Research Heroes: Elke Weber

We are proud to present this weeks research hero: Prof. Elke Weber, elke_weber_250the Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business at Columbia Business School and Professor of Psychology and Earth Institute Professor at Columbia University. Prof. Weber received her PhD from Harvard university and has ever since served as President for SJDM, been reviewer for the Nobel Prize in economy, received numerous awards and honors, and published immense number of high impact papers and book chapters. Prof. Weber´s research interest is in decisions under risk and environmental decisions, especially in the intersection of psychology and economics.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career…
to study economics, at least in addition to psychology. The formal modeling of economics disciplines theory formulation and the shared set of assumptions and goals makes its research much more cumulative. And God knows, the field could have used someone with an interest in realistic assumptions about human judgment and choice 30 years ago.

I most admire academically… researchers like Duncan Luce, Jim March, Lin Ostrom, Howard Raiffa, Herb Simon, and Amos Tversky, who over their lifetime perfected the art of addressing important and challenging problems with elegant models and frameworks that illuminate and surprise despite, and perhaps because of, their simplicity.

The research contribution I am most proud of … is the distinction between risk perception and risk attitudes as separate determinants of risk taking.  The idea that risk is a psychological variable (perceived risk) and thus influenced by previous experience and context (giving rise to gender, age, cultural, and domain differences) and is mediated by affective processes (risk as feelings) took a while to catch on.  Getting economists to acknowledge that differences in perceived risk rather than (or in addition to) differences in risk attitude drive observed differences in risk-taking is still a work in progress, but practitioners in many areas (from financial services to medical and environmental risk communication) have strongly embraced this work and the Domain-Specific Risk-Taking (DOSPERT) scale that it generated. I am also proud of introducing the distinction between decisions from experience and decisions from description (in a collaboration with Sharoni Shafir at Ohio State, later fleshed out in a productive year that brought Ralph Hertwig and Ido Erev to Columbia), which has generated a cottage industry of new research.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career… If something is not working out, either because the hypotheses are wrong or collaborator personalities are mismatched, give it a second chance, but then move on.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….was my first very experiment. The visual perception professor in whose lab I worked as an undergraduate RA let me design the study (on cyclopean vision), buy LEDs at Radio Shack and plywood and black drapes at Canadian Tire, solder up the apparatus, run the subjects, enter the data and do the statistical analyses, and help in writing up the paper. I was hooked on the scientific method from Day One and discovered that I had the data gene. The study was published in JEP:HPP without any request for revisions, an event, my professor correctly predicted, would never happen again.  I also knew by the end of the study that the questions about perception and action that I wanted to answer had to be bigger than the human eyeball and its connection to the brain.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…
My path to psychology and behavioral decision research has been circuitous. Seasickness and lack of a parental vineyard put an end to early career aspirations in Germany, marine biology and oenology, respectively. Dissatisfaction with a year of jurisprudence at the University of Heidelberg and general German intransigence brought me to the new world and to a switch in my reading, from Sigmund Freud and Marcel Proust to William James and Walt Whitman. And you already know about my cyclopean vision period!

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…
I am not big on either envy or regret, life is too short.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…
building bridges. I always imagined myself apprenticing with Santiago Calatrava and commuting between Barcelona, Berlin, and Buenos Aires. But after reading previous Research-Hero blog entries, I now know that I could just start a firm with George Loewenstein.  In some sense I have been building bridges most of my life, between cultures and between disciplines, most recently by introducing alternatives to rational expectations and expected utility maximization into the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process and into its Fifth Assessment Report.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years is…
to integrate theory and insights about human judgment and choice across levels of analysis, from (epi)genetics to neurochemistry and neurophysiology, from brain activations to behavior, and from individual and group decisions to political and social processes.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career: Step back before starting any study or program of research to consider whether the question you are asking is big enough.  Don’t waste your time on incremental stuff, but find an important problem that matches your skills and interest.  Once you have found that, it also pays to persist. Acknowledgement of the value of new ideas can take a while.


1 thought on “Research Heroes: Elke Weber

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

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