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BETA Podcast: Interview with Mariam Chammat

7 February 2019

In this podcast we talk to Dr Mariam Chammat, neuroscientist and Executive Advisor at the French Behavioural Insights Unit within the Interministerial Directorate for Public Transformation. Listen to Mariam’s take on how we can use our understanding of the brain’s shortcomings to make the world a better place.

Transcript

[music]

Elaine Ung:

Hello and welcome to another episode in BETA’s podcast series. BETA is the Behavioural Economics team of the Australian Government. And the team sits in the Federal Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. BETA’s mission is to advance the wellbeing of Australians by applying behavioural insights to public policy and administration.

Hi, my name's Elaine and I'm part of the team. In this podcast series, we interview a whole range of behavioural economics and behavioural insights academics, practitioners, and policymakers. This episode is actually part of our mini BX series, where we interviewed some of the speakers at the 2018 Behavioural Exchange Conference, or BX 2018. There, speakers travelled from all around the world to share the work they've been doing in the behavioural economics and insights field.

In this episode, I interview Mariam Chammat, an executive adviser at the French Behavioural Insights Unit in the Interministerial Directorate for Public Transformation, which is part of the French Government. In this public service role, she works on strengthening evidence-based policymaking, by developing and piloting projects between policymakers and researchers. Mariam holds a PhD in affective and cognitive neuroscience, and has co-founded a think tank that develops de-biasing programs to help improve people's mental habits and their critical thinking skills. Really interesting stuff – hope you enjoy!

Hello there. I am here at the Behavioural Exchange Conference in Sydney today, and I have with me Mariam Chammat from France, who has kindly given us her time to talk a bit about some of the work she's been doing. So, welcome Mariam.

Mariam Chammat:

Thank you.

Elaine Ung:

Could you please give us a bit of background, so, who you are and where you've come from?

Mariam Chammat:

Yes. So I've come all the way from France to Behavioural Exchange Conference to talk about the way to set up a behavioural insights team within government, which is what I've been doing for the past two years. I'm part of a small team sitting inside an inter-ministerial structure in Paris, working with different ministries and applying behavioural insights to different policies. So for example, we work on employment policies or consumer protection, but also gender equality and environment, to give a few examples. Previous to working on behavioural applications to policy, I've been in academia for 10 years. I did research mainly in cognitive neuroscience, and my area of research was trying to understand the various biases that arise when the brain is filtering out information.

So first of all, I worked on biases at the perceptual level by working on optical illusions and trying to understand how the brain fills gaps, and how it uses previous information and previous knowledge to complete missing information. But then during my PhD, I worked on the way emotional information can bias perception. So I studied the way information that carries emotional content becomes more salient, but is also processed in a very different way in the brain than normal information.

And finally during my postdoc, I focused on cognitive dissonance resolution, so mainly on choice-induced preference change, and how once we commit to a choice, it completely biases our preference for that option. So, this is a bit of a background. It goes back later to biology, but I won't get into that.

Elaine Ung:

Wow. So, a lot of background there. And how did you get interested in behavioural economics?

Mariam Chammat:

So I've been interested in human behaviour for a very long time, maybe since I'm 15. I used to watch documentaries trying to explain the brain and mechanisms of behaviour, but I think I became really passionate about this field when I started working on optical illusions around 2006. And what is amazing about optical illusions is how they allow you to see and measure the extent to which your perception is biased and deviating from objectivity. And what amazed me about illusions is, it showed me the extent to which my brain is error-prone and fallible, and the extent to which also perception can be subjective, how two people can be looking at the same thing, but seeing different versions.

And then this kind of drove me to see how this could have applications in the real world. So first of all, in giving you humility, a lot of humility about your functioning and your overconfidence in trusting your senses, so it gives you also scepticism, and I don't remember which Stoician philosopher said this, but it was—it goes something like, ‘you're not responsible for your first thought, but you're responsible for your second thought, or what you do with your first thought’. And I found that studying illusions gives you that kind of thinking where you have this first perception, but then you have to question it and see how it can— thinking about it, and applying metacognition on it can make you see things in a clearer way.

And so this is when the idea of using this information in the real world came in and I was like, how can you use all this to make the world better? So how do you make people realise that their cognitive capabilities are limited? How do you implement policies that take into account these cognitive limitations? And also, how do you create a framework to make less biased policies? And this is what we're trying to do with behavioural insights and evidence-based policymaking. It's basically adding rigor and taking into account these biases to make the functioning of the world less biased and more rigorous, I guess.

