Research Heroes: Peter Ayton

This week we’re featuring a Research Hero from the other side oP_AYTONf the Atlantic and moving over to the UK with professor Peter Ayton from City University London. After receiving his PhD from University College London, he joined City University faculty in 1992. He has also been a visiting Professor at the Anderson School of Business UCLA, Princeton and Carnegie-Mellon universities in the USA, as well as the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. His research tests the psychological theories of judgment and the mental strategies adopted for judging and deciding. He has also investigated issues in areas of human activity as diverse as legal, medical and transport judgement, and individual’s decisions about their personal well-being. His published books include ‘Subjective Probability’ and ‘Judgemental Forecasting’.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… that writing is a lot easier if you talk to someone – as many people as will listen – about what you are trying to write about before trying to put anything down. Writing is talking written down – but harder because, in the absence of the listener/reader it’s not so easy to see if your point is interesting or even getting across. And try and write all the time: somehow I often discover what I have to say in the actual process of writing – or talking.

For me research is a very social process. I know some people worry about having their ideas stolen, which I can’t help but feel is a mistake.  I’m very fond of computer pioneer Howard Aiken’s remark: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas; if your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats”.

I most admire academically… The first paper I read as a PhD student was Features of Similarity by Amos Tversky. Its brilliance, inventiveness and style – the final sentence left me in awe – had a huge impact on me. The feelings it inspired were like those from listening to fantastic music – not quite as intense as the first time I heard “I am the walrus” – but up there. I read more – of course the classic work with Kahneman – also the collaborations with others and became a fan. On the BBC’s long running radio show “Desert Island Discs” you have to imagine you are cast away with only 8 records for company.  If ever I’m a castaway on “Desert Island Psychology Papers” Tversky’s work will come with me.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… I really enjoy collaborative research and have been fortunate enough to have worked with lots of different people [curious how most academic papers – even those not necessitating a technical “team” – have more than one author – while almost all literary work is single authored]. Of course negotiating a consensual view with others is sometimes a challenge – but maybe that makes it better. For me they are each uniquely infused with the personalities of the people I worked with but it’s rather futile trying to pick out one as exceptional to the others.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…  It’s hardly for me to deny that I have worked on some fairly uninspiring projects but I can’t think of one I regret undertaking. Many led nowhere but that is the nature of research I think.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing 

Graham Greene letter

research… The Hollywood film biopic of my research career would be an excellent cure for insomnia – but there have been one or two episodes that stand out for me. One highlight was receiving a letter from the author Graham Greene. I had sent him a slightly whimsical piece I had written about what I fancied was a probability fallacy in his book “Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party” – and he replied! His reply was hardly an epic literary text but it thrilled me to bits.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… I spend a lot of time telling – usually re-telling – stories so I can hardly say I never had the chance. I have squirreled away a modest collection of poignant events with decision researchers that I ought to place on record at some point – like the time when I spilled a terrifyingly expensive glass of wine when out to dinner with Dick Thaler (around the time he wasn’t working on the mental accounting of wine consumption); the time I capsized in a canoe on the rapids with George Loewenstein and the time when, engrossed in a long conversation with Karl Halvor Teigen, I noticed a spider busily spinning a web connecting our noses. 

A research project I wish I had done… Foolishly I don’t eschew research projects that interest me – I am usually hopelessly over-stretched because I find it impossible to resist the temptation to investigate whatever looks worth a look. Consequently there are lots of “pending” projects I wish I had finished – but maybe they’ll emerge one day. Some of my papers were well over 10 years in the making… 

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… a very different, less fulfilled person. An enormous of my mental life is informed by contemplating JDM concepts. It more than makes up for the disappointment of not becoming a professional footballer.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… I could be wrong – I suspect throughout history many felt they lived at a critical juncture – but the phenomenal attention given to our field is a fantastic development that needs to be sustained and progressed.  At the risk of sounding like an old codger I do remember when the subject was a bit of a backwater. It has been growing throughout my lifetime but in the 10 years since Kahneman’s Nobel an array of popular books and the internet have made judgment & decision-making research (OK – “behavioral economics” to those who fear “psychology” turns off economists and their audience) a very hot topic among the chattering – and even the ruling – classes. Can we sustain this attention and claim a permanent and prominent role in determining public policy? I worry that recent research scandals will jeopardize progress, or that it will suffer from some sort of backlash when people find out we don’t know everything, but the potential for a real sea change looks enormous.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… At the  start of my PhD, I recall receiving lots of general advice from well-intentioned people and wondering how to implement it – e.g.: “Take risks”; “Focus on one clear question”. Both sound plausible but quite how do you do that – how do you even know if you are doing it?

Moreover, given what I now understand about psychology, I doubt I should trust my now-self to reliably recall my then-self and then validly diagnose what would have helped me. Are there indeed any gobbets of sagacious advice that would have made life easier? Surely, if there were real pearls of wisdom wouldn’t they be common knowledge?

I tell my students not to stress if things appear to be going badly – in fact I tell them I would be worried if they always told me things were going well. Research entails doing things you haven’t done before and if you haven’t done something before you often don’t do it that well; if things are going well maybe they aren’t really doing research at all… All those papers with calm rational accounts of elegant progress through an investigation don’t typically mention all the blind alleys, false dawns and stymied impasses that were suffered on the way. 

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One thought on “Research Heroes: Peter Ayton

  1. Pingback: In The Wild: Colin Strong | :InDecision:

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