In The Wild: Steve Tatham

15POG-UNCLASS-20121025-0125 Firmin Sword of Peace Presentaion at HMS PresidentThis week in In The Wild we’re featuring Commander Steve Tatham, a specialist in managing strategic communication and behavioural influence campaigns. He joined the Royal Navy in 1990 and has seen operational service in Sierra Leone (2000), Iraq (2003) and Afghanistan (2001-2013). His military appointments have included Command of 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group, Military Liaison Officer to the Joint Intelligence Committee’s Strategic Horizons Unit, exchange to New Zealand and a specialist research secondment to the UK Defence Academy.  Afloat he has served in HMS Illustrious, HMS Invincible and HMS Plover.  He holds both a PhD and MPhil in International Relations, the latter from St John’s College Cambridge, and is the author of two books: Losing Arab Hearts & Minds (2006) and Behavioural Conflict (2011).  In 2013 he co-founded the Influence Advisory Panel (www.x-iap.com), a forum to bring together the best academics and global practitioners of strategic influence. He leaves the Royal Navy in Spring 2014 to pursue a career in business.

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? In the military we change our postings about every two to three years. Up until February this year I was the Commanding Officer of 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group. Our role was to try and understand behaviours, exhibited and latent, amongst audiences in Helmand in Afghanistan. So for example we would try to understand why people might grow poppies or support the Taliban. In each case we would try to positively influence that behaviour – encourage them not to grow poppy, not to support the Taliban. Despite the groups name it was a big surprise when I took command to find there were no psychologists on the team! We had to very quickly understand some quite complex social science and start applying it on military operations. However one of the first things I did in command was to bring in a trained psychologist to help us in our work – and I sent them to Afghanistan to understand the problems we faced on the ground. Armed with our research our job was to provide the commander of British forces in Afghanistan with alternative solution to his particular day-to-day operational problems. Sometimes he would like them, sometimes he did not but we had a pretty good success rate which is why my unit was awarded the Firmin Sword of Peace – a prestigious award presented to the military unit who has done the most to help and support local communities on operations.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? I have been involved almost continuously in military operations in either Iraq or Afghanistan since the terrible events of 9/11in 2001. I became convinced very quickly that our biggest single problem was that we did not understand the people we were working with, for and sometimes against .. Afghans and Iraqis. I became really interested in why people chose to behave in specific ways – which we often would label as being irrational. Of course it was only irrational to us; to them their behaviour was invariably completely rational. So I began a bit of a journey to try and find why people behaved as they did and why we were not very good at understanding. That journey ended in my writing a PhD on the subject and co-authoring a book (Behavioural Conflict – Why Understanding People and Their Motivations Will Prove Decisive in Future conflict). People tell me I am now an ‘expert ‘ which is a terrible title to have as the subject is too broad and too complex for anyone to become truly expert. Besides, I always say that in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king!

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? I am absolutely fascinated by Target Audience Analysis.. The science of understanding people’s actions and motivations and then applying subtle influence interventions to make the bad good and the good better. I love the fact that the most obscure and counter intuitive interventions can often have profound effects. For example in South America the Colombian government wanted to increase the number of FARC rebels laying down their weapons and giving up violence. One of the ways they did it was by running trip wires on remote jungle paths that when triggered illuminated huge Christmas trees in the jungle with messages reminding the rebels that their loved ones missed them. The idea was that it would remind the rebels about the life they had left behind, their families, their religion and for what result – loneliness, fear and violence? And it worked.. Many rebels told government officials that the reason they had turned themselves in was because of the Christmas trees and feeling lonely at a very special time of year. People associate the armed forces with the application of controlled violence and of course ultimately that is what we are trained to do. But it is expensive and, of course, dangerous. I like the idea very much that we can use new and evolving science to achieve our objectives, perhaps even stop conflict happening in the first place, without resorting to conflict.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? What we do is way outside conventional military operations and is often not understood by our seniors. I am always having to try and sell to them the benefits of targeted influence campaigns and it can be a bit frustrating at times. One of the reasons for this is that results often take a long time to become apparent where as with conventional military weaponry you know pretty quickly what happened! However I am proud to say that I have had a hand in changing the British and NATO armed forces doctrine from an attitudinal outlook (i.e. if we can make people like us they will behave in a positive manner) to one that recognises that attitudes are very temporal and not really very good indicators of future behaviour.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? Well it’s tricky. We very much need that steady flow of new ideas and thinking but theory alone very often translates badly into actual practice on military operations so we need our researchers to have a very good understanding of what we actually do on the ground and the constraints that exist. Sometimes it can just be environmental issues – researchers may have no comprehension of what working in 50 degree temperatures in Helmand can be like and the effect it may have the programme that they have recommended. On other occasions it can be political or operational security constraints which will always trump theoretical research. That’s why when I was with 15(UK) PsyOps I made a point of sending one of our attached psychologists to Helmand to see what was going on. The rubber of theory often has a very bumpy ride on the Tarmac of reality! However it is absolutely vital that those ideas keep flowing through to us. We must remain upto date with the latest thinking, even if we cannot apply it immediately. We often say we are the best trained armed forces in the world and I think that is true – mind you I would say that wouldn’t I! – however training needs to be accompanied by good and continuous education. It’s a fast changing world out there; just look at what has happened in cyber space in the last ten years. We need people who understand the science and who are prepared to push its boundaries to help us keep abreast of it.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? That’s not such an easy question because research is not one of the armed forces key outputs – we are however consumers and there are a number of organisations that exist to support and help. So young researchers may want to look at careers in, for example, Defence Science Technology Laboratories (DSTL) who exist, as a government funded body across a range of departments and functions, to provide scientific support. We also work closely with the UK Defence Academy in Wiltshire and with Cranfield University – both of these organisations recruit researchers. Oh, and I can thoroughly recommend joining the Royal Navy too!

