Design Mind frogcast Ep. 23 – The Science of Behavior Change

Our guest: Matt Wallaert, Head of Behavioral Science, frog
Podcast

On this episode, we’re talking about behavioral science as applied to the creative process. To do this, we’re joined by Matt Wallaert, Head of Behavioral Science at frog and author of Start at the End: How to Build Products that Create Change. In his first year at frog, Matt has trained 100 (and counting) of his colleagues in the principles of behavioral science—and guides clients in developing and scaling their own capabilities to create better products and services and make change in the world.

Listen to the podcast episode and find transcripts below. You can also find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotifyand anywhere you listen to podcasts.  

Episode Transcript:
Design Mind frogcast
Episode 23:  The Science of Behavior Change
Guest: Matt Wallaert, Head of Behavioral Science, frog

[00:09]Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood. 

[00:24] Elizabeth Wood: Today on our show, we’re talking about behaviors–or, more specifically, the science behind behavior change. Behavioral science is a study of human actions that has roots in many different domains, from economics to psychology, biology and neuroscience. To talk about behaviors, we’re joined by Matt Wallaert, Head of Behavioral Science at frog and author of the book Start at the End: How to Build Products that Create Change. Along with training his fellow frogs in the principles and applications of behavioral science, Matt works on multidisciplinary teams to guide clients in improving their own applied behavioral science capabilities, with a focus on making things that make change. Here’s Matt now.

[01:07] Matt Wallaert: Science belongs to all of us. It’s the most beautifully designed thing, as far as I know, that the world has ever created. We’ve designed lots of stuff. And I mean people talk about the Sistine Chapel. But, to me, science? I mean, it is gorgeous because it is usable by everyone. We all can do it. And it is inherently egalitarian. And I love that about it.

[01:26] Matt Wallaert: We don’t change behavior directly. I can’t pop open your brain and find the listen to this podcast button and hit it. Neuroscientists might get us there one day, but it’s certainly not how we work today. Instead, what I modify is those pressures, those promoting and inhibiting pressures. What I’m really saying is, how do I change these pressures that then change this behavior? It’s a little bit like The Matrix. I love it as an analogy for this kind of work. If you think about The Matrix, there’s an outcome, right? It’s somebody moving in the world or something, and then there’s the code behind it—the thing that caused that to occur. We don’t directly affect the outcome. What we really do is manipulate the code. We change those promoting and inhibiting pressures to then cause that outcome to occur. There’s that wonderful scene with a little kid who says, you know, ‘It’s not the spoon that bends. It’s you.’ That’s how behavior change works. We don’t change behavior directly. We change pressures that then change behavior at scale.

[02:15] Matt Wallaert: My name is Matt Wallaert and I am the Head of Behavioral Science at frog.

[02:20] Matt Wallaert: We talk about in Applied Behavioral Sciences: behavior as an outcome, science as a process. Right? So, rather than using things that were derived through science in a lab, we’re using science in situ to find interventions that work. When I talk about being an Applied Behavioral Scientist, that’s what I mean. It’s about finding interventions in the world that specifically change behavior—behavior as an outcome—using the scientific method to get us to that place of the right cost-benefit ratio to scale it in a way that helps people.

[02:50] Elizabeth Wood: Matt found his way to behavioral science through a combination of academic exploration and an examination of his own lived experiences.

[03:00] Matt Wallaert: I went into college as a biology major and somewhat fervently anti psychology. I was raised in rural Oregon. I don’t know that there was a psychologist within 100 miles of me. I think my dominant understanding of what psychology was was, you know, someone that you went to, and they told you how you felt. And that didn’t seem like something I was super interested in. And then I took Intro Psych.

