Jesse Itzkowitz: Nudging Against PolarizationPodcast September 9th, 2019
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In today’s episode, we are joined by Jesse Itzkowitz, Senior Vice President and Behavioral Scientist at Ipsos Behavioral Science Center, a leading global market research and consulting firm. Prior to joining Ipsos, Jesse held an extremely successful academic career as a Professor from Yeshiva University, where he was twice awarded Professor of the year. Holding a dual PhD degree in marketing and cognitive psychology from the University of Florida has equipped him with a valuable (and extremely unique) skillset that enables him to be both scientifically rigorous and responsive to the needs of the industry. His research has received extensive press coverage from the Wall Street Journal, Time, Bloomberg Businessweek, and CNN. Last winter he gave an informal synopsis of his interests and body of work in a TEDx talk.
In this episode, we discuss:
- Moving from a career in academia into applied behavioral science
- Navigating the new consumer world: Brand advocacy in the political sphere
- Using behavioral science to personalize, predict and direct brand strategy
- Nudges versus sludges: Guiding principles for behavioral scientists and why we need to keep the consumer’s best interest in mind
- Reconciling academic rigor with behavioral science applications in the real world: Challenges and solutions
- Why companies are reluctant to apply behavioral science: Is it the fear that our experiments might just prove us wrong?
- Behavioral Science at IPSOS
- How to distinguish good research versus bad research: Why the “So what?” question is the key to impacting meaningful change.
- How to frame our thinking around the ethics of nudging
- The value of having a PhD when working in applied behavioral science
- How we can apply behavioural science to improve sustainability, improve trust among consumers and understand the role that emotions play in decision making.
“We use behavioral science to really help them accomplish three things: The first is just kind of a simple question like how do we get people to notice me? How can we make this new brand renovation that they’ve been doing break through the advertising clutter and stand out at shelf where we know customers aren’t devoting a lot of attention to pick out a product from this category. So once they’ve been noticed, what’s the brand going to say and how do we change their beliefs of a product that has been in the market for a long time in a credible way. And so we use behavioral science there to really examine what sorts of claims they [should] make.”
Predictive and personalized marketing
“We know that the American public has kind of become bifurcating in what it believes and how it acts and the direction that it thinks America should be moving in. And what are the behavioral science principles behind that? How can we explain these macro-level trends by understanding how us. as individual agents within society. are responding. And what this has led to is really some guidance for brands in terms of thinking about how can I predict what might be offensive to a particular population and maybe help them avoid it or maybe even help them lean into it. How can I market differently to red versus blue consumers? What might they be looking for? How can I create new products and messages that appeal to those audiences?”
Nudging against the effects of polarization
“We see many of the effects of polarization are due to the fact that we’re overwhelmed and we’re threatened. And so are there things that brands and companies can do to help restore customer’s ability to start thinking again. And I think that that ability to think allows us to really consider viewpoints that are opposite to our own, which is really kind of where things happen and how change occurs.”
Nudging within advertising: it’s not trickery
“When I tell them what I do, they’re like, you’re tricking people. You’re getting people to do things that I normally wouldn’t do. And so there’s still some degree of fear and trepidation that I think the average consumer has when they hear that behavioral science is being used within advertising or within retail because they think it’s trying to get them to do things that they don’t [want to do].
I think given social media and our ability to share information so quickly about our experiences, that companies who are using sludge to convince consumers to do things, they’re not going to last long. I think that we’ve seen so much about dark design, [such as] opt-out versus opt-in, that people are starting to become aware of this.”
Fear of being wrong prevents us from testing
“And I think the major holdup with a lot of companies has just been a fear of experimentation, and time and money are clearly part of that, but within any organizational structure, there’s some degree of fear. For many reasons people don’t like to be wrong, myself included. So I think that there is often that fear of like, well what if we don’t get it right or what if the data comes out differently than we expected? And experiments, because they give you that clear bright line if yes or no when they’re designed correctly, I think that there’s still some trepidation into moving there because of just wondering what the results might actually show.”
Data without a point is garbage
“My first professor always had a great saying. He said data is lot like garbage. You should probably know what you’re going to do with it before you start collecting a lot of it. And I think that is what bad research does, if it doesn’t think about the so what, it doesn’t [consider] the actual marketing steps that a business [should] take with that information.”
“What makes people feel fulfilled, what can help people in their daily lives to live better lives. That I think should be the starting point for every behavioural scientist in terms of thinking: Should I be using this nudge or not?”
Jakob: Thank you so much for joining us today, Jesse. It’s great to have you. Today we would like to speak with you about your take on the field of behavioral science and what trends you foresee in the coming future. But before getting into that, I think many of our listeners would be curious to first learn how you got into behavioral science. What the Ipsos, if I say that correctly, Behavioral Science Center is and what are some of the more exciting projects you currently work on? Can you walk our listeners through some of them?
Jesse: Yeah, Jakob, thanks for asking. It’s a great question and my interest in decision making really goes all the way back to kind of being a teenager. And in high school I did what all of the cool teenagers do and I joined the debate team and it was really a fun experience for me and I loved kind of using facts and information to try to convince the judge in the room that our position was the one to vote for. And I continued doing academic debate all through university and like many academic debaters, I was really on path to become a lawyer and kind of practiced in the skill of argumentation. And as one of my general education requirements I ended up taking a class in cognitive psychology, which was all about information processing and decision making.
Jesse: And within the first kind of week of that class, my mind just exploded and saying like, hey this is the answer, this is going to tell me how people can combine kind of this wealth of information along with their own emotions and feelings about the person presenting it. And maybe it’ll give me some tips on how to actually win these debates. So I continued kind of looking into cognitive psychology and working with Dr. Sorkin at University of Florida. He said why don’t you do a PhD? And I loved it and it was my first entry point into kind of strong academic research.
Jesse: And when I was in cognitive psychology, I studied how groups make decisions and how our output and my dissertation really created a mathematical model of how juries should normatively decide based on two important factors. One was what are the decision rules that are being kind of placed in: is it majority rule to make a decision unanimity that is required. And then how does polling order in terms of how you kind of ask people what their votes are, make a difference. Should we ask the smartest person to talk first? Should we ask the dumbest person to speak first? Should we ask the person who always is guilty? Should we ask the person who always is innocent? And what we did is kind of using Bayesian in theory and a process known as signal detection theory, you create this model of what’s the optimal way that they can make that decision. And then of course we compared that to how people actually made their decisions. So I love that word quite a bit. And while I was at the University of Florida, I really just wanted to learn as much as possible.
Jesse: And while I was interested in decision making my focus still wasn’t being satisfied. And how is that individual person making that decision? And that’s when I started taking classes in the marketing department and that’s where I just kind of found my passion. It was just like, this is exactly what I want to study. And so while I was in graduate school there, I really looked at how our goals affect our attention and how the attentional changes caused by what we’re trying to do actually spill over into all sorts of subsequent decisions that we make. So that led to an academic career. I was a professor at Yeshiva University at the same school of business for about nine years and that job turned from a scholarly position more into a teaching position. And so really my intellectual capacity wasn’t being as challenged as strongly as I’d like.
Jesse: And that led me to the Ipsos Behavioral Science Center, which was I think one of the first kind of dedicated centers for behavioral science within market research. And I’m very lucky there we get to really look at the entire range of industries that use market research, ranging from CPG to financial services to technology, looking at applied questions in advertising, customer experience, etc. And so it’s really been a nice way for me to be able to kind of answer these questions in an applied way. And I think you asked for examples and two that I think are great and I’ve been working on recently. The first is we’re working with a major CPG company right now and their challenge has been, how do I kind of shake up what’s been a dormant product category that people typically don’t spend a lot of time thinking about? And how do I really go after that brand leader? And so what we did there is we used behavioral science to really help them accomplish three things. The first is just kind of a simple question like how do we get people to notice me? Right? How can we kind of make this new brand renovation that they’ve been doing break through the advertising clutter and stand out at shelf where we know customers aren’t devoting a lot of attention to pick out a product from this category. So once they’ve been noticed what’s the brand going to say and how do we kind of change their beliefs of a product that has been in market for a long time in a credible way. And so we use behavioral science there to really examine kind of like what sorts of claims should they make: Are there different ways that they can present those claims to make them more believable?
