Research Heroes: John W. Payne

medium_fs_jpayneStarting off the second month of Research Heroes interviews is  John W. Payne, the Joseph J. Ruvane, Jr. Professor of Business Administration and Deputy Dean at Duke University, Fuqua School of Business. He received his PhD from University of California in 1973, followed by stints at Carnegie-Mellon University and University of Chicago, before joining the faculty at Duke in 1977. Like many of our Research Heroes, he’s also a past president of the Society of Judgment and Decision Making. With research interests ranging from risky choice behavior, consumer choice, juries and punitive damage awards to retirement planning and environmental decisions, he has authored or co-authored almost a hundred papers as well as The Adaptive Decision Maker and most recently a chapter in the Handbook of Process Tracing Methods in Decision Making.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career how much fun research can be. I knew I liked doing research as student but I didn’t know that I would still enjoy it so much more than 40 years later. As a faculty member you have a LOT of demands on your scarce time. And research more than any other demand is one where the extrinsic rewards are often delayed for years, e.g., publications. However, if you find research fun you will always find the time to do it now.

I most admire Paul Slovic. Our field is blessed with a lot of nice people. However, Paul is an unbelievably nice person. I first met him as an undergraduate student thinking about decision making as a topic of study. Paul and Sarah Lichtenstein took the time to meet with me, send me papers, and encourage me to continue to work in the field. I owe my career to his early encouragement. He serves as a role model to me of mentorship in any field. The other thing I most admire about Paul is the continued excellence of his scholarship. Doing one or two impactful pieces of work is hard enough. For a person to do one important paper after another important paper for decades is the truest measure of an outstanding scholar.

The best research project I have worked on during my career was with Jim Bettman and Eric Johnson that culminated in our book entitled The Adaptive Decision Maker. For reasons that I am not sure I fully understand we made a great team. We certainly did not always agree but we enjoyed working together, and we had complimentary skills and interests. I also really liked the fact that the project combined modeling and experimental work using relatively new, at the time, modeling tools like computer simulation and the elementary information processes idea borrowed from Newell and Simon along with process tracing methods. Finally, the project extended over a decade and there was a sense of accumulative knowledge being gained. I have always enjoyed research that goes beyond just one or two papers but seems to build over an extended period of time.

The worst research project isn’t really a case of a project that I worked on but a project I should have spent more time on. That is, my regret is for something I didn’t do more than regret for something I did do. In 1982 Joel Huber, Chris Puto, and I published a paper showing what we called the “Asymmetric Dominance Effect” on choice. (Another regret of mine is that I have generally been terrible at naming effects.) The paper was one of the first showing the importance of context (choice menus) on choice. While I certainly cannot complain about the attention that the Huber, Payne, and Puto paper has gotten over the years, I do wish I personally had followed up on that paper much more than I have. Fortunately for our field others have been much better continuing the work on context-dependent preferences.

The most memorable experience I had doing research was a lunch not long after I moved to Duke in the late 1970s. Tom Wallsten (then at UNC) had organized a small conference on decision making at a little conference center north of Durham. During the lunch break at that conference I found myself setting at a small table with Amos Tversky, Danny Kahneman, and Hilly Einhorn. Needless-to-say, I mostly listened. The conversation was amazing. One issue talked about was the importance of coherence as a standard for judgment and choice. Amos was being more of an economist in that he was defending the importance of coherence from a normative perspective. On the other hand, I still remember Danny expressing the opinion that he wanted to reserve the right to both love and hate his mother-in-law at the same time. Was there ever a clearer statement about the value of two systems of thought? It also became clear to me that great research partnerships do not require perfect alignment of beliefs. In fact, differences might help.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be a cook. My father was a short-order cook during part of his life and I remember the satisfaction he had at preparing meals for people. I have never been paid to cook but I have done a lot of cooking over the years. And unlike research, cooking food for others can have much more immediate positive feedback. I haven’t always been sure about the value of one of my papers. I have always been sure about the value of my lasagna. The other career that has always attracted me is being a historian. So, if I was not a professor of business and psychology I would like to be a professor of history.

One of the biggest challenges for our field in the next 10 years is taking what we now know, and will learn, about how people make judgments and choices and using that knowledge to help people make better decisions. We are certainly doing some of this application of knowledge today. The great book by Thaler and Sunstein (Nudge) provides a number of examples. However, I think we need to continue to translate our knowledge of how people do make decisions into prescriptions for how people can make better decisions. For those of us who are a bit further along in our careers this should be a challenge that we accept. For young researchers I would be more cautious in advising that they become more “applied.” As long as the criteria for tenure remain what they are at the top schools, young researchers will need to concentrate more on basic research.

The other challenge for our field is what George Loewenstein mentioned: we need to dig some new theoretical foundations. These new foundations may be no more, and no less, than really understanding the interplay between System 1 and System 2 thinking or the interplay between cognition and emotion. However, I suspect, and hope, that even newer ideas will be developed.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is to be programmatic. Find a problem area that you are excited about, and think is important, and plan on doing multiple studies within that problem area. While a hit here and a hit there in terms of publications can establish a reputation I think a career is best made by a more programmatic approach.

Next, in the spirit of value to some differences in perspectives, I would disagree with the advice offered by my good friend Dick Thaler, spend time reading the literature, and go back more than just the past 5-10 years. The best programs of research will be built on not only your prior work but on work of others. I certainly feel like everything I have done builds upon the pioneering work of others including Einhorn, Kahneman, Simon, Slovic, and Tversky. This does not mean doing small variations of prior studies. It does mean using a knowledge of the literature to better know what will be important to learn, and how to best position what you have learned when it comes time to publish.

Finally, enjoy your research! Being able to do research on decision behavior should be fun.

Departmental website | TED talk


3 thoughts on “Research Heroes: John W. Payne

  1. Pingback: Meet the Editors: Elina | :InDecision:

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