[03:21] Matt Wallaert: As a teenager, I had an eating disorder. And so I ended up taking the second psych class called the ‘Psychology of Self Control.’ And it was taught by one of Swarthmore’s acknowledged best teaching professors, a guy named Andrew Ward. And sort of midway through the semester, there was a study where I felt like the experimenters were overreaching—that they had reached a conclusion that was not supported by the data. And Andrew said what I think is one of the most wonderful things you can say to a young person, which is, ‘Well, the field agrees on this interpretation. But there’s an orderly way to respond, which is for you to run your own experiment and prove where you think that there is a nuance or a difference or a problem. And if you want to come to my lab and run an experiment, let’s do that.’ And that was just huge for me. I mean, I think up until that point in my life, the most powerful person in the room had had the freedom to articulate and to decide what right meant. And here was this professor saying, like, no, no, there’s a very different way of understanding and deciding what right means. And you can be engaged in that in an orderly way. And I just loved it. I was totally hooked and I just started running things in his lab and started taking more psych classes.

[04:30] Matt Wallaert: I graduated from Swarthmore, worked in Andrew’s Lab, worked in another lab. And then, you know, as was sort of natural for that path was like, ‘Okay, off, I go to grad school.’ I got to Cornell, and after a year, I was like, this is not it. And the real problem was, you know, I could do all the research in the world, but I wasn’t confident that if I did all the research in the world, anything would change for the people that I care about. I’m a first-generation college kid, and I have this really big focus on the bottom third of the socio economic pyramid. And I just wasn’t confident that if I wrote papers until I was blue in the face that anything would change for those people.

[05:00] Matt Wallaert: So I left and I joined a startup as the head of product. At the time, behavioral science was still very much a new field. And then my career just started building from there. I became the Head of Behavioral Science at Microsoft, and the Chief Behavioral Officer at some place called Clover Health. And now the Head of Behavioral Science at Frog

[05:16] Elizabeth Wood: For Matt, a key source of inspiration for his work at frog comes from the pages of science fiction.

[05:23] Matt Wallaert: The applied behavioral science process that we use at frog is derived from my work. And my work starts with with a behavioral statement. So, when a target audience who has some limitations wants to motivation, they will behavior as measured by data. That’s a really specific articulation of who will be doing what and why. And then, how are we measuring that and who’s outside of the scope of this project? You know, so that’s what we’re starting with, here at frog. My book is called Start at the End for a reason: we want to articulate the world as we want it to be at the end of this process. And that’s where we should start with our clients. Like, what are our clients trying to make true in the world? We then need to go through a research step. And this is also a new skill for frog. frog has always done research, right? It’s been an important part of the frog research tradition. However, a lot of the research that we have tended to do in the world is what we might think of as foundational research or contextual research, right? I’m trying to ground myself in the space of the problem. That’s really valuable. But in behavioral science, we’re doing a really specific kind of research. We are doing quant and qual. We always use both quantitative methods and qualitative methods. We want a mixed-methods approach, because that’s going to give us a more stable truth.

[06:27] Matt Wallaert: The best analogy I’ve ever found for this is science fiction. And so that makes frog a really interesting place to be. They’ve always inhabited the world of the imagined and then made that true. And that’s the first step for us, right? So you know, if you think about science fiction as an analogy for behavioral science, we first have to articulate the world that we want in really specific behavioral terms.

[06:45] Matt Wallaert: If there is this world we want—we’re going to match our science fiction universe here that we want, this potential future—why would anyone want to live there? Why is it attractive? Why does it have gravity? Why does it pull us towards it? We often refer to those as promoting pressures: things that make that behavior more likely in the world. And then given that it’s attractive, why don’t we already live there? What do we need to do to make it easier for that to happen? So those are, we refer to those as inhibiting pressures: the things that push back that pull away from that future universe. And so by understanding those really rigorously, by looking at people in the world, we can start to address them. We use a paradigm of mine called ‘Always, Never, Sometimes, Started, Stopped.’ So rather than starting with typical design personas, where I might come in and say, ‘Okay, well, gender matters,’ or, you know, I’m gonna go create age matters, some demographic thing. Instead, what I do is I always start and ground myself in those five key behavioral targets. Started: people who just started doing the thing. Stopped: people who used to do it, but don’t do it anymore. And then people who are stable: they never do it or rarely do it, they sometimes do it, or they always and often do it. So ‘Always, Never, Sometimes, Started, Stopped.’ And then we look at the differences in pressures. And so once we understand that, there’s a really big difference between what we would go build. But we don’t know which of those is the right intervention until we go out into the world and start to understand these pressures.