Elaine Ung:

Absolutely. It's so important to make sure that we also rely on a lot of the research that's being done, and bring it into something that's a lot more practical and applied in public policy, as you say. So, could you share with us please, what you're working on right now?

Mariam Chammat:

Okay, so within the behavioural insights unit I'm working in, we just recently launched a call for projects, addressed to various ministries with a grant that we also recently got. And so far, it seems like the project we're going to start working on are going to be around employment of youth, youth employment, and then also gender equality, and environment. So for example, an environment we might work on labelling product and how to fight programmed obsolescence.

Outside of this team, I'm also working on Ethics By Design. So I'm working with a school of designers on how to educate people who make digital platforms to become more respectful of the limited attention and resources of end users. So this is basically to fight screen addiction or addiction to social media. This is something I'm pretty excited about.

And I'm also working within a think tank that I co-founded a few years ago, on helping people to spot out logical fallacies in debates. The way this happens is that we educate people on the different logical errors or rhetoric errors that you can do when you're arguing. The point of this is to make people have healthier argumentation skills, and healthier mental habits. For example, this can apply when you're watching TV on a debate between politicians, as much as it can apply for example, if you're in a supermarket trying to buy a product, and the labels can be misleading, or based on some fallacious presentation of arguments. So, these are some of the topics we're working on.

Elaine Ung:

So, doing a lot of work in behavioural economics right now! Could you give an example please, of some of your work that demonstrates the potential impact of behavioural economics?

Mariam Chammat:

Yeah. So, previous to working in government as I was saying, I was in academia doing research on cognitive dissonance. And cognitive dissonance is this feeling of discomfort that arises when your ideas, beliefs, or behaviours contradict each other. And it's something that we experience very, very often, many times a day maybe. So for example, if you're in a diet and you cheat by having a slice of pizza, then you've experienced dissonance resolution. Or for example, if you smoke while you are—you know the dangers, the health dangers you're exposing yourself to, then you've also experienced dissonance. And what is absolutely fascinating about dissonance resolution is how much our brains are cabled to resolve this dissonance almost immediately without even us realising it. And the fact that cognitive dissonance resolution kind of comforts us in many of the actions and beliefs that we have, can have implications on policies.

For example on health policies or prevention—trying to do breast cancer prevention or things like that—because cognitive dissonance will comfort you in the state discord, the state that you're already in, and what's interesting is that cognitive dissonance also is very related to other biases. It's kind of—it underlies or subtends other biases such as optimism bias, or overconfidence bias. So, I think it has a lot of implications also on the different ways, on other different behavioural economic concepts.

Also the way I see it is that in a perfect world, you'd want people to have a solid and stable belief system that determines how they act, not the other way around. But cognitive dissonance theories show that your actions will actually modify your beliefs, and this can also have negative consequences. Because for example, imagine you support a certain political group, or you vote for a certain president, and then start finding out that this person is, for example, involved in money laundering or comes out with policies that you disagree with, etc. And cognitive dissonance resolution might be so powerful that in order to comfort you with your previous action of voting for that president and having committed to it, it will lead you to actually justify their behaviour and see them in a better light. So it can be a barrier to belief update.

But it can also have positive implications when you know the concept, because for example, you know that if people commit to something, and maybe commit to it publicly, they might stick to it more to resolve dissonance. So for example, if you want to get people to recycle, or do more eco-friendly behaviour, if you get them to announce this in front of a large public, or in community, or even in applications in front of a large number of people, then it might drive their behaviour in the positive sense. Same thing for example for quitting smoking, or drinking water, so I know there's this application called Stickk, with two Ks in the end, where people stick to their,—give out their resolutions in front of a big community, and the fact that they've committed to it to such a large number of people might, through cognitive dissonance resolution, get them to stick to the behaviour.

Elaine Ung:

At BETA, we had to all do a Stickk challenge, and so I understand completely how that does drive behaviour and can actually potentially have lasting effects. So it's a great example. And do you have a favourite behavioural economics concept or behavioural bias?

Mariam Chammat:

Well funnily, because of cognitive dissonance resolution, maybe cognitive dissonance is, because I spend so much time studying it, it has become my favourite concept. But a few hours ago, Cass Sunstein was giving a talk and spoke about, jokingly about, something called bias-over-perception bias, which is how you're starting to see all these biases everywhere. And this might have become since two hours ago, my new favourite bias. It's something that I'm very wary of and I've been thinking about a lot these days, about how this whole framework is making us simplify something very complex by making all these bias lists and trying to fit, maybe by confirmation bias, all these behaviours into biases.

