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You can't be what you can't see!

How can we increase diversity in Behavioral Science?

Cerita Bethea

For all the known benefits of leveraging and employing diverse talent in the space of Behavioral and Social Science, it is quite unsettling that the field remains largely homogenous. While we can’t always control for (lack of) unconscious bias training, gender stereotypes, geographical, structural, and financial barriers, there is one area where we can endeavor to close the gap - awareness. The profound behavioral insight upon which this is based: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see!’

Further fueling the lack of awareness of (and exposure to) behavioral scientists, with whom diverse groups can identify, is another paradox: there are mental models of what constitutes real/legitimate ‘science’ (the ‘S’ in STEM fields) that may shape decision making for a non-traditional career path. For all the push for students to enter STEM related fields, social sciences aren’t typically associated with STEM. Perhaps they are not perceived as rigorous enough or ‘scientific enough’ to be part of this prestigious acronym; and even if one buys into its rightful place in science, what can one actually do with it?

I start with Exhibit A: Myself 

I knew from about the age of 4, watching Perry Mason on TV with my grandmother, that I wanted to be a lawyer. By the time I entered college, I declared a major in Pre-Law and randomly chose Psychology, because you could major in anything and then go to Law School. I was surprisingly quite fond of Psych 101. One day during the first semester, a teaching assistant from another section of Psych 101 (whose exam prep sessions I attended) approached me to ask if I had ever heard of Engineering Psychology, which I had not. She suggested that I look into it, as it may be an area of interest, then she left.

This is my first recollection of a nudge; something that changed the choice architecture in what I considered as a potential career. This nudge led me to do a little research on Engineering Psychology and quite prophetically, I was enormously interested! This led to an honors thesis three years later, based on theories of automaticity, the godfather of habits. Once my thesis was complete, I asked a question of my research advisor that, unbeknownst to me, would shape the rest of my life: ‘who in the ‘real world’ cares about this research? and how would they ever use it?’ He gave me a couple of opaque examples and suggested ‘maybe that’s something you could work to figure out’.  

Hence, my second nudge was born, so I took my degree in Pre-law Psychology and headed to grad school in Engineering Psychology. I would go on to work for Ford Motor, Toyota, Kimberly-Clark and now Coca-Cola, where I leverage Behavioral Science to refresh the world and make a difference. All because of a simple, innocuous nudge, that forever changed the trajectory of how I viewed ‘science’ and my place in it.

I submit at this precipice of a lack of diversity in a field that I love, that we don’t have to fall off the cliff.  It may be as simple as each one of us identifying the mental models of those underrepresented groups in our markets, that act as barriers to entry, and take the time to nudge them to change their choice architecture; at a time when decisions are being made on ‘what I want to be when I grow up’.

My personal commitment is to do just that. Once we’re past this virtual life of COVID-19, I pledge to go back to my high school in Chicago to give witness to what the next generation of young black professionals can be, because Behavioral Science is pretty awesome!

Likewise, the private sector can take up the challenge to increase talent diversity in Behavioral Science by doing the following:

1. Work alongside internal diversity networks, to reach out to the youth in your communities and inspire curiosity in the various disciplines of Behavioral Science (Psychology, Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, Neuroscience, Data Science). This is where it starts.

2. Recruit from institutions with a large population of the underrepresented demographics you seek.

3. Be deliberate in practicing unconscious bias training when hiring.



About the author


Cerita Bethea

As the Director of Behavioral Science at The Coca-Cola Company, Cerita Bethea leverages models of human behavior and decision making to drive growth across the beverage portfolio. Having earned a PhD in Cognitive Psychology, Cerita has devoted over 25 years to bridging the gap between theory and practice.  Her experience spans multiple industries including Kimberly-Clark Corp, Toyota, and Ford Motor Company. She is dedicated to demystifying Behavioral Science while empowering others to own and activate behavioral insights.