[08:01] Matt Wallaert: And once we think we know how to do that, right, we’ve done some research, we go through a design step to say, ‘Hey, what are all the way it is to maximize these promoting pressures and minimize these inhibiting pressures?’ Then we have to go pilot that in the world. That’s the you know, we’ve done observational science and the research portion. Now we need to do experimental science, right? We have to try. We have to say, hey, I’m going to do this thing and see if it actually results in the behavior change that I want that I set up at the very beginning. Remember in that first step, I said people are going to do what, why and here’s how I’m going to measure it. Well, great. How can I test that? Do people do what why because of this measurement that I’ve previously agreed on? And so it’s been a wonderful experience bringing that to frog. We are doing, you know, anytime you’re trying to affect change within an organization, there’s some promoting pressures and some inhibiting pressures. The lovely thing about behavioral science is that, you know, it is sort of a universal tool.

[08:48] Elizabeth Wood: In the year that Matt has been at frog, he’s devoted himself to building a thriving Behavioral Science practice, regularly training colleagues and clients alike in applying the principles of behavioral science to the creative process.

[09:02] Matt Wallaert: I’m teaching classes. So at this point, we’ve taught over 100 frogs a five-week course on Behavioral Science where we’re actually working every, every week, pretty in-depth to go through this together and give them some practical hands on experience.

[09:14] Matt Wallaert: Look, at 100 people, I think that’s probably the most behavioral science trained people in one place and any agency in the world as far as I know. That’s a big cohort, right? But if you measure that against the demand of the world for behavior change, and then things that we need to do in the world to create the behavior change that we want, it’s a relatively small staff in some ways.

[09:34] Matt Wallaert: The way we teach behavioral science, it works at any scale. So what do I mean by that? you can use it to change the population of the world, right? Like how do we, you know, tackle behaviors that that prevent climate change and create a sustainable and regenerative future? All the way down to yourself. You can use behavioral science to understand your own behaviors, get yourself to go to the gym, or eat, right? Or whatever it is that you need to do in the world. That’s a wonderful gift to give somebody something that they can apply at more than one level.

[10:02] Matt Wallaert: Finding something that people feel like, ‘Hey, I can grapple with this at more than one level,’ I think is helpful because they can see how they would use it in their own life. I think for any teaching thing, you want to try and get to something where somebody feels like they have immediate competency, right? Where they can at least try to apply this very quickly. I don’t have to wait a year.

[10:18] Matt Wallaert: 100% f the more than 100 frogs that we’ve trained  have said, ‘I will use this on a current or future project.’ That’s huge! People feel how they can do it and that’s what you want. You want people to not just walk away going, ‘Oh, that was fun and interesting,’ but ‘I know how I can do something about it.’ And so I think that that’s been a big part internally of the interest.

[10:36] Elizabeth Wood: While behavioral science is a relatively new field, there are two specific industries that have been early adopters of some of its principles.

[10:45] Matt Wallaert: There are two industries that have always been early movers in behavioral science. And those are health and finance. Both health and finance have behaviors that happen a lot. So, you know, if you think about a behavior that happens only once a year, it’s relatively hard to change because you have very few sort of shots on target. Finance and health behaviors occur every single day, all of the time. And so there’s relatively more potential for behavior change. They also are places where those industries have created models that directly monetize behavior change. This is really important, right? So if you think of everything is just to change behavior, business is just monetized behavior change.

[11:21] Matt Wallaert: And so because they have business models that directly benefit when you benefit, it’s easier to apply behavioral science. And so those have always been the two to early ones. We also have it in government and other places, right? Working on projects, like, you know, if you’re the government, you care a lot about closing the Black American homeownership gap. Okay, that’s a very behavioral science amenable project, right? Because it happens at scale, there are specific behaviors that need to happen from different actors in that environment.

