Research Heroes: Baruch Fischhoff

Baruch Fischhoff is one of the best known names when it comes to risk and JDM. He received his PhD in psychFischhoff_Baruch_188x220ology from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel and also holds a BS in mathematics. Currently, he is the Howard Heinz University Professor in the departments of Social and Decision Sciences and of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. He has served as the president for the Society for Judgment and Decision Making and of the Society for Risk Analysis, and recipient of its Distinguished Achievement Award. He was founding chair of the Food and Drug Administration Risk Communication Advisory Committee and recently chaired the National Research Council Committee on Behavioral and Social Science Research to Improve Intelligence Analysis for National Security. He is also a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science(previously the American Psychological Society), the Society of Experimental Psychologists, and the Society for Risk Analysis. He has authored numerous articles and co-authored/edited seven books, including Risk: A Very Short Introduction

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… How important it is to listen to people, in order to understand the decisions that they are facing, so that we have the best chance of helping them.  For example, Julie Downs, Wändi Bruine de Bruin, and I were able to create an interactive DVD, helping young women with sexual decisions, partly because we conducted open-ended interviews that allowed us to hear them describe how coercive many social situations were.  Much of our intervention focuses on empowering young women to assert their right to make decisions.

I most admire academically… My doctoral advisors, Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman.  Along with Maya Bar Hillel, Ruth Beyth-Marom, and a few lucky others, I had a front-row seat as they thrashed out the early stages of their joint work.  As a bonus, I followed the development of “Features of Similarity” en route to the Hebrew University squash courts with Amos.  And my post-doctoral advisors, Paul Slovic and Sarah Lichtenstein, who helped me to consolidate my craft and encouraged me to engage messy problems.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… Lita Furby and I worked together on producing responsible advice for women on how to reduce the risk of sexual assault – advice that was faithful to the diversity of women’s circumstances and to the (limited) evidence regarding the effectiveness of self-defense strategies.  I learned something general about imposing reasonable structure on complex problems.  I’d like to think that we did some good.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career… Since the late Carter Administration, I’ve worked sporadically on decision making about nuclear power.  I’ve given talks, published papers, and even co-authored a book (Acceptable Risk).  However, it’s hard to see that the work has any impact on the industry  – other than occasionally seeing its people spin our research to support their position (e.g., how an irrational public cannot be trusted with such decisions).

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research…. In 1976, Paul Slovic wrangled me an invitation to one of the first interdisciplinary meetings on risk analysis, at the State of California’s Asilomar Conference Center.  The topics of the talks were extremely varied (e.g., nuclear power, recombinant DNA, liquefied natural gas).  However, all seemed to be making unrealistic assumptions about human behavior (e.g., how vigilant would operators be, how much did experts know, how strongly would regulations be enforced).  I concluded that we behavioral and decision scientists had something to say everywhere, but only if we collaborated with people who really knew the problems.  I wrote up my thoughts (in “Cost-Benefit Analysis and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”), which, remarkably, got published and opened other doors.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… As an undergraduate math major at Wayne State, I got to be an RA for the late Samuel Komorita, who was doing some of the earliest studies in behavioral game theory.  My job included giving standard (and sometimes false) feedback in a prisoner’s dilemma game, in the form of red or green lights.  At the debriefing session after one pretest, a subject (as participants were called back then) revealed having discovered our deception, by seeing the reflections of the lights off the glass bookcases in the room (in the basement of Old Main).  Sam quickly fixed that.

