Research Heroes: Chris Hsee


Next in our series of Research Heroes is Christopher K. Hsee, the Theodore O. Yntema Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who received his PhD in psychology from Yale University in 1993. He conducts research in areas ranging from happiness and consumer behavior to management and cross-cultural issues. His research has been published in a wide range of journals; his recent publications explore topics such as when and why people over-work and over-earn, when and why free competition is bad, and when and why people avoid idleness and seek busyness.
I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career that the purpose of doing research should not be just to publish papers or to impress other researchers, but to have a positive influence on people in the real world.

I most admire academically Daniel Kahneman and Dick Thaler, because
 their research has profound influences both inside and outside the academia. 

The research that I am most identified with is probably research on evaluability and joint-vs.-single evaluation, on feeling- vs. calculation-based decisions (with Yuval Rottenstreich), and on culture (with Elke Weber), but recently I have become increasingly interested in conducting research that explores messy and rich real-world issues in controlled and minimalistic lab settings. For example, my co-authors and I have studied when people over-work and over-earn (forthcoming in Psychological Science), when free competition makes people unhappy (forthcoming in OBHDP), why idleness is bad and how to make people busy and happy (2010 in Psychological Science), and what factors have an absolute effect on happiness and what factors have only a relative effect on happiness (2009 in the Journal of Marketing Research). 

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…  There must be such projects, but I can’t think of any now. I must have suppressed my memories of bad projects.
The most amazing and memorable research-related experience occurred when I was not doing research, but riding a bus, many years ago. The bus was traveling up and down on a hilly road, and I started to wonder how feelings change in response to changes in external stimuli. This question led to the research I conducted at graduate school on the effects of dynamic properties of changing stimuli (such as the trend, the velocity and the acceleration of stock movements) on hedonic experiences (1991 in JPSP; 1994 in JESP).
The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… If I haven’t told such a story, chances are that there isn’t such a story.
A research project I wish I had done… I wish I could do some social experiments to answer big questions, such as what types of modern technologies improve human well-being in the long run and what types hurt it in the long run; whether people would be happier or less happy overall if they could eat ten meals a day without being unhealthy; whether there would be more love or more hatred in the world if everybody became bisexual, etc.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be an artist. In many aspects, conducting research is like painting — both require observations, insight, and creativity; both seek to capture what’s fleeting and turn it into what’s eternal. (My teenage daughter is a better artist than I am – she did the sketch of me for this blog.)
The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years will be to apply psychological research in general and JDM research in particular to addressing important real world issues and helping enhance the well-being of people.
My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is  do not confine yourself to the library or to the lab. Explore the world, talk to different people and experience different things. Good ideas often come when you are strolling aimlessly on a country road, or debating with your MBA students, or helping the homeless, or chatting with a cab driver, or listening to Shostakovich.

Research Heroes: Richard Thaler

This week in our interview series is Richard H. Thaler, Ralph and Dorothyfrthaler Keller Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioural Science and Economics at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He received his PhD in 1974 from the University of Rochester and joined University of Chicago in 1995 after stints at The University of British Columbia, the Sloan School of Management at MIT, the Russell Sage Foundation and the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford as well as teaching at University of Cornell. While perhaps best known for the global best seller Nudge, his extensive research spans from behavioural finance to tackling many of society’s major problems with concepts from behavioural economics. 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career how to go about combining economics and psychology. There was no road map. Mostly trial and error with lots of errors.

I most admire academically… My greatest inspiration came from Kahneman and Tversky, my mentors who became my friends and collaborators. Danny is still a source of inspiration, going full speed at 78. They were a fantastic team because of their complementary skills, but they were both perfectionists in their different ways. I owe my career to them directly, but in some ways so does the entire field.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… This is like asking a parent to name his favorite child. Not fair. So I will fudge and name more than one. I think mental accounting is probably my best “idea”. Save More Tomorrow is my most important practical application. The book Nudge has reached the widest audience and had the most impact. But truth be told my favorite single paper is the one with Cade Massey on the NFL draft called the “Loser’s Curse”. The great thing about being an academic is that you can write a paper on anything. Certainly the paper that was the most fun to work on (or not work on) was the one with Eldar Shafir called “Invest Now, Drink Later, Spend Never”. Eldar and I didn’t work on it for a solid week in Venice one year. It is about the mental accounting of wine consumption. I still devote a lot of time to that problem!

The worst research project I have worked on during my career… There is nothing in print that I would want to take back. I have abandoned lots of projects. I believe in ignoring sunk costs. As I tell my MBA students: “Ignore sunk costs. Assume everyone else doesn’t.”

