BiteSCIze with Dr Tami Kalsi

Bitescize is our series of interviews, where top academics and practitioners will be answering our questions on behavioralscience, misinformation and strategiccommunications [eyes emoji]

This week, Dr Tami Kalsi, told us about her role as a Behavioural Scientist making transport more sustainable for people in the West Midlands, and her passion for using behavioural science to improve policy.

Who are you?

Hello! I am a Behavioural Scientist working on sustainable transport for Transport for West Midlands, part of the West Midlands Combined Authority.

I am part of a small dynamic team, known as the Influencing Transport Lab, led by Prabs Johal. The Lab is an expert research unit that a) works with industry and academia to facilitate collaboration in the behaviour change field and b) is dedicated to gathering intelligence on behaviour change in transport and trialing different methods and approaches.

How did you get into Behavioural Science?

From a young age, I was always interested in why people behave and make the decisions they do. This is why I chose to study psychology at University of Leicester. I delved into behavioural science during my PhD, which focused on exploring age differences in reading between young (18-30 year olds) and older adults (65+). The theory underpinning this was rooted in behavioural science as I investigated whether older adults use shortcuts in language processing due to their greater vocabulary and world knowledge compared to young adults. 

My PhD was funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council), which allowed me to apply for a short policy placement. I was fortunate to be awarded one of two placement opportunities to work at the Behavioural Insight Unit at the Department for Education. There, I became immersed in the world of behavioural science. I thoroughly enjoyed applying behavioural science to complex policy issues, conducting behavioural research in a collaborative setting and working on research with impact. 

This experience motivated me to join the civil service permanently after completing my PhD. I applied behavioural science to projects at the Department for Education and the Department for Energy, Security and Net Zero before moving to my current role. 

What are you working on right now? 

A large part of my role involves designing and conducting research. Currently, I am excited to be designing research to understand the user need, barriers, perceptions and attitudes towards autonomous vehicles, which will be available at a site in the West Midlands this autumn. Additionally, I will examine the impact of any interventions we implement on the usage of these autonomous vehicles. 

Another aspect of my role involves building capability of behavioural science internally and externally via a portal which we are launching soon. If you’d like to be notified about the launch, please do reach out.    

What do you like most about what you do?

I am passionate about using behavioral science to inform decision making and improve policies. Having grown up in the West Midlands, I am thrilled to be working for the West Midlands Combined Authority and am committed to seeing the area thrive. 

What role is there for communications in changing behaviour?

The government has a legally binding commitment to reach net zero by 2050. Many local regions, including the West Midlands Combined Authority, have committed to achieving this target by 2041. To make this a reality, behaviour change is required in all aspects of our life, not just travel. So, I think effective communication is paramount as I believe there needs to be a broader conversation about how we reach net zero. 

Related to this, addressing misinformation and disinformation is crucial. It will be essential to implement effective communication techniques to provide people with accurate information about various policies and technologies related to reaching net zero.    

If you could work on / research any topic what would it be and why?

I can’t think of another topic I would want to focus on right now! 

During my PhD I became interested in understanding at what age we begin to use context and apply mental shortcuts in language processing. I wish I’d had more time to pursue this topic. 

What is your favourite behavioural science paper/book/resource and why?

I’m currently reading Rapport written by Emily Alison and Laurence Alison. They’re world leaders in forensic psychology who have advised the police, FBI and CIA on how to communicate with difficult people, often in challenging situations. They advocate that the key is to build rapport to effect behaviour change when communicating. It’s been a super interesting read so far and I’ve tried to improve my communication styles personally and professionally.   

Who do you think is interesting in the general field?

Not to give a cop out answer, but there are so many amazing people working in behavioural science, whether that’s in academia, industry or government. I always come away from LinkedIn, a conference or meetings feeling extremely motivated and inspired! I attended a talk recently where the presenters were Pete Dyson and Lorraine Whitmarsh. Pete Dyson is the co-author of Transport for Humans: Are we nearly there yet? Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh is the director of CAST (Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations). I’ve since been reading more about their work to learn more about this field.

What haven’t we asked you that we should have?

How about a favourite model / theory / framework! Would be interesting to hear what others use.   

Who is one person that we can speak to for our next interview and if you could ask them one question, what would it be?

Abigail Emery was the Head of the Behavioural Science at the Cabinet Office until 2023, where she and others developed the IN CASE framework. She now works at the Open Innovation Team. Abigail often speaks about using AI tools in behavioural science and has inspired me to be more creative, including using ChatGPT to help plan a holiday itinerary! I’d ask her about her views on AI in behavioural science and the ethical considerations of using AI tools. 

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