A research project I wish I had done… Along with Danny, Paul, Dave Schkade, and others, I was part of the “contingent valuation wars,” waged over resource economists’ naïve, but often well-meaning attempts to monetize “intangible” environmental changes by asking people what they would pay to make those changes happen or stop.  Eventually, we wore one another out.  Had we persisted in those engagements, though, we might have produced some useful insights into how people “construct” values for the strange questions that such studies pose.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be Perhaps a political activist.  My wife Andi and I went to Israel with the intent of living our lives on a kibbutz, whose ideology disparaged the academic world.  When that didn’t work out, we went back to school, somewhat half-heartedly.  I then had the amazing good fortune to be swept up in the work of Danny, Amos, and the people around them.  A political mentor, Reuven Kaminer, helped me to realize that our values inevitably shape our choice of problem; after that, though, the rules of science must prevail – creating the chance of serving science and society.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years.. Making ourselves more central to the places where the policies, programs, and products that shape our world are created.  Often, we’re consulted only when there is a “people problem,” with the hope that we can somehow deliver the public, by informing or manipulating them so that they behave in desired ways.  I’d rather see us in at the start, designing environments that help people to identify and achieve their own goals.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is Decide whether to view academic work as a job or a calling.  If it is the former, then the criteria for success are clear, even if the pathway is uncertain.  If it is the latter, though, then one must keep asking whether the constraints of the academic world preclude doing work that one finds meaningful – and, if so, how to bend or escape them.

Departmental website

Outside The Matrix: Paul Litvak

LitvakPaul Litvak is currently a Quantitative Researcher working on the Google+Platform team to improve people’s social experiences online. Prior to that he was a Data Analyst at Facebook working on fighting fraud, tracking the flow of money and improving customer service. He also has a PhD in Behavioral Decision Research from Carnegie Mellon and his dissertation was on the impact of money on thought and behavior. During graduate school he co-founded a boutique data science consulting firm, the Farsite Group, which is consulting for some of the largest retailers and private equity firms to improve their data-informed decision-making processes. Through these various activities he’s managed to keep a foot in both the academic decision science and business data science worlds for the last 6 years. 

Tell us about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? I work at Google as a quantitative user experience researcher–I use quantitative methods to try and understand how people are (or aren’t using) features of Google products with the hopes of recommending ways to improve upon them. Often times this involves running an experiment but can also often involve correlational analyses instead. Sometimes the sample sizes are so large (millions or even billions!) you don’t need to run any statistics at all–you just count the rate at which some event happened.

Decision-making psychology fits into this work in at least three ways. First, in hypothesis generation and testing, knowing which  effects from psychology are relevant in a situation gives you great product intuition. For example, you might be analyzing how users bid on ad space and remind the engineers and designers of how much the anchor matters. Second, it’s useful in designing and conducting good experiments. In online experiments you are always weighing the pros and cons of different operationalizations of user constructs (e.g. what is “engagement” or “satisfaction” in the context of a particular website?). Being able to operationalize a variable intelligently is the difference between an experiment that convinces a Product Manager to change things accordingly and one that is totally ignored. Third, decision science lets you think clearly about analytic problems that come up a lot in software design. Nowadays it is common to use some machine learning algorithm to classify some otherwise messy data. In doing so, it is crucial to be able to think clearly about false positives and false negatives, and tradeoffs between the various costs of being wrong versus not making predictions for some cases. Fundamental statistical reasoning concepts (e.g. Bayes rule) never go out of style!

Why you decide to go into industry instead of continuing in academia? For me, it was a combination of factors. First, for many reasons (some outside my control), my research hadn’t been as successful as was needed to secure a good tenure track job. In order for me to have continued I would have had to have taken a postdoc for some number of years and continue working hard in the hopes that I could get sufficient papers published. I felt some amount of despair over my floundering career. (In retrospect, I’m not sure how overblown that was.)

Also, I had always had some interest in technology and business. I majored in computer science (and philosophy–I contain multitudes!) and had an interest in technology since I was a 10-year-old programming BASIC in my friend’s basement. Meanwhile I had co-founded a boutique statistics consulting group, Farsite (http://farsitegroup.com), that had had some early successes. Through trying to sell a variety of large businesses on consulting services (which I did in between running lab studies for my dissertation) I learned more and more about the business world. We even won a few contracts! More and more, I was enjoying applying the same scientific thinking I was using in research to solve business problems, like where to put pharmacies.

There were also quality of life issues. I wanted to have a life outside my job, and that seemed close to impossible as an academic. I noticed my advisor, who was a young tenure-track faculty, worked like a madman, seemed very stressed and unhappy. (He seems better now, and might dispute my contention that he was unhappy then.) Consequently, when a job opportunity came along to work for Facebook, pre-IPO, in Austin, Texas, where my best friend was living, it was nigh impossible to turn down.

What do you enjoy the most in your current role? By far the thing I enjoy the most about my role is having a large impact on the world. While I worked for Facebook, my analyses and code affected literally millions of dollars of revenue, and helped keep the site clean of a lot of bad content that would have made people’s daily experience much less pleasant. At Google, my research has launched whole product initiatives, determined whether to keep or get rid of product features, and literally affected what millions of people see across all of Google’s products every day. I have a huge amount of flexibility to work on research projects that interest me, in part because I love working on, and am good at formulating impactful research.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? Yes, there are at least three challenges:

1) Because of disproportionate incentive to produce positive results and an increasing amount of researchers chasing fewer dollars and jobs, I do think the pressure to cut corners has increased significantly. This is impacting the quality of research that is being produced. Not just in terms of replicability and p-hacking, but also in terms of theoretical comprehensiveness. I read a lot of papers and I can’t help but feel like decision science isn’t very cumulative. Most researchers are chasing individual findings instead of trying to integrate our understanding of decision-making into a cohesive model or theory. It feels like it’s stagnated a bit to me–the best papers I read were written in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I think the grab-bag nature of our findings makes it difficult to know which findings to apply in a given new context.

2) Another related problem is interactions. Social scientists uncover many many effects, but in real life many different effects could be active at the same time. It’s hard to know if all these effects should be additive, or what will win out when certain psychological antecedents suggest opposite effects. Perhaps more experiments at large scale can help this.

3) A third problem is entrenched attitudes toward experiments. I’ve definitely seen companies and executives resistant to the idea of running experiments. Sometimes they are worried about what will happen if the press finds a weird version of a product or feature. Sometimes they object to a lack of uniformity and vision in a product offering. Sometimes they are just ignorant about statistics, and have basic skepticism about generalizability and research. I’m happy to say that I think this has changed a great deal over the last 5 years. Nate Silver has done some good work in this area.  🙂

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? I see the relationship as fundamentally symbiotic.

Academics help practitioners in at least 4 ways (even setting aside direct collaboration, which is quite common nowadays): creating new methods, discovering findings in the lab that can then be applied, creating new theories from which to base products on (e.g. Goffman’s work on self presentation and different identities could affect the sharing model in social networks), and giving a sense of context and history. The last one is particularly important for various techno-utopists out there who think that they can use technology to fundamentally alter social relations without considering the results of previous attempts to do just that.

Practitioners help academics as well; they provide lots of data and invent useful technology. Have decision scientists and psychologists started thinking yet about what Google Glass will do to transform research? Imagine field studies were you could record what the subject is seeing when they make their choice? Or think about what the second screen could offer in terms of real time experience sampling or extra information to alter a choice. The possibilities are endless. Finally, and most obviously, practitioners often have access to lots of money… which is helpful, I’m told.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? Three things:

1. Come talk to me. 🙂

2. Learn some programming. R, then SQL, then Python, or some other scripting language. The more programming you learn the higher up the food chain you can go. If you know a lot of programming, you aren’t limited by what data exists, but only by what data you can create. This is hugely empowering, and increases your impact considerably. However, if all you learn is R, that is still incredibly useful,and will still get you into a variety of jobs.

3. Be curious! So many useful insights come from a broader curiosity about the world. This applies to both academic and worldly knowledge. Very random papers have led me to business/product insights. Similarly, keeping curious about what’s going on in the world is what enabled me to get into technology in the first place. Keep learning!

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New series: Outside The Matrix

As if one new interview series wasn’t enough for March, we’re now kicking off a second one!

As much as you love research, you may feel like academia is not necessarily your place after all, or maybe you want to mix it with some applied work – but what else is out there? As we’ve seen from our first couple of In The Wild interviews, there are plenty of exciting opportunities for PhDs in the ‘real world’. 