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… I gave a talk on the idea for Save More Tomorrow to a large (>500) group of 401(k) plan administrators in 1996 or so, thinking that at least one one of them would think enough of the idea to try it. Then nothing happened for several years. Very frustrating. Then out of the blue Shlomo Benartzi told me that someone he knew had tried it without even telling us, and the results were fantastic. That was exciting because once we could show people that the idea worked, it was (relatively) easy to get others to try it. Now it is used by millions of people, but we had to get the first employer to try it or we would still be wondering if it would really work.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… No such thing. But I am putting all those stories into a book I am working on, so stay tuned. The working subtitle is “The Stories of Behavioral Economics”.

A research project I wish I had done… My phd thesis was on the value of saving a life. The idea was to estimate how much you had to pay people to get them to accept a small increase in risk. So, I did an econometrics exercise regressing wages on occupational mortality rates. But the really clean study to do, as suggested by my buddy Richard Zeckhauser, would be to get people to play Russian Roulette, with a machine gun with many, many chambers (say 10,000). Then tell people there are 5 bullets in the gun, how much would you pay to remove one, or accept to add one. For some reason, no human subject committee has ever been willing to approve this project. Can’t imagine why! (Before I get into trouble, this was intended as a joke.)

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… Less happy. I feel lucky to have found a way to make a living that is so much fun to do. Who knows what else, but I did think about going to law school instead of economics graduate school. I don’t think I would have been a great lawyer though. I suffer from a diplomacy deficiency.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years is… I see two. First, JDMers need to learn to get out of the lab some of the time (and journal editors need to encourage such risky activity by applying appropriately different standards to field experiments). The stuff we study is too important and useful for it to be limited to the lab.

Second, I fear that the science-lab model in which increasing numbers of grad students are added to shrinkingly important papers in order to supply graduate students with enough publications to go on the job market. I think this trend stifles creativity and does not encourage students to do enough thinking on their own. More generally, I think psychologists are just publishing too many small papers. Look at the number of papers Kahneman and Tversky wrote that created and defined the field we now call judgment and decision making. The judgment stuff was really 3 papers plus the Science recapitulation. Then came prospect theory. Four blockbusters that led to a Nobel Prize. Not enough for tenure these days! Amos had a line about people that he felt wrote too many papers: “he publishes his waste basket”. I don’t think he would approve of the current state of affairs.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… Work on your own ideas, not your advisor’s ideas (or at least in addition to her ideas). And spend more time thinking and less time reading. Too much reading leads people to think of small variations on existing studies. Admittedly my strategy of writing the paper first and only then reading the literature (or, more likely, letting the referees tell me what they think I should have read) is an extreme one, but it is better than trying to read everything. Try writing the first paper on some topic, not the tenth, and never the 50th.

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Research Heroes: George Loewenstein

Following on from the great start by Hal Arkes, next in our series of father and son (1)research heroes is George Loewenstein who is the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. After receiving his PhD from Yale University in 1985, he has held academic positions at The University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University, among many others. He is considered as one of the founders of the field of behavioral economics and more recently of the field of neuroeconomics. Like Hal Arkes, he is also past president of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making. His prolific research focuses on applications of psychology to economics, with specific interests in e.g. decision making over time, psychology and health, the role of emotion in decision making, the psychology of curiosity. 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career that everything was going to turn out fine.  Of course no one could have told me, because no one knew, and people probably did tell me, but I didn’t believe them.  But, it pains me to think of all the unnecessary anguish I went through being uncertain, and even doubtful, about how things would turn out.  Some insecurity is probably motivating, but too much is counterproductive.  So, I would say “don’t sweat it; it’s not worth it.” Brave men die once, cowards a thousand times.  Be brave.

I most admire… Perhaps because I’m not much of a theorist myself, so theory seems a magical to me, I most admire Matthew Rabin, Botond Koszegi and Roland Benabou.  I admire Rabin and Koszegi because their models are so psychologically insightful; they make you see the world differently.   I admire Benabou because he produces incredibly elegant models about things that really matter, like groupthink and destructive ideologies, and because, with remarkably few and simple assumptions, his models inevitably generate an amazing range of sensible and nuanced predictions.