 Website | LinkedIn

All the profits from the book go to the charity Help For Heroes.

Advertisements

Research Heroes: Barbara Summers

barbara%20summersBarbara Summers is a Senior Lecturer in Decision Making at Leeds University Business School, UK, where she also serves as co-Director of the Centre for Decision Research. She has recently been elected to serve as President Elect of the European Association for Decision Making (EADM), and currently serves on the Society’s Board as Member at Large. Her research focuses on individual decision making from both cognitive and emotional perspectives, with application areas in health, marketing and pensions. Her work benefits from her previous commercial experience as Head of Systems Development at Equifax Europe UK.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career…… the advantages of walking and patience. Sometimes projects take a while to get going; you have an idea, but investigating it leads into slightly unfamiliar territory so you feel there is a lot of literature to get through. Or you might feel you have lots of bits of the puzzle but can’t see how they fit together. It’s human nature to want results quickly and to feel disheartened in these situations, but don’t – this sort of project can be the most interesting in the long run, so it’s worth being patient and working through it. I find the best way to trigger the “eureka” moment when the bits click into place is to stop thinking. Walking while not focusing on your thoughts or sleeping are really good ways to do this. The idea of sleeping on a problem usually works for me (and recharges your batteries).

I most admire academically… because…There are a lot of people, but the work of Kahneman and Tversky on Prospect Theory had the biggest effect on me. I had been doing work in another field and realized that this theory gave a better explanation of some data I had than the traditional explanations in the literature. I was converted and decided to investigate the area further – well worth it! There are many others as I explore different aspects of decision making, but this was the first.

The best research project I have worked on during my career…/the project that I am most proud of/ that has inspired me most….There are so many different ways a project can be best – and I have been lucky enough to have quite a range of experiences. Some projects broaden your ideas of how the world works (I feel this about the work I’m doing now on emotion), while others can produce real world impacts that are satisfying to see (I did work on a project producing decision aids for patients, for example, and another project helped a company predict and respond to customer needs better). Some projects can just be a good experience in terms of getting to know others. I try to see the best in all of them.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…/the one project that I should never had done…If you are doing research then some projects are not going to work. You might not get the results you want, you might even get results that prove you wrong. It’s frustrating, but most projects have some value in the longer term. The bad ones are ones you don’t enjoy working on.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….… is always the bit where the predicted results happen – I get a real buzz every time, because you now understand the world a little better.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…I used to be involved in organizing a professional conference (while an academic) and there was a project that needed real managers to take part in the research. I suggested we might use the future delegates for the conference, and we could give a talk on the results in my session in exchange for their participation. The project was trying to identify ways in which professional managers’ decisions in a particular field (to do with corporate failure/ creditworthiness) demonstrated expertise, and to make it more interesting we also got groups of lecturers who taught techniques for making similar decisions, and their students, along with a group of lay people to provide a comparison. The professional society helped us distribute the questionnaires and we put the talk in the program. Then the results came in. Lecturers and students generally performed better than the professional managers on the tasks, and in fact the managers were barely better than lay people (who really knew nothing about the subject area). Welcome to the conference talk from Hell – we had to stand up and tell people (who paid to be there) that they were hopeless at a job related task!