But what does it really feel like to make the leap and go outside the parallel universe that is academia? What’s it like there? What skills does one need? And, most importantly, how does it compare to the academic world?

To answer some of those questions we’re speaking to people who changed gear after finishing their PhDs and moved into the commercial sector. First up we have Paul Litvak from Google – buckle up and read on!

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Research Heroes: Robert S. Wyer

This week on Research Heroes we have Robert S. Wyer who is visiting wyer croppedprofessor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In addition to having recently been cited as having published the greatest number of articles in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in the 30 years since its inception, he has received numerous awards, including 2011 Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society of Consumer Psychology, the 2008 Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, the 1998 Thomas M. Ostrom Award for Distinguished Contributions to Person Memory and Social Cognition, and the Alexandr von Humboldt Special Research Prize for Distinguished Scientists. His research interest span social information processing, including knowledge accessibility, comprehension, memory, social inference, the impact of affect on judgment and decisions, attitude formation and change, and consumer judgment and decision making.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… That I’d still be doing teaching and research at the age of 77.

I most admire academically… Bill McGuire, who is regarded by many (including myself) as the most influential social psychologist to ever emerge in our field, has been my role model since the early 1970s and continues to be. Bill is well recognized as the true “father of social information processing,” and his early work in isolating the different stages of processing that underlie the use of information in making judgments was the inspiration for my own work. There is no need here to document his numerous empirical and conceptual contributions to the field; his influence cuts across not only social psychology but also political science and consumer behavior. But his more intangible contributions to my career have been profound.

McGuire was an editor of JPSP during the early 1970s and is still recognized as one of the best journal editors the field has seen. His ability to identify the good things about a paper rather than the bad things, and then helping the author to realize the paper’s potential, served as a model that I tried to emulate in two editorships I have had.

But an anecdote may suffice to convey the impact that he has had on my career and many others’. I was a very naïve young psychologist back in 1968; almost 6 years past my Ph.D., I was still floundering, and wondered whether anyone had even read any of the work I had done, to say nothing of whether they cared about it. During this period of self-doubt, I submitted a paper to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that Bill handled as editor. I cannot recall his reactions to the paper itself. However, he undoubtedly called attention to several instances of conceptual and expository sloppiness, because I wrote back a note apologizing to him for putting him through the ordeal of evaluating it. I immediately received a response from Bill that made my day and, ultimately, my career. I cannot recall his exact words, but they were to the effect that he and others had “assumed” that I knew I was a good psychologist, and that it was only in this context that they bothered to take the time to “carp” about the things he had noted in his review. Leaving aside the fact that his earlier comments were hardly “carps,” this was the first time that anyone, let alone someone as eminent as Bill McGuire, had conveyed any interest whatsoever in anything I had done. His encouragement to me at this critical point in my career gave me the self-confidence to persist. Many years later, it still inspires me during times of disappointment and self-doubt. It is perhaps for this, more than anything else, that I am indebted to this remarkable psychologist and equally remarkable human being.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… This is hard to say. One project I’ve always liked, however, was one that had minimal influence on the field, and concerned emotional communication in married couples. Galen Bodenhausen, Lisa Gaelick, and I had couples discuss a problem they were having in their relationship and then, in later sessions, identified significant things that one another had said and rated the love and hostility the statements conveyed. Two interesting findings. Partners typically tried to reciprocate the feelings they perceived one another to convey. However, persons accurately perceived the hostility that their partners conveyed but were inaccurate in perceiving expressions of love. One implication of this, of course, is that hostility escalated over time.

The other interesting finding was that when a woman intended to convey a neutral emotion, her husband interpreted it as an expression of hostility, but when the man intended to convey a neutral emotion, his wife interpreted it as an indication of love. I’ve always liked this study, although it is quite different from most of the work I’ve done.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career… That’s also hard. I think that almost all research projects I’ve been involved in have been informative. My motivation to do research is to answer a question I think is interesting, and I pursue it until I have an answer that satisfies me personally, although perhaps not a journal editor.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research…. I don’t think it’s amazing but it’s memorable and repeats itself often—the experience of seeing graduate students’ excitement when they suddenly have a new insight into a phenomenon that they want to pursue. Witnessing this excitement and enthusiasm never ceases to be rewarding.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… My mind is a blank.