The best research project I have worked on during my career was really a set of projects that got started when Drazen Prelec and I spent a year together at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York.  We had met only once, briefly, before we were thrown together at RSF, living in adjoining apartment on the same floor of a building.  It was a fabulously stimulating and enjoyable collaboration that continues as a close friendship.  I miss it, though I can’t complain right now; at CMU I’m surrounded by the most remarkably stimulating and talented group of young researchers I have ever had the fortune to work with.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career was one I got involved in early on, as a result taking pity on a colleague at the University of Chicago who told me a terrible story of having been horribly abused by her last collaborator.  By the time we had completed the project, and it was a miracle that we did, I realized that I was working with someone who would always end up feeling mistreated by, and resentful toward, all her collaborators.  I learned the hard way that you can’t trust the narrative of a conflict when you only hear one side of it, and I also learned to only collaborate with people I was confident I would enjoy spending time with.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research was on a flight from Chicago to Islip, NY.  I used to take advantage of all opportunities for data collection and, on that flight, exploited proximity to all the bored people on the plane by distributing the different stimuli of an experiment to each row of travelers: “I am a professor at the University of Chicago, doing research on xx.  It would be very helpful to my research if you would answer these questions…”.  When the flight attendant figured out what I had done, she collected the surveys in a fury, apologizing profusely to the totally unperturbed travelers, told me that I would be arrested when we landed (which I didn’t take too seriously), and informed me that she was going to show the evidence of my crime (the surveys!) to the pilot.  As I was exiting the plane, checking to see if the police were waiting for me at the end of the exit ramp, the pilot came out of the cockpit, and, wearing a huge smile, told me that he was getting an MBA at the University of Chicago and wanted to hear more about the project.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…  In teaching, there have been ample opportunities to tell any stories I wanted to tell, and I’ve probably told too many (including, undoubtedly, unsuitable ones).

A research project I wish I had done… I was jogging with a friend and told him that, when I retired, I wanted to study sex.  He reminded me that I was tenured and had the freedom to do whatever I wanted; if I was so interested in studying sex, why would I wait till retirement?  I took his advice, so again I can’t answer the question.  Following his sage guidance, from that point on, if there is a research project I really want to do, regardless of what it is, I do it.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be a civil engineer designing bridges; I’ve always admired the beauty and functionality of bridges, and as a child I used to build bridges out of Lego, obsessively. I’m glad, however, that I’m doing what I’m doing – I’m a pretty good researcher but probably would have been a pathetic bridge designer.  If I ended up designing bridges at all, it would probably have been those ugly concrete monstrosities that span highways.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years is digging some new foundations.  For forty years now, we have been largely building on the foundational insights of Kahneman and Tversky from the late 1970s.  Our field has proven incredibly dynamic in adapting to, and even pioneering new research methods – incentivized choice experiments, field studies, field experiments, neuroscience methods, big data… I think we need some really exciting new ideas to replace, or at least occupy a position beside the by-now old standbys – overconfidence, loss aversion, hyperbolic time discounting, etc..

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is exactly the same as Hal Arkes’ advice: work on topics you feel passionate about.  Intrinsic motivation is infinitely more compelling than extrinsic motivation.  The only (or at least best) way to put in the hours necessary to be a successful academic is to do research you are so excited about that, instead of forcing yourself to do it, you need to exercise self-control to get yourself to take a break.

Departmental website

Research Heroes: Hal Arkes

The first in our series of interviews with key figures in the field of decision-making psychology is Hal Arkes. While perhaps most famously known for his arkesseminal work on the sunk cost fallacy with Catherine Blumer in 1985, his research interests span medical decision making and economic decision-making. He received his BA from Carleton College in 1967, his PhD from the University of Michigan in Psychology in 1971, and he is currently a professor of psychology at Ohio State University. He’s also a past president of the Society of Judgment and Decision Making.

wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career that it’s OK to switch advisors in order to match my interests with the interests of a faculty member.  Of course, this advice might not be applicable in all graduate programs if the program takes a dim view of switching advisors.  In that case it might be acceptable with the program to work with multiple faculty members but keep the same official advisor.

I most admire academically Ken Hammond, because he has been a thoughtful and productive researcher for around 7 decades.  I admire plenty of other psychologists, too, but no others have been active beyond 90 years of age.

The best research project I have worked on during my career is my work on the sunk cost effect (Arkes & Blumer, 1985). The projects that I am most proud of are my studies on medical decision making (e.g., Dawson, N. V., Arkes, H. R., Siciliano, C., Blinkhorn, R., Lakshmanan, M., & Petrelli, M. (1988). Hindsight bias:  An impediment to accurate probability estimation in clinicopathologic conferencesMedical Decision Making, 8, 259-264).  I am most proud of these, because they show that what we study as JDM researchers are actual phenomena that pertain to high-stakes, real-world situations. If what we study is not applicable to such situations, then our research has negligible value. I think that applied research is a crucial complement to theoretical research.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career was my dissertation, which was an amalgamation of various research projects. One major component was a verbal learning study, in which I paid lots of subjects to recall material I had presented.  I tape-recorded their recall during the course of the term. When I finished running subjects I found that the tape recorder microphone was defective, and none of the subjects’ recall had been recorded.  I had to do it all over again.