In the end things were not so bad. The obvious “How can this have happened?” response gave way to an investigation of how the task (which the managers thought was important) fitted into their role as a whole, and led to an understanding that their real expertise was not in getting the right answer in the first place, but in managing the relationship with the company they assessed for credit as it developed (so these skills made more difference). We even managed to get a laugh when we gave the talk! I probably have told this to some people, so apologies if you heard it before…

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…I’ve not given up yet on any project I wish I’d done yet. If I still wish I’d done it, I still hope to manage it. Sometimes things drop off the list because I realise they won’t do what I want, but that’s it.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be……probably back (or still) in the commercial world. I spent a lot of time in Business Analyst type roles doing quite a lot of greenfield development projects, where the company was moving into new territory or the client wanted to do something but didn’t have anything in place. These have quite a lot in common with research, certainly in the thinking process, so are fun. Some of the ones I was involved in were international joint ventures, so I got some chance to travel and see other perspectives. Not quite as much fun as academia, but still fun.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years…Getting the real world more widely engaged. We’ve had a burst of interest in behavioral work in the UK, with the government setting up a Nudge unit. There are however a lot of fields where more behavioral aspects could give real benefits in solving real world problems (like helping people make informed decisions), and in benefitting business too. Students who’ve taken the Management Decision Making course run by our centre regularly report how useful it is in their careers from interview stage on, giving them a perspective on avoiding pitfalls in decision making (I wish I had done it before being a manager myself!). I see many opportunities, but we need to keep up momentum to get there.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is…Enjoy what you do – you do better on projects that catch your imagination. Make contacts and work with others – ideas develop faster with more than one person thinking about them. Establish what you need to get to where you want to be. When I got my first lecturing post the Dean of my School gave me a list of promotion criteria for the next grade up and told me to start ticking them off as soon as possible. I found this really helpful in getting established, as someone moving across from industry, but I think it would have helped anyway. If you’re in this position, I wish you all the success in the world and have great time – academia is a great job.

Departmental website

Four Academic Writing Lessons From Man of Steel (Spoiler Free)

Despite a fewman of steel yo original and cool looking moments, the Man of Steel was a lesson in poor storytelling. Given that Professor Jim Bettman often lectures about how writing an academic paper is like writing a story, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the failures of the Man of Steel.

Here are four ways in which Man of Steel failed, and four pieces of advice from esteemed professors that can help your next paper so you don’t make the same mistakes.

#4 Stick With One Theme

louis better

Jim Bettman advises students that academic writers should tell a consistent straightforward story. Importantly, academic papers should be focused on a clear theme and make the theoretical contribution explicit and clear.

Man of Steel chose a different direction. Instead of choosing one theme, it tried to cram in truth, faith, the (un)willingness to take a life, fate, genetics, sacrifice, and family and ultimately failed to say anything valuable about any of them.

Similarly, Mike Norton tells students that when giving a presentation, audience members will tend to remember one image or idea. Accordingly, he proposes that presenters should try to repeatedly make their central picture the focus of the presentation. He often says, “leave them with one image.”

Bettman further advised that, when writing a paper, you should tell readers what you are going to tell them, then tell them it, and then tell them what you’ve told them.

#3 Keep It Linear

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 11.51.07 PM 

Bettman also argues that academic papers need to be kept in a linear format. He explains that an academic paper is not a mystery story and not a story with many subplots.

Man of Steel explored a nonlinear story line. It’s a format that has benefitted a few movies (and maybe a research paper or two), but in general it only works for special cases (e.g. Momento).

Most of the time nonlinear storytelling can distract from the main thrust of the papers, put cognitive load on viewers, and lose the emotional impact of each moment. Bettman’s advice won’t make your paper into the best drama ever, but it give your paper clear communication, and that’s the goal of science writing.

#2 Keep the Immediate Introduction Short

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 11.51.37 PM

Peter McGraw recently challenged Daryl Bem’s “hour glass style” in a blog post about how papers should start with a straightforward explanation of the research puzzle and findings.

Unlike Peter McGraw’s papers, Man of Steel started with a lengthy introduction that was completely detached from the main plot. The movie spent 20 minutes on Krypton before getting to the main story on earth. Though enjoyable, the introduction did not serve the core story of Clark Kent.

Many academic introductions often linger on points and citations that are completely irrelevant to the main point of the paper. This wastes readers’ time, distracts from the paper, and may make the findings look weak compared to the promise of the introduction.

Robert Cialdini suggests that young researchers should write papers that test against a competing conceptual hypothesis. Peter McGraw suggests something very similar in that the intro should first explain what has not been shown or a puzzle that needs be answered.

Peter McGraw argues that this brief overview of the puzzle is the best way to begin. Anyone following this strategy will be in good company—for instance these researchers and this paper you might have heard of used Peter McGraw’s “explain the puzzle” intro strategy.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.

