Understanding People: Applying Behavioural Science to Business

Interview with Dr. Tim Mullett, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School

In business, understanding your clients, partners, and, perhaps most importantly, your employees can go a long way towards empowering your leadership abilities. As Warwick Business School is just launching an Executive Diploma in Behavioural Science, we talk to Tim Mullett from WBS, who explains different ways in which behavioural science can help businesses and leaders. Not just as a tool to enhance decision-making, but also to improve the well-being and productivity of a workforce.

Good day, Dr. Mullett! Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us today. Are you enjoying the year so far?

“Yes, thank you, it’s been an exciting time. With COVID restrictions lifting, we have been able to get back to fully in-person teaching across all of our courses and resume work in our behavioural research labs at full capacity”.

When did your interest in behavioural science start and how natural was your integration into the field?

Mullett explains how he’s been interested in predicting and understanding behaviour for a long time as he was doing his undergraduate in psychology and cognitive neuroscience. However, the courses he took focused much more on what he calls ‘normal behaviour’ than ‘abnormal behaviour’.

A module in economic psychology changed his perspective: “It stood out to me, as it explored how everyone acts in irrational but predictable ways. Economic psychology contains endless examples and ideas of people making decisions that make no economic or financial sense when considered objectively, yet feel so intuitively right. Being forced to confront the fact that I myself had exactly the same biases and had made those exact same decisions – mistakes if you will – meant that I was immediately hooked”.

As an academic and associate professor, Dr. Mullet has primarily worked with scientific research but mentions how one of the most rewarding parts of his work has been to work with partners outside academia, among them UK financial regulators and police forces where he has helped implementing improvements using his insight in behavioural science.

Understanding how humans think and what makes them tick can be enormously helpful when running a company. How far can behavioural science improve decision-making in business?

“A good understanding of people and behavioural science is incredibly valuable. It can herald improvements across virtually every aspect of a business’s activities.”

Most businesses have consumer-facing activities, where knowledge from behavioural science can help design the best possible product, service or marketing, Mullett says. Behavioural insights can be used for negotiations and evaluations leading to more efficient agreements and less acrimony amongst the individuals or organisations involved.

“A good understanding of people and behavioural science is incredibly valuable. It can herald improvements across virtually every aspect of a business’s activities.”

But it’s not only a tool for optimising a business or making sales rates spike. Dr. Mullett says that behavioural insights can also be used to significantly improve employee happiness and well-being – which then again can be seen on the bottom line: employee happiness and well-being have productivity, innovation, and better collaboration as nice side effects, Mullett explains.

Interestingly leaders or entrepreneurs can’t choose if they want to apply behavioural insights or not: “Virtually everything a business does is some kind of behaviour and has people at the heart of it.

Therefore, there’s no route to “opt-out” of using behavioural science in your company. You are already using it, but if you don’t realise you are, then you likely aren’t using it well,” Mullett says.

The Executive Diploma in Behavioural Science is a first from Warwick Business School. What are the main components of this new programme and how will it be carried out?

“The course examines how we can apply up-to-date knowledge from behavioural science across a wide range of business and management activities. This includes understanding how consumers and individuals make investment or purchasing decisions, informing the design of marketing, user interfaces, product specifications, and more. We look at how behavioural science can inform effective leadership to foster well-being and high productivity within a workforce that has increasingly diverse skills and needs. The course also explores the ways in which potential for change can be identified amongst the noise and complexity of the real world, and monitored to ensure that it has the desired impact”.

Dr. Mullett adds that the course is held in the middle of London at The Shard and that the course gives a chance to be in close contact with senior academics and experts within behavioural science.

Warwick Business School has also invited several academics to share their expertise, most notably Nick Chater, the award-winning author of The Mind Is Flat and co-host of BBC Radio 4’s The Human Zoo. What collaborative feedback sessions do you have in store?

“We have a fantastic team of academics here at WBS. The school is unusual in having such a large number of experts and researchers in behavioural science” says before talking about one of the main draws of the course. “Professor Chater is well known for his excellent work communicating behavioural science to the public, and his fantastic writing. He also has an amazing track record of working outside of academia to apply behavioural science to real-world problems in industry and policy making”.