A close second for the worst project I have worked on occurred during my first year in graduate school. My advisor asked me to test a few cats to ascertain if they experienced the same visual illusions as humans do. I rigged up a Y-maze in which the left and right arms had screens at the end onto which I could rear-project images. Between the two arms was a central image I projected there. This central image depicted the way the human would see the illusion. If the cat experienced an illusion the way humans do, it would go to one of the two arms. If the cat did not experience the illusion, it would go to the other arm.  No cat learned a darned thing. After an exasperating year on this project, I looked down the Y-maze from the cats’ point of view. I realized that the rear-projection of three images was so dazzlingly bright that no organism could possibly view the details of the projected stimuli. It was apparent that unless the cats were wearing dark glasses, they wouldn’t be able to perform in this apparatus. I had wasted a year.

The most memorable experience when I was doing research occurred in 1991. I had been in a terrible bicycling accident and was hooked up to various tubes and machines in the intensive care unit (ICU) of a hospital. My wife came into the unit during the limited visiting hours and told me that Psychological Bulletin had sent the galley proofs of my article [Arkes, H. R. (1991). The costs and benefits of judgment errors:  Implications for debiasing.  Psychological Bulletin, 110, 486-498] to my office.  They wanted the galley proofs back in 48 hours, much before I would be moved out of the ICU. So much to the amazement of my doctors I worked on the copy-editing of the article for several hours in the ICU.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance was told to me by my advisor, who had been a student of Kenneth Spence. One of other grad students was testing an important feature of Hull-Spence theory. He was running rats in this particular experiment. The grad student became so furious when a rat behaved in a manner that did not support the theory that he hurled the offending rat against the wall.  Needless to say, this selective attrition of non-complying rats caused the remaining animals to strongly support the theory.  My advisor refused to tell me which published study was based on this unusual procedure.

A research project I wish I had done is one based on fluency.  I had written a big paper showing the influence of fluency in a large number of disparate domains.  Only one of the domains included original research I had done in that domain. The reviews were very negative for reasons that I did not understand.  So I completely dropped the idea and never did any follow-up research on fluency in any domain. Why didn’t I continue this line of research? I think it’s because I occasionally get so exasperated with reviews on a particular paper that I find it aversive to continue on the same endeavor.  So I just avoided fluency after that infuriating experience. In retrospect, I wish I had ignored the reviews and had continued that line of work.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be a carpenter.  I played baseball for the University of Illinois as a freshman. If I had stuck with it, perhaps I would have considered playing baseball professionally.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years? As a JDM researcher I’m reluctant to make predictions on this one.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is to follow your interests.  Begin by sampling a wide cafeteria of courses, colloquia, readings, and professors. Find what interests you the most. Then do that.

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JDM Research Heroes: new interview series

To kick-start the blog, we are doing a series of interviews with people who have played an important role in shaping the history of the field as well as made significant contributions to judgment and decision-making psychology.

To compile the list, we asked members of the Early Career JDM Researchers Facebook community to vote for their top three researchers whose story they’d like to hear. Once we had a list, we emailed those who got the most votes and asked them same questions, and we’ll be posting them every couple of weeks on the blog.

We have a fantastic series lined up, with the first interviews coming up from  Hal Arkes, Chris Hsee, Jonathan Baron, John Payne and Richard Thaler. More interviews are also in the pipeline, but if you have any suggestions or want us to interview your research hero, we’d love to hear from you!

We hope that you will find the interviews as fascinating and inspiring to read as we have – these researchers’ experiences of the world of JDM will hopefully give you insights and inspiration that you can use in your own career.


New year, new blog

Hello, and welcome!

This is the new blog set up by and for younger researchers in the field of judgment and decision-making psychology. We wanted to have a place to present new ideas in a more fast-paced and interactive way than the traditional peer-reviewed channels in academia.

This blog aims to be accessible to everyone without compromising on academic integrity: in practice this means posts written in a reader-friendly, informal style with some references provided at the bottom of each post for those who want to follow them up.

We also want the blog to be interactive and a conversation starter.

That’s why we welcome ideas that are not necessarily yet published anywhere, ideas that you’re just developing and want to get feedback for. Alternatively, if you see a specific topic appearing in the media and want to comment on it based on your research experience and expertise, please get in touch!

Our dream for the blog is that researchers of all levels would get involved in the writing (email us with your ideas and we’ll post them). If you’d like to see your research ideas presented here but don’t want to write them up yourself, get in touch!

In addition to the blog, we’ve also set up a Facebook community – come and join the conversation there as well.

In the meanwhile… enjoy!

Elina & Neda (editors)