The Rise of Behavioral Science Jobs

Behavioralscience is the study of how people make decisions across a range of domains andcultures. While it is not a new field, the presence of behavioural science in mainstreamcorporate America has been growing steadily over the last 20 years. In thisarticle we explore the history of the field, provide expert commentary on wherethe field is heading and why behavioural scientists, and those breaking intothe field, should remain optimistic. We take a deep dive into what a behvaioralscience career is and how to begin thinking through your next steps inbehavioral science.


Behavioralscience is the study of how people make decisions across a range of domains andcultures. While it is not a new field, the presence of behavioural science in mainstreamcorporate America has been growing steadily over the last 20 years. In thisarticle we explore the history of the field, provide expert commentary on wherethe field is heading and why behavioural scientists, and those breaking intothe field, should remain optimistic. We take a deep dive into what a behvaioralscience career is and how to begin thinking through your next steps inbehavioral science.

You will learn the following:

- Thehistory of the field of behavioral science

- Howbehavioral science became so popular

- Companiesand resources who have published reports

- Considerationsfor next steps
- What to expect in years to come


BehavioralScience’s Surge in Popularity: The Early Days


Behavioral science hasbecome something of a hot topic in recent years. Its focus on (ir)rationality anddecision-making has begun to capture attention, as it irresistibly transforms ourunderstanding of our behavior as a species – and gives us an idea of how we canmold our own behavior for the better. What we plan to do is often not what isachieved, and we often spend money in ways that are fuelled by desires morethan logic. Naturally, the study of human behavior has always been a crux ofpsychological research; organizational psychology, for example, has taken employeeproductivity as a focus for over a hundred years. However, the upwardstrajectory of behavioral science in its current guise began in earnest withresearchers such as Kahneman and Tversky in the 1970s. The latter were amongthe earliest publishers of research based around heuristics and biases in humandecision-making in 1973[1].Several decades later, the publication of Thaler and Sunstein’s game-changing Nudge in 2008[2] helpedto bring these focal points of behavioral science into the spotlight.


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


Behavioral science arguablyaccelerated into public awareness after the 2008 financial crisis when the needto 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 werelikely 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 unwisein shutting their eyes to the irrationalities at play in human decision-making;the necessity of paying attention to behavioral science was thrown into sharprelief. Ever since, behavioral science has quietly moved towards centre stage.


AGrowing Field and How to Measure It


In the past, behavioralscience has been treated as something of a wild card, or at best a ‘softscience’[6].Anecdotally, the perception of the field has changed dramatically, although quantifyingthe job growth in behavioral science proves to be a challenge. Understandablyfor an emerging field with a wide diversity of roles, there are still no robustdata sets which could help us to chart its trajectory so far. After ahopeful search of both the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the USBureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), it transpires that neither yet provides dataon behavioral science in its own right. [N1] Thesame goes for specific strands of behavioral science, like behavioral economicsand behavioral finance. Certain career advice websites (such as to Behavioral Economics using broader statistics from the BLS, such as job growth for Economists (6% from2016 to 2026) and Market Research Analysts (23%). [N2] [HP3] Wemight usefully look at the figures for Psychologists as well (14%). Certainly, thesecategories might include behavioral-science-related roles, but they are far toobroad for us to make this claim with certainty, or to draw insights with anyprecision.


While the overallpicture remains to be sketched out in terms of statistics, there is still plentyof evidence to suggest that job numbers are burgeoning, and that organizationsof all types are recognizing the vast potential in behavioral science. In apolicy context, a 2018 report from the World Bank[7] summed up the behavioralscience work being performed by governments across ten different countries,from Singapore to Denmark to Peru, all of which have created dedicated staffroles in this area. To get an idea of the fantastic and growing scope for behavioralscience and policy, we only need look at some of the initiatives administeredacross the world so far. The United Nations, for one, is involved in a hugenumber of international projects, from working to change perceptions of Syrianrefugees 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 morevulnerable, for example, improving the design of policies in place to supportvulnerable families, and achieving a 6% increase in college enrolment amonglow-income and first-generation students8. Innumerable otherprojects have been undertaken, from helping encourage water-saving in CostaRica to increasing the rate of job placement among jobseekers in Singapore[9].


To turn to a corporatecontext, a Thomas Reuters forum last year[10]concluded that the banking industry is also embracing a greater focus on theapplication of behavioral science. The same is true across many industries,particularly within the largest companies. BCG have run the BeSmart initiativesince 2009, which uses behavioral economics insights to bring about behavioralchange. PWC, who have held first place in the Times Top 100 Graduate Employerslist for 15 years, now describe Behavioral Economics as one of the key areas intheir Economic Consulting graduate scheme. The advertising giant Ogilvy evenrun their own yearly behavioral science festival, Nudgestock. In other words, businessesworldwide are now paying serious attention to the behavioral scienceconversation, and are making room – and roles – accordingly. A quick inspectionof the calendar on reveals 19 behavioral economicsconferences scheduled across the world next month alone, compared with half thisnumber last year.


