The attention economy, building a numberless scale and personalizing brand strategy: A conversation with Evelyn Gosnell

Art by Versusthemachines
A conversation with Evelyn Gosnell from Irrational Labs.

“I’m very concerned about the attention economy, and how can we think about making people more productive. You know, something like email, which pings us all day long is not in line with any of the research on how people can be productive.”

In today’s episode, we are joined by Evelyn Gosnell, Managing Director at Irrational Labs and frequent speaker in behavioral economics and consumer psychology. She is an expert in helping companies use the science of decision-making to better understand how real people think and behave, thereby creating better products and services for them. Evelyn is also the Head of Product Development and Behavioral Science at Shapa, a health startup founded by behavioral scientist Dan Ariely. Evelyn’s work spans across a broad array of industries. She has launched major health initiatives with companies such as Aetna, developing and implementing behavioral training programs to be used at scale.  She has worked with Google, Procter & Gamble, The World Bank, Maritz, AARP, CUNA Mutual, among others. Evelyn also teaches a course on behavioral economics through UCSD Extension and is a frequent guest lecturer at the Rady School of Business at UCSD.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How Evelyn’s product background helped her in her current role at Irrational Labs.
  • Shapa’s approach to the “overweight” problem: nudging with a numberless scale. 
  • Is Nudging overused? And, why transparency is critical to creating an ethical code of conduct around behavioral science. 
  • Empiricism versus efficiency and creating a culture of rapid testing and experimentation.
  • Using behavioral science to personalize, predict and direct brand strategy.
  • Health, wealth and happiness: Irrational Lab’s guiding principles for selecting projects.
  • Why experience is everything if you want to work in applied behavioral science. 
  • The projects that Evelyn is excited about in the near and long-term future.

Key Quotes

The value of having a product background as an applied behavioral scientist

“[A] few of us at Irrational Labs come from more product backgrounds, and I think that it helps because we know their perspective, their language, the issues that they’re concerned about, and how to interweave behavioral science into this standard product development processes.”

Why Shapa celebrates staying the same the weight 

“In a day, how often do you think about your health? What are the prompts that remind you to think of that? It’s not an indication of being unhealthy that our weight fluctuates. But because of that, because of this idea of loss aversion, you know on the days that our weight is three pounds up, that seems very depressing and sad to us, and it does not get counteracted sufficiently by when our weight is three pounds down.

So if we actually just stayed the same, a lot of our problem would be dramatically improved. If we can even just celebrate staying the same. But nothing celebrates that, right. You don’t step on a digital scale and just see that the number is the same and you’re like yes. [However] if the color is green, you get all kinds of positive messaging.”

There’s more to behavioral science than biases and nudging

“There’s so much of behavioral science that isn’t necessarily nudging, but it’s just because of the book people tend to oversimplify. Not everything is necessarily a bias.”

Companies should create a code of ethics for behavioral science and stick to it

“I think companies should be creating [ethical codes] and sharing them publicly and having their behavioral science develop them and, yeah, commit to them. I think there’s a lot of opportunities there because the cat is out of the bag. Everyone knows that this is happening. And you don’t want to be the Facebook, you know that story of like oh, they’re manipulating you to do X, Y, and Z. You don’t want to be part of that headline.”

A culture of experimentation 

“Prototypes, mock-ups, quick online experiments. I think there’s a world of opportunity there that some companies do really well. It’s wonderful to see just the general culture of testing and experimentation, but others need to be talked into it: it’s not big and scary. You can do really simple quick ones.”

Your email is making you less productive

“I’m very concerned about the attention economy, and how can we think about making people more productive. You know, something like email, which pings us all day long is not in line with any of the research on how people can be productive.”

You need more than just a PhD to work as an applied behavioral scientist

“You can’t join the job force with literally just the PhD in behavioral science or a master’s, and expect a company to just be able to make the transition automatically. You have some level of experience doing this work.” 

The behavioral science bootcamp for product managers

“But if you are [intestested in applying behavioral science in your company] we want to teach you and empower you with this toolkit, which we think is going to be really powerful. So that’s … I’m very excited about democratizing behavioral science, and sharing this more, and making it easier. Again, so that people don’t have to quit their jobs and do a master’s or PhD.”

Articles, books and other things discussed in the episode:

Evelyn’s Work

Transcript

Jakob: Thank you so much for joining us, Evelyn. 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.

Jakob: Before getting into that, I think many of our listeners would be curious to first learn how you got into behavioral science, what it is you do with Irrational Labs, and what are some of the more exciting projects, for example Shapr that you currently work on. Can you walk our listeners through some of them?

Evelyn: Yeah, first of all, happy to be on here. Thank you for having me. I love any opportunity to nerd out over behavioral science, so thank you for giving that to me.