[11:46] Matt Wallaert: I think venture design and behavioral science are a really great coupling and pairing. So if you think about where behavioral science shines, ideally, we’re getting to a behavioral statement: Who is going to be doing what and why? And if you’re a long standing existing business, you’re Uber or NIKE or something, you kind of know what who it is you want to do what and you’re not sure how to make that happen, right? Behavioral Science is really good at filling in that how. Venture design is this really interesting process that I think comes before behavioral science? Which is, you don’t always know the who the what and the why. Right? Sometimes you just know the who, right? You said, Hey, here’s an underserved market opportunity. I don’t really know their motivations. And I really don’t even know what I want them to do yet. But I know that they’re underserved in this generalized way. So there’s this whole interesting piece of strategic work that can come before behavioral science about figuring out that who or that what are that why. Or sometimes you know, the what, right, I have this new technology, but I don’t know who would use it or why. I just know I have this new technology and so I go out into the world and understand whose needs it meets, like, what their motivations are.

[12:42] Elizabeth Wood: A major recurring theme of Matt’s behavioral science practice at frog has been around sustainability, both in terms of reducing harm to the environment, and promoting lasting, sustained change. It’s something he’s been working on with Kara Pecknold, frog’s global sustainability lead.

[12:59] Matt Wallaert: A lot of great projects coming to frog around how do we create sustainable behaviors in the world? Have had some really nice matchups with my colleague, Kara. And we mean that two ways: both behavior change that creates sustainability and regeneration in the world, but also behavior change needs to be sustainable. It doesn’t do me any good to, you know, get you to do something for a day, right? I need behavior change that continues over time. And so I have to think inherently about, what is something that doesn’t just burn you out? Diets are a great example of this, right? It’s pretty easy to get somebody to follow a crash diet for two weeks. It’s a lot harder to get them to make permanent life changes that will change their health.

[13:31] Matt Wallaert: And then, there’s been a lot of internal behavior change stuff for companies, right, as they grapple with this next evolution, which is, you know, in some ways triggered by COVID. And everybody goes to the sort of remote work version, but I think it’s a lot more than that. I mean, I think, for a lot of people, they are now demanding something really different from their work. Indeed, I’m demanding something really, really different from my work. And I think that that has opened up opportunities for lots of internal behavior change, And so this sort of ability for people in a really hot job market to shift what they’re doing, because of their own internal beliefs, creates lots of opportunity for behavior change.

[12:42] Elizabeth Wood: We’re going to take a short break. When we return, Matt will share more about some of the limits of applied behavioral science.

[BREAK]

[12:15] Hi, I’m Bethany Brown, Associate Director of Service Design at frog. It’s strange how something so ubiquitous can be so misunderstood, but this is the way for the services that impact our daily lives–from buying groceries to paying bills to accessing healthcare. At frog, we partnered with Savannah College of Art and Design and the Service Design Network to uncover the state of service design in the United States. Check today’s show notes to download the new research report. Find out where all the service designers are hiding, what they’re working on and what’s next for the practice.

Featured in this episode

Download ‘The State of Service Design in the U.S.

 

[14:58] Elizabeth Wood: Now back to Matt Wallaert, author of Start at the End and Head of Behavioral Science at frog.

[15:04] Matt Wallaert: I think everyone who does this work eventually realizes how bad they are. I think you can know all you want about how the human mind works, and you can know all you want about how to change behavior, and you will still fail. I am an imperfect father and an imperfect romantic partner and an imperfect manager and an imperfect behavioral scientist. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a first-gen college kid and my dad and I are very close. And, you know, sometimes in our more reflective moments, he’ll articulate that he can recognize that what I do, that the examined life that I live, the way that I do things in the world, might not set me up for happiness all of the time. You can recognize methods for making change and still not be able to make it happen.

[15:58] Matt Wallaert: And I think that, after years of doing this work, if you’re doing it well, you’re sort of doomed to a career of failure. So what do I mean by that? Like, good science requires failure. If you never create an intervention that doesn’t change the behavior that you wanted, then what all that’s happening is you’re manipulating the target. You’re moving the target so that your arrow hits it, right? Like if you never miss, you’ve moved the target.