A research project I wish I had done… This may be a null set. I have always pursued whatever interests I and persons working with me have at the time.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be either a sportswriter or a jazz musician—areas I was excited about until my father convinced me I should go to college.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years.. No idea.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is to pursue their personal interests and to maintain the excitement about research that led them to get into the field in the first place. This is hard to do given the negativistic orientation that pervades journals these days. There is obviously nothing more discouraging than to do some research on a question that you are really interested in and come up with answers that you’re really excited about, only to submit it for publication and have it rejected because “it doesn’t make a contribution.” You have to have a thick skin and confidence in your own abilities and interests, and do NOT let journals dictate these interests.

I’ll close with a quote from Bill McGuire. After likening the search for knowledge to that of a boy who is lost in the woods, he continues:

“…if the empirical scientist is lost in a complex area, his pursuing the implications of any reasonable paradigm in a steady direction will probably led him to some ultimate clarification of the area. If instead he drops each theory as soon as the slightest negative evidence crops up, there results the danger that he will wander around in circles and not obtain any clarification. The researcher who keeps the faith and pursues his paradigm to ultimate enlightenment may find that there is a much better theory he could have chosen initially. But his persistence will also have demonstrated the truth of Blake’s proverb that “if the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” (McGuire, 1972, p. 138)

That says it all.

Departmental website

In The Wild: Rory Sutherland

Rory croppedNext in our series of decision making science In The Wild is Rory Sutherland, the Vice-Chairman of Ogilvy Group, one of the largest communications groups in the UK with 11 specialist companies ranging from PR, design, digital and advertising agencies. He’s the former president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in the UK, and a vocal advocate for the use of behavioural economics in social policy, marketing,  advertising and market research. He’s also the founder of their newest division, OgilvyChange, that combines the behavioural academic research with the communications expertise of Ogilvy Group. 

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? First of all, I should issue a disclaimer. I am not a researcher in the strict sense of the word: I have no qualifications in either psychology or economics – at university I was a Classicist. Today I occasionally describe myself as a Behavioural Science Impresario: one of my part-time jobs is to help make the best “real” behavioural scientists deservedly rich and famous. When Shlomo Benartzi’s tour-bus is overturned by screaming Japanese schoolgirls, I shall know I have succeeded.

But my main job is as Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather in the UK. You would think, wouldn’t you, that the advertising industry and marketing in general would be awash with behavioural scientists and psychologists – and to an extent this was true in the 1950s in the United States, the era of the early Mad Men episodes. (The line “Plink Plink Fizz” was written at the bidding of a psychologist who suggested that, if you could create a social norm around using two Alka Seltzer tablets at a time, sales would double. The de Beers line for engagement rings “How else can a month’s salary last a lifetime?” shows an obvious understanding of the concepts of anchoring and framing.)

But, for a number of reasons, these connections broke down. In part because the advertising industry became convulsed with fear over accusations of unconscious manipulation in response to books such as The Hidden Persuaders. It’s also fair to say that the social sciences “went a bit strange” in the same period: I imagine that for a social scientist in 1970 to get involved with commerce might have been career suicide – perhaps it still is. But however noble the motives may have been for social scientists in distancing themselves from commerce, the net result was catastrophic, since their departure cleared a space for neo-classical economists, with their psychologically blind models of human behaviour, to gain a stranglehold over business and government decision-making. Because these people appeared to use clever mathematics, they were accorded a level of influence they often did not deserve.