Evelyn: You asked a bunch of questions, so I’ll try to address them one by one. I am a former product person, I guess. Most of my career, or the beginnings of my career were in product management. And sort of … I don’t want to say it’s an arbitrary transition, I think it’s logical. I think that behavioral science has a lot of … we can be better product designers, better product managers. We can create better products for people if we understand how the human mind works and what are our preferences, and what influences decision making and all of these things.

Evelyn: But I didn’t, you know, go in with that plan originally. It happened in somewhat of a random way. But I think luckily it happened this way because I’m now able to do the work that I do, I think better because of my former product background. So for example, I can run a bootcamp for mainly product managers, product people, just decision makers in product design, and teach them about behavioral science. So it’s sort of this nine week intensive bootcamp where they learn not only principles and biases, and that’s of course wonderful, but we take it beyond that and we say let’s teach you the whole toolkit. Let’s teach you how to do a behavioral diagnosis. Let’s teach you how to do a lit review. How do you do research? When should you do quantitative versus qualitative? How do you do experiments?

Evelyn: And I think we’re, you know, a few of us at Irrational Labs come from more product backgrounds, and I think that it helps because we know kind of their perspective, their language, their … the issues that they’re concerned about, and kind of how to interweave behavioral science into this sort of standard product development processes.

Jakob: Great, great. That makes a lot of sense. So and then let’s move on to the second project that I believe is one of your projects that you’re also working on, which is Shapa. Can you talk a bit about that as well?

Evelyn: Yeah, so I actually have two jobs. One is at Irrational Labs and the second is working on product that’s Shapa, which is a startup that Dan Ariely co-founded. And it’s sort of a surprising unexpected thing in that it’s a numberless scale. So what we’re trying to do is solve for just the obesity, the overweight problem, the general problem of health.

Evelyn: In the United States and around the world, in the United States you probably know the statistics are pretty egregious. Around 40% of the population is obese. There’s all kinds of obesity related conditions, heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes. It’s really … which is terrible, but on the other hand it’s almost we can think of it as these are leading causes of preventable death, right. So there’s actions that we can take. It’s very hard to solve for health if people aren’t motivated. You know, none of us, you are not, I am not motivated to exercise more, to eat healthier, these are not fun and exciting things, but how can we take the science of decision making, and specifically looking at the psychology around weight and weight loss, and come up with a different solution.

Evelyn: So that’s something that our team did in saying, before we start solving for this, let’s back up and rewind and say how do we think about weight and what can we do to change people’s behavioral. So we really started with the scale because for a number of reasons, but one is people use weight as sort of a kind of proxy, an easy metric of am I healthy or not. People, it’s one of the kind of behaviors that you do, right. Like oh I’m trying to lose weight.

Evelyn: What do people do? They get a scale, and we thought about it also in terms of if you’re just designing an app, you know that’s kind of very hard to have people have some mental mind share. It’s on their app, you’re competing with a bazillion other apps on their phone, whereas if you have a scale, the presence of the scale itself is sort of this physical reminder. We could almost call it a Trojan horse. You’re kind of, you know, find an excuse to get into people’s lives, to get in … think about in a day, how often do you think about your health? What are the prompts that kind of remind you to think of that?

Evelyn: And so with the presence of the scale we’re able to kind of sneak in. Sneak in not only in their physical presence, but sort of in their mental attention. And again, looking at the psychology of a scale, there’s all kind of issues with it. You’re probably very familiar, and your listeners as well, with the concept of loss aversion, so the problem there is that you’re weighing yourself regularly. It turns out it’s quite normal and it’s not an indication of being unhealthy that our weight fluctuates. But because of that, because of this idea of loss aversion, you know on the days that our weight is three pounds up, that seems very depressing and sad to us, and it does not get counteracted sufficiently by when our weight is three pounds down.

Evelyn: So that means if our weight is on average staying the same, it’s … our net relationship with the scale is negative. But we take that, and you overlay that with the other data which suggests that people who weigh themselves daily actually it is an effective tool to lose weight, especially when you do it in the morning, right, it’s kind of a reminder. It’s a signal to yourself of like oh I’m a healthy person.

Evelyn: So how do we combine those two together? This is all part of why we came up with a numberless scale, a scale that doesn’t tell you your weight in pounds, but instead it gives you a color. There’s a five point scale, five different colors that you can get. And you’re basically told, you know what, your weight is pretty much staying the same. Or it’s a little bit up, it’s a little bit down. That’s a relevant feedback tool for you, but telling you that … you know digital scales is actually really bad. It’s not just saying that you’re three pounds up. It’s saying that you’re three point one pounds up. And the next day you might be point four pounds down, and the next day you might be point seven pounds up. None of … these are all just noise. But as humans we’re really bad at interpreting noise.