[16:18] Matt Wallaert: I joined the startup called Thrive, founded by a guy named Avi Karnani and Ori Schnaps. And you know, we did a really good job at getting people to save money and budget and do all these things. But when I started looking into the data, we missed a huge problem, which is that there’s an ethnicity and gender wage gap in this country and worldwide. Okay, so we did this amazing job of helping people change their financial lives, but we totally missed this other thing. And so we were successful, but we were also very much a failure in some ways. And so then we created the second thing called Get Raised, which was about helping women and people who were underpaid go ask for and get a raise, and get to a place where they could get more money. And you know, over the last 10 years, and I think over that 10-year period, you know, we helped women earn something like $3.5 billion dollars, $4 billion in raises. I mean, it was a big deal. But even that’s a failure, right? Like it’s successful in a sense: women got money. Great, that’s what we want: we close the wage gap. Great. That’s what we want. But we did it by like women having to go out of their way to do something that they shouldn’t have to do. Women should be paid fairly in the first place. They changed the behavior of the wrong person. And so then I have to go off, and, you know, I started building all these things around how do I get men to do things differently? How do I get men to go gender-focused events? How do I get men to look at competency differently? Like, in everything you do, it’s just going to be–it’s going to open up a whole new world of like, well fix that problem, but there’s infinitely more problems.

[17:36] Matt Wallaert: And certainly, there have been lots of opportunities in my career where companies that I think of as fairly terrible have come to me and said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this thing.’ And I’m like, ‘No!’ and hang up the phone. But I can’t stop some other behavioral scientist from doing it. I can’t stop that company from doing it. And that, you know, it’s true of, I think, any powerful method. There’s this sort of hackneyed, you know, ‘With great power comes great responsibility,’ sort of Spider Man version of it.

[18:01] Elizabeth Wood: Understanding how to change behaviors requires first understanding what a behavior even is. In Matt’s practice at frog, his focus is on behaviors that are physically observable.

[18:12] Matt Wallaert: I am trying to change things at scale for people. What I mean is physically observable behaviors. If you look at the behavioral statement, right, that very last piece is measured by something. I have to measure it in some way. And so, you know, we get in this discussion with clients sometimes where they’re like, ‘Okay, well, I want people to love my product.’ Cool. What do you mean? Like, I don’t know what love is, but I want you to show me! Like, I don’t know what that means! Do you want people to buy your product? Recommend your product? Use your product? There’s a lot of different versions of what that love is. And, look, I have a six-year old. Love is inevitable. Like, I do love that guy, right? But I also express my love for that guy. I give him a hug. I tell him I love him. I support him. Like, there are behaviors that we have to go do in the world.

[19:00] Matt Wallaert: Behavior for me in the context we’re talking about is physically observable. I wrote a book that is very much, you know, it’s a business book. And it’s fun. And it’s fun to read. But it is in many ways a manual about, in an applied way, how do you do this? This is really different. There’s a lot of social psychology books,that are what we call ‘phenomenological.’ So they’re studies that were done in a lab and maybe they have some theory behind them. But they’re demonstrations of biases or concepts, or something that we think is happening in the brain. And I don’t dispute the reality of those findings, but the world is very complex and people are very complex. And so, you know, if you go just apply things that worked in the lab blindly into the world, they don’t work that often. Right? They need customization and nuance to work in the world.

[19:47] Matt Wallaert: I love this sort of Mary Poppins ‘Well begun is half done’ kind of version of this. If you can do the behavioral statement really well, if you really explore what is it you truly mean by that behavior at the beginning of a project, the rest of the project just tends to fall into place because you stay really aligned. You’ve got this statement,  it’s articulated in a formal way you can put it on the wall. You have this Northstar that you can refer back to at all times.

[20:09] Matt Wallaert: I think about something like love. It is one of those ineffable human experiences that we’ve just grappled over and over and over with for time, and I think we’ll just keep grappling with, right? Like, there will always be better ways to explore that topic, and what it means, and how we can say it, and all of it builds off it. You know, all fiction really builds up previous fiction. And so, I don’t think there’s a state where behavioral science is just done. I think we just keep going.

