White Paper: The Rise of Behavioral Science Jobs

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White Paper: The Rise of Behavioral Science Jobs

Posted in Articles on Nov 11, 2019


Behavioral science is the study of how people make decisions across a range of domains and cultures. While it is not a new field, the presence of behavioural science in mainstream corporate America has been growing steadily over the last 20 years. In this article we explore the history of the field, provideexpert commentary on where the field is heading and why behavioural scientists, and those breaking into the field, should remain optimistic. We take a deep dive into what a behvaioral science career is and how to begin thinking through your next steps in behavioral science.

You will learn the following:

  1. The history of the field of behavioral science
  2. How behavioral science became so popular
  3. Companies and resources who have published reports
  4. Considerations for next steps
  5. What to expect in years to come

Behavioral Science’s Surge in Popularity: The Early Days

Behavioral science has become something of a hot topic in recent years. Its focus on (ir)rationality and decision-making has begun to capture attention, as it irresistibly transforms our understanding of our behavior as a species – and gives us an idea of how we can mold our own behavior for the better. What we plan to do is often not what is achieved, and we often spend money in ways that are fuelled by desires more than logic. Naturally, the study of human behavior has always been a crux of psychological research; organizational psychology, for example, has taken employee productivity as a focus for over a hundred years. However, the upwards trajectory of behavioral science in its current guise began in earnest with researchers such as Kahneman and Tversky in the 1970s. The latter were among the earliest publishers of research based around heuristics and biases in human decision-making in 1973[1]. Several decades later, the publication of Thaler and Sunstein’s game-changing Nudge in 2008[2] helped to bring these focal points of behavioral science into the spotlight.

More than ten years and several Nobel Prizes later, the field map of behavioral science – including precisely what it is – remains opaque for many. ‘Behavioral science’ refers broadly to the study of human behaviour. When we speak about behavioral science as a field of empirical research today, its firmest anchors still stand in psychology and cognition. Behavioral scientists conduct research that is informed by their knowledge of economics, psychology, sociology, and management studies, and run experimental studies to generate insights into the why (causal) and how (mechanisms) of human behavior and decision-making. These insights can be applied to optimize outcomes in any number of contexts: economics, healthcare, purchasing behavior, sustainability, government policy, and personal finance, to name just a few. Corporations large and small are beginning to recognize the exciting possibilities behind behavioral science, and are rapidly establishing ‘nudge units’, ‘behavioral science units,’ and ‘behavioral insights divisions’, among others, usually focussed on the behaviors of either customers or employees[3].

Behavioral science arguably accelerated into public awareness after the 2008 financial crisis when the need to make strategic and economic decisions was felt in every area of society. Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chairman, admitted his “shocked disbelief”[4] that traditional economics had failed to predict or prevent such an event. In contrast, behavioral scientists had already explained why and how human behaviors were likely to cause just such a housing bubble (see Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational[5], also 2008). This costly incident revealed that traditional economists had been unwise in shutting their eyes to the irrationalities at play in human decision-making; the necessity of paying attention to behavioral science was thrown into sharp relief. Ever since, behavioral science has quietly moved towards centre stage.

A Growing Field and How to Measure It

In the past, behavioral science has been treated as something of a wild card, or at best a ‘soft science’[6]. Anecdotally, the perception of the field has changed dramatically, although quantifying the job growth in behavioral science proves to be a challenge. Understandably for an emerging field with a wide diversity of roles, there are still no robust data sets which could help us to chart its trajectory so far. After a hopeful search of both the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), it transpires that neither yet provides data on behavioral science in its own right. The same goes for specific strands of behavioral science, like behavioral economics and behavioral finance. Certain career advice websites (such as https://study.com) refer to Behavioral Economics using broader statistics from the We might usefully look at the figures for Psychologists as well (14%). Certainly, these categories might include behavioral-science-related roles, but they are far too broad for us to make this claim with certainty, or to draw insights with any precision.

While the overall picture remains to be sketched out in terms of statistics, there is still plenty of evidence to suggest that job numbers are burgeoning, and that organizations of all types are recognizing the vast potential in behavioral science. In a policy context, a 2018 report from the World Bank[7] summed up the behavioral science work being performed by governments across ten different countries, from Singapore to Denmark to Peru, all of which have created dedicated staff roles in this area. To get an idea of the fantastic and growing scope for behavioral science and policy, we only need look at some of the initiatives administered across the world so far. The United Nations, for one, is involved in a huge number of international projects, from working to change perceptions of Syrian refugees in Jordan to challenging norms around child marriage in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East[8]. The US government has applied a number of interventions aiming to help the more vulnerable, for example, improving the design of policies in place to support vulnerable families, and achieving a 6% increase in college enrolment among low-income and first-generation students8. Innumerable other projects have been undertaken, from helping encourage water-saving in Costa Rica to increasing the rate of job placement among jobseekers in Singapore[9].