Actually, Mullett explains, working with real-world problems outside academia is a common theme for the academics in the course, who work with different industries, police forces, government regulators, and others. Therefore, they are able to help students apply insights from behavioural science into their everyday life in their company or organisation. After identifying areas where students can implement strategies and advice from behavioural science into their organisation, they get the chance to actually apply their new knowledge and then receive feedback from academics as a way of fine-tuning the new insights to their specific needs.

Research in 2020 by the American Psychological Association revealed that lack of job security had adverse effects on emotional stability, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. How does your programme hope to target these specific concerns?

“This is a salient example of the importance of employee well-being. It shows both the impact that an organisation can have on employee well-being and the impact that well-being can have on the overall organisation”. Mullett explains that a negative work environment and anxiety about work lead to a lack of employee efficiency. Therefore, it’s a central focus of the course to teach participants how leaders can ensure a positive environment, which supports the overall goals of an organisation or company.

What do you hope that participants take away from this programme with reference to the resilience of the human mind in the face of change?

“The main takeaway in this regard is that the human mind is incredibly resilient and adaptable when given the right environment and opportunities. When the environment, culture, or leadership is negative, then individuals tend to become risk-averse and shy away from innovation or potentially disruptive approaches. When supported, change instead becomes exciting and appealing” Mullett says adding another focal point of the course: “Innovation can now be fostered. Potential disruption becomes an opportunity. However, this requires effective leadership, incentivisation, support, and understanding”.

Designed with expert knowledge on how to create a productive learning environment, the programme is structured with intensive in-person sessions where students meet world-leading academics and professionals for four challenging and highly rewarding days.

What kind of learning experience can students expect from this immersive programme?

Mullett explains that the programme is highly interactive where students are encouraged to engage with academics as well as their cohort. Designed with expert knowledge on how to create a productive learning environment, Mullett says the programme is structured with intensive in-person sessions where students meet world-leading academics and professionals for four challenging and highly rewarding days.

As a behavioural science professor, what three things would you say people should always consider when making important decisions?

“To understand what is and is not an “important” decision” Mullett immediately says. He advises people to remember the adage “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, an advice Mullett says can help you to dramatically reduce your stress and to focus resources on the truly important choices. “People often struggle with decisions when there is no clear better option and the two are very similar. But if they are very similar, there’s very little cost to choosing the “wrong” one. Conversely, it can be easy to underestimate the impact of some decisions, particularly if they are recurring ones, such as renewing a contract. We have a strong default bias to go with what has been done before and not pay enough attention to what might have changed”.

The second piece of advice Mullett gives is for people to ask themselves “How could I be wrong?”. He says: “Ask yourself to imagine you are sitting here in six months’ time, and things have gone wrong. Why did they go wrong?”

And the final piece of advice, is to allow space for both ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ in decision-making: “Allow yourself to consider both the rational and the emotional. If one option seems like the better one on paper and by the numbers, but you don’t feel happy with it, interrogate yourself as to why you don’t feel happy. This is important for things like choosing whether to accept a job; if you won’t feel happy, you won’t be as productive anyway”. 

Your area of research seems to focus a lot on the intersection between behavioural science and the workplace environment. ‘Parasite stress’ is a recurring theme in your papers. Can you briefly tell us about this phenomenon?
“Parasite stress is a particularly striking example of how individuals can be affected by their environment without even realising it. Our recent research used data from Facebook to show that people who are at risk of disease infection show changes in their very personality”. Mullett tells us that research shows that older people show reduced ‘openness’ in their personality profiles if they live in areas with a high level of infectious disease and that this change happens because new people may be carrying potentially dangerous infections. “We have even followed up this work, showing that a similar effect can be found in political preferences, with an increase in conservative or anti-immigration attitudes” Mullett says. “This is just one example of the way in which people’s behaviour is affected by their environment and community. There are many more in behavioural science that apply directly to the workplace environment and can affect individuals’ well-being, personalities, motivation, risk-taking, ethicality, and more”.

Executive Profile

Tim Mullett acquired his PhD at the University of Nottingham where he was researching psychology and cognitive neuroscience. He’s currently an associate professor at Warwick Business School where he is a part of the behavioural science group. Besides his academic duties at WBS and publishing in top-tier journals, he’s working with policymakers and organisations to help them implement practical insights from behavioural science. In this interview, Mullett explains how the new Executive Diploma in Behavioural Science is structured before sharing three pieces of advice to keep in mind during decision-making.

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