by highlighting some of the positive norms and ensuring that there’s a support system there to allow individuals to do what they need to do. Whether it is for women to work and have childcare support, whether it is to facilitate the job search experience so they can actually find a job even though it may take eight months. So we help them find a job and not give up until they actually find a job. We’re not looking to changing the society, we’re not looking to changing people’s beliefs. We use behavioral science to help them be informed, and facilitate for them to make the choice that they want to do. And we make it easier.”

Why empathy is a key skill

“There is social psychology, anthropology, design thinking, research skills, these are all very important skills to have. And you’re going to have people who have more in depth experience in one. You’re going to have people coming from the economics background and have very strong research skills. You have others that have really strong social psychology or anthropology skills. What I would add to it is really strong communication skills. And one, really, is an important skill for me, I would say empathy.”

Ethics of applying behavioral science in private sector

“And this is where for me, you talk about ethics, it kind of becomes a bit of an issue. If you’re a food company, your priority is the bottom line. Your priority is to sell the most product. And keeping, basically, your products cheap. So the use of sugar, the use of fructose, for example, is one of the best strategies you have. But that’s the worst thing for people, especially with the rise of diabetes and NCDs, non-communicable diseases. Is behavioral science going to be used to increase the bottom line, sell more products, or is it going to be used to see how do we sell better products that are better for people, but maybe a little bit more expensive, or we have to price it higher because we can’t sell them the quantity we can to make a profit off of it. So this is the kind of thing that I would like to see behavioral science working towards, but I don’t know how realistic it is when the private sector, at the end of the day, is driven by the bottom line.”

Becoming fully embedded

“So that would be kind of my aspiration, is to be forced out of the job market, because behavioral science has been fully embedded in the bank. In development, basically.”

Articles, books and podcasts discussed in the episode:

Zeina’s Work

Transcript

Jakob: Thank you so much for joining us, Zeina. We’re honored to have you. Today, we would like to speak with you about how behavioral science is applied, especially in the development sector, and what trends you foresee in the coming future. But before jumping into that, I think a lot of people would love to first understand what the name of your unit, eMBeD, stands for, and what you’re working on these days. What are some of the more exciting projects you currently work on? Can you walk our listeners through some of them?

Zeina: Sure. Thanks, Jakob. And it’s a pleasure to be with you and the listeners and share my experience working in behavioral science at The World Bank. So, eMBeD stands for Mind Behavioral and Development Unit. You’ll have to talk to Renos Vakis and Varun Gauri to find out how they came up with the name. But what I like the most about it is it does a very good job illustrating what we do and how we work. Which is we actually embed ourselves in World Bank projects and as well with the government projects. So it does a good job capturing that.

Zeina: About example of my work, I mostly work in Latin America and Caribbean and the Middle East. Obviously being from the region, Middle East, the language helps a lot. Examples of my projects are, in Mexico, we worked closely with the World Bank environment team to understand what are the barriers rural women are facing to access grants that allows upstarts to expand their micro enterprises.

Zeina: At the beginning, it was more like a diagnostic study to outline kind of the difference between the structural, behavioral, social barriers that women are facing at every single step through the process. From hearing about the program, aspiring about it, following through, applying, all the way to obtaining it. And through the study, which included a lot of field work in the Yucatan and Oaxaca, what we found … and Chiapas, actually. What we found is that women face additional barriers than men. Not just because of distance. Again, these are rural women living in the forest or a secluded area. But also because they have additional responsibilities toward traditional gender roles. They also have lack of self confidence. And also, the most important thing, they actually don’t hear about these programs. Because how these programs are promoted don’t reach women.

Zeina: Following the diagnostics, what we’ve done is we’ve designed an intervention which we are currently testing in partnership with the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, called CIDE in Mexico. Where we’re trying to address the communication channels, the aspiration, as well as the commitment process to help women hear about these opportunities all the way to applying, see themselves applying, apply, and also hopefully get the funding. And so that’s one illustration of an intervention which had exhaustive diagnostics before we actually designed the intervention.

Zeina: Another example is another pilot program we just finished in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Where we wanted to see, what are the barriers women face of joining the private sector. And in the Middle East, there’s a lot of thoughts about social norms prevent women to work. That people look down at women working with mixed areas, basically mixing with me. So we wanted to find out what’s happening in the Kurdistan region. And what we did is, we did a small pilot, which was packed with activities. Not all of them were behavioral. So we reviewed the law, because we wanted to see, what were the legal barriers. But we also did this social norm study to better understand the belief and perception at the household level.

