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.

Departmental website: http://faculty.psy.ohio-state.edu/arkes/

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One thought on “Research Heroes: Hal Arkes

  1. What a great idea! This was a very interesting read, with lots of useful advice and fun anecdotes. Already looking forward to the next ones!

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