Two exits, $2 billion and a free lunch: The social psychologist who’s humanising tech

"I can’t figure out cancer," Matt Wallaert told me after he came off stage. "I have no idea how to make cancer go away. But gender equity? Now that's a stupid problem. It’s not an immutable law of the universe that women must be paid less than men. All we have to do is agree that it is a stupid problem, and we’ll solve it. Women aren’t born underpaid, we underpay them."

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What you will learn from reading this article:

  • How to get a raise at work
  • Why nobody is born to be a disruptor
  • What a social psychologist is doing to change the tech world

Wallaert is a social psychologist, has exited two start-ups, and now sits as Director of Microsoft Ventures in London. He’s also a white male from the United States, which, he would be the first to say, explains a lot. But Wallaert is certainly not your typical start-up guy. Since being prised away from academia, Wallaert has been on a mission to use technology to create widespread behavioural change in the name of social amelioration and shrinking social inequalities.

"I want to try to democratise behaviour change. We live in a world where the people in power have the biggest budgets, and therefore they win. I’m here to tell you that behaviour change is our guerrilla warfare. If we can empower each and every person to learn the basics of social psychology, we can actually produce the large scale behavioural changes that we want to see in the world."

Read: Why a legacy brand shouldn't stop being innovative

Walleart doesn't use the words 'large scale' loosely. A few years ago, he created an online tool called GetRaised in an attempt to help close the gender wage gap. The tool helped women to find out if they were underpaid, and then generated a custom 'raise request' to help users to start the conversation with their boss, and do it right. GetRaised had a 70 per cent success rate, with an average wage increase of a little over $6,000 a year, and generating an astonishing $2.3 billion in total increased wages.

Was it really as easy as that? Set up a website, do a bit of PR, generate $2.3 billion for thousands of women across the United States?

In his talk, Walleart suggested that our reality is the result of a set of culturally engrained expectations, assumptions and behaviours. Our behaviour in turn is the result of two pervading pressures: inhibiting and promoting. Inhibiting pressures are the forces that stop us from taking a certain action. The inhibiting pressure for public speaking, for example, could be the fear of feeling foolish. Promoting pressures are the forces that encourage us to take a certain action; we’re far more likely to work out if we belong to a community of passionate fitness enthusiasts who give us daily encouragement.

Inequality, therefore, is simply the sum total of a set of behaviours that have become normalised throughout a given society, maintained over time by a set of inhibiting and promoting pressures. Walleart’s theory of change goes something like this: reframe the pressures, change your behaviour, do it at scale, change the world.  

A subject that sparked a good deal of debate at the Virgin Disruptors event was the question of whether or not we’re born disruptors. It’s a subject on which Walleart has a lot to say. 

"If people are born disruptors then behaviour change doesn’t matter. It’s dangerous to believe that CEOs are where they are because they’re disruptors, and everyone else isn’t, because most CEOs are white males. If you’re telling me that people are born to be disruptors, what you’re telling me is that somehow white males come into this world ready to run things, and I don’t believe that."

"We have to collectively recognise that the way things are has to do with systemic pressure, and that we can affect those pressures. We need to turn up the inhibiting pressure on racism, sexism and nationalism, and make it easy to reduce, reuse and recycle. We need to make it easy for young people to ask for opportunities, and for women to ask for raises."

I was curious to find out how all this was applicable to Walleart’s tech start-up experience. Two exits is no mean feat, after all, and he must be doing something right. What room was there for a social psychologist in the world of technology, and how did he get there in the first place? 

Read: The unwritten rules that destroy our businesses

"I came out of academia, where I became increasingly frustrated that, despite my research, I wasn’t able to move the needle on behaviour change in the way that I wanted. A start-up came and asked me to sit on their advisory board. I told them that I had no idea how I could help them, but they said that they’d figure out a way to extract value from me. They did, and I became the Head of Product."

"A visual designer defines the colour of the button, a UX designer defines that there’s going to be a button in the first place, and as Head of Product I don’t care how you get me to the next page, but there has to be a next page."

Virgin Disruptors 2016: Matt Wallaert

But Walleart’s contribution runs deeper than that. He sees technology as the means with which to create widespread behavioural change, a feat that requires an acute understanding of what influences our behaviour in the first place and how technology fits into the everyday promoting and inhibiting pressures that we experience.

“It’s very, very hard to succeed in a market if you don’t spend a lot of time understanding who your users are. I push people to think beyond traditional user testing of 'here’s what our screen looks like, what do you think?', and towards an emotional understanding of what’s going on when people use their product. It takes much more than a basic 'look and react' test."

"The first start-up I sold was in the personal finance space, and in the weekly email that our users received it said 'do you live in New York? Do you like lunch? Matt Wallaert will buy you lunch'. I would take people out to lunch and just listen to them talk about their finances, never uttering word about the product. I’d ask people about how they felt about money, if their relationship with money had changed as they got older, if they fought about money with their spouse, if so when and why. I wanted to understand how people related emotionally to the subject of personal finance, because if you start to feel how people engage with it in their daily lives, you can begin to understand where the opportunities are to influence those behaviours."

One things’s for sure, technology needs more people like Matt Wallaert.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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