Jakob: Right, so I guess there’s also this concept of, if I hear you correctly, of salience that you have by using the … I understand it’s an app, yeah, that you use, and yet it’s kind of you see your weight on a constant kind of basis, and you see all those fluctuations also, almost like a real time. Is that a good understanding of the basic concept of it?

Evelyn: Yeah, it is an app, and like I said, we paired the scale with an app because it’s just very different to have a physical presence in people’s lives, but yeah, the idea is for them to weigh themself daily, but they don’t see their weight. They get what we call a Shapa color. So if your weight is within one standard deviation of what it normally is, then your color is green. And that again is a very specific choice.

Evelyn: You know, there’s nothing in the world that we don’t celebrate, even just staying the same, right. If we look at the history, if we look at the data on weight gain in the United States, it happens towards the end of the year. You know, there’s Thanksgiving and the holidays. And the problem that we have overall as a nation is that we’re not losing that weight, the small weight that we gain, right.

Evelyn: So if we actually just stayed the same like a lot of our problem would be dramatically improved. If we can even just celebrate staying the same. But nothing celebrates that, right. You don’t step on a digital scale and just see that the number is the same and you’re like yes, but we celebrate if the color is green you get all kinds of positive messaging. Of course we used a lot of variable rewards, the psychology of that in terms of the design.

Evelyn: And then also the other colors also strategically or thoughtfully selected. So if your weight goes up a little bit, you know one thing that we talked about a lot internally, is should it be … should that color go to red. And we decided no. You know what, the people who are trying to lose weight, who might be overweight, are already getting so much negative feedback from society as it is. Why should we make that worse? So if you start gaining weight the color turns to gray, which is not a great color, but it gets strategically or thoughtfully selected not to be red.

Evelyn: So in addition to that, you get daily missions. We call them missions. So in the very beginning you fill out a questionnaire, and we learn about your personality. We use all the standard metrics of self control. We learned about your environment. Do you live in an urban rural, how close are you to the nearest park, are you the person who does grocery shopping for your household, because of just the core behavioral science finding that so much of our behavioral is driven by our environment, and can we make small tweaks to our environment that don’t tax our self control. That doesn’t make me feel like oh my gosh, I didn’t do X, Y, and Z, therefore later I can compensate for it.

Evelyn: We don’t want to do that. We want to make really small, you know, relatively easy fun missions that are personalized for people, that are all based again on the science of health and weight loss, but don’t feel like huge sacrifices, right. Why do the diet programs out there not succeed in the long run? Because people can’t sustain, you know, never eating bread ever again. Or those programs where you go to the gym every day for however many days in a row. That’s wonderful in the beginning, but those things are not sustainable.

Evelyn: So what we’re really trying to design for is habit change. A lot of the missions repeat. They’re multiple day missions. So you’re trying to create new habits. Habit change and sustained weight loss and weight management over time.

Jakob: Amazing, well thank you so much for that overview, Evelyn. In my next question, I want to circle a bit back to you and your journey in the field of behavioral science, but maybe before we do that, would you mind sharing with our listeners where, if they’re interested in that app, where could they go and take a look at it.

Evelyn: Yeah, it’s available in the app store. We have it on iOS and Android, and it’s called Shapa, S-H-A-P-A. And the website is myshapa.com.

Jakob: Fantastic, so for anybody who’s trying to live a bit of a healthy lifestyle, I guess, this would be a great way to get started, and see how behavioral science can be directly applied.

Jakob: Great, so Evelyn, I would love to, and I think a lot of our listeners may be interested in how you went about … well I guess there are two questions is what motivated you to get specifically into behavioral science, and how you went about growing your expertise in it. Maybe I’ll just add briefly that, for example, you know, product management is in a way such a big, big field, right. I actually, myself, started my career in corporate marketing as a trainee to become a product manager in brand marketing, and that was probably about 10 years ago now. And at that time behavioral science was … and that was, you know, we used certain concepts that belonged to behavioral science, but we didn’t necessarily label it the field behavioral science in that sense, at that time was not, you know, first of all it wasn’t as evolved as it is now, but then also it wouldn’t be labeled that way.

Jakob: So I’m curious, you know, you said you come from a background in product management as well, what particular made you interested in going down the, I guess the more and more the behavioral science direction?

Evelyn: Well this is where I should probably give you a really wonderful sounding description of how I was so motivated and curious and reading about all these things and pursued this path, but transparently I kind of said, I hinted before that it was somewhat arbitrary. It really was. I think a long time ago someone suggested very randomly, hey you know this is a great book. They were talking about Predictably Irrational, and I read that book and kind of had this lightening bolt moment and realized wait, there are people who do this. Which basically means they’re paid money to have fun all day. How do I do this?