Expected utility theory has dominated the analysis of decision making under risk. It has been generally accepted as a normative model of rational choice [24], and widely applied as a descriptive model of economic behavior, e.g. [15, 4]. Thus, it is assumed that all reasonable people would wish to obey the axioms of the theory [47, 36], and that most people actually do, most of the time. The present paper describes several classes of choice problems in which preferences systematically violate the axioms of expected utility theory. In the light of these observations we argue that utility theory, as it is commonly interpreted and applied, is not an adequate descriptive model and we propose an alternative account of choice under risk.

For more on Peter McGraw’s puzzle method visit his blog post here.

#1 End With Substance

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 11.52.38 PM

Dan Ariely advises students to make the conclusion offer something substantial.

Many people use the general discussion section to hand wave counter explanations, awkwardly propose real world implications, or mention limitations that are obvious but provide no insight on how to deal with those limitations. The sentence, “We only ran these experiments on college students, so our findings remain limited” wastes a reader’s time. If included, the sentence should be followed by hypotheses about how and why other populations might differ.

Man of Steel offered a completely unsubstantial conclusion. It comprised 30 minutes of senseless punches without any real progression in the plot or in the main characters. Compare that to the The Avengers in which the ending features the characters finally working together, the revelation of Hulk’s angry secret, Tony Stark finally behaving selflessly, and a great look at the future directions of Marvel’s “phase two” with the revelation of the supervillain Thanos and the hypothesis that the Avengers will reunite.

Papers can adopt The Avengers’ strategy and talk about a few (not more than three) future directions in depth, comment on how the findings illuminates or synthesizes theory, or try to build toward future theoretical advances rather than simply saying “if it were applied in this different setting it would probably also work.”

Conclusion

Man of Steel had some great lines and some flashy “effects” (pun intended) but that is not enough to tell a great story. Academic writers can learn from this. And if someone passes these professors’ advice on to the crew of Man of Steel 2, maybe they can learn from it too.

Research Heroes: Ralph Hertwig

Hertwig_Ralph_RGB_WEB[1]This week’s Research Hero is Ralph Hertwig, the Director of the Center of Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. He received his PhD from the University of Konstanz in 1995. Before being recruited to take the prestigious role as a director at the Max Planck Institute, he was professor for cognitive and decision sciences and dean at the Department of Psychology, University of Basel. He has received many grants and awards such as Fellow of APS, and won the teacher of the year award for the Department of Psychology two years in a row. His research focuses on models of bounded rationality such as simple heuristics and on decisions from experience. He has co-authored two books, and written numerous articles in journals such as Psychological Science, Psychological Review and many more.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career…That to make it in academia you need more than the obvious skills—you also need the ability to juggle lots of projects, to multitask constantly, and to delay gratification. Not to mention plenty of perseverance and a thick skin for weathering all the rejections, which keep on coming no matter how advanced you are in your career…

I most admire academically… because…People whose writing I love, such as William James, Stephen Jay Gould, and Steven Pinker. For me, Egon Brunswik was also an extraordinary writer. Many people tell me his writing is difficult to decipher. But I have the feeling he thought very hard about each of his sentences and that each one conveys exactly what he wanted to express.

The best research project I have worked on during my career…/the project that I am most proud of/ that has inspired me most….I’m most proud of the research projects where I teamed up with somebody from another field or another school of thought and we were able to produce something I could never have come up with on my own. Those sorts of collaborations have resulted in papers that I still find interesting when I peruse them today—for instance, work on the different experimental cultures in psychology and economics (with Andreas Ortmann); how to link the ACT-R architecture and simple heuristics (with Lael Schooler), and how to model parental investment with a single heuristic (with Frank Sulloway and Jennifer Davis). I enjoy starting a project in an area about which I know little and going home every evening with the feeling of having learned something new.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…/the one project that I should never had done…I can’t think of a “worst” project. But I have a most difficult one. It was an “adversarial” collaboration with Danny Kahneman (and Barbara Mellers as arbiter). With the explicit goal of agreeing on designs that, no matter the results, would settle our disagreements, we exchanged many, many e-mails to hammer out the details of our joint studies—to no avail. The fickle deity of data thwarted all our plans: we just couldn’t agree on how to interpret the results. It was a painful process, but I’m glad that we could cordially agree to disagree and gained respect for one another along the way.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….My most amazing research experience was as a student, when I was doing an internship at a psychiatric research hospital. I had the idea of applying signal detection theory, which I’d just learned in class, to analyze an existing data set. It was the first time I wrote little statistical programs, and I was amazed that they worked and I could get the computer to do what I wanted… well, after a lot of trial-and-error and cursing. It made me so happy. Even more so when my advisor told me my fledgling analyses had produced some new findings. They led to my first published paper.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…If I ever had one, I’ve already forgotten it, so it can’t have been that great a story.

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…That would be a case study of Monica Lewinsky that never got off the ground. It was back in 2002. I was working at Columbia University (in Elke Weber’s lab), and a friend and I went to a public question-and-answer session that Monica Lewinsky gave at Cooper Union in Manhattan. I think we were all struck by how intelligent she seemed, how thoughtfully she related her experiences, and how plausible her answers appeared. In fact, we came away with the impression that there were two Monica Lewinskys—the one we’d just seen in person and the image the public had formed of her. And that got us thinking about research on the fundamental attribution error, which says we all tend to attribute other people’s behavior to personality while largely overlooking the situational factors. We thought Monica Lewinsky would make a fascinating case study of the fundamental attribution error, so we wrote her a letter—I recently came across it in my files—asking whether she’d be interested in talking to us….

Of course, the reason the case study never happened is that she never responded to our letter. We knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who was probably able to get the letter to her, so I do believe she received it. Who knows, if she had responded, the fundamental attribution effect might be known today as the Monica Lewinsky effect.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…A political scientist. I can talk politics with friends and family for hours on end (ask my wife).

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years…If I had to pick only one—and I believe there are quite a number—then it’s to work together to integrate our theories. It’s been said that psychologists treat theories like toothbrushes (no self-respecting person wants to use someone else’s). I think there’s a lot to that, and we need to change this.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is…To read to the right and left of psychology, and to discuss your ideas with everyone around you. In my experience, new ideas don’t simply come to you but often arise in conversations, while attending a talk, or over coffee with colleagues.

Departmental page

Research Heroes: Jay Edward Russo

RussoThis week’s Research Hero is Prof. Jay Edward Russo. Prof. Russo received his PhD in Cognitive Psychology from University of Michigan. He has been working at Cornell University since 1985, and holds the S.C. Johnson Family Professor of Management at the business school. He has also been on the Faculty of the University of Chicago, the University of California, San Diego as well as holding visiting positions at Bocconi University (Milan), Carnegie-Mellon, and Duke, and Penn (The Wharton School). Prof. Russo’s research focuses on managerial and consumer decision making and one of his most important contributions is the work in information distortion and process tracing methods. Prof. Russo has published extensively in prestigious journals as well as co-authoring Winning Decisions (2002) and Decision Traps (1989). He has been on the editorial boards of leading journals such as Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Psychological Science, and many more. He has also done consulting work for National Bureau of Federal Trade Commission, GTE Laboratories and General Motors Research Laboratories. 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career…Throughout your career, but especially prior to tenure, you will very likely be forced to make a tradeoff between good science and careerist tactics. A research topic that may contribute most to understanding J/DM may not be one that is currently well recognized and accepted by the field. The more novel the topic of one’s research, the more challenging will be its path to publication in journals, to grant support, and to other markers of acceptance by the field. The likelihood of lots of published papers is far greater if you work on currently accepted topics. You will need the publications, maybe many of them, to achieve careerist goals, especially tenure. The price to good science may be work that is incremental at best and “backfill” at worst.  I urge you to be fully aware of the tradeoffs that you make between better science and career advantage.

I most admire academically… because…
Herb Simon because he aimed so high as a scholar and as a citizen of his university and of the world at large– and because he was so successful as both scientist and a citizen.

The best research project I have worked on during my career…/the project that I am most proud of/ that has inspired me most….I stumbled on the phenomenon of decision makers’ distorting new information to support the currently leading alternative. I investigated this predecisional distortion of information for a decade or so, revealing some of its manifestations, boundaries, and consequences. One strategy for good science is to try to identify the underlying causes that explain why a phenomenon occurs, in the hope that even one of those causes may be fundamental enough to explain other phenomena as well. The attempt to explain predecisional distortion led to work that identified the goal of cognitive consistency as the main driver. This work relied on multiple methods, including some new to me (semantic priming and a lexical decision task) or simply new (in-progress assessment of goal activation). The result was unexpected and quite clear: only cognitive consistency caused information distortion, with alternative goals like saving effort playing no role at all. Subsequent work has confirmed that the goal of cognitive consistency is at least one driver of several other J/DM phenomena, thus validating the scientist’s strategy of seeking depth of explanation.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…/the one project that I should never had done…There is no one project that I regret. Rather my regret is working on too many projects, drawn to each one because it was so genuinely interesting. I probably should have focused on those that were both most interesting and most important.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….After so many decades of research (five), there are many experiences; but it is more categories than individual events that come to mind in responding to this question. For instance, when I was younger, it was a great pleasure to have a senior scholar whom I respected proffer kind words about my work. Now I have the pleasure of supporting young researchers, reminding them that it may take several good ideas to find one both worthwhile and feasible and to remember in their enthusiasm and impatience that science is slow.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…“There’s nothing new here.” These were the words of all three reviewers of one of the first submitted manuscripts on information distortion. Fortunately, each one identified a different well-known phenomenon of which information distortion was asserted to be merely another (unnecessary!) illustration. I do not recall the exact three, but early in this research stream the following were offered: attitude extremity/polarization, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, the desirability bias (wishful thinking), the halo effect, and the prior belief effect. Fortunately, the editor was sensitive to the unusual combination of reviewers’ complete agreement (“reject this manuscript”) and complete disagreement (“just another example of [three distinctly different phenomena]”). As a result, he gave me and my co-authors the chance to explain why there was, in fact, something new in the phenomenon of information distortion. The subsequent explanation was accepted, along with the manuscript. The lesson I took from this experience was how reviewers (which means most of us) can so naturally filter our judgments through our own lenses. The question that I ask myself is whether I have applied that lesson consistently when I evaluate others’ work. The answer: probably not, but I do keep trying.

