As a behavioural communications agency, we’re big on the benefits of applying behavioural science to communications and learning strategies. We’re also passionate about training people to use it in their own problem-solving efforts. So, who better to join our team than a qualified psychologist and behavioural scientist with a passion for training? Let’s meet Dr Lee Rowland…
Lee, not everyone out there knows what behavioural science is about. What are some of the common misconceptions?
That it’s confined to nudging and behavioural economics! Behavioural science is a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary subject. It weaves together all forms of study of human – and even animal – behaviour. Also, the discipline didn’t begin in 2008 with Nudge [the Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein book credited as the inspiration behind the development of the British Government’s Behavioural Insights Team] as many people seem to think – it goes back decades.
What do you find inspiring about behavioural science?
It can help solve many of the problems we as humans have created – and are in the process of creating now. Our technology is often wonderful, but if we don’t change the way we think and behave, we’re toast. Psychology has a crucial role to play.
What is the relationship between behavioural science and communications?
Behavioural science is essential to communications, and there’s a rich tradition of communications research in the behavioural sciences. It’s often ignored outside academia, however. That’s a shame, because time and money is wasted on poor communications that could be improved with just a little bit of behavioural science input.
Tell us some more about your background.
In 2000 I came to London to do a PhD in psychology – I felt that psychology (along with neuroscience and behavioural science) was going to be essential for solving our greatest challenges of the 21st century. As Abraham Maslow pointed out in the 1950s: we need to understand human nature before we destroy ourselves. I still believe that! I spent several years researching differences between unconscious and conscious processing in the brain. That’s what we now call the System 1 / System 2 distinction, or ‘fast and slow thinking’ – a key concept in behavioural science. Understanding how these different systems interact with our environment to shape behaviour, and how we can design a world that promotes constructive rather than destructive activities, seemed like a good way of spending my time.
After leaving academia, you worked as a behavioural science consultant, researcher and trainer. What prompted you to strike out on your own?
There’s so much I love about academia, but it can also be frustrating. As a consultant, I’ve been able to work with a diverse group of people – everyone from governments, defence organisations, businesses and not-for-profits to research agencies. I’ve trained people in the military, the police, special forces, the civil service, intelligence agencies, other scientists, strategists and marketing professionals in behavioural science. Despite the widely different types of people and organisations I’ve worked with, I always find that behavioural science can help improve the way they think about and solve problems. That’s incredibly inspiring. Now I’m excited about applying what I know in the fast-paced creative environment of SBC.
What have been some of the highlights of your career?
One of my favourite projects in the last 10 years was working with an organisation in New York to help spread more kindness in workplaces. Using behavioural science helped make this way more effective, and measurable. I’ve also used behavioural science to help address global problems such as violent extremism.
What skills do you bring to the SBC team?
A bit of scientific rigour to our consulting projects, when necessary. I am also passionate about training organisations in behavioural science in a way that really leaves learners with usable skills, and that is an area we’re developing at SBC. In fact, I’m working with the team on a project to do just that right now, so keep an eye out for updates if this is something you’re interested in.
Tell us something you’ve learnt over the years about human behaviour.
How unbelievably complex it is! Human cultures, minds, environments, technologies and behaviours form a complex system that is constantly changing and evolving. These systems differ the world over: you cannot assume behaviour patterns in one society will be the same in another time and place.
What is one of the weirdest / funniest things you get asked when you tell people you’re a behavioural scientist?
People seem to think either that I’m going to manipulate them, or that I can read their minds. When I was working with governments, I was asked whether I helped orchestrate global events. For years, people close to me thought I was working in the secret service. If only the life of a behavioural scientist were that exciting…