BSPA Conference: NYC, 2019

Philip Tetlock, Jonathan Haidt, Cass Sunstein AND Paul Slovic? I was always going to the Behavioural science and Policy association conference. This is A quick summary OF MY NOTES, DIRECT FROM the plane home…

Professor Dolly Chugh introduces three heavyweights of behavioural science.

Professor Dolly Chugh introduces three heavyweights of behavioural science.

It’s strange when there isn’t a theme to a conference. Yes, we were there to talk about behavioural science but ‘behaviour’ can cover a lot! It means translating a dizzying array of studies back to the workplace (which is my area of interest). There was plenty to get me going in the first panel on Fake News, moderated by Rebecca Blumenstein from the New York Times. I’m just going to give you some quotes:

What’s really important is often missed. It’s not the attention grabbing headlines. It’s the banal stuff that washes over us every day..
— Duncan Watts on Fake News (and why your culture transformation programme isn't as important as you think).
People who should have authority, do not have authority.
— Professor David Rand on our mistrust of experts.
Everyone in this room is an outlier. So you won’t get to the right answer by doing thought experiments on yourself. You’ll get to the right answer with better measurement.
— Duncan Watts again, who may as well have been talking to a room full of HR professionals.
Every company I work with wants me to give them the three things they need to do to solve some extraordinarily complex social issue.
— Welcome to the world of consulting, David Rand.

Next up was a series of talks on social challenges. I’m just going to focus on Professor John Lynch and his talk on financial decision-making. The sequence he went through was exactly the same problem we face in the workplace:

  1. Something bad is happening (in this case bad financial decisions, but you could also use bias or unethical behaviour at work).

  2. Practitioners try to solve it all in one go by rewiring people’s minds (financial education, unconscious bias training, ethics training).

  3. Hundreds of studies show this has scant effect on behaviour - “financial education has shockingly little impact on financial behaviour”.

  4. Hundreds of studies show breaking the ‘something bad’ into moments and intervening ‘just-in-time’ is far more promising.

  5. Practitioners ignore the evidence.

The longer the distance between the intervention and the behaviour, the weaker the effect becomes. This gives much weight to just-in-time interventions.
— Professor John Lynch


After lunch was Cass Sunstein on ‘sludge’ and the idea of identifying and removing the unnecessary barriers to beneficial behaviour. He told us that US citizens spend 11.3bn hours on paperwork and bureaucracy every year and shared his vision to do something about it:

The most precious commodity human beings have is time. Let’s find a way to give people more of it.
— Cass Sunstein, who might also have something to say about flexible working.

After his talk, Cass was joined by Paul Slovic and Jonathan Haidt to present summaries of their latest books. This session was moderated by the equally brilliant and unequally energetic Dolly Chugh, who neatly summed up the themes as Conformity (Sunstein), Coddling (Haidt) and Compassion (Slovic):

It is in the interests of the individual to follow the crowd. It is in the interests of society that they don’t.
— Dolly Chugh, quoting Cass Sunstein in his new book, Conformity (one for all those interested in Psychological Safety).
We are facing a tidal wave of depression and anxiety.
— Johnathan Haidit, on the unprecedented fragility of the generation just about to enter the workplace.
“Numbers are means of describing the big picture, but we can cannot comprehend them at scale. Stories bring that big picture to life”
— Paul Slovic on why we need new to look to art and literature to communicate social challenges.

Finally, to Philip Tetlock and a seemingly impossible question: Will a fourth industrial revolution, driven by artificial intelligent emerge in the next 5-10 years? The way to answer it is to break it down into indicative cluster questions and then predict the probability of each occurring (the slide below is old of course, AlphaGo did beat Lee Sedol but Uber and Watson MD have fallen short). So, will your organisation complete it’s digital transformation by 2025? Will your market be dominated by Artificial Intelligence by 2022? The answers lies in the smaller, nearer term events that you can see and meaningfully forecast.


What was my big takeaway? That I bloomin' love behavioural science, and that so many of these diverse ideas can be linked back to our refrain of #ThinkSmall. How do you improve financial decision making? You break it into moments and intervene just-in-time. How do you influence people about a macro-social issue? You break it into single stories and use them to paint the big picture. And how do you answer huge questions about the future? You break them into predictable, nearer-term events and track them as a cluster. You think small, you think small, you think small….

James Elfer