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…I cannot claim to have no regrets whatsoever (that would be hubris), but none of them involve a research project that I regret not attempting.

If I weren’t doing this, I would be…Likely retired, an unpleasant thought. There is still tread left, so please don’t retire me.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years…One challenge is to encompass the growing breadth of J/DM phenomena and methods. Among the phenomena are those that are nonconscious, emotional, and contextual. Among the methods are those of neuroscience and of process tracing. In considering the opportunities and barriers to adopting these newer research topics and methods, I recall the observation that so often seems best to characterize a field’s response to such a situation, “We love progress; it’s change we hate”. My belief is that J/DM researchers, senior as well as junior, can master new methods and solve new problems. My hope is that more than a few will.

A second challenge is paradigmatic. J/DM emerged as a field by testing the optimal models of economics and statistics, especially EU and Bayesian updating. Violations of these models engendered the anomalies paradigm that has characterized J/DM for the last four decades. Let me suggest a challenge in the form of a question: what would J/DM look like if studied the way other higher-order psychological phenomena are approached, such as problem solving/reasoning and language comprehension? That is, what if we built theories of cognitive (and other) processes from process (and other) data, but without specifying optimal performance? Indeed, if we view behavior as driven by multiple goals not all of which are even conscious, can we really specify optimal performance? What if, instead, we viewed our subjects as adapting to the task environment that we scientists create in order to perform sufficiently well rather than optimally?  Great progress has been achieved in understanding how people read without the use of an optimal model of language comprehension. Might similar progress occur in J/DM by focusing less on how our observations compare to optimality criteria and more on the complexity of decision makers’ attempt to achieve multiple goals simultaneously?

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is…Learn how to select research problems, not just how to solve them.   Try to be strategic in how you approach your topics, colleagues, and journals.  Often I’ve seen a graduate student (or a credentialed researcher) happy just to find a candidate problem: “That would make a dissertation topic.” or “That could be publishable”. With my own students who are ready to find a dissertation problem, I ask them to identify three potential topics, to research each one for at least one week, and to evaluate their comparative merits. Then, and only then, do I want them to pick one.

Understand the J/DM paradigm in which you are working and think about whether a different one, maybe a newer one, might yield greater contributions to the field. Are input-output data sufficient, or would process data yield more insight? Is this the time or topic to bring in neuroscience? Should the analysis move from the attributes of the alternatives considered in a decision to the benefits that those attributes convey, or even to the goals that those benefits help to achieve? One of books that most influenced my graduate training is Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which focused on scientific paradigms. I still begin my doctoral seminar by asking students to read it.

Departmental page

In The Wild: Colin Strong

Colin Strong WebThis week in our practitioner series we’re featuring Colin Strong, managing director of the Technology division at global market research agency GfK in London. He first studied judgement and decision making in the late 80’s, looking at the way in which framing effects influenced propensity to wear seatbelts at a time when legislation was coming in.  Although at that point in time behavioural economics and decision making science was not on the agenda of the market research industry, it has been an important influence throughout his career. As the managing director for the technology division, he  is engaged across a broad range of issues that keep the division at the forefront of the market research industry with a particular focus on the way in which Big Data is providing the market research industry with significant new challenges and opportunities.  GfK UK has also recently set up a partnership with City University to develop the way in which behavioural economics can be used to throw new light on complex consumer issues which mainstream market research techniques cannot always answer. The team is increasingly looking at connections between these disciplines, exploring the way in which behavioural economics can be applied to the Big Data agenda to generate new insights for businesses to leverage.