To turn to a corporate context, a Thomas Reuters forum last year[10] concluded that the banking industry is also embracing a greater focus on the application of behavioral science. The same is true across many industries, particularly within the largest companies. BCG have run the BeSmart initiative since 2009, which uses behavioral economics insights to bring about behavioral change. PWC, who have held first place in the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers list for 15 years, now describe Behavioral Economics as one of the key areas in their Economic Consulting graduate scheme. The advertising giant Ogilvy even run their own yearly behavioral science festival, Nudgestock. In other words, businesses worldwide are now paying serious attention to the behavioral science conversation, and are making room – and roles – accordingly. A quick inspection of the calendar on behavioraleconomics.com reveals 19 behavioral economics conferences scheduled across the world next month alone, compared with half this number last year.

What Does a Job in Behavioral Science Look Like?

So far, we can conclude that there is a positive direction of travel in the labour market for behavioral science. However, as with any fledgling field, the path is not clearly signposted, and to some extent it remains to be paved.

To understand what a behavioral science job looks like, a good place to begin is with two broad contexts under which the roles can be categorized: the first being pure research, and the second being application.

  • What is it? Many university departments, as well as independent research teams, exist purely for the purpose of conducting research into behavioral science. They can choose to answer any given question(s) about human behavior and decision-making, and the biases which influence these.
  • Where are the jobs? Pure research is often performed within university contexts, although interestingly more organizations are springing up outside of the academic setting. Even within a university, the set-up, size and name of the faculty will differ greatly from university to university. Some faculties are entirely specialized, such as the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Others encompass behavioral science within a wider department; for example, Behavioral Economics is one of several fields within Harvard’s Department of Economics.
  • What are the roles? Roles can be based around qualitative or quantitative research, or a mixture of the two. Within a university, the roles usually begin with Research Assistant and work up through the research ranks. As is often the case with academic careers, a Ph.D. is usually necessary, certainly for more senior roles – this means that overall ‘entry costs’ for this type of role in a university can be rather high. Within a non-academic research role, the requirements for postgraduate qualifications can be more flexible, meaning that the entry costs can be less steep (although not in every case).

Applied Behavioral Science:

  • What is it? A growing number of organizations perform ‘applied behavioral science’: they take behavioral science insights and apply them to help businesses or other types of client (or indeed their own organization) to solve problems, optimize processes, or achieve other outcomes such as improving employee wellbeing.
  • Where are the jobs? Dedicated behavioral science consultancies perform this type of ‘applied’ work for a client base – clients can be businesses, healthcare organizations, or others. Consultancies usually have a specialism – examples include communications (see Schwa for an example), strategy consulting (see The Behavioral Architects) or marketing (see Rare Consulting). Alternatively, large businesses, governments and other organizations often establish their own internal behavioral science teams to perform applied work instead of working with a consultancy. Government teams apply insights to areas as diverse as policymaking, sustainability and international development. Usually, both consultancies and internal teams would perform their own research as well as applying it.
  • What are the roles? These roles can be fluid, especially given the combination of research and application. An Applied Behavioral Scientist in a consultancy, for example, might perform any combination of: liaising with clients to understand the commercial issues at hand and the needs of the client; formulating a project plan, tailored to the commercial backdrop of the specific client and industry; gathering and analysing data; interpreting results and using them to generate insights to answer the question at hand; and formulating these in an engaging and comprehensible way to deliver to clients.

Of course, not all jobs fall neatly into these categories. Firstly, since organizations in different fields increasingly create internal roles tailored to their own needs, ‘Behavioral Scientist’ roles are far from uniform. Equally, there are many more unusual contexts for behavioral science, such as behavioral scientist roles within the military or the SIS.

The distinction is often blurred between behavioral science and data science, and there are certainly overlaps between the two – namely, both may involve using quantitative research methods and statistical analysis to generate insightful results. There are two key differences, however, the first (and perhaps more obvious) of which lies in the psychological basis for behavioral science work. While pure data science can be performed to a high standard using a knowledge of statistics alone, behavioral science also requires a careful understanding of psychological factors (and in particular, cognitive biases) in order to fully understand the impact of your output and to apply it appropriately and usefully.

The second difference is a little more nuanced. While data science relies on driving quantitative results from data sets, behavioral science relies more closely on the ability to place technical results and complex data within a more theoretical context. Behavioral scientists are trained to ask the right questions, to interrogate the data (and the answers which it produces), and to both view and communicate the results within a framework of theory and theorizing.