Richard Thaler makes this point very well. As he remarks, economists are generally hostile to monopolies, but they seem to have no problem at all with the monopolistic influence they themselves enjoy in influencing decision making. In particular their narrow, normative definition of “rationality” has often led to terrible decisions being made. Not least a complete fixation with financial incentives as the only means of encouraging behavioural change. I see my job now (and for the two earlier years  whenI was president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) as an attempt to break this stranglehold of naive economic thinking, and to help rebuild useful connections, in all directions, between the social sciences, business and policy making.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? I arrived at this field through first discovering economics. I think my first economics book was Robert H Frank’s “The Economic Naturalist”. I remain a huge fan of Frank’s: “The Darwin Economy” is a must read, especially for those prone to excessively Libertarian leanings. But, as I then read more about conventional economic thinking, in company with many devotees of the decision sciences, I found my reaction increasingly confused – “like watching your mother-in-law roll off a cliff in your new Jaguar” as one person defined “mixed feelings”. Yes, the models were elegant, the vocabulary and concepts were useful – but from my years in advertising and marketing it was abundantly clear that the theoretical people (“Econs” or “Homines Economici”) found in the models bore very little resemblance to anyone found in reality. Or anyone you’d actually like to meet, at any rate.

I was then and remain very interested in Darwinian Psychology. You don’t have to read much of this to realise that the theoretical race “homo economicus” would not be very successful as a social species. Without the propensity to punish free-riders, even at cost to themselves, without devices such as reciprocation, empathy and social copying, and without the feedback mechanism of reputation, they would rapidly disintegrate into psychopathy. A race of Vulcans would neither live long, nor would they prosper. Social rationality is very different from traditional, economic definitions of “rationality”.

When I discovered Behavioural Economics (and also Austrian School Economics, itself a great source of economic thinking which is not blind to human psychology), I found my mixed feelings about economics were resolved almost immediately. When I read about the Save More Tomorrow Pension, it was like a Road to Damascus moment. I had long believed that there was a missing link in the design of financial products, and here I had found it at last.

But to give economists their due, many have spotted the problems with their own field. If you need to understand why marketing and advertising (and reputation and brands) are important to the functioning of markets, Akerlof’s paper “The Market for Lemons” is essential reading. So too is his excellent and underread book “Identity Economics” written with Rachel Kranton. The problem is not with economics as practiced by great economists – it is the unquestioning adherence to the dumber assumptions of Basic Economics 101 as unthinkingly absorbed by the product of a thousand business schools.

You are particularly made aware of the pernicious influence of bad economics if you work in advertising. Even when advertising demonstrably works and is highly cost effective, people in finance and in the boards of companies don’t seem to like it very much. Since they have a mental model of the world in which everyone has perfect information, they have of course constructed in their heads a vision of the world in which marketing shouldn’t exist.

To a good decision scientist, a consumer preference for buying advertised brands is perfectly rational. The manufacturer knows more about his product than you do, almost by definition. Therefore the expensive act of advertising his own product is a reliable sign of his own confidence in it. It is like a racehorse owner betting heavily on his own horse. Why would it be “rational” to disregard valuable information of that kind?

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? I am almost insanely optimistic. I truly believe that “The Next Big Thing” is not a technology at all. Most progress in the developed world in this coming century – economic, social, hedonic – could in fact come from improvements in the social sciences. This is bigger than the Internet.

Will it ever be a perfect science? No, of course not. That attempt to model economic behaviour as though it were Newtonian physics was responsible for many past mistakes. This is closer to weather forecasting than to conventional physics as a science. But it is still a science and can still make progress like a science. And the great news is that we are starting from such a low base. If our ability to understand and predict human behaviour only improves by a few percent a decade, the benefits will be immense. And even a tiny reduction in misdirected effort (by abandoning daft, ineffectual sunk-cost-plagued endeavours such as the war on drugs or, at a more modest level, badly conceived choice-architectures in a new range of cars) all can be economically transformative. The British Government’s Behavioural Insight Team is a valuable first step in this – but it should be ten times bigger.

The problem we all face is “The physical fallacy”. All of us, even those the social sciences, have an innate bias where we are happier fixing problems with stuff, rather than with psychological solutions – building faster trains rather than putting wifi on existing trains, to use my oft cited example. But as Benjamin Franklin (no mean decision scientist himself) remarked “There are two ways of being happy: We must either diminish our wants or augment our means – either may do. The result is the same and it is for each man to decide for himself and to do that which happens to be easier.”