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? I work as MD of the Technology division within GfK, working with a team exploring a wide range of consumer (and b2b) issues for our tech clients.  The category is hugely interesting to work in from a decision making perspective, not only because it is rapidly evolving but also because decisions tend to be fairly infrequent.  So you are only deciding which device to purchase once every year at most unlike in FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) where the same decision is repeated sometimes daily. 

As far as I am concerned, decision making psychology can infuse pretty much everything that we do – there is always an angle that has something to offer to the client’s brief.  It’s a matter of thinking creatively about how to respond to the brief and having access to some good people who have a familiarity with the psychology literature. 

Whilst market research approaches have proved themselves to be incredibly useful in tackling business issues, I find that decision making psychology almosy always gives a fresh perspective and challenges all parties to look at the issues in a new way.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? I first became interested in this area years ago as psychology undergraduate,  A fresh faced Peter Ayton taught a course on Judgment and Decision Making and I did my final year dissertation on framing effects relating to seat belt usage (seat belt legislation had recently been passed).

This being the late eighties I then wanted to find a job in business and after a few blind alleys started working in market research.  I was somewhat surprised at the time that market research did not make use of the decision making literature or indeed consider using experimental design as part of its repertoire.  Over the last five years the area has obviously come into the mainstream and it is more accepted to integrate into a commercial context.

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? My dad used to say that anything is interesting if you look at it long enough.  I used to think about that when I was doing long hours managing my first project at GfK (or NOP as it was then) which was possibly the driest project in the agency – b2b market sizing of the telecoms market.  Many groaned at what they considered my misfortune but I was ridiculously enthusiastic about the challenges that were in front of me.

And I think the same for decision making psychology – it’s all pretty exciting and useful stuff.  If we think as market researchers we are interested in the way people make decisions then nothing is really off bounds.  Some areas may be harder to sell than others but that’s simply because we have not always properly assimilated the learnings, worked out the benefits and considered how to communicate them effectively.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? In my experience a lot of people are interested in this area and can see the relevance but it can be a challenge to find the time to properly integrate it into the day job.  And it is only by integrating it into our other work will it be successful as clients are not interested in spending money on ‘Behavioural Economics’ they want to spend money to fix a business issue.  I think too often the industry discusses Behavioural Economics as a ‘tool’ and not enough time is spent considering ways in which they can be applied to answer our clients’ business challenges.  I see our efforts within GfK as a long term project where we incrementally learn from our successes and failures rather than there being a small number of blindingly obvious opportunities.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? In a word, tricky. The career and personal motivations are often completely different so it takes a while to build up that mutual understanding and respect.  We are fortunate in having a strong relationship with City University where we are building a familiarity with the team there and each learning about the other’s needs and challenges.

Practitioners certainly find value from the academic literature that help to differentiate themselves in the market but need to have guides through the morass of academic papers.  Academics are keen to get involved in business and indeed government guidance is encouraging this.  So both sides are keen suitors it just needs time and patience to understand each other.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? The market research industry is an exciting place to be right now.  Businesses are desperate to find sources of competitive advantage in order to grow and research is well placed to offer this.  The explosion of Big Data provides us with new opportunities to monitor human activity in ways never previously imagined.  There is an increasing recognition of the need for bold thinking to generate fresh approaches using a variety of social science and humanities disciplines from psychology and sociology to geography and history.

So my advice?  Plunge into the work with an open mind, keeping an eye open for ways to bring in new approaches and thinking.  Be mindful about the way you do this – change is typically incremental – nobody wants to risk all their budget on a left field approach.  If you have a background in decision psychology then infuse this in the work you do but unless you get one of the very few jobs you can specialise, keep an open mind to other disciplines.  Some days I am just as enthusiastic about sociology.

Website | Blog | Twitter

Also from GfK NOP: Kiki Koutmeridou, behavioural economics researcher (Outside the Matrix series)

Research Heroes: Karl Halvor Teigen

TeigenGraduated as a psychologist from the University of Oslo in 1966, where he is now an emeritus professor in general psychology. He also held positions in cognitive psychology at the universities of Bergen and Tromsø (Norway) where he was for some years the northernmost professor of psychology in the world (until a colleague beat him with half a mile). He is a past president of EADM, and has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bergen. His main research interests concern probability judgments, including verbal probabilities, social cognition (counterfactual thinking), and the history of psychology.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… that I would have a career! I also wish I had been strongly encouraged to go abroad and to attend international conferences. Norwegian psychology at the time I graduated was quite provincial. In 1967 it was considered a big leap even to move from one Norwegian city (Oslo) to another (Bergen). It took me more than 15 years before I dared to step out on the international scene, so I now have to continue research far into senility to make up for those lost years.