[20:34] Elizabeth Wood: So much of our everyday behaviors–the decisions we make, the ways we react to things–are patterns that seem so automatic we rarely investigate them. So. shining a lens on these patterns through the frame of behavioral science can be a bit daunting. But for Matt, change is a path to progress–not perfection. During our conversation, Matt shared how his own behaviors have changed, and how he’s continuing to embrace behavior change in his own life.

[21:00] Matt Wallaert: As I mentioned earlier, you know, I struggled with an eating disorder when I was in high school. And, you know, I’m better with my lumps than I used to be. I think the thing that’s changed for me is I’m actually a lot, a lot more tolerant of the foibles of others. I think as a young person it’s really easy to hold people to this unattainable standard of, you know, rightness. And I probably still do that. My standards for people are maybe still higher than they need to be. But I’ve become a lot kinder about other people’s in air quotes, “imperfections.” I’m not sure that they’re in fact, imperfections, I think maybe the imperfection is in me the perceiver.

[21:36] Matt Wallaert: My mom will tell stories from when I was a kid about incidents of where my orientation towards inclusion and diversity and justice came from at very, very early ages. Even if I morally believed them, even if I wanted them systemically in the world, I’m not sure I was always kind to the people in my life in the same way. I think you can do great good, and care a lot about diversity and inclusion in the world. And not create a diverse, inclusive environment in your own world, whether that’s being friends with you, whether that’s in your household, or in your family. And so that’s, you know, as I turn 40, where I try to spend my time is thinking about. Like, for work, I try and fight this fight every single day. But then I go home and try and think about, how do I make this a warmer, gentler, kinder place for the people around me?

[22:21] Matt Wallaert: Because I can do this thing, I can explain behavioral science, I can explain things in the world, people are like, ‘Oh, you’re very outgoing. You must be very extroverted. ‘And you know, there’s a version of extraversion…one of the ways we talk about extraversion introversion in psychology is where do you get your energy? So if you’re feeling low energy, do you gravitate towards other people or away? And I’m very much an introvert. I grew up in very rural Oregon, like, I like my space, right? If I’m upset, I don’t really want to talk to anybody. If I’m feeling low energy, I don’t really want to talk to anybody. But I think because of the gregariousness, because of the loquaciousness, because part of my public part of my work persona is this communicative piece, it’s hard for people to see that sometimes.

[22:55] Matt Wallaert: I’m moving from New York, where I’ve been for many, many years, to San Diego, where we sort of inadvertently spent about 18 months in the pandemic. And I like who I am in San Diego a lot better because there’s more opportunities for me to just like, get in the ocean and go surfing, and be away from people for a bit. And maybe just quiet some of those internal storms a little to be a better dad and a better scientist and a better human and, you know, a better applied scientist.

[23:28] Elizabeth Wood: That’s our show. The design mind frog cast was brought to you by frog, a leading global creative consultancy that is part of Capgemini invent, check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation. We really want to thank Matt Wallaert, head of behavioral science at Frog for sharing so much of his practice and his own perspective on human behavior.

[24:08] Elizabeth Wood: We also want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us on Apple Podcasts and  Spotify . And be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at frog.co/designmind. Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at frog.marketing@frog.co. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.  

Elizabeth Wood
Host, Design Mind frogcast & Editorial-EMEAI, frog Marketing
Elizabeth Wood
Elizabeth Wood
Host, Design Mind frogcast & Editorial-EMEAI, frog Marketing

Elizabeth tells design stories for frog. She first joined the New York studio in 2011, working on multidisciplinary teams to design award-winning products and services. Today, Elizabeth works out of the London studio on the global frog marketing team, leading editorial content for the EMEAI region.

She has written and edited hundreds of articles about design and technology, and has given talks on the role of content in a weird, digital world. Her work has been published in The Content Strategist, UNDO-Ordinary magazine and the book Alone Together: Tales of Sisterhood and Solitude in Latin America (Bogotá International Press).

Previously, Elizabeth was Communications Manager for UN OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague. She is a recent graduate of the Master’s Programme for Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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