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.

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