Jesse: And also get people to really kind of learn from them. And then finally, how do we get people to try the product? What are some in store and eCommerce techniques that we could use to really encourage them to put the products in their cart and get it home where they could try it and taste it and love it. So that one’s been really, really interesting and it’s clearly an applied challenge that a lot of businesses have. Another really interesting project that I’ve been working on that’s kind of a little bit more forward looking has been working with companies to help them navigate the new consumer world where brands and companies are entering the political sphere through brand advocacy. And I think what we’ve even heard over the last couple of days related to the Gillette advertisement has a lot to do with this, right?
Jesse: And so our journey actually started a while ago beginning with the election of Donald Trump and thinking about like what are the things that’s going to this and that project has developed over time. So look at political polarization just much more generally to see we know that these trends are occurring. We know that the American public has kind of become bifurcating in what it believes and how it acts and the direction that it thinks America should be moving in. And what are the behavioral science principles behind that? How can we explain these macro level trends by understanding how us as individual agents within society kind of are responding. And what this has led to is really some guidance for brands in terms of thinking about how can I predict what might be offensive to a particular population and maybe help them avoid it or maybe even help them lean into it.
Jesse: If they’re looking for that buzz, how can I market differently to red versus blue consumers? What might they be looking for? How can I create new products and messages that appeal to those audiences? And finally I think most importantly we see many of the effects of polarization are due to the fact that we’re overwhelmed and we’re threatened. And so are there things that brands and companies can do to help restore customer’s ability to start thinking again. And I think that that ability to think allows us to really consider viewpoints that are opposite to our own, which is really kind of where things happen and how change occurs. So we’re looking at some different techniques that are both beneficial not only to brands but also I think the society in terms of helping us move out of this state that we’re in towards more of the community of consensus building that we can have.
Jakob: Great. Well thank you for that. What a fantastic journey. I especially like the part of the link between all your academic background and then moving on to the application of behavioral science, which is a perfect segue to our next question, which is that interest in applied behavioral science seems to be continuously growing across many countries and sectors. But with that views about what nudging, irrationality, behavioral economics or behavior science are have also shifted. So Jesse, if I was to ask you to the average person, what do you think nudging will mean in 2019 and how do you think does this likely to change in the coming years?
Jesse: That’s a fantastic question, Jakob. And it’s one that I think about a lot actually. And it’s funny because our version of what nudging is, and I think as you point this out, is very different than what I think consumers might think about when they hear this. And to many people that I talk about both my friends and my family, when I tell them what I do, they’re like, you’re tricking people. You’re getting people to do things that I normally wouldn’t do. And so there’s still some degree of fear and trepidation that I think the average consumer has when they hear that behavioral science is being used within advertising or within retail because they think it’s trying to get them to do things that they don’t. And I think something that’s really been useful has been Richard Thaler’a kind of notion of nudges versus sludges, which is that nudge or something to help consumers achieve goals that they already possess.
Jesse: Whereas sludges are more there to help a company achieve an objective that might be counterproductive for the consumer itself. And I think that this really should serve as a guiding point for behavioral scientists to make sure that we’re not only advancing the interest of our industry partners and corporate clients, but really kind of using behavioral science to help them understand what their consumers true needs are and really kind of make sure that the actions that they’re taking are mutually beneficial.
Jesse: I think like given social media and our ability to share information so quickly about our experiences that companies who are using sludge to convince consumers to do things they’re not going to last long. I think that we’ve seen so much about dark design and kind of opt out versus opt in that people are starting to become aware of this. And I think that the more that behavioral science is used for these negative things, it just kind of builds up consumer resistance to all sorts of marketing practices over time. So I really do think that it’s in our interest in company’s interest to really make sure that the interventions that we incorporate into our marketing really have at their heart the interest of the consumer in mind.