There is no reason to prefer one solution over than another simply because it involves solid matter rather than grey matter. This is an interesting area where the advertising industry and the environmental movement (rarely seen as natural bedfellows) sometimes find common ground. Intangible value is the best kind of value – since the materials needed to create it are not in short supply.

One other contribution the decision sciences and neuroscience can make to the commercial world is in questioning the sometimes excessive influence which market research (ie asking people to explain how they decide and what they want) has on business decision making. The insight that much of our decision-making is heuristic and instinctive, made by parts of the brain inaccessible to introspection, is of enormous importance in killing off the naive assumption that people can always tell you what they want.

How many great new ideas have been killed off because they failed in research? The Sony Walkman failed in research. Steve Jobs, interestingly, refused to research anything.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? Symbiotic.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? If you are talented, greedy, impatient and slightly slapdash, leave academia and come and work in business. Academia is much more rigorous than business – a single misplaced decimal point in a paper can kill your whole career. But we in business have one advantage. For an idea to succeed, it does not have to be perfect, it merely has to be less stupid than your competitors’ ideas. Academia can have its disadvantages: here’s John Tooby, the father of Darwinian Psychology, writing at Edge.org:

“Because intellectuals are densely networked in self-selecting groups whose members’ prestige is linked (for example, in disciplines, departments, theoretical schools, universities, foundations, media, political/moral movements, and other guilds), we incubate endless, self-serving elite superstitions, with baleful effects: Biofuel initiatives starve millions of the planet’s poorest. Economies around the world still apply epically costly Keynesian remedies despite the decisive falsification of Keynesian theory by the post-war boom (government spending was cut by 2/3, 10 million veterans dumped into the labor force, while Samuelson predicted “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced”). I personally have been astonished over the last four decades by the fierce resistance of the social sciences to abandoning the blank slate model in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is false. As Feynman pithily put it, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

Sciences can move at the speed of inference when individuals only need to consider logic and evidence. Yet sciences move glacially (Planck’s “funeral by funeral”) when the typical scientist, dependent for employment on a dense ingroup network, has to get the majority of her guild to acknowledge fundamental, embarrassing disciplinary errors. To get science systematically moving at the speed of inference—the key precondition to solving our other problems—we need to design our next generation scientific institutions to be more resistant to self-organizing collective delusions, by basing them on a fuller understanding of our evolved psychology.

Capitalism is in many ways rather nasty – it’s certainly far from perfect. But one virtue it does have over pure, government funded science is this: if you’re right and your peer-group is wrong, you may lose a fair bit of peer-group approval. But you do sometimes make enough money not to care.

One other piece of advice: do not feel that if you work in the advertising business you have to leave your morals at the door. You will be surprised, for a start, at how left wing many advertising people are.

Now I think it is only fair for all of us to acknowledge that it is possible to put the learnings of behavioural economics to evil ends – in displaying “only four seats left at this price” when there are in fact 28. But good brands do not do this. I would like to say that this is because they are noble endeavours deeply committed to the improvement of mankind, but in truth it is because they are afraid of being found out.

That’s one of the things that my Classical education taught me (through Plato’s story of Gyges and the ring). It’s mainly reputational paranoia that keeps us all honest. Great brands, built at prodigious expense over many years – are about the only thing that makes business (just about) work in the consumer interest (most of the time).

Reputational game theory. If I can encourage you to do work in any field, it’s that.