Evelyn: And so as a result of that, and this is a gross kind of oversimplification and shortening of things, but I met Dan Ariely years ago. I purposely went to various events and connected with him and started the conversation around how do I do this? Do I need to do a PhD? To which he said no, unless you want to be an academic and a professor and teach this in an academic setting and do research. He said no, and he had me meet Kristen Berman, who he built Irrational Labs with, and I wish that they had had the bootcamp at the time, because that probably would have sped things up, and this is actually again part of why we built the bootcamp, is because there is no good way.

Evelyn: There’s through this market gap of people who want, who are coming from product backgrounds, interested in saying I can do this work better if I understand decision making. Is my only choice to go get a master’s or PhD program. So we said no, you can keep your job and concurrently do this. So I didn’t have that option at the time, so a lot of mine was kind of a random process of taking courses.

Evelyn: I lived in San Diego at the time. I took some courses at UCSD. Started working with Irrational Labs. Our model is very frequently that we do … or I mean I did this at the time, did some kind of contract work, and then kind of learned by doing and kind of increased expertise over time. And now we do the exact same thing in our model going forward.

Evelyn: But yeah, I wish that I had had the bootcamp that I’ve built now for others. I wish I had had it for myself. Probably would have been faster.

Jakob: Thanks, that makes a … that’s a well, that’s actually an interesting journey you took there, and I, you know it’s not a secret that I think a lot of people started their journey into that field by reading one of Dan’s books. I have to admit I’m one of them, as well, and I know at least of a couple others if not more who, you know that’s the way they started their own journey, and Dan’s so fantastic in connecting with people and taking the time to meet people and motivate them to kind of pursue their own path, and you know I would just like to echo, but we’ll circle back to that in a bit on a section of how to have a career in behavioral science.

Jakob: But I’d like to just echo the fact that a lot of people think or make the assumptions that you really need to have a PhD to have a career there, but I don’t and I’ve been having quite a lot of fun in this field for a few years now, and it sounds like you’re doing as well, and so I think there’s a lot of really great opportunities also for our less kind of academically oriented people to do still very cool applied stuff in this area.

Jakob: So thanks for that. So Evelyn, I want to now kind of go into getting a bit of your views on the field as it has been evolving and kind of where you see it growing. So as you know, interest in applied behavioral science seems to be continuously growing across all countries and sectors at the moment. But with that views about what nudging irrationality behavioral economics or behavioral science or have also shifted.

Jakob: So if I was to ask you, to the average person, what do you think nudging will mean in this year and in the years to come? And how do you think this may change also in the coming years?

Evelyn: Yeah, interesting question. I think that nudging is probably overused. There’s so much of behavioral science that isn’t necessarily nudging, but it’s just because of the book people tend to oversimplify. I even think that with biases, right. Not everything is necessarily a bias. There’s a lot of principles that probably should be considered biases and we’re running around, which label everything a bias, right. There’s all these lists of like 101 biases. I think we’ve gone a little bit too far on that.

Evelyn: I think it’s overall a good thing that public awareness of this is increasing, and I think that there’s an opportunity for us in the field to be more transparent. I love, you know, we can probably take some examples from government. British government is probably one of the best examples that publishes wonderful reports of this is what we were trying to do, and this is how then we ran the experiment, and this was the control, and this was treatment, and here’s the answers, and here’s what we’re going to do next.

Evelyn: I think that that level of transparency is wonderful, because people are having more and more awareness of that this is happening, and we might as well start to share more openly. And along with that, there’s probably more open discussion that we should be having about ethics to say, you know, this is our ethical, this is our ethical code of conduct, or our nudging code of conduct, you know, like Sunstein would say. Or the behavioral scientists, they have sort of this checklist.

Evelyn: I think companies should be creating those and sharing them publicly and having their behavioral science develop them and, yeah, commit to them. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there, because the cat is out of the bag. Everyone knows that this is happening. And you don’t want to be the Facebook, you know that story of like oh, they’re manipulating you to do X, Y, and Z. You don’t want to be part of that headline.

Evelyn: So much of Irrational Labs, our projects are designed to say how can we design for improving health, wealth, and happiness. And I think so many companies are using this for good but why are we not being more transparent and sharing that?

Jakob: Yes.

Evelyn: Because that’s the direction it’s going to head over time.

Jakob: Yeah, it’s a wonderful point about the ethics, so it’s definitely something I also want to circle back to on in a second to get a bit more of your thoughts on that, definitely a big topic in behavioral science.

