As dangerous as a toddler with a katana

As dangerous as a toddler with a katana

Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how to hire a behavioral scientist.

The people asking this question all seem to believe that knowing some behavioral economics and cognitive science turns someone into a magical know-it-all—a problem-solver from the future.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes—the behavioral sciences are powerful tools. But powerful tools in the wrong hands can be deadly.

And, unfortunately, I think that the behavioral sciences make most of their students dumber.

Let me give you a quick example: priming.

It’s one of the most popular areas of psychology research over the past 20 years (and the focus of chapter 4 of Daniel Kahneman’s magnum opus, Thinking Fast and Slow). The basic idea is that environmental stimuli can unconsciously change how people will think or behave. So if you have someone walk into a room that contains a poster with money on it, they’ll be much more selfish, and so on.

After most people learn this research, they become… crazy. They overanalyze everything. They think that the coffee mug they’re holding is making them friendlier, “warmer”. They think that they accidentally sabotaged their salespeople by painting the office walls the wrong color. They think that reading that New Yorker article about the rising costs of healthcare might have been the reason they got a stomach ache two days ago.

In other words: they go bonkers.

There’s one major problem with this type of thinking, though: it’s wrong. If you read the priming studies you’ll see that the effect sizes of these priming interventions are TINY. In fact, they’re so tiny that they don’t even exist. Priming research has been in a full-blown replication crisis for the last 4 years. This means that when researchers re-run these experiments, they fail to see anything.

In this case, most behavioral scientists have the wrong model of the world. Your non-scientist grandfather or second cousin has a more accurate model of reality and how people behave than your priming-loving behavioral scientist.

Which leads us to the lesson of today’s article: behavioral science is a powerful tool if wielded by the right person… but a ticking time bomb in most hands.

If you hire someone who actually knows the literature inside and out, and has gone through it with a critical mind, they’ll be a huge help. However, based on my experience, only 2-5% of the behavioral scientists out there fall into this camp. Most are walking around with laughably bad beliefs and completely inaccurate models of how people operate and why they do what they do.

It’s no wonder that most of them either stay in academia (where they can do no harm) or spend their time giving talk after talk to any company who will listen.

My advice is to, first and foremost, look for intelligence and creativity in the people you’re considering. The best applied behavioral scientists I know are shockingly intelligent and can generate ideas like no one’s business. They’re problem-solving machines who also happen to have a pretty incisive understanding of human psychology and why people do what they do (from a critical study of the literature).

When you’re interviewing candidates for any “behavioral science” or “behavior design” role, stay away from any talk related to psychology, behavioral science etc. Even if the person you’re talking to doesn’t know very much, they probably know more than you do (if you’re not steeped in this stuff), and so it’ll be easy for them to impress you.

Instead of asking them about behavioral stuff, talk about more general things. Get them to brainstorm some problems with you. See how they think. How quick are they? Are they logical? Do they pick up on what you’re saying quickly?

All of the research on job performance shows that problem solving and learning ability are the two most important variables to consider when choosing anyone. When hiring a behavioral scientist, even for a short job, this still applies. So, please, be critical. Don’t just hire the first behavioral scientist you see. Last year, when we were hiring for my team at Walmart, we had to vet around 220 people to make a single hire. Out of that group of 220 people, there were only 3-4 who could adequately fill the role—and only 2 who were great fits.

This field is still young, and talent is *really* hard to come by, so go into each conversation with a potential lead assuming that they aren’t qualified enough for the job. If you do that, you’ll be right 98% of the time.

If you want help figuring out how to accurately determine problem solving and learning ability, let me know via the contact page. I’ve recently been building out an online system that helps hiring managers do just that.

Until tomorrow,


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