Jakob: Got It. Thank you. What a fantastic response. Yesterday when I had my conversation with David Halpern from the BIT, he mentioned also that a fantastic quote called nudging the nudgers, right? So also for them, obviously this whole ethical conversation is very, very important and some thoughts we were sharing during that conversation was to potentially even go as far as crowdsourcing ethical implications of nudging. Right. So kind of giving the question back to the average person of whether they think that this type of policy intervention or behavioral intervention is actually the right way to go or not. And obviously that comes with its own pros and cons because one could argue that well these people, the selected sample may not have access to the newest research. And so that has to, I guess also be treated with caution.
Jakob: But I thought it was an interesting point on how kind of like take away from we are the nudges we think we know what’s best to kind of give propose certain ideas, but then give back to the general audience whether that’s the right way to go or not. But okay. Well so thank you for that. I want to shift gears and go back to your earlier connection between your academic research to do an actually applied behavioral science work. So the field as in itself, I believe has a strong reputation to many because it applies a rigorous, often having an academic approach to projects. So this is obviously something that can be very beneficial for organizations that aim to work on behavior change. But sometimes it also comes with a lot of challenges. So at times we hear that behavior science is embraced by project leaders because it provides fresh, new and sometimes quicker perspectives than classic economic models would have done in the past.
Jakob: But then we also hear that units don’t necessarily have the needed luxury of time and budgets to conduct complex randomized controlled trials, yet they still want to apply behavioral science to their projects in a sound manner. So what do you think are the biggest challenges for an organization looking to apply behavioral science in an empirical manner? And how can these be tackled?
Jesse: No, I think that’s a really fantastic question. And when I think about the challenges that businesses have with the application of behavioral science, they’re multifaceted. And I think for a lot of corporations, they almost view this as too complex and too lengthy in terms of time, as you were saying. And they don’t necessarily recognize the easy ways that behavioral science can be integrated into what they’re currently using for market research. Right. So like every company does a segmentation. And so why aren’t there more companies that are using some of these known personality traits that we know affect behavior at the end state into those segmentation? And that’s somewhere we’ve been really pushing to say, look, this is just an easy way to overlay an additional kind of lens on your customer base. I think another really easy area that we’ve had application has been through our work with qualitative work and ethnography in terms of how can we ask different questions, how can we ask questions that might be kind of neglected otherwise to really get a core understanding of what motivates consumers and what their goals are.
Jesse: And from an ethnographic perspective there’s nothing better than observing the consumer and really kind of spending time with them to understand that. And then that really allows us to kind of think about what are the behaviors that we’re seeing, what are they saying versus what they’re doing? And then considering what academic frameworks might be applicable there. But I think at the end of the day it really boils down to kind of three main things and companies need to kind of figure out what are the right questions that I should be asking. And how can behavioral science provide me either with not necessarily better answers but at least different answers than traditional market research could. I think the second question that they can think about is where are for low lying fruit? Are there easy ways that I can apply behavioral science to the sorts of questions that I’m already asking? And I think the major holdup with a lot of companies has just been a fear of experimentation and time and money are clearly part of that but within any organizational structure, there’s some degree of fear and experiment gives you a definitive answer one way or the other. And you have to have a hypothesis going in there. And for many reasons people don’t like to be wrong, myself included. So I think that there is often that fear of like, well what if we don’t get it right or what if the data comes out differently than we expected? And experiments because they give you that clear bright line if yes or no when they’re designed correctly, I think that there’s still some trepidation into moving there because of just wondering what the results might actually show.
Jakob: Got It. Well that leads me to the next question, which is that if we talk about research, you belong to the group of groundbreaking researchers in the topic of behavioral science and I think a lot of our listeners would be very interested in how you typically choose teams you are interested in researching about and how you linked these to behavioral science and what tools you use for your research. But then also how do you distinguish good research from bad research and behavioral science. And finally, for the lack of a better word, what tricks do you use to translate sometimes complex academic knowledge to apply to work without losing any of its depth and rigor?