While the field remains relatively young, as we have seen, it is nonetheless experiencing a surge in popularity. Larger companies, in particular, often receive huge numbers of applications for jobs, and competition can be fierce. For applicants who are new to the field, it can be difficult to find Behavioral Scientist positions in the first place. This is exacerbated given that many companies currently struggle to accurately pinpoint the candidates who will work best for them in these roles (and to be sure whether they actually want Data Scientists or Behavioral Scientists). For this reason, many companies bring in ‘middle men’ like Behiring, whose expertise can be valuable in reducing the chance of misselling a role (or a candidate).

As a candidate, it can be valuable to gain experience where possible, in order to improve your technical knowledge and also to make yourself a little more distinctive. Taking on some unpaid research in spare time is often valuable – many researchers are more than willing to accept an extra pair of hands on a busy project-and it can significantly improve your skillset, as well as being a positive way of expanding your network.

In addition, a number of companies now offer the opportunity to attend short courses or summer schools (Cowry Consulting, to name just one), or paid internships. These can be useful in establishing a clearer picture of the types of projects performed by these companies, and of their culture and motivations.

There are a myriad of conferences and talks taking place annually across the globe. Attending one or more of these can boost your knowledge of behavioral science and help to spark interest in potential specialisms. These events can also be a fantastic opportunity to network.

How Do I Know Which Behavioral Science Role Is The One For Me?

Deciding whether a behavioral science job is the right one for you is largely based on aligning the motivation with that of the team and its founder. Aims and goals will differ vastly across different industries and between different projects, and the first step is to decide what your own goal is and to find a team which strives to achieve the same. Ask yourself why the team was established, and by who? Is it part of a larger corporate consultancy? Is their purpose based around revenue driving, by using behavioral science to entice consumers? This might be suitable for an applicant with a strongly business-minded interest in behavioral science. Or in direct contrast, was the team set up in order to use behavioral science to improve employee engagement with health or financial wellbeing – or perhaps even further along the scale, a non-profit who exist to apply behavioral science research to issues of international development and poverty? This could be a perfect match for an applicant with humanitarian aims at the forefront of their mind. Is the team purely research-focussed, with the sole aim of generating knowledge? This would suit an applicant with a straightforward interest in developing a better understanding of human behaviors and enabling learning.

Another consideration, of course, is situational. Even among larger organizations, many are only just making their first foray into establishing an internal behavioral science practice. Some employ just one single behavioral scientist, or a very small team. For the employees concerned (or potential applicants), this experience will differ considerably from working for a long-established or larger consultancy, or for a tightly-focussed governmental department, which would both likely be armed with many more sources of support and learning. Consider how integrated the role is likely to be with the company at large, and the nature of interaction with other teams. What is the experience and knowledge of the people setting up the teams, and how defined is the role? What is your own experience, and is it right? These questions are crucial for both candidates and companies to ask themselves, and of course to ask the person on the other side of the interview table.

[1] Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability”, Cognitive Psychology 5 (1973):207-32.

[2] Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

[3] Anna Güntner, Konstantin Lucks, and Julia Sperling-Magro, “Lessons from the front line of corporate nudging”, McKinsey. January, 2019, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/lessons-from-the-front-line-of-corporate-nudging (accessed May 9, 2019).

[4] Andrew Clark and Jill Treanor, “Greenspan - I was wrong about the economy. Sort of”, The Guardian. October 24, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/oct/24/economics-creditcrunch-federal-reserve-greenspan (accessed May 5, 2019).

[5] Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

[6] Bradford Tuckfield, “A Hard Future for a Soft Science”, The American Interest. March 9, 2017, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2017/03/09/a-hard-future-for-a-soft-science/ (accessed May 5, 2019).

[7] Zeina Afif, William Islan, Oscar Calvo-Gonzalez and Abigail Dalton, Behavioral Science Around the World: Profiles of 10 Countries. November 30, 2018, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/710771543609067500/Behavioral-Science-Around-the-World-Profiles-of-10-Countries (accessed May 5, 2019).

[8] The United Nations, Behavioral Insights at the UN: Achieving Agenda 2030, 2013.  

[9] OECD (2017), Behavioral Insights and Public Policy: Lessons from Around the World, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264270480-en (accessed May 5, 2019).

[10] Henry Engler, “Bank Culture Forum: Behavioral science gains role as banks address culture, conduct”, Reuters. April 23, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/bc-finreg-bank-culture-forum-behavioral/bank-culture-forum-behavioral-science-gains-role-as-banks-address-culture-conduct-idUSKBN1HU1PW (accessed May 5, 2019).

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