And more generally, this is also related to another field of interest of mine, which is evolutionary psychology, because a lot of work in evolutionary psychology shows that a lot of the things that we call biases might actually have very adaptive values. And I guess my favourite topic right now is evolutionary psychology, to try to understand how these things that we perceive as limited rationality might actually be extremely important for our functioning, and maybe by de-biasing people, you're actually making them function in a less optimal manner.

Elaine Ung:

That's really fascinating, thank you for sharing. So, how do you BE yourself? That is, how do you apply behavioural economics in your everyday life?

Mariam Chammat:

I think I use behavioural economics very, very often in my daily life. Maybe one of the most,—one of the things I use most, which I use actually this morning even, is switching my ring from one finger to another, or to another hand. It's actually a tip that was given to me by my grandfather, like, maybe when I was 10, so he already knew behavioural economics back then, but he used to switch his watch to the other hand, and it serves as a reminder. So, let's say I want to remember to say something, or put something in a different place, it's a very good salient cue.

Another thing that I use a lot in my daily practice is something to fight confirmation bias, or motivated reasoning. So for example, if I'm searching for something on the internet, I immediately open a tab to find the arguments that challenge my idea, or go against it. Because, also to fight all these bubbles on the internet where you're always finding the result that confirm your beliefs. So this is one thing I use. I also use it in the supermarket, or whenever I'm buying products, because now that I know the extent to which behavioural economics or insights are used in marketing, it helps me, for example, when I read a label on a product to be wary of all the framing of the sentences, or anchoring effects that are used. And finally, I use it a lot when I'm argumenting, or when I'm listening to arguments to find the mental traps that I might fall in, or the logical fallacies. So I think I'm,—I don't think there's any area in my daily life that I don't use all these concepts. They're extremely useful to me.

Elaine Ung:

And they're also some really great tips and hints. So I think I'm going to do the ring trick, have that cue to remind me to do something, so that's a great one. What about what's next for behavioural economics? What do you see is the next big thing in the field?

Mariam Chammat:

I see that there's a growing interest for data science and big data applied to behavioural economics, and to take things to scale, which is very interesting. But I think what I'm more interested in, and what might be something big for behavioural economics is going into much more fine-grained studies or applications of BI by looking at the different context in which you apply BI. So for example, in light of all the research by Eldar Shafir on scarcity and how cognitive load might completely change the way information is perceived, it shows that the way you apply behavioural insights might completely depend on the population that is targeted. So someone who has a lot of stress, or cognitive load, or live in a context that is complicated, will not perceive the information in the same way that someone maybe with easier context, or more financial resources. So I feel that doing much more fine-grained and nuanced research what might get the quality of behavioural insights applications much better.

Elaine Ung:

So I think we all see it's a very exciting time for the behavioural economics field. And just to finish up, one last question. What's next for you? What's next on your agenda?

Mariam Chammat:

So what's directly next when I go back to Paris is a very exciting moment of selecting projects that are going to come from the call of projects that we recently announced. So, it's going to be difficult because we're probably going to have a lot of answers. And we're going to have to pick the right topics to work on, which is always a challenge because you have to take into account various factors, and whether it has impact, but also at the same time, whether the topics are relevant and strategic. You have to take in so many criteria, so it's going to be very exciting to make those decisions on how you select these projects also on ethical grounds. So this is something that I'm looking forward to.

And one other thing that I'm extremely excited about, which is going to be more next year, is we're probably going to take in a PhD student who's going to work on whether de-biasing programs or critical thinking education actually has efficient impact on de-biasing behaviour. And this is something that I'm very interested in because I think that beyond nudges and behavioural insights applications that are specific and targeted in a specific moment, I think that education is extremely promising. What we don't know today is to what extent de-biasing programs are topic-specific or general, whether they can—what you learn can be generalised to different fields of your life. So, this is something that I think I'm the most excited about right now.

Elaine Ung:

Wow, lots happening in the future. So, thank you so much for your time today, and all the best with the rest of your time at the Behavioural Exchange Conference. Looking forward to hearing some of the sessions you'll be in.

Mariam Chammat:

Thank you.

Elaine Ung:

Hi again. Thanks for listening. If you want to find out more about Mariam's work, you can connect with her via various channels including LinkedIn. If you haven't heard our previous episodes, listen to them at www.pmc.gov.au/beta. Until next time!