Research Heroes: Jonathan Baron

Next in our series of Research Heroes is Jonathan Baron, baronProfessor of Psychology at University of Pennsylvania. Professor Baron received his PhD in Experimental Psychology from University of Michigan 1970. His current focus is on moral decision making, especially in public policy. Except for his research, he is well known from his excellent work as Webmaster at Society of Decision Making. He is also the starter and editor of Judgment and Decision Making, the first open access journal in Judgment and decision making 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career …..When I applied to graduate school, my first choice was Michigan. In my application I said I wanted to work with James Olds, and I sketched a project I wanted to do (which Randy Gallistel subsequently did, without any help from me), concerning the lateral hypothalamus of the rat. When I was admitted, I assumed that this meant that Olds was willing to have me as an advisee. Nope. So I wish someone told me, “Ask.” In the end it all worked out, because I switched to experimental psychology.

I most admire…..This is hard, and I will not give names of living people, lest someone be offended at not being listed. I tend to admire philosophers and people who write in that tradition, because they strive for depth and clarity, and some of them write really well. Richard Hare is one example. I also admire people who “did their own thing”, even if it was unconventional or politically incorrect and did not bring them fame or fortune, such as Howard Margolis, Lee Brooks, and Richard Herrnstein (who did achieve some notoriety).

The best research project I have worked on during my career was…..Some useful projects were complete failures but sources of education for me. Of the ones that led anywhere, one is my work at the Benchmark School with Irene Gaskins, on teaching students to think better. This was a part of the inspiration for my first book, “Rationality and intelligence”, which argued that rational thinking was both learnable and part of intelligence itself, something I still believe. Another project, which I thought was a very risky enterprise at the time, was to extend the heuristics-and-biases framework to moral judgment, which led to two papers: Spranca, Minsk and Baron (1991) and Ritov and Baron (1990), followed soon by Baron and Ritov (1993) and Baron (1994). I see this as my main contribution to JDM.

The worst research project……My attempt to find the lateral hypothalamus of the rat in my first year of graduate school, in Steve Glickman’s lab. Not his fault. He was very nice to me. I was a klutz. Good thing I did not become a surgeon.

The most memorable experience I had doing research was…..From the preface to Weber, Baron, and Loomes (2001): “… Jane [Beattie] was a wonderful collaborator. … I also think that she had extrasensory perception. For one of our papers, the reviewers asked us to check the inter-rater reliability of some coding that we had done on subjects’ justifications. So I selected 20 cases at random, coded them and sent them to her by email. I was hoping for 70% agreement, as I felt that I had very little confidence in my own coding. A day later, her codes came back, and agreement was 100%.”

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… I’ve always managed to find a chance. The ones that I haven’t told are even less interesting.

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it… Can’t think of anything. I did many more studies than what I have had time to write up.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… Not a surgeon. Maybe a government-employed researcher, or a philosophy professor, or a composer of modern music like Steve Reich (if I had started doing music seriously at age 4 instead of 14 – but we are already deeply into counterfactuals).

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years is… To retain an independent identity, so that JDM does not get swallowed up by social psychology, evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, marketing, and/or decision neuroscience. Otherwise I think there are lots of little challenges.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is…
A. Remember that research is a labor of love. If it doesn’t feel that way, do something else. There are many other ways for smart people to do something useful and make a living. You should not need self-discipline to get research done. You should need it to stop working on research so that you can meet other demands.
B. Pursue truth, enlightenment, and/or the common good. Attempts to be strategic, to pursue what is popular at the moment because it will get you to the next level, are no more likely to lead to tangible success than following your own reflective judgment of what you ought to be doing.
C. Learn R, Linux, LaTeX, Emacs, and/or other computer tools like them. Learn psychometric theory, Bayesian statistics, and/or some other useful advanced statistical approaches. Researchers at all levels vastly under-invest in the development of skills for programming and data analysis. This investment will pay off over time, and you cannot depend anymore on being able to hire people to do these things for you (especially if you are unable to pay them more than you make yourself).
D. Our field is not that far from philosophy. Don’t be afraid of it. It’s fun.

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One thought on “Research Heroes: Jonathan Baron

  1. Pingback: Inside the Black Box: Judgment and Decision Making | :InDecision:

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