In the wild: David L. R. Maij

Our next interview in this series is Dr David L. R. Maij who spoke at our January 2020 event.

David has been fascinated with behavior change since he was a teenager, trying to change his own behavior with self-help books. He now has two thriving companies that rely on behavioral science. He studied psychology at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, acquired two masters simultaneously in clinical & health psychology and cognitive neuroscience at Leiden University and became a PhD in behavioral psychology three years ago at the University of Amsterdam. David has developed a 7 step program on how to change habits and won the neuroscience education hackathon for his mobile application that helps teenagers make a habit out of planning, concentrating and reflecting.

Tell me about your work: how does behavioral science fit in it?

I have two companies and behavioral science plays a key role within both companies. My company Neuro Habits consists of a team of behavioral psychologists and we help people and companies to change behavior in an evidence-based manner. We try to bridge the intention-behavior gap by acquiring new healthy habits and transforming old unhealthy habits.

I founded my second company together with teacher and educationalist Wessel Peeters. It is called Leer.tips, which translates to learning tips. When I was in high school I was a pretty inefficient learner: I marked almost my entire book, my summaries were useless and my main learning technique was binge learning. During the first year of studying psychology, there was a course on memory and learning, in which learned stuff like the method of loci and the forgetting cure. I was amazed that I had never learned this during high school. With Leer.tips we educate teachers and juniors on effective evidence-based techniques. You can find all tips in Dutch on our website and we also have a pocket app version. Together with the University of Amsterdam and head of the Habit Lab, Sanne de Wit, we made a mobile application called Zelfi. With Zelfi, children learn how to acquire healthy and effective learning habits, such as planning, concentration and reflection skills.

In most of our methods we use a combination of classical conditioning techniques, implementation intentions, self-monitoring and motivational interviewing. For larger assignments we use the COM-B model and the behavior change wheel of Susan Michie’s team.

How did you first become interested in behavioral science?

I have been fascinated by self-help books since I was a teenager. How can you read faster, become happier, get more things done, become richer and more muscly… After a few books it struck me that these books actually never changed me. I just read one book after another. During my bachelor in psychology I learned why: changing behavior is actually really difficult and reading information is simply not enough. I participated in lots of studies and started to see the beauty of experimenting with behavior. From then on, I started experimenting with my own behavior by setting clear behavioral goals and by self-monitoring my behavior. I managed to finish two masters simultaneously, clinical & health psychology and cognitive neuroscience, while organizing parties in the weekend. My friends were amazed about the sheer amount of productivity coming from my hands and from that moment on, I knew I was on to something.

How do you apply behavioral science insights in your personal life?

As said, I basically love testing out new insights on myself, my previous roommates and my (poor) girlfriend. I am pretty obsessed with efficiency and productivity, so as soon as I hear or read a good idea, I set a clear goal, or implementation intention as you wish, I try to combine it with a clear environmental trigger and measure my behavior. If it feels fruitful, I start trying to make it a habit. To be clear, this is not always fun for people in my surroundings. The last two years or so, I am also experimenting with less egocentric goals that are more focused on my loved ones and the environment.  

What accomplishment are you proudest of, as an applied behavioral scientist?

The most rewarding accomplishments are one on one sessions, where you see people frequently and can really change their lives, such as helping people to quit smoking or losing enormous amounts of weight. What I also love is using behavioral psychology in educational sessions as we do with Leer.tips and our app Zelfi. The science that was once really abstract, and rather boring to be honest, suddenly comes to life in the class.   

What theory/theories have you found to be most useful in practice?

Having got my PhD during the replication crises, I was actually pretty disappointed in my scientific workfield. So many conclusions were based on so little. And in general in psychology, the effect sizes were already really small. The first two years of experimenting during my PhD resulted in null findings, even if they closely matched previous studies and “important” theories. From then on, we started to do things differently. We tried to make the effect as large as possible. That means, we would use more than one theory, or combined several variables just to get an effect. The idea was, if these wouldn’t result in a significant effect, then zooming in on tiny part would also likely not result in an effect.

So, to come back to your question, I find combining theories to be most useful in practice. First try to get beneficial results, then try to figure out why it worked. We do this all the time at Neuro Habits. For example, people that I help in one on one coaching can call me outside during meeting hours, we’ll measure their behavior, visualize the data, incorporate their (social surroundings) and we use a combination of psychological techniques that I mentioned earlier.

What advice would you give to people who might be interested in a career in your field? E.g. what skills do you feel are needed?

I think the most important skill I acquired is to do things systematically. Don’t ‘just do it’. Think thoroughly about what you are doing and why. You can get far if you just stick to the principles of the scientific cycle: try to understand the behavior at hand as well as possible, for example by means of the COM-B model. Acquire a hypothesis based on the scientific literature. Start testing. And go through the cycle again. Of course, there are many sub-components, such as critical thinking and persistence, but without a systematic procedure you are not aware enough of what you are doing and you won’t learn from your mistakes and previous research.

In what areas do you think behavioral science has had the biggest impact so far? And do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of behavioral science in your field?

Difficult question. My view is pretty narrow on this matter I’m afraid. Of course, I am aware that governments are experimenting with behavioral science, but I am not sure whether I would call this  impact ‘big’. There is lots of room for improvement. I think the biggest impact so far is actually pretty negative. Companies are using behavior change techniques and experiment on us in their experiments for the wrong purpose: overconsumption.  

My challenges are two folded. First, organizations frequently not have enough money and time to do things systematically. They want a quick fix. But an effective quick fix frequently doesn’t exist. Something like a nudge or boost seems like a quick fix, but a good nudge is preceded by a systematical behavioral analysis and this costs time and money. My second challenge is that I am trained as a scientist, while I am competing with people trained to become salesmen and women. I know the methods of my competitors don’t always work, and that’s an understatement, but they can definitely sell it.

How do you think the field/profession will develop in the next 5-10 years?

There is a gap between what I hope and what I fear. I’ll start with my fears so that I can end on a positive note ;). I fear that large organizations become better at using behavioral science in their advantage. That companies become better and better at using us as their participants in their behavioral experiments without us giving informed consent. With the ultimate goal of selling as stuff we don’t need, causing detrimental results to the environment.

What I hope is that more organizations start to see the advantageous of healthy, happy and empowered people. That they let go of quick fixes and become more open to the honest story that changing behavior is complex, but that the investment will ultimately pay itself back.

You can find David on LinkedIn and Twitter, and his company websites (links above).

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