I most admire academically … As a young student I came across “Chance, skill and luck” by John Cohen (Penguin books, 1960). I admired his studies of psychological probability which he combined with a rich historical perspective. In fact this was a book I would have liked to write myself. Later came Kahneman and Tversky who did similar studies even better, except leaving out the historical aspect. It is in such cases hard to distinguish between envy and admiration, but it has fortunately been shown that benign envy outperforms admiration (Van de Ven, Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2011), so I can confess my benign envy for a number of scholars inside and outside of our field. 

The best research project I have worked on during my career…/the project that I am most proud of/ that has inspired me most….Many years ago I became puzzled by the fact that newspaper articles about “lucky” people (with the exception of occasional lottery winners) almost invariably described accident victims. When I asked students to give autobiographical instances of their own luck, they produced similar, rather negative instances. Degrees of luck seemed to be almost completely determined by the discrepancy between what happened and what could have happened, that is, by close and worse counterfactuals. The closer and the worse they are, the luckier you feel. This issue has haunted me for years, partly because of its popular appeal (journalists love it), and partly because it can be linked to several other themes, like risk perception, counterfactual thinking, probability judgments, superstitions, and gratitude. But its main fascination resides in the observation that people seem to know it, through the stories they tell and the judgments they pass, yet our findings make them puzzled and surprised.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…/the one project that I should never had done…I once had to conduct a research project with students and decided to spare them for background reading by finding a topic that had never been experimentally investigated before. It turned out that nobody had at that time studied “sighing” in healthy adults (it had been studied in patients with panic disorder and in rats), so we had to invent our own “sigh-cology”, for instance by observing participants working on insoluble puzzles. They had to give up every new attempt, and they sighed. I wrote a paper which, to my surprise, was accepted for publication, but did not exactly revolutionize the (nonexistent) field. It would have remained a forgotten oddity, when I suddenly received an invitation to receive the Ig Nobel prize in psychology from Improbable Research “for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh”. So I had to go to Harvard for a parodical celebration of “research that makes people laugh and then think”. Or in our case: to make people think and then sigh.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….There have been several such experiences. Doing research often feels like trying to force open a door that appears to be slightly ajar. You have an idea, a theory, an intuition that you feel could work, but the door proves surprisingly resistant to all applications of the foot-in-the-door technique.  Then there are moments where the door simply needs a gentle push before swinging wide open. Such moments, when you get more than you asked for, are the researcher’s peak events. I experienced one almost 40 years ago when I first “discovered” that people consistently violated the 100% limit when estimating probabilities for several mutually exclusive alternatives. Again when I found that most people have to be unlucky to feel lucky, as described above; that they attach more confidence to specific (fallible) rather than to general (true) statements, that they think that events are more unlikely when they happen than when they do not occur, that negative outcomes are less surprising than equivalent positive ones, and several other robust paradoxes that seemingly defy common sense.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…Peter Ayton already told the story of the spider in Cambridge, which I can confirm (although we may disagree about the details).  I also experienced in Cambridge (same SPUDM meeting I believe) my most successful presentation; the audience seemed more attentive to what I had to say than ever before (or since), showing their keen interest with synchronized head movements to the right and to the left, following me like a bunch of hypnotized cobras. Only after the talk I discovered I had been standing in front of the projector, obstructing their view of the screen.

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…I am fascinated by the role chance plays in shaping our lives, from the small details that make our day amusing, to more momentous decisions about marriage and career. We once carried out a set of pilot interviews with colleagues, asking them about their choices of research themes. They seemed to believe in the idea of a recurrent theme, or common thread running through their professional life, but when we pushed it further back they typically responded: “It all began quite accidentally”.  We did not follow this up, for methodological, theoretical, and perhaps even philosophical reasons, but I wish there was a neat and tractable way to observe chance at work in real-life settings. Perhaps I will stumble over one, accidentally.

 If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…perhaps a historian – of ideas, or of art. But every time I have had a brief encounter with these fields I have thanked God that I belong to a discipline where one can do experimental work, not restrained by events already settled in a hazy past, and where hypotheses can actively be put to test. To indulge in my historical interests I have published quite a bit on the history of psychology.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… To disentangle the psychology of judgment from the psychology of decision making. These are in my opinion two overlapping themes rather than a single field. And even if I am strongly in favor the cross-disciplinary applications of JDM in economics, management, political science, medicine, and law, I feel it extremely important that it should keep and perhaps expand its psychological roots.

 My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… (1) Travel and seek new research environments; (2) realize that your freedom of choice concerning themes, ideas, theories, methods, and approaches is greater than you think; (3) listen to advice, so that you can disregard it on purpose, and have something to tell when Elina, Neda or their successor ask you, 20 years from now, what you had wished someone had told you at the beginning of your career (they did).

Departmental page