Zeina: And we tested two small interventions. One of them was a competition to incentivize companies to adopt family friend policies. So that includes providing maternity leave, providing equal opportunity. So we had, based on these practices to find which family friendly policy should be, and basically did a competition to make companies a little bit more aware about what is expected. But also, incentivize them through social recognition to adopt these family friendly policies. We also did a very short coaching session with female job seekers to see, basically, if we can help them through this job search experience. So we are right now, actually, wrapping up the project and finalizing the report. And we hope to publish the findings in the next couple of months.

Zeina: So these are just couple of examples, but it just shows you that a lot of the work we’re doing is looking into some of the sticky problems that countries are dealing with, or bank teams are dealing with. And that’s kind of where we come in. To see how we can leverage behavioral science to solve these sticky issues.

Jakob: Super interesting. Thank you so much for sharing these examples with us, Zeina. I guess maybe one follow up question I wanted to ask you is, how this approach potentially differs from the approach that the World Bank would have taken maybe before behavioral science was being streamlined into it’s operations.

Zeina: So I think one of the things that we bring in is, we just introduce a different process on how to look at projects. And actually, I can illustrate that with another example. So we worked with the Disaster Risk Management team in Haiti, and they’re designing a new project for the World Bank. And they had a lot of information through survey conducted before. They’ve had experience working in Haiti for many years, working on disaster risk management. But they were still having issues with people actually responding to early warning systems and also going to the shelters. So we did a behavioral diagnostic study there, working closely with the team, and basically what we started by doing is doing the desk research first. What do we know about disaster risk management? Early warning systems? Because obviously us as behavioral scientists, we are not experts in a lot of these sectors we work in. So what do we need to know about these sectors? What do we know about the local context? And all of that information, of course, the Disaster Risk Management team has all that information. So it’s very help.

Zeina: But we also started looking into, okay, what does the behavioral science literature tell us about risk behavior? About why people respond to … how they basically respond to risk situations, especially when they are uncertain. Such as like with natural disasters. And what we did after we did the desk research, we conducted extensive field interviews and focus groups. And we were able to get a picture. And through that we basically walked the team through the journey map of what the household specifically goes through. From hearing about the early warning system, all the way to accessing the shelters. So what are the different barriers through their journey that they experience? And what we were able to do is look at the problem not just from the citizen point of view, but also, what’s happening with the different key players, such as the central government? What are some of the issues there that are not working that’s basically impeding to this problem? And then we looked at the local government. What are some of the systems put in place there, are not working well, and why?

Zeina: And the problems we identified, again, they could be structural. They could be behavioral. They could be social. So we really don’t know what we’re looking for until we go there and we start doing our diagnostics and data collection. But I think what is different is that we kind of bring a systematic approach to look at the problem. And we also help really narrow a lot more concretely what the behavioral issue we’re trying to do. So a lot of times the projects are trying to, for example, improve education outcome. Well, we want to go deeper. What is it? Is it that kids are not going to school? Is it that kids are not performing? Is it the repetition? Within the repetition, why is there high repetition? Is it that they’re not studying? So we really try to tackle very precise, the actual behavior that we are trying to change that can lead to the outcome that the project is trying to achieve.

Jakob: Got it. Thank you very much for that. So, the World Bank group has been the first large multilateral finance institution that embraced behavioral science to the degree that it has. And you’ve been one of the first social scientists within this institution that decided to support the growth of the field. Can you tell our listeners what motivated you to embrace behavioral science, and how you went about helping to streamline it across the institution? And with that also, what were some of the largest challenges you may have encountered throughout this journey, and how did you go about solving those?

Zeina: Before I got into the whole behavioral science field, I think it was four years ago, I was working with governments on strategic communication. So basically what I did is I worked within the project of the World Bank on supporting the government and building the capacity on communicating on reforms, new programs, or even improving existing programs. When you talk about strategic communication we’re not just talking about outreach. We’re talking about the whole process which is from the partnerships, building the right partnerships, internal communication, engaging all the stakeholders, looking into the risks. Before you even decide what to do. What I realized after doing this for a few years is, while people did want to communication and increase awareness, when we started talking about changing behavior, communication just was not enough. You can provide as much information as possible, doesn’t mean people will change their behavior. And I started researching to see, basically, what evidence is there around behavioral change interventions? And that’s where I stumbled on the work of Dan Ariely, Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein and Daniel Kahneman.