Website | Twitter | TED talk on behavioural economics

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Research Heroes: Frank Kardes

This week on Research Heroes we have Frank R. Kardes who is the Frank Kardes portraitDonald E. Weston Professor of Marketing at the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati.  He is a recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award of the Society for Consumer Psychology. His research focuses on omission neglect, inference, persuasion, judgment, and decision making, and he has published in many leading scientific journals Dr. Kardes is also a co-editor of Marketing Letters, former co-editor of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Advances in Consumer Research, and the Handbook of Consumer Psychology. 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… I wish someone had told me to get ready to have a lot of papers rejected. To have a lot of papers accepted, you must also have a lot of papers rejected.  Some of my best papers have been rejected and it’s often difficult to decide how to revise these papers and where to send them next.  Everyone also seems to think that the submission process gets easier with age and experience, but it actually gets harder because the reviewers are younger and they have different research interests and different methodological preferences.  Also, with age, distractions in the form of editorships, consulting projects, etc. increase.

I most admire academically… My hero is Robert S. Wyer, Jr., because he is the greatest social psychologist and the greatest consumer psychologist in the history of the fields.  He is the most prolific author in the history of social psychology and he has had the biggest ideas with the far-reaching implications (e.g.., information processing, accessibility effects, assimilation and contrast effects, on-line judgment vs. memory-based judgment).  He has also been a big help to me personally, and we have a new chapter coming out in the Handbook of Social Cognition and we’re working on several research projects.  

The best research project I have worked on during my career… I really like nearly all of my research projects.  One of my favorites is Deval, Mantel, Kardes, and Posavac (2013), which will appear in the April 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.  This article presents 8 experiments showing how and when a wide variety of marketing tactics succeed and when they backfire.  In each of the studies, success or failure depends critically on the naïve theories or assumptions that consumers use when interpreting marketing communications.  The same marketing messages can either succeed or fail depending on which naïve theories consumers use.  Importantly, most consumers have many naïve theories and they fail to recognize that some of these theories are contradictory.  We investigated commonly used naive theories like price signals quality,  promotions signal value, and technical information signals competence. 

The worst research project I have worked on during my career… I don’t think I regret any of my research projects.  I’ve had some projects that I thought were based on good ideas, but the data were weak.  Usually the quality of the data determines which journals I target.   I still don’t mind publishing occasionally in less prestigious journals.  Some of these projects were quite interesting, but the data were not particularly compelling.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… The project I learned the most from was my dissertation (Kardes 1988, Journal of Consumer Research).  This project demonstrated that it is better to omit conclusions from ads and let consumers draw their own conclusions when they are likely to think about the implications of the information presented in the ad.  When they are less thoughtful, it is better to present conclusions explicitly in the ads.  I was using primitive response latency equipment.  We didn’t have laptops back then.  Incidentally, on some of my earlier projects, I had to punch data on cards using a teletype.  One of my subjects told me that he was recently in a bad automobile accident and he suffered serious brain damage.  To my surprise, his data were the same as the other normal subjects.  This made me think that the dissertation ideas were even more generalizable than I had originally thought possible.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… I generated several dissertation research ideas before my advisor and I settled on one.  He advised me not to pursue one of my earlier ideas because he thought that it would be too difficult to run this study.  Many years later, I ran the study and it lead to one of my advisor’s favorite articles of mine (Kardes et al. 2001, Journal of Consumer Psychology).  This study shows that a long stream of arguments is a house of cards that falls when one argument is attacked.  However, when several independent sets of arguments imply the same conclusion, the conclusion is much more resistant to attack.

A research project I wish I had done… I usually pursue most of my ideas eventually, although I sometimes wait years.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… I’d probably be a sommelier or a chef.  I’m a wine connoisseur and a foodie. 

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… Bridging the gap between theory and practice.  Pressures to conduct applied research seem to increase every year, but without theory, the field of consumer psychology would be lost.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… Be persistent.  Everyone gets rejected.  Learn to write effectively.  Writing for academic journals is different from writing for any other outlet.

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Punam Keller Talks Field Studies: The PowerPoint

punam-590One of the most controversial topics in academic decision research (at least on the surface) is the use of field studies. Punam Keller, a veteran of field and laboratory works takes on this topic.

Punam Keller presents a nuanced view of when she believes the field adds to decision research in this PowerPoint presentation entitled: Celebrating the Absence of Fit:The Value of Field Research for Theory Development