Jakob: But before we do that, I’d like to just jump in into a bit … talk to you a little bit about what I call empiricism versus the so-called just dos. So you know, the field has a strong reputation because it applies a rigorous, often heavy, and somewhat academic approach to projects, in many institutions whether it’s the public or the private sector.

Jakob: So this is obviously something that can be very beneficial for organizations that aim to work on behavior change, but it also comes with a lot of challenges. So at times we hear that behavioral science is embraced by project leaders because it provides fresh, new, and sometimes quicker perspectives than for example classic economic models have done in the past.

Jakob: We also hear that units don’t have the needed luxury of time and budgets to conduct, always complex randomized control trials, but they’re still interested in applying kind of behavioral insights into their projects. 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?

Evelyn: Yeah, a great question. I still, you know, there will always be a list of … so for example, we trainings with companies very, very often. We come in for a day. We teach their team about behavioral science. And the value of this training is always much greater if we make it specific to the client for solving for a problem they’re trying to solve, right.

Evelyn: So we get everyone on board with the language and the principles and the biases and the approach, this is how … you know, solving for a key behavior. So Irrational Labs, three B framework we teach them all of that and we start to solve for whatever there is, whatever it is that they’re trying to solve for.

Evelyn: And then what invariably happens is we come up with a list by the end of the day of all of these ideas, right. People get very inspired … I’m going to pause for a second because there’s a lot of call way noise right now. Can you hear it, or is it okay?

Jakob: No, no it’s fine. I can’t hear anything in the background. So it’s fine.

Evelyn: So as I was saying, they get very inspired. We come up with a list of things of potential ideas that they could implement as a result of learning about these behavioral principles. And that is the tricky point. You come up with this list where you write out everyone’s ideas down, and where is the line? You cannot … you know, there’s so many things. There’s 55 ideas on the board. You’re not going to say now we’re going to run experiments on all 55 of these things. It’s unreasonable. The company’s not set up to do this. It’s probably not a good business decision. So there is a kind of line that is drawn on these are just dos, this are things we want to experiment with, and I wish that there were an obvious kind of guiding principle of this is where you draw the line.

Evelyn: We do come in often with a viewpoint. You know, where Irrational Labs will say we think that some of these maybe we suggest as just dos. We suggest these as maybe something that you should experiment with and that’s just based on knowledge of, you know, let’s say other research that’s been done on this. If we have a strong belief that it’s likely, or you know let’s say the research has been done in this exact same context, in this domain of decision making. You know, maybe there’s less of a need to experiment on that right away.

Evelyn: You know, it’s a difficult thing, for sure. Sometimes for me it’s looking at it and saying yeah, this is an obvious change that you should make, but again that’s so subjective to come up with that. But I agree, it’s a difficult thing. I think the key, again, is to … the bigger point is how do we bring in an experimental mindset to a company for teaching them about that, persuading them that that’s the way to go. I think we have a lot of focus on that because so many people are just overwhelmed. The idea of experimentation feels complicated, and also they … what we see a lot too is they run an experiment … So they get excited, right.

Evelyn: They learn about all of these things and they want to run an experiment, and let’s say the very first one didn’t show any kind of effect. Or didn’t go to plan, and something else messed up about it. They kind of get discouraged, so we try to set expectations early on that there’s no perfect experiment, and things always don’t go to plan. And by the way when you run an experiment and you don’t see a difference in the outcome between the control and the treatment, that’s also a learning. There’s this strong bias obviously in academia, but even in a company setting, it’s like not exciting. But no, that is a lesson. You learn that that particular thing doesn’t work. That’s worth capturing and sharing with other teams so they don’t try the same thing.

Jakob: Right, and you know, and I think it’s interesting to see how, and partly I wonder if the reason for that is because the field, as you said earlier, kind of evolved also through the public sector and into the private sector in a way, right. So the UK team was the government team, I think was the first one that kind of took it up on a kind of a larger public policy sphere, and arguably there it is important to kind of whatever you do since it affects so many people at a time, and you go to scale very quickly, that you need to measure anything you want to implement in as much of a rigorous way as possible.

Jakob: But we’ve been observing that, especially now these days when the private sector kind of jumped on the bandwagon and more and more corporations are trying to build their own nudge units, we’ve been observing that there’s sometimes even … you know it’s kind of a funny dichotomy because they do want to have experiments, but at the same time they sometimes kind of shy away when they see on the kind of vendor angle that it’s these heavy academics trying to bring in these rigorous methodologies that sometimes take a long time to implement if you really want to do them well.

Jakob: So that’s been something that we’ve come across, and I think it resonates a bit with what you were saying that it’s still very important to kind of tailor whatever you propose to the organizational needs, but you still convey to them that experimental mindset, right. So maybe it doesn’t have to be a full blown RCT publication, but it should still be somewhat defendable in an empirical manner, whatever you are trying to do, because that’s the only way you can kind of measure what is different than what you have been trying before.

Evelyn: Yeah, I think teaching people that kind of mindset and really … I had this conversation yesterday actually with a company on an app, and they are, you know, trying to figure … they have limited resources. This is a startup. And so they’re trying to figure out we don’t know exactly what features to add, and we can’t just go build them all because, you know, we have limited resources. How do we decide which ones to build? And you know, so I suggested well there’s smaller easier ways to test if there’s interest in this.

Evelyn: So their kind of approach was we’re going to do some qualitative studies with out existing users, and I said, “Well, you’re existing users are all recruited kind of from your friends and you know extended family. That’s probably not going to be representative. What if we can do a very simple ad, whether you’re doing it on Facebook or Google or something like that, and so you create these five different apps. You pretend like you have these five different apps with these five different features. And you’re just literally measuring click rate. So you’ve built none of these features, and you’re just saying like click here to find out more about this app, or click here to get on the advanced list of this. Or whatever it is, you know, that all can be fleshed out, but the point is can we study something in a very quick way that doesn’t take all of these engineering resources to build the real thing?”

Evelyn: So yeah, prototypes, mock-ups, you know quick online experiments like that. I think there’s a world of opportunity there that, again, some companies do really well. We don’t even need to … They probably do it, you know, better and faster than us in many ways. Some companies it’s wonderful to see just the general culture of testing and experimentation, but others kind of need to be talked into it’s not big and scary. You can do really simple quick ones.

Jakob: And that’s a great segue into the next question I would like to ask you. So you belong to a group of pioneers or groundbreaking researchers in the topic of behavioral science. And I think a lot of our listeners would be curious how you typically choose themes you are interesting in applying, or researching and then applying. And how you link these topics then to behavioral science and what tools do you use for your research?

Jakob: And here I’d like to circle back to your last points. What kind of tricks, for the lack of a better word, do you use to translate what is maybe sometimes complex academic knowledge to applied work without losing any of its depth and rigour?

Evelyn: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s called a magic wand. I just wave it and it’s wonderful. No, these are all good questions. So yeah … hold on, can you rephrase the first bit of that?

Jakob: Yes, so the first one was, how do you typically choose themes you are interested in researching about?

Evelyn: Okay, so first and foremost, at Irrational Labs we are focused on health, wealth, and happiness. So by default, the only projects that we’ll take on are going to be solving in those fields. Like we’re not going to help anyone sell more cigarettes. That’s not what we’re here to do.

Evelyn: So there’s some sort of selection that already happens within that. And what’s wonderful is that we are … this is just very lucky, I guess … we are most of our work kind of comes to us. We don’t do a lot of outreach. And since we’re a small team we’re able to be very, very selective. So what we do is among us, we kind of think about who is interested in what. So I’m particularly interested in productivity, attention, how do we create things that … I’m very concerned about the attention economy, and how can we think about making people more productive. You know, something like email, which pings us all day long is not in line with any of the research on how people can be productive. Get into flow states, any of that. So that’s one example of something that I’m interested in, and I’m doing some experiments in that domain. So we get to kind of, again, at a high level solve for health, wealth, and happiness. But then within that we get to, we all have sort of pet projects or things that we care a lot about. And that enables us to … yeah, we’re very lucky in that we get to be picky, I guess, in what we take on.

Jakob: Great.

Evelyn: And then your other question was about tricks.

Jakob: Yes.

Evelyn: Which, I like that word. I was joking about the magic wand thing. There’s no, you know, magic solution to that. I think one thing that we do do, is I do teach all of the sort of core experiments, the most famous examples. We have to be careful with that, because there’s a replication crisis and all the things that you’re familiar with, but think it’s important for people to understand at least these are the commonly cited or famous studies around this.

Evelyn: And then kind of go into a lot of the nuance to say but with choice overload, for example, there’s a lot of nuance there. Let’s look at this meta analysis so that we understand more deeply in what context does choice, is choice, a negative. Is having too much choice leading to potentially negative outcomes, in what cases is it more. Yeah, there’s no easy answer though. There’s no, I wish there were clear tricks.

Evelyn: I do think that … this is the trainer in me … people remember stories so we do kind of share in all of our trainings we share an experiment as a story. I get people to guess what the outcome was. We’ll people raise their hands, and in our online version of our course we have this poll. We have people vote so we can physically see because you really want them to, you want them to make it salient to them that oh, you thought it was A, but it’s B. So you physically raised your hand when I asked and you thought it was A. Just to kind of drive that point home, we have them then share the experiment with a partner, and what was the outcome. So just the practice of repeating it and kind of learning.

Evelyn: So yeah, really remembering core stories, and then doing the mental exercise. Again, you have to prompt people to do this, but doing that exercise to say now how does this apply to you? We just learned about this principle, now pull up your sign up flow, or pull up your pricing sheet, or whatever it may be, and that exercise, and in what ways is it relevant, and what ways is it not. What’s other literature in this field that is in your domain. Looking at those pieces.

Evelyn: But yeah, I wish there were obvious and easy tricks, but there aren’t.

Jakob: Well, I think that what you described gives a pretty good idea of how you manage to get some of your clients into kind of that experimental mind frame and thinking of how, you know, they can take what may be sometimes a much more rigorous approach is if you really do heavy research in academia, but how you can use some of that, simplify it into … somewhat simplify it into the project work that is required. So I think that’s a great overview.

Jakob: So I’d like to shift gears now and talk a bit about a career in behavioral sciences. So just as the field is growing, you know behavior science is becoming an increasingly appealing career choice for many. Especially those who want to kind of sit at the intersection between various fields, as well as between theory and application. But for that same reason, it’s a tough field to prepare well for, so many of our listeners have asked us how they can best prepare to enter the field.

Jakob: With this in mind, what skills do you think an applied behavioral scientist will most likely need in the coming, let’s say five to ten years, and how can they best prepare for that?

Evelyn: Great question. I’m going to sound like a broken record, but this is all part of why we created the bootcamp, because there is … it’s difficult to kind of come up with what exactly to do for people who are interested in this field, because yes, there’s obviously the argument that the academic side will teach you the core parts of behavioral science, including running experiments and having that stats background which is important.

Evelyn: But unfortunately, and I think again this is an opportunity, too many academics come out without enough understanding of how companies work, of how product decisions are made, of what is a … I’ll give you an example. We were at an academic conference a year or two ago, and there was a panel specifically on defecting to industry, right. How do you join industry, what does that look like. And Kristen Berman, who’s the co-founder of Irrational Labs was on this panel and she got, she was talking about how if you’re doing a … I think it was the question, it was like I’m doing a PhD now, but at the end of it I would want to … I’m exploring. I’m curious about applied work.

Evelyn: She said, “Over your summers you should be at some point you should be volunteering and working for some of these companies. See if you could do some level of analysis for them, some sort of small project, because you can’t join the job force with literally just the PhD in behavioral science or master’s, and expect a company to just be able to make the transition automatically. You have some level of experience doing this work.” And so she said, “I recommend you pursue this. Contact a product manager.” That kind of target that function.

Evelyn: And the question that this person asked in response was, “I don’t really know how … what does that … how does a product management … like I don’t know what a product manager does, and how does that function work?” It’s like wow, there’s a huge gap here if you don’t even know that.

Evelyn: Another example, we were at an … again, a different academic conference. Someone presented some fascinating research. It was a number of years ago so I don’t remember this part of it, what it was on. But it was so interesting, so we asked a question. This is amazing. So in a perfect world if you could work with an company and they could take these insights and apply them, what would it be? And the researcher said, “I have no idea. I have never thought about that.” And to me that’s so mind boggling because the whole reason that we’re here should be to help real people. To put it into a real product, a real sign up flow, a real experience.

Evelyn: So I know I’m kind of answering this in a long way, but I think … because you asked about skills. I think it’s much more experience working with someone. It actually doesn’t even need to be in a company. You could in theory run your own experiments. I did some of that. I did some embarrassing experiments on online dating apps, because I could do it. I didn’t need a company to do it to run these.

Evelyn: So I think that that’s probably one of the most important things is just understanding enough of a product, like of the landscape, and again, I’m being very biased in my answer here. If you’re looking to do government that’s a little bit different. But I think the overall takeaway for me is just having some level of applied experience running experiments on your own, or again, working with a company.

Evelyn: And there’s a lot of ways of doing this, right. You could just already be in a product role. Let’s say you’re a product manager at a company. Ask, try and get to do a behavioral, look at something from a behavioral perspective. Try and run an experiment. You know there’s lots of ways you can bring that in on your own in an existing job that isn’t defined necessarily from day one as a behavioral position. But you can bring that in if you have enough motivation and persuasive skills.

Jakob: Right, so that’s … so if I hear you correctly, what you’re suggesting there is maybe more even important in a way than going endlessly to school and studying in depth fields that are, let’s say, constitute behavioral science. You’re suggesting that it’s in a way even more important for people to kind of have that practical exposure and see how things are run maybe without the application of behavioral science. And then by understanding the basic concepts behind it you can already influence a whole lot by introducing new perspectives into product management or certain areas and processes.