Zeina: After that, I pursued the master’s in behavioral science at LSE. But really, I think I was lucky that I got into the field right when the bank was publishing the world development report 2015 on mind, behavior, and society. So there was a momentum and interest in the institution. And I happened to be working at that time for a senior director who was personally very much interested in the topic. And that also gave me the chance to meet other people in the institution such as Oscar Calvo-Gonzalo, many other people who have been doing this work at the bank for much longer time. And of course Jacqueline Devine who was at the time leading the World Bank behavioral change committee of practice. So that kind of was my entry to the behavioral science. And then after that, since I was already supporting project teams and had access to the projects and was already working with governments, improving communication, I used that entry point to start introducing the concepts of behavioral science and to change behavior.

Jakob: Okay, thank you for that. So, I guess the second part of the question was, what were some of … if any, the largest challenges that you’ve encountered throughout this journey? And how did you go about solving those?

Zeina: I might have to rely on your memory for that because I’m right now victim of the hindsight bias and I feel pretty much that there weren’t as many challenges, but I’m sure there were. I think, if I have to think of one, I would say any startup. Getting project leads on board, embedding behavioral science on that project, was a bit of a challenge. Because it was a new concept. And even for me at that time, we’re talking 2015, 2016, I was also having a hard time. How do you explain it? What are the barriers of behavioral science versus psychology versus all the other areas that the bank has already been using in their projects. It’s not like the first time we leveraged psychology and social psychology, anthropology, in the bank projects. But I wanted to know, what was kind of the difference? How do we tell the story about behavioral science can do? What are the boundaries? That part was, for me personally, a bit of a challenge.

Zeina: But what kind of helped is, being part of the team here, meeting with like minded people and talking to other experts, kind of helped in my head create a better understanding of, how can behavioral sciences different than just leveraging psychology or anthropology within your project? What is the difference with behavioral science? And once it was clearer for me, then it was easier for me to be able to explain it to the project leads and governments counterparts to show them the benefits of using behavioral science. So I think that was mostly for me, at the beginning, just being able to kind of know the narrative and be able to explain in a way that demonstrated the value of behavioral science versus just using psychology in a project. Or having a social psychologist in a project to improve design of that project, versus really looking into it through the behavioral science lens. And I really liked working with the team here. And as the work of the team was developing, we were developing as well our tools, our processes, and that helped a lot. Because it gave me the tools I needed to be able to embed behavioral science into the projects. So I think this is probably some of the challenges.

Zeina: And also, I think what kind of a challenge with it, and how I went around to solve it was, getting buy in from people. Basically, what I tried to focus on is, going to the people who were already innovatable, open minded, or had the mental bandwidth. Because you also have to keep in mind, the project teams at the bank and the project leads are probably some of the busiest people here. They are tackling multiple projects, they are tackling multiple relationships, multiple teams, multiple management, and countries sometimes. It’s very intense work and there’s a lot of uncertainty when you talk about development, because things can change very quickly in some of the countries we work in.

Zeina: So all of that, trying to get the attention of the project leads to be able to see the value and be willing to give this space for behavioral science, was a challenge at the beginning. But I think I was lucky enough to work with enough of them that took a chance on me and kind of gave me the space to explore. Which allowed me to dialogue with the governments and demonstrate for them why this could be helpful for me. But also demonstrate to the project teams how behavioral science can improve the project design. So I think the one thing was, convincing people to do RCTs. Convincing people to test really clever interventions. I didn’t feel that was the best way to come in. The best way for me to come into the project was telling them, tell me your biggest problem and let’s see if we can use behavioral science to solve it.

Jakob: Got it. Thank you very much. I guess a lot of people are curious, especially in the context of the World Bank, and how behavioral science has been embraced, there is probably this underlying assumption in many people that the field in itself sometimes is maybe challenging, a little bit. Or certain, sub aspects of the field are challenging. Kind of the rational actor model that a lot of the, lets say, the more classic economists have been trained in. I guess when I was asking you about the challenges, I also wonder if you’ve ever been running up against fundamental philosophical differences between the approach that behavioral science is advocating for and maybe the training that a lot of the World Bank economists have been receiving.

Zeina: Now I know there’s a handful of economists like the ones that you’ve mentioned have definitely embraced the field, but are there also people within the institution who kind of are maybe a bit more cynical about or it say this is nothing new? Or even go as far as dismissing it because it doesn’t necessarily fit their theoretical frameworks? That’s part one of my question. And building on that, how do you see behavioral science evolve further throughout the World Bank group, and client countries in the years to come?

Zeina: The World Bank is a huge institution, and I’ve been lucky where I haven’t met anybody who didn’t recognize the value and understood how different … what basically, how behavioral science complements standard economics. I think for me it was mostly bandwidth issues. That they have other, more pressing issues that they need to deal with. That was more for me, the barriers I faced. I think you can definitely see at the World Bank, an institution that’s full of economists, who most of them studied standard economics, they actually embrace behavioral economics. Because the team sits with the poverty and equity global practice, which is pretty much where all of the poverty analytical, economic analytical work … this is basically, we’re sitting with what you call, the economists of the World Bank looking things through economic analytical lens. Which is very different than, for example, if you’re looking at health and other sectors. So for me it was actually a pleasant surprise, and I would have never bet that the unit would end up in the poverty and equity global practice. I always thought it would end up being with the social development or with the research, because these were more open or closer departments. So when the team ended up being here, this for me demonstrated the commitment the institution had towards the field.

Zeina: Now the second question you had was about the future?

Jakob: Yes. How do you see behavioral science evolve further throughout the World Bank group and client countries in the years to come?

Zeina: So the interesting thing is, we’re a team of around ten people, but of course we have extended teams help working with us. I think what’s interesting is we’re all learning on the different approaches. So you have some of our projects we are replicating, the tax compliance with different variations, not just relying on social norms. We’re also doing the growth mindset, Indonesia, South Asia … South Africa, Indonesia, and I think it’s being permitted in Macedonia, I just found out yesterday. So I think you’re seeing some of the replication of these solutions that have already been vetted outside and within the bank. But also I think we’re looking into now really embedding more behavioral science in the way the bank does business. To give you an example, the Haiti Disaster Risk Management is a very good example where the project team approached us when they were still designing the project. Which is before it went to the board, before it was funded. It’s basically early on. And ideally that’s really where would be great to see more of this happening. A lot of the projects are designed incorporating a behavioral lens. And that we’re making it a lot more realistic based with experiences, or the expected experiences, of the target groups.

Zeina: So for me, if you ask me about the future, I’d like to see a lot more of these projects. Of course, where it makes sense. Because these behavioral diagnostics take time, and cost money. So I think for me, the value would be to see more improving the design of the projects. And in doing that, you also build the capacity of the project teams to understand the behavioral approach, as well as the government. And maybe in five years, ten years, we won’t need to even talk about a behavioral approach. The projects are automatically designed that way. So that’s kind of what would be my … what I hope to see in the future with behavioral science. And then you continue doing, of course, experiments where we can do experiments. To test some of these solutions. And then build on the literature that’s right now growing in the field.

Jakob: So if I heard you correctly, you’re saying that one way of how this could evolve is that it doesn’t … it’s not, in essence, kind of an add on or almost a separate approach, a new approach. But it becomes the way to do business. The way to do projects and things within the policy making world. Right?

Zeina: And you’re seeing that in other countries. For example, The Netherlands, the water and infrastructure ministry, they’re already doing that. They designed … sorry, it’s The Netherlands ministry of infrastructure and water management. They actually designed a huge program that had 350 measures. So it measured 350 activities to basically reduce delays during rush hour. And they leveraged behavioral science in designing these. And some of these were actually tested, and others were evaluated, and some were not evaluated. So you’re starting to see other countries doing that. And then another example is the UK department of works and pension, also they pretty much focus a lot more on behavioral analysis, behavioral diagnostics, than just the evaluation. So you’re starting to see a lot of the countries, especially part one countries doing that. In the UK, in Canada, in Australia, you’re starting to see a lot more movement towards not just improving touchpoints with citizens or tweaking programs, but to design the programs within the behavioral lens.

Jakob: Makes sense. Okay, so now I’d like to shift gears to talk about the application of behavioral science and policy making. So the World Bank group has obviously a strong global reputation because it applies a rigorous academic approach, or often academic approach, to policymaking. So this is obviously something that can be very beneficial for client countries and governments that request the World Bank services. But it also comes with some challenges. At times, we hear that behavioral science is embraced by project leaders, whether within or outside the World Bank, and government counterparts, because it provides fresh, new, and sometimes, maybe in a way, quicker or less complicated perspective than classic economic models have done in the past. But we also hear that units don’t have the needed luxury of time and budgets to conduct complex randomized controlled trials every time. Yet they still want to apply behavioral science in a rigorous manner to their project. So what do you think, Zeina, are the biggest challenges for an organization looking to apply behavioral science in an empirical manner, and how can these be tackled?

Zeina: So that’s a very good question, and that’s something we discuss also, internally, the team. Because we’re not a research institute. We are here to support development and support countries in investing in development and improving the lives of their people. So if you ask me what is the number one priority, it’s not to conduct randomized controlled trials. But it’s actually to design really good projects that can be as effective and efficient. But then how do we know they are? And this is where I would say that … so when we do the diagnostics, for example, we come up with ten, eight ideas. And some of these ideas could be automatically implemented and are not possible to conduct an RCT on. When you’re doing, for example, an intervention for improving contact based interventions within areas where there’s inter group conflict, you cannot say, I’m going to choose this kid, but this other kid is going to another program. Or I’m going to choose this city. So sometimes it’s very hard to conduct an RCT and some interventions.

Zeina: But it doesn’t mean we don’t do that. We just try to find ways that we can evaluate it’s impact as much as possible, even though it may not meet the golden standard of RCTs. But then there are some times when you could do RCTs, or you could … instead of looking at an RCT, it’s an RCT but within a phase approach. So the whole thing is … when I put my researcher hat on, evidence, I want to test this, I want to do an RCT. That’s what I think about. But when you talk to clients, what they really want is to solve the problem. And a lot of times you can’t tell them, I’m going to give this person this solution but I’m not going to give it to the other person. For them they see there’s ethical issues there. The idea is to work with them on where does it make sense to conduct an RCT? Where it doesn’t make sense? And where we have to use other ways to evaluate the impact of the project, see if there’s any difference, even though it may not meet the golden standard.

Zeina: So this is basically what we’ve been tackling. So I don’t really see it as a challenge. I just see it as more like a conversation. Because at the end of the day, it is expensive and time consuming to do randomized controlled trials. And when you are in the field, this is not a controlled lab or controlled area. Like also, a lot of the countries, part one, you have a lot of resources. A lot of these countries, you have implementation issues you haven’t even thought about, you’re going to run into. That can even affect the RCT. So there’s a lot of other additional challenges that come into conducting an RCT. And in some of the developing countries. So the idea is, how do you design, when do you design it, how do you … can you use AB testing? Is that good enough to give us some information? And out of all of the solutions, maybe we try to do an RCT for a few of them.

Zeina: But at the end of the day, the way I see my job is to kind of help bank teams and the clients design more human-centered projects. And if I can quantify it, if I can evaluate it, great. But that’s kind of, for me, secondary. You may talk to my colleagues on the team, they may have a different response. But as someone who comes from operations, that’s kind of my purpose of being here. And I’d like to use as much as I can, RCTs, where it’s possible.

Jakob: Got it. Thanks Zeina. And I want to switch gears and talk about another critical topic within behavioral science, which is obviously the ethics of doing behavioral science. So as a nonprofit, we’re particularly interested in the ethical dimension of nudging. And one compelling argument we’ve heard for why nudging is ethical is that choice architecture happens all the time, whether we think about it or not. So therefore, there’s an ethical imperative to think more deeply and deliberately about how we’re actually doing it. So that’s a very interesting view, but it brings up further ethical questions. If nudging gives you a tool to be more deliberate and empirical in the way you affect people’s decisions, how can we make sure that we do this in a way that is as aligned with people’s interest as possible? Is the answer to create discourse and let people decide where to be nudged? Or should we decide for them based on societal ideals such as being healthy and prepared for retirement?

Zeina: That’s a loaded question. I guess, for me, the way I look at a lot of the ethical issues is, and that’s kind of the test I take whenever we’re designing intervention is, if we told all the participants exactly what we were doing and why we were doing it, would we not do it? Let me see if I can rephrase this better. If, basically, we were completely transparent with the participants or the target group of what the intervention is, what is it’s intention, would we still do the intervention? And if my answer is no, then for me, there is an ethical issue here. But if we can be transparent over the interventions to let people know why we’re doing this, and how we designed this intervention as well.

Zeina: I’ll use another example. We’re doing this intervention in Baghdad in Iraq, to help low status economic … sorry, low socioeconomic status families keep their kids in school. And there’s a conditional cash transfer that we’re piloting, and we wanted to add to it a behavioral intervention. So we surveyed the parents and what we found is, parents wanted to send their kids to school. They wanted their kids to stay in school. They wanted their kids to … they had high aspirations for their kids. But the reality is, the parents themselves barely finished primary school. When you look at the community level, literacy is low, and there’s also a high dropout rate. So the likelihood for the kids to be able to stay beyond primary is low.

Zeina: So what we did, instead of trying to convince parents about why they should keep their kids in school, what we did is, intervention actually focused on helping parents talk to their kids, explain to them how it’s important to stay in school, what they’re going to get out of it. So we basically did this booklet that had growth mindset, grit, goal setting to help parents help their kids in basically staying in school. Which includes doing well and dealing with challenges. And potentially failure. Because the repetition rate is at 50%. So this is where our intervention there is, help parents do what they want to do for their kids, which is to get them to stay in school longer. So again, we tried to find interventions that are more aligned with where people are.

Zeina: And this is something that gets very tricky, also, when you start talking about social norms. Because people think that you want to change the social norms. In some of the work we’re doing in the Middle East, what we want to do is, the majority of the people believe it’s okay for women to work in the private sector. We want people to know that everybody else feels that way. But what we found is, for example, that women were expected … 85% of working women were expected to be home before 5:00 PM. And we’re not here to come and tell them, women have to stay to after 5:00 and men have to be more involved. Yes, this is great, but these are very strong beliefs. And it’s not our place to tell them they have to change.

Zeina: But what we can do is make it easy for the families that want to be able to work a little bit later than five, have childcare support, have the support mechanism that allows them to work. And then eventually, if this norm changes, it changes. But we’re not here to basically say, no, women have to work after 5:00 PM and men, you have to change your role in the household and play a more active role. What we want to do is we want to help society transform as it’s transforming organically, but maybe a little bit faster by highlighting some of the positive norms and ensuring that there’s a support system there to allow individuals to do what they need to do. Whether it is for women to work and have childcare support, whether it is to facilitate the job search experience so they can actually find a job even though it may take eight months. So we help them find a job and not give up until they actually find a job. So that’s kind of what we’re doing.

Zeina: I know I’m not completely answering your questions, but we look at our role and our interventions in that way. We’re not looking to changing the society, we’re not looking to changing people’s beliefs. We use behavioral science to help them be informed, and facilitate for them to make the choice that they want to do. And we make it easier.

Jakob: Right. I think by all means, you’ve answered the question. I actually like this approach of what you said in the very beginning, of having almost like a reality check. If you are transparent about your intervention and you feel like you can still go ahead, then that means that most likely there are no ethical issues. But if you couldn’t do that, that most likely would flag ethical issues. So it goes a bit to that discourse of having people themselves decide, if these tools become available to them, whether they still would want that certain behavior change or not. So it’s in a bit, letting … not having us, let’s say, the policymakers kind of make that decision for people, but showing people ways of how things can change, and having them themselves decide whether this is ethically aligned or not. That actually takes me back to one of my first interviews that I conducted in this series. And I think it was David Halpern from the BIT that said that they even go as far as developing now these crowdsourcing platforms, before they make any policy interventions, where they actually run a census, if you will, on a certain population sample to figure out whether that community wants this type of intervention or not. So it takes it even a step further in terms of really having the beneficiaries make that decision on whether this is ethically defendable or not. Very interesting perspectives.

Zeina: And that’s great. That’s great they’re doing that.

Jakob: Right.

Zeina: That’s a great idea, actually.

Jakob: I want to talk to you now just briefly about career in behavioral science, because I think a lot of our listeners are interested in this topic but they don’t necessarily know how to get into it. Applied behavioral science is becoming an increasingly appealing career choice for many, especially those people who want to kind of sit at the intersection between various fields as well as between theory and application. However, for that very reason, it’s a somewhat tough field to prepare well for. Many of our listeners have asked us how they can best prepare for the field. So with this in mind, what skills do you think an applied behavioral scientist will most likely need in the coming five to ten years? How can they best prepare for the field? And how would you also distinguish between a behavioral scientist who wants to work in development, versus, for example, somebody who wants to join the private sector?

Zeina: So, I hope the requirements would be the same. But for private sector versus development, that’s more of my idealistic view, even though the incentives are different. But I’m hoping that the private sector incentives would change a bit to support the society they’re working with. And I’ll give you an example in a bit about this. But let’s talk about skills first.