Jesse: Wow. Those are good questions. Those areygo really good questions. I think I’ll tackle them in order because I think that’s probably the easiest way to do it. But much of our work is client driven and what we started off doing was thinking about like what are some big issues that we think that behavioral science can tackle. But those efforts weren’t nearly as successful as actually tackling client problems. And what’s been kind of fascinating to me is how entire industries tend to end up converging on the same question simultaneously. So for many financial institutions as well as other service providers one of the big questions they have right now is how do I get my consumers to move to a digital platform so I can save money on that brick and mortar experience that I’m traditionally provided to them. And that’s been a really big area that we’ve been working on. Another big area, at least for CPG. Because again, like how do I get notice that the shelf in a way that I hadn’t thought of before or how might make a claim on a package to really get it noticed, whether it’s a better for you product or one that might give you enough protein so you don’t get hungry earlier in data. How do I display that? So actually that people notice it, attend to it and it influences their decision one way or another. So in terms of the questions that we tackle certainly there’s our own individual curiosity, like the political project that I spoke about before. But again, much of this is kind of responsive to what our client needs are.
Jesse: Now thinking about the tools that we use I’m very lucky to work for, I think it’s the third largest market research firm globally. And so we have an incredible amount of research resources ranging from simulated agents that we can kind of do kind of complex simulations to see how some of these behavioral biases might play out over time in a group. We have a qualitative division. So we’ve incorporated behavioral science into our focus groups and into our in depth individual interviews. I mentioned ethnography before and even in the world of surveys it’s question simply like how do we phrase a question differently to make sure that we’re not incorporating bias into the decisions that are answers that people are giving us. What sorts of different questions should we ask to get a better sense of what consumer’s goals are? What their set of associations and beliefs are around a particular product.
Jesse: And I think importantly, what if the context of their decision I think as behavioral scientists we recognize that context drives a lot of our behavior. So what can we do to better assess when, where decisions are being made? So that way we can understand those a little bit better. I think the question you ask about good and bad research is a good one. And it’s almost like that supreme court decision where it’s like, well obscenity. I know it when I see it. And it’s kind of one of these almost Malcolm Gladwell things roll. It’s like that 10,000 hours of reading papers and understanding like what’s good research versus bad research at an academic level gives you some help there. But I think it’s even more simple than that. And I really think it’s about what are the major business challenges that are being faced?
Jesse: What questions should we be asking as researchers in light of that. And I think most importantly how is this data that we generate going to be eventually used? My first professor always had a great saying. He said data is lot like garbage. You should probably know what you’re going to do with it before you start collecting a lot of it. And I think that is what bad research does, if it doesn’t think about the so what, it doesn’t think about the actual marketing steps that a business will be able to take with that information. So we say I’m very lucky we do in our consulting working, I have access to all of the prior research for a brand or a company that they might’ve done to address the challenge. And so I get to see other behavioral science work and I’ll use that in quotations and a lot of it, the reason they end up coming to us afterwards is because for like this is interesting but it’s irrelevant and so how do we make sure that we can use this information in a meaningful way that can impact the business over time.
Jakob: Got it, got it. Thank you so much Jesse for your views on that. I know we touched a little bit on the ethics of nudging before, but I believe this is a such an important topic to many that I would like to just briefly return to that if you allow. So as a nonprofit profit, we are particularly interested in the ethical dimensions 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. Therefore, there is an ethical imperative to think more deeply and deliberately about how we’re doing it. So I guess this is a very interesting view, but it brings up further ethical questions.
Jakob: So 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 interests as possible? Is the answer to create this course and let people decide where to be nudged or should we decide for them based on a societal ideals such as being healthy and prepared for retirement? What is your take on that, Jesse?
Jesse: Again, it’s a great question and like I’ll give you my opinion. It’s not necessarily the opinion of my employer, but I’ll tell you how I feel about that. And I think with great power comes great responsibility and I think the great poets, Spiderman had that as his kind of motto. But I do think we do have the power to effect people’s decisions. And when it comes down to the end of the day, the question of asking consumers what they want is an interesting one. And I know this not only as kind of a market researcher where consumers say one thing and they do another, but I notice myself as well like what’s causing me to reach for that box of chicken nuggets versus the salad, right? And do I know what’s best for me or not?
