The Future Of series asks UOW experts and researchers a set of five questions to gain some insight into the future states of our lives, our communities, and the world.

Dr Michal Strahilevitz is a faculty member in the School of Management, Operations and Marketing, as well as being affiliated with the SMART Infrastructure Facility. Dr Strahilevitz earned her Ph.D. in Marketing from the University of California in Berkeley and the focus of her research is on the way emotions affect consumer decision making. This includes how consumers choose what charities to donate to, what brands of products to buy, and what stocks to invest in. Dr Strahilevitz has also published extensive work on consumer psychology and behavioural economics.

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

Although I have multiple ongoing projects I am enthusiastic about, I am particularly excited about one of my newest projects in which I am partnering with collaborators at Stanford University and a nonprofit called Young Voices for the Planet. We are examining how watching short documentary films about children getting together to solve local environmental problems can inspire other youth to take similar actions. We are not only investigating how these films go viral, but also how watching these films help young viewers realise they have the power make a difference (self-efficacy).

My collaborators and I are particularly interested in what inspires behaviour change and the role of social mirroring in increasing moral engagement. In short, we want to look at how social action among youth can become contagious. We are particularly excited because some of this work was inspired by world-renowned social psychologist Albert Bandura.

One of the documentaries we are studying features a group of children in California who pressured their city council to ban plastic bags in all local retail establishments. This film has inspired children in other cities to pressure their own local governments to take similar actions to ban plastic in all local retail shops. Now that China is no longer taking our recycled plastic, Australia desperately needs to figure out how to reduce our plastic usage. My hope is that organisations such as Voices for the Planet can inspire Australian youth to pressure local business and governments to completely stop the use of all plastic bags (as opposed to replacing them with “reusable” plastic bags, as some Australian retailers have done).

I confess that finding ways to change consumer behaviour and policy to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean has become an obsession of mine, so this project is particularly dear to me.

What are some of the most innovative or exciting things expected to emerge from your field of expertise over the next few years?

Behavioural economics (my field) is constantly finding new ways to 'hack' human behaviour with what we call nudges. Nudges are small changes in the environment that can be used to encourage people to adapt more socially responsible behaviours. Behavioural nudges have been used to get people to exercise more, save more money, quit smoking, eat less junk food and even sign up as organ donors.

Governments in many countries including the US, England and Australia have created “nudge units” to identify ways that policy can be designed to move human behaviour in directions that benefit society at large. Meanwhile, more academic behavioural economists are working on research to tackle societal problems and inform social policy. The opportunity to do research that can potentially affect the public good makes now a particularly exciting time to be a behavioural scientist.

What are some of the things readers should be wary of over the next few years?

Be wary of reporters confusing correlation with causation when they describe academic research.

If people who live in a certain coastal region of Japan eat more fish and also live longer, it may not be the fish that is making them live longer. It could be genetics, fresh coastal air or the strong social support found in their community.

Similarly, if people who do yoga are less likely to be obese, it might be that heavy people are less likely to take up yoga, or that doing yoga helps people lose weight and keep it off, or some combination of the two. Those things being correlated does not mean that one causes the other. However, causation makes for better headlines, so readers should beware.

One infamous study where I think the results were poorly reported was one of the studies conducted by Facebook. Facebook randomly assigned many of its users to either a “happy posts” condition or a “sad post” condition. They found people exposed to happier posts wrote happier posts, and those that saw sadder posts were more likely to post sad things. They concluded that happy posts make people happy, and sad posts make people sad, which they refer to as emotional contagion. There were actually multiple things wrong with this study.

First, I should note that this entire study got Facebook into huge trouble, as many Facebook users were rightly angered to learn they may have been assigned into an experimental condition when they went on Facebook to see their friend’s posts.

The other issue is that the results were likely misinterpreted. In reality, when people see someone else sharing that they are having a hard day, they often feel less alone in not having a perfect life themselves. In contrast, people who only see happy posts from friends may feel social pressure to only post about their own happy events. Their marriage may be crumbling, but they still post a photo of a family dinner where everyone smiled for the camera. In a sense, the behaviour of happy posting may be less about actual happiness than about conforming to the norm of people on Facebook more often sharing about their achievements and happy moments than about their disappointments and failures.

Where do opportunities lie for people thinking about a career in this field?

a) If a young person is comfortable with numbers, he/she should definitely get a strong background in statistics and/or programming. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, deep learning and data analytics are all huge growth areas.

b) If these fields are not in line with an individual’s own talents and/or passions, the next “hot” thing would be for he/she to take psychology courses and learn how to design and run field experiments. More and more companies need people to either deal with their large volumes of data or to help them design real world experiments to figure out what will work best.

c) If neither programming, nor analysing large volumes of data, nor designing experiments to predict human behaviour appeal, I would focus on building one’s creative ability and communication skills. Machines may someday replace bus drivers, accountants and even radiologists, but they are unlikely to replace writers, motivational speakers, designers or artists. So even if one is not a “quant jock,” creativity and strong communication skills will be in demand for decades to come.

What’s the best piece of advice you can offer our readers based on your expertise?

Learn how to design, run and analyse field experiments. There is a growing demand both in academia and in industry for people who know how to design experiments and test hypotheses with a clear understanding of the psychology behind the behaviour they are examining as well as the meaning of interaction effects and such. Companies such as Google and Facebook are hiring behavioural scientists with this skill set.

The demand for behavioural scientists is not as high as it is for machine learning experts and programmers, but personally, I think behavioural science is more exciting because it doesn’t just try to predict what people will do based on number crunching. Behavioural science also tries to understand why people do what they do.

When you understand why, you can better predict the future and when something will and won’t work in new contexts.

For more from Dr Michal Strahilevitz you can visit her UOW Scholars profile.

Dr Michal Strahilevitz is also an official blogger for Psychology Today