Zeina: There is social psychology, anthropology, design thinking, research skills, these are all very important skills to have. And you’re going to have people who have more in depth experience in one. You’re going to have people coming from the economics background and have very strong research skills. You have others that have really strong social psychology or anthropology skills. What I would add to it is really strong communication skills. And one, really, is an important skill for me, I would say empathy.

Zeina: And I think for us, behavioral scientists, this is probably one of the most important skills that we need to have. And it’s empathy and the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of the different audiences. So we’re not just talking about the citizens, but putting ourselves in the shoes of the government clients. Or the implementing agency. Of the actual people delivering the service. Of the project teams. So you have to think of all of the people involved in this project, and put yourself in their shoes, and understand what they’re experience is going to be like. And what issues they’re going to face. Because if you don’t take that into consideration, you’re going to have issues within your implementation, unless everything is aligned perfectly. Because every single one of them has challenges that they are facing, concerns that may be different.

Zeina: So for me, I would say, having really strong empathy skills is important for us to be successful in our work. And all the other technical skills, of course. And I’m sure the field is growing very fast with data science. You have machine learning, AI, you have so many tools out there that can complement nicely the work. So all of these technical skills are very important. But I would also work on soft skills.

Jakob: Right. And so that’s often an area where people maybe have a bit of more struggle with. It’s clear, you can go and study economics, you can go study psychology, anthropology, whatever you choose. And any of these fields can lead for you to a career in behavioral science. But how do you hone in? Do you have maybe some tips for our listeners, how you can hone in on kind of working on these soft skills like empathy or ability to relate or ability to build more of a trustful environment? Which maybe are not things you can just learn from a school curriculum.

Zeina: I think a lot of it, it goes about self awareness. The more aware you are of yourself, the more aware you are of how you react to things. Your ability to listen, listening skills are very important. I think starting by yourself, we ourselves are biased. We ourselves have mental models. And as much as we think we’re not, we also have huge blind spots. And I think just starting off from that point, knowing that every single one of us, even experts in the field, have blind spots. And that is the first step to recognize that the way we see the world, the way we are interpreting things, may just not be the way things are. And it really just then, that comes to listening and observing and delaying judgment or interpretation to whatever you are observing and whatever you are listening to. Until afterwards. Because a lot of times, again, when you are listening, you’re judging, you’re relying on system one in how you are interpreting the information.

Zeina: So the ability to listen without judgment and taking everything in first before starting to analyze and think through the interpretation, the information. That would be kind of the first step. But a lot of it is around self awareness. The more you are aware of yourself and how you react to things, the more you can hone in your bias, your understanding of your own biases, and you’re really able to look at things from the different perspectives and not just from your point of view.

Jakob: Got it. Thank you. That sounds like a great, great suggestion, and great advice. I want to, now that we’re coming closer to the end of our recording today, I wanted to ask you about behavioral science, especially as it’s shifting a bit more gears into the private sector recently. So the recent trend of applying not just to improve policies and decision making processes started mainly in the public sector. Your behavioral team, eMBeD was one of the first movers, and then we had quickly nudge units at other public multilaterals such as the OECD or the United Nations. And then obviously also other governments, notably the US, Germany, Singapore, Peru, and others, who started building their own behavioral science units. So today, partly thanks to your efforts, a lot, if not most government employ at least one or two behavioral scientists in their administration.

Zeina: So nudging, or applied behavioral economics, seem to be best suited for affecting public policy. However, after observing the success of nudge units across governments, an increasing number of private sector companies are now also following suit and are building their own nudge units. It’s actually happening at an extremely fast pace right now. So what is your take on the private sector’s increased appetite in applying behavioral science in their businesses, also given the ethical conversation that we had earlier, and where do you see behavioral science evolve especially in the private sector in the years to come?

Zeina: First thing, just to clarify, I think that OECD, EU, and UN and others, we’ve all been thinking of behavioral science, I think, simultaneously. So thank you for the credit of us being among the first, but I think actually it was pretty much all these countries, a lot of these international organizations have started, IDB as well, have started thinking and incorporating behavioral science in their work differently. So I think the nice thing with this field … and also the knowledge sharing among all these partners has been critical. I mean, we had different sessions with OECD, different sessions with the EU, with different groups, with the different government entities, and that knowledge sharing, which is something that I love about this field, is what’s making this field even stronger. So I just wanted to make that clarifying point, because I don’t think we would have been where we are now, if you hadn’t had so much sharing among all of the different organizations and leaders in this field. Because we all were able to learn from the experience and grow that way. So that’s just one note about where we came in within the whole field. Because you may be familiar with the report we just published, profiling ten countries, how they implemented behavioral science. Sorry, it’s my publication, I should know the name.