Jesse: And so I think what it comes down to at the end of the day when I think about this is what are people trying to do? What adds meaning and value to people’s lives? Right? And we can even look for things as simple as like Maslow’s hierarchy, right? Am I helping people satisfy their basic needs? Am I helping them feel safe? Am I helping them belong more, developed, better, more meaningful relationships with those around them? Can I make a person have esteem and have confidence in themselves and their own ability. And I think most importantly, can I help a person decide what gives them meaning and then activate against that. So I think like that’s something really general that we can use as kind of at least some very big swim lanes for us to be in. But then of course we can think about societal needs as well.
Jesse: Like it is better if we act in a more sustainable manner. I think that’s kind of the point that everyone can agree on. I think it is better if we can live healthier lives so that way our relationships last longer, I think it is better if we’re able to save more for retirement. So we don’t place burdens on those around us, both in terms of our immediate family, but also as society as a whole. So it’s really interesting to think about in terms of like are these societal ideals. Will those change over time? Maybe, maybe not. But for me kind of thinking about what makes people feel fulfilled, what can help people in their daily lives to live better lives. That I think should be the starting point for every behavioral scientist in terms of thinking about should I be using this nudge or not.
Jakob: What a wonderful response. Thank you. Thank you for that Jesse. A lot of our listeners who joined us probably are very interested in having a career in behavioral science, but they don’t necessarily understand what does it take to get into the field? Some people even go as far as saying that it’s a pretty tough field to prepare well for because it’s kind of at the intersection between various fields. So many of our readers from our newsletters have asked us in the past, how they can best prepare for this field. With this in mind, what skills do you think in applied behavioral scientists will most likely need in the coming 10 years? How can they best prepare and how would you distinguish between a behavior scientist who wants to be a researcher versus someone who wants to do more of applied work? If you even see a distinction there.
Jesse: Oh yeah, it’s fantastic. I’m asked that question all the time and it’s one that’s always top of mind for me as we try to expand our center in terms of thinking about like what’s an ideal candidate that I would want to hire. What sort of preparation might they have to really prepare them for that. And I think one of the key things is really doctoral training. There’s no substitute for that in terms of gaining a certain number of skills. I think one is having just dead to rights fluency of the behavioral science literature and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to kind of know everything but you at least need to understand how the cognitive psychology is linked to kind of the social psychology aspects, how all of those are linked even to kind of sociological or anthropological concerns as well.
Jesse: And the only way to really do that is just reading, reading, reading, kind of thinking about questions related to the effects and phenomena that are discussed in those papers. And then I think importantly getting an understanding of which methodologies are really best to test those questions and answer those in the long term. I’m not sure that there’s a best path towards academics versus applied. I think my own background is my experience, but I do think that there is value that’s added to applied researchers from the business school because you’re starting to be exposed to that. So it’s not just about the gathering of information in order to understand how consumers think and why they behave the way they do. But I think it is that second level of well how can companies respond to this?
Jesse: And in marketing it’s a very simple toolbox. We have the four piece how should we be thinking about price? How should we be thinking about promotions in terms of the communication that we have with consumers? What sorts of changes could I potentially make to a product? And then place how to channel strategy influence their behaviors in one way or another. And that kind of draws down to towards architecture to with which now how would I want to channel partners who implement my product within the store? So those sorts of kind of ideas about what to do with that information I think are really critical for the applied researcher. I also think just kind of general exposure to being able to talk about business with people is a skill that many kind of traditional psychologists don’t necessarily have. And that becomes easier as you interact with MBA students and teaching those students in MBA master’s programs to help them understand the business world.
Jesse: You kind of get a better sense of what the core business challenges are. And that really helps you ask better questions when you’re doing your research. It helps you understand which methodologies are going to be able to get you towards that answer most quickly. And then again what can a company do with this after you have had information for them?
Jakob: Thank you Jesse. So I want to just, if you allow just I guess maybe not challenge you, but ask you a little bit about that first
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