WhatDoes a Job in Behavioral Science Look Like?


So far, we can concludethat there is a positive direction of travel in the labour market for behavioralscience. However, as with any fledgling field, the path is not clearlysignposted, and to some extent it remains to be paved.


To understand what a behavioralscience job looks like, a good place to begin is with two broad contexts underwhich the roles can be categorized: the first being pure research, and thesecond being application.


Pure Research:

·        Whatis it? Many universitydepartments, as well as independent research teams, exist purely for thepurpose of conducting research into behavioral science. They can choose to answerany given question(s) about human behavior and decision-making, and the biaseswhich influence these.

·        Whereare the jobs? Pure research is often performedwithin university contexts, although interestingly more organizations arespringing 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 DecisionResearch at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Othersencompass behavioral science within a wider department; for example, BehavioralEconomics is one of several fields within Harvard’s Department of Economics.

·        Whatare the roles? Roles can be basedaround qualitative or quantitative research, or a mixture of the two. Within auniversity, the roles usually begin with Research Assistant and work up throughthe research ranks. As is often the case with academic careers, a Ph.D. isusually necessary, certainly for more senior roles – this means that overall‘entry costs’ for this type of role in a university can be rather high. Withina non-academic research role, the requirements for postgraduate qualificationscan be more flexible, meaning that the entry costs can be less steep (althoughnot in every case).


AppliedBehavioral Science:

·        Whatis it? A growing number oforganizations perform ‘applied behavioral science’: they take behavioralscience insights and apply them to help businesses or other types of client (orindeed their own organization) to solve problems, optimize processes, orachieve other outcomes such as improving employee wellbeing.

·        Whereare the jobs? Dedicated behavioralscience consultancies perform this type of ‘applied’ work for a client base – clientscan be businesses, healthcare organizations, or others. Consultancies usuallyhave a specialism – examples include communications (see Schwa for an example),strategy consulting (see The Behavioral Architects) or marketing (see RareConsulting). Alternatively, large businesses, governments and other organizationsoften establish their own internal behavioral science teams to perform appliedwork instead of working with a consultancy. Government teams apply insights toareas as diverse as policymaking, sustainability and international development.Usually, both consultancies and internal teams would perform their own researchas well as applying it.

·        Whatare the roles? These roles can befluid, especially given the combination of research and application. An AppliedBehavioral Scientist in a consultancy, for example, might perform anycombination of: liaising with clients to understand the commercial issues athand and the needs of the client; formulating a project plan, tailored to thecommercial backdrop of the specific client and industry; gathering and analysingdata; interpreting results and using them to generate insights to answer thequestion at hand; and formulating these in an engaging and comprehensible wayto deliver to clients.


Of course, not all jobsfall neatly into these categories. Firstly, since organizations in differentfields increasingly create internal roles tailored to their own needs, ‘BehavioralScientist’ roles are far from uniform. Equally, there are many more unusualcontexts for behavioral science, such as behavioral scientist roles within the militaryor the SIS.


What Makes Behavioral ScienceDifferent From Data Science, Or Any Other Research Role?


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


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


What Does the Process LookLike For Getting a Good Behavioral Science Job?


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


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


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


There are a myriad ofconferences and talks taking place annually across the globe. Attending one ormore of these can boost your knowledge of behavioral science and help to sparkinterest in potential specialisms. These events can also be a fantasticopportunity to network.


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


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


Another consideration,of course, is situational. Even among larger organizations, many are only just makingtheir first foray into establishing an internal behavioral science practice. Someemploy just one single behavioral scientist, or a very small team. For the employeesconcerned (or potential applicants), this experience will differ considerablyfrom working for a long-established or larger consultancy, or for a tightly-focussedgovernmental department, which would both likely be armed with many more sourcesof support and learning. Consider how integrated the role is likely to be with thecompany at large, and the nature of interaction with other teams. What is theexperience and knowledge of the people setting up the teams, and how defined isthe role? What is your own experience, and is it right? These questions are crucialfor both candidates and companies to ask themselves, and of course to ask theperson on the other side of the interview table.

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

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

[3] Anna Güntner,Konstantin Lucks, and Julia Sperling-Magro, “Lessons from the front line ofcorporate nudging”, McKinsey.January, 2019, May 9, 2019).

[4] Andrew Clark andJill Treanor, “Greenspan - I was wrong about the economy. Sort of”, The Guardian. October 24, 2008, May 5, 2019).

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

[6] BradfordTuckfield, “A Hard Future for a Soft Science”, The American Interest. March 9, 2017, May 5, 2019).

[7] Zeina Afif,William Islan, Oscar Calvo-Gonzalez and Abigail Dalton, Behavioral Science Around the World: Profiles of 10 Countries. November30, 2018, May 5, 2019).

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

[9] OECD(2017), Behavioral Insights and Public Policy: Lessons from Aroundthe World, OECD Publishing, Paris, (accessed May 5,2019).

[10] Henry Engler, “BankCulture Forum: Behavioral science gains role as banks address culture, conduct”,Reuters. April 23, 2018, May 5, 2019).

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