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On February 1, 2023, behavioral scientist Neela Saldanha gave her Think Better talk, “Making Real Change: Applying Behavioral Science to Applied Behavioral Science.” Saldanha is the Executive Director of the Yale Research Initiative on Innovation and Scale (Y-RISE). 


Neela Saldanha has enjoyed a varied career in behavioral science, from academia to business to the social sector. After earning her PhD in marketing at Wharton, she joined a project at PepsiCo which employed psychology to guide consumers to pick healthier snacking options. Afterward, she moved to Ashoka University’s Centre for Social and Behavior Change based in her home country, India. There, Saldanha utilized behavioral science to improve public health and education in low-income communities. Saldanha’s experience in applying behavioral science led her to her current position at Y-RISE. There, she investigates the obstacles organizations face when trying to implement behavioral science, offering solutions to make the field have more profound effects.


Saldanha explained how the predictability of human behavior attracted her to behavioral science. She saw how its study and application could affect real-world changes. For one, behavioral science studies how certain information gets across better than others. Reminders have proven to be a useful tool in inciting action. Behavioral science also shows how incentives, both financial and non, can influence actions at individual and broad levels. Generally, behavioral science helps us bridge the gap between intent and action through better choice architecture and commitment devices—often, we know we want to make a change but struggle to implement that change. Organizations have recognized the importance of behavioral science in carrying out their missions: since Saldanha got her PhD, over 600 firms have created behavioral science teams within their structure, while about 400 policy-making units have implemented behavioral science. 


While many institutions seem to be embracing behavioral science, Saldanha talked about the resistance she faced when proposing her solutions. Saldanha outlined how behavior change starts with understanding barriers and facilitators. Three conditions must occur for the action to happen: 

  1. Capability (can I do this?)
  2. Motivation (do I want to do this?)
  3. Opportunity (does my environment allow me to do this?)


Saldanha said it is essential to target the goals of an institution when pitching changes. While PepsiCo aims to increase sales, revenue, and market share, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aims to increase the impact and uptake of charitable services. Many behavioral scientists struggle with translating their findings into the goals of the organizations within which they work. Instead of saying a “5% increase in consumption will occur,” Saldanha suggests that we articulate this in more concrete language: “100 million dollars will be saved.” Additionally, we must remember that there are humans behind the organizations we work for. Behavioral scientists should make their pitches with the individual goals of their audience in mind—remind them of their stake in the greater project.

Sometimes, these goals conflict within the organization. For example, vending machine companies might want their consumers to make healthier choices, but they risk losing sales if their products aren’t appetizing. The behavioral scientist must learn to balance these motivations and the stakeholders who enact them.


The next stumbling block for implementing behavioral science is the difficulty organizations have in realizing the applications of abstract concepts. Behavioral science is increasingly popular thanks to breakout hits like Nudge, but translating the layperson’s curiosity about the field into concrete application can be a challenge. 

Saldanha points to the nonprofit Save the Children as a wonderful example of this. The organization aimed to encourage children in Thailand to wear helmets when riding scooters to school. Behavioral scientists harnessed the “IKEA Effect”—the idea that people value an object more if they make or assemble it themselves—and asked kids to personalize their new helmets. Pairing this with other efforts like dedicated storage space for helmets at school, they saw a 30% increase in helmet compliance. 

Saldanha stressed the importance of a proof-of-concept. Instead of sending papers to organization leaders, one must show how the science works in their specific context. Saldanha worked on a project in India that sought to reduce anemia in pregnant women. While iron supplements are given out for free by the government, self-reported daily compliance rates were as low as 11%. This was a combination of forgetfulness and hesitancy about side-effect. To better connect with these communities and test interventions, Saldanha retrofitted a bus into a makeshift field lab. This was a crucial step in achieving her public health goal. Getting out there and testing what messages and delivery systems worked was an important first step to identifying and scaling the most effective programs. 


Organizational inertia within firms also prevents behavioral scientists from getting uptake for their projects. Some leaders are focused on priorities explicitly in their strategic plans, which may not include new programs like behavioral interventions. If behavioral programs are to thrive in these environments, practitioners should work within existing budgets and priorities, while laying the groundwork to elevate their projects in future strategic planning. 


Saldanha concluded her talk by saying the behavioral scientist must play dual roles within their organization. On the one hand, they must be up to date with the latest behavioral science findings. On the other hand, they must work within the confines of their organization and its goals. Accounting for the constraints of your organization is an important step in finding a foothold for behavioral science. 


  • Watch our previous Think Better presentations here
  • Save the Date: May 3, 2023 is the next Think Better featuring Steven Pinker (Harvard) in conversation with Nobel laureate Richard Thaler. This hybrid event will be held in person at Rockefeller Chapel on UChicago's Hyde Park campus and will be streamed via Zoom.