Lessons from a Fledgling Behavioral Scientist

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you have wondered at least once what it’s really like to work at the Center for Advanced Hindsight. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that I have learned a lot in my two years as a behavioral researcher at CAH.

I fell in love with behavioral science when I was exposed to Dan’s research as a teenager. Since then, working at the Center for Advanced Hindsight had been my dream. Lucky for me, I was able to secure my dream job just a few months after graduation. I made the move from Upstate New York to Durham, North Carolina with little idea of what was in store for me on the other side.

It took me nearly a year to get over the oh-my-god-I-work-at-Dan-Ariely’s-lab jitters. Everyone I met seemed so intelligent and fascinating, and I remember thinking to myself What can I possibly add to this? Is there anything I could say that they don’t already know? Two years later, I can tell you that some of the most uniquely brilliant minds I have ever met – from academics, to statistics wizards, to policy makers – I met in my time at the center.

Playing mini-golf with the World Team

I can tell you firsthand, most of these people are actually very friendly and approachable, despite their intimidating brains and professional air.

I also traveled internationally for the first time while working at the Center. My work took me to both Europe and Africa, and I am extremely grateful to have had such experiences. Getting to experience different cultures was eye-opening to say the least.

Meeting with our Dutch partner in Amsterdam

Community Health Volunteer training in Nairobi

Through the blood, sweat, and tears, I learned a lot in my time at the Center. Some of the most notable things I learned are:

1. Information does not change behavior. The list of misguided attempts to give people all the facts about their decisions in a particular domain is miles long. Take it from an actual behavioral scientist, with knowledge of the biases that affect human behavior – knowing about these biases does not automatically make you more rational. A friend once said something to the effect of “behavioral scientists are late just as often as everyone else. The only difference is that when they finally arrive, they look at each other knowingly and say, ‘planning fallacy.’”

Behavioral scientists may be more understanding of mistakes than other folk, but they are just as likely to make those same mistakes themselves (unless they employ clever nudges on themselves, which many of us do). My colleagues and I often use pre-commitment devices to ensure that they do what they set out to to. For instance, I have legitimately had someone approach me asking me to publicly shame them on our work Slack channel if they did not review an article by a certain date and time.

2. Almost nothing is as simple as it seems. I have spent a large portion of my time at the Center studying charitable giving. On the surface, you might think that this is a pretty straightforward topic. Au contraire – people don’t just give money to charitable causes out of the goodness of their hearts (at least not all of them). Some are looking for that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from doing good, some give in order to quell feelings of guilt or empathy, and others are simply hoping to appear like good people.

In light of this information, you might think that one should cover all of these bases when soliciting donations (and you’d be wrong). It turns out that giving people mixed reasons to give actually decreases their intention to give. Therefore, when designing a giving campaign, it is best to speak with experts, or at least read up on what others have done, before moving forward with your plan.

3. Lack of accountability and lack of planning are failure’s best friends. I have learned this through personal experience, and through a thorough examination of implementation intention research. People often intend to perform healthy or productive behaviors like jogging or writing a manuscript, but have trouble actually implementing this. Writing down an implementation intention such as “when it is [time/day of the week], I will [perform a specific behavior]” can actually make people more likely to do what they set out to do. Without these specific plans, you can easily put off getting in shape or writing that manuscript for months without making any progress.

I am grateful for the time I’ve spent working at the center and wouldn’t trade it for anything. And, to my World team friends: habana haba, hujaza kibaba (1)!


Ciara Lutz was a researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science research lab that helps people be happier, healthier, and wealthier. You can reach her at ciarahlutz@gmail.com.


  1. This Swahili saying is our informal team moto, and means something like “If you save little by little, you’ll fill the whole piggy bank”.