Jakob: I think-

Evelyn: Yeah.

Jakob: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Go ahead.

Evelyn: It just depends on what you’re looking to do. Again, I revealed my bias very, very strongly earlier when I said … you know, I gave the story of this guy who presented this interesting research and he said, “I have no idea what company I would want to implement this.” To me, that’s mind boggling.

Evelyn: But there are, and I’m not discounting, I’m not … I fully respect people who are just interested in the psychology. I just want to understand why do humans do X, and what are all the nuances to that, and what is all the detail, right. So if you’re … if that’s your mindset, then academia is the route. Academics, and we need them to do the research that they’re doing. It’s wonderful to understand this is what happened, and here’s all the details of why. And understanding that level of nuance, right, and the reason.

Evelyn: Business does not have that bias. They don’t need to know. The strong biases, I need to solve for X. I need to make this work. Oh, this thing works, great. I don’t need to know all of the details, and did it work better than what I currently have? Okay, great. And sort of this continuous marginal improvement model, maybe you know there’s an argument that we need to get better on the business side to understand more of the why. But the strong, like that’s just how a business is designed, is that you’re just going to care slightly less about the why. You don’t have the … your job isn’t the same. It’s not the same focus the way an academic’s is to say, let me understand this deeply. It’s more how do I solve for X. Oh, this thing works, great. Do it. Move on to the next thing.

Jakob: Great, Evelyn. So I wanted to ask you about … I wanted to circle back with you around the whole area of ethics, but I do realize we are coming close to time, and I think that would require a bit more of time, so maybe we come back to that in the future. But at this point we are, as we’re coming towards the end of this chat, I would like to ask you what short to long term future you envision for yourself with regard to behavioral science and your projects, and what types of projects are you most excited about coming towards you in the coming years?

Evelyn: Yeah, so short term I’m going to build up this bootcamp. We will probably run it at least twice a year. To really … and the vision here is just to make … yeah, allow the opportunity, make it easier for people who are designing good products in the world, that are solving for health, wealth, and happiness. By the way, it’s completely, you have to apply. We rejected probably about half of the applicants for our last session because if you’re not solving for these things, we’re not really interested in teaching, you know … we’re really trying to make sure that we’re ethically aligned and we’re solving for good.

Evelyn: But if you are, we want to teach you and empower you with this toolkit, which we think is going to be really powerful. So that’s … I’m very excited about that sort of democratizing behavioral science, and sharing this more, and making it easier. Again, so that people don’t have to quit their jobs and do a master’s or PhD. So that’s the short term.

Evelyn: In the long term I mention I’m very interested in attention and productivity and happiness. And what are tools that we can design that could improve those, right. Email is … just because email was designed from day one that each email comes in … you know we see them sequentially as they come in. And an email from you is equal to an email from my mother is equal to some random newsletter I signed up for five years ago that I don’t really care about. Those are all being treated equally. That’s not the right decision if we’re trying to protect our attention.

Evelyn: I think the human mind has so much capacity for creativity and just as humans we’re capable of so much, but not you know … we need to unleash this, and we’re getting in the way of it right now with some of things that we’ve designed from email, but also certain apps that suck our attention. There’s a lot of opportunity there that I hope to work on.

Jakob: And that’s a very, very fascinating topic, and I would love to learn more about it as you unfold that journey because there’s this whole theory that says that as technology rolls so in … in such an insane speed, we tend to in a way get completely overwhelmed by it as well, right. There’s this whole theory that our brains have actually not evolved as fast, and are evolving at a much slower pace, and that in a way we are not really made for the pace of interceptions and triggers, and that we receive left and right, and hence there’s a lot of people out there right now who are maybe a bit even lost in that income of nudges, for the lack of better workd towards that.

Jakob: So great, great. Okay, between. Well Evelyn, I really want to thank you for all your insights today. Before we finish up, is there anything else you would like to let our listeners know before we wrap up?

Evelyn: No, if they’re interested in behavioral science, Irrational Labs has a newsletter. It’s not too aggressive. It’s probably around once a month that we share some of the recent findings that we’ve been researching, or just interesting … we have one called B-E in the Wild, so I’ll always do kind of random screenshots of my phone, in open app, or in real life whenever I see something either good or bad use of behavioral science, we share that.

Yeah, so we kind of … it seems to be, people seem to like it as a way to stay in the loop of updates in the field.

Jakob: Great.

Evelyn: It’s on IrrationalLabs.org.

Jakob: Perfect. So everybody head over to IrrationalLabs.org and sign up for the newsletter. Evelyn, thank you so much again, and I look forward to speaking more with you soon.

Evelyn: Wonderful, thanks for having me.

Jakob: Okay, goodbye

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