Jakob: Yes. I’ve read that report. It’s an interesting one.

Zeina: Don’t use that, by the way, in the recording. Anyway, yeah, it’s Behavioral Science Around the World. This is, for example, a project that took three years before we actually finalized it. But we learned so much from having talked to EU and OECD and the different units. BIT as well, Ideas 42, Toronto from ROTMAN. So we talked to multiple people that have kind of helped us decide and shape. And of course, that really has been really critical. So I just wanted to make that point, because I think the agenda has been able to move forward in the public sector because of all the openness, knowledge sharing between the different organizations and governments.

Zeina: Now, to answer your question on the private sector, I have a different approach on that. Not approach, I have a different view on this. Because I think that private sector has been using a lot of the elements of behavioral science. When you look at the social marketing, and consumer research. They’ve been really thinking about this a lot lot longer than we do. Because at the end of the day, they have to sell products that people are going to be willing to buy. So they’ve been actually doing a lot of work there. So, I don’t think … it may not have been called behavioral science, it may have been called something else. And when you think at Google, Facebook, Uber, Amazon, all these big companies, I think you can definitely … their approach, you can see from their approach, a lot of the tactics and characteristics of what we call nudging in behavioral science today. So I think this has really been used, regardless what the title is.

Zeina: So the question I think more is, do smaller businesses and middle sized businesses start benefiting from such behavioral science? Because they may not be able to afford social marketing companies and big companies, or they may not have the resources, but maybe the smaller and medium sized companies would benefit from behavioral science, because that way you are really focusing a lot more on the specific behaviors you’re trying to address. And this is where for me, you talk about ethics, it kind of becomes a bit of an issue. If you’re a food company, your priority is the bottom line. Your priority is to sell the most product. And keeping, basically, your products cheap. So the use of sugar, the use of fructose, for example, is one of the best strategies you have. But that’s the worst thing for people, especially with the rise of diabetes and NCDs, non-communicable diseases.

Zeina: So, how are we using behavioral science there? How can behavioral science help? Are people becoming more aware of the issues around food? So is behavioral science going to be used to increase the bottom line, sell more products, or is it going to be used to see how do we sell better products that are better for people, but maybe a little bit more expensive, or we have to price it higher because we can’t sell them the quantity we can to make a profit off of it. So this is the kind of thing that I would like to see behavioral science working towards, but I don’t know how realistic it is when the private sector, at the end of the day, is driven by the bottom line.

Jakob: Thank you, Zeina. As we’re coming towards the end of this chat, we would like to ask you, what short to long term future you envision for eMBeD, and what types of projects your team is most excited about in the coming years?

Zeina: I’d like to see, definitely, eMBeD being literally embedded in the bank way of doing business, and the bank projects. And I’d like us to be tackling, continue to be tackling, a lot more of the complex area issues, such as how to improve the lives of displaced people. [inaudible 00:49:30] communities. When you think of all the things happening between Venezuela, the Middle East, and Africa as well, when you look into the displacement issues. How do you promote social cohesion? So these are the kind of issues we’d like to see, I’d like to see personally, the bank doing more. Because this is where we can actually, hopefully, make a bigger impact with the support of the community. And really for me, long term goal, the day that we are out of business, it means that we have done our job, because it means that behavioral science is completely embedded with the way the bank does business. So that would be kind of my aspiration, is to be forced out of the job market, because behavioral science has been fully embedded in the bank. In development, basically.

Jakob: Fantastic. Thank you for your time and all your insights today, Zeina. Is there anything else you would like to let our listeners know before we wrap up?

Zeina: No, this is very much appreciate this opportunity to talk to you and chat with you. There were really excellent questions you had me think about, and now I have to do a little bit more reading on the private sector. But, my advice would be, continue learning, continue sharing. Because I think as we all share what we are learning, and not just the successful interventions, but also the interventions that are not working, this is how we can move this agenda forward.

Jakob: Absolutely. And thank you, Zeina, the pleasure is definitely also on my end. This was a fantastic and very, very insightful conversation. So, I want to thank you once again for your time and wish you and eMBeD all the best for 2019 and beyond.

Zeina: Thank you very much, Jakob. You too.

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