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.

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