Research Heroes: John T. Cacioppo

cacioppo low resThis week we’re featuring John T. Cacioppo, who is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor at The University of Chicago, the Director of the University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, and the Founding Director of the Arete Initiative of the Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories at the University of Chicago. He is also a past Editor of Psychophysiology, a former Associate Editor of Psychological Review, Perspectives on Psychological Science, and Social Neuroscience. While his main research interests lie in psychophysiology and social neuroscience, in decision making sciences he’s best known for his research with Richard Petty on attitudes and persuasion, and particularly the elaboration likelihood model as well as the need for cognition. He is also the co-author of a recent book “Loneliness: Human Nature and The Need For Social Connection” as well as a new psychology textbook

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… Pursue what you believe is important throughout your scientific career.  Listen to advice and feedback, and perhaps even think about it seriously, but ultimately your career decisions have to be owned by you.  For instance, contrary to the advice one often hears, teaching and mentoring students, fellows, and young faculty can be one of the real joys of a career in science.  By explaining one’s work to intelligent, receptive, and inquisitive students and colleagues, you can actually broaden and deepen your understanding of the work.  You should enjoy the opportunity to teach and work with some of the brightest, kindest, most gracious people, young and old, that you could ever hope to meet. 

I most admire academically… there are many I admire in academics – and in government (e.g., at the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, National Research Council) and scientific service (e.g., Association for Psychological Science, Association for the Advancement of Science)– because of the intelligence, integrity, perspicacity and commitment they bring to their profession.

The project that has inspired me most…. was the first project I did (because it changed my life).  I was an economics major in college and became convinced that human behavior was more complexly – and interestingly – determined than specified in rational choice theory, and that biological as well as situational/social factors influenced our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ways that were not entirely rational and not entirely accessible through introspection or casual observation.  The realization that the scientific method applied to social behavior could provide a means of discovering the laws underlying our observations was liberating.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career… I have no such project because I’ve learned as much (or more) from projects that have resulted in failures as I have from projects that have succeeded.  Good science is defined by the process, not by the outcome.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… There is no single experience that stands out because I am often in awe of the complexity and beauty of the structure and processes underlying the mind and behavior.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… Rich Petty and I were roommates in graduate school.  We painted the entire wall of one room blackboard paint, and we would spend hours and hours writing on this blackboard and arguing with one another.  At that time, people were looking for general laws of behavior. These long and often heated arguments led me to believe that human social behavior were more complexly determined than typically thought, and that which specific antecedent was operating depended on a host of variables including biological, developmental, dispositional, situational, and cultural factors.  The real task was not to identify the single factor responsible for a social behavior, but to specify the conditions under which each of a set of different factors or processes operated.

A research project I wish I had done…  We typically cannot socially isolate people to look at the effects of isolation on brain, biology, and behavior. Occasionally, though, people choose to go into socially isolated situations for an extended period of time without recognizing the full impact of such situations.  These “naturalistic experiments” hold a special allure to an experimentalist like me who is interested in social isolation and loneliness. For instance, I have been told that in northern Canada each summer, there are lookout towers in which individuals live to watch for forest fires.  The individuals who staff these lookouts live alone all summer, with little face to face contact with anyone.  The living conditions have been described as perfectly fine but much more isolating and lonely than people anticipate.  I wish we had the opportunity to do a naturalistic study, measuring the psychological (e.g., loneliness), behavioral (e.g., social Stroop, objective isolation, activity level, sleep salubrity), neural (e.g., MRI, baseline fMRI) neuroendocrinological (e.g., morning rise in cortisol), autonomic (e.g., vascular resistance, BP), and gene expression in new participants and matched controls while monitoring the use electronic connections including phone, Skype, and online social networking.  We have not yet done this study due to a lack of appropriate contacts in Canada and funding.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… I had been accepted to law school when I decided to go to graduate school, so it’s possible I would have been in law.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… the practice of integrity and patience.  Science can be the ultimate expression of human foresight, integrity, and cooperation, but it can also be an instrumental pursuit, complete with short-term thinking, biased judgment, and self-interested actions. A challenge facing science in the next 10 years is the battle between these different conceptions of science in the face of increasing competition and shrinking resources. Replicable facts are the precondition of worthwhile scientific theory. But science is more than the accumulation of facts, it is about unraveling their secret –specifying the mechanism underlying their occurrence. Major scientific advances may be remembered for a single study, but most such advances are the result of programs of meticulous, replicable programs of research.  A program of research makes it possible to parse a big research question into smaller, tractable series of questions, and to provide sufficient attention to the details in each study, from its conceptualization and execution to its analysis and interpretation, that the empirical results constitute replicable scientific facts upon which one can solidly build.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… Scientific theories are not personal possessions even if they are personal constructions. Theories are not delivered truths to be defended against all who express doubt, they are intellectual structures that we create with disciplined imagination to organize and explain a systematic body of evidence, and to help answer questions and solve problems to improve the world.  One’s ability to develop a coherent theoretical structure that explains a body of evidence is a measure of one’s cleverness, not the inherent veracity of the theory.  Play with ideas, feel free to be imaginative with ideas but always respect the data, consider alternative conceptualizations, search for the most useful, comprehensive, generative, parsimonious, and falsifiable formulations you can conceive.  And when you have succeeded, do it all over again.  Be serious and not at all serious about your science, at the same time, all the time.

And do not confuse effort with work.  People can spend a lot of effort on tasks that are not particularly productive.  Spending countless hours in the lab collecting data is not the same as advancing knowledge.  Insights and breakthroughs favor the prepared mind but spending a relaxing evening with friends and family, reading a novel, going for a stroll or run or bike ride, or getting a good night’s sleep can often contribute more to achieving that breakthrough than an endless slog at the benchtop or desktop.

Departmental website

Feature on loneliness in University of Chicago magazine


Inside the Black Box: Psychological Review

Psychological_Review-500x500Psychological Review, founded in 1894, is one of the most prominent journals in psychology today. Psychological Review focus on psychological theory and publishes papers that make important theoretical contributions to psychology. Associate Editor Prof. Susan Fiske helped us with more insight into the journal.

What makes you go “Wow!” or “Yuck!” when first read a submission? Clear statement of the argument in the title & abstract enable an immediate evaluation of an article’s contribution. It is amazing how often authors fail to be clear about their hypothesis and its significance.

What are the common mistakes people make when submitting/publishing? Failing to check whether the article is appropriate for that journal.

What are your best tips on how to successfully get published? Aha! Plus Evidence.  Good ideas, backed up by good science.

How can a young researcher become a reviewer? When is the best time during one’s PhD to start doing so? Participating in a grad-led journal club, reading and critiquing published articles. Telling one’s advisor that one would like some reviewing experience.  When asked, returning high quality, on time reviews.

What constitutes a good (i.e., well explained/written) review, from an editor’s standpoint? Or what makes one a good reviewer? Balanced, thoughtful, succinct.

How do you resolve conflicts when reviewers disagree? Reviewers often disagree because they are recruited for differing expertise. Editors must consider the inputs relative to the expertise and perspective of the reviewers.

What’s the best/worst way to react to a revise and resubmit, and worse, to a rejection? R&R needs to list, in a cover letter, each response to each suggestion, including to explain (rare) instances of decking to make certain changes.

Is there a paper you were sceptical about but turned out to be important one? Not that comes to mind.

As an editor, you get to read many papers and have an insight emerging trends, what are the emerging trends in research topics/methodologies? Interdisciplinary and global collaborations.

What are the biggest challenges for journals today? Maintaining humanity depute the volume.

Journal home page

More ‘Inside the Black Box’

Research Heroes: Dan Ariely

dan ariely

This week we’re proud to feature Dan Ariely who is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and the author of three New York Times bestsellers: Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.  He has also been featured in a number of popular TED Talk videos and he blogs regularly at his personal website

[The following is an abridged interview that was conducted verbally with Professor Ariely.]

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… I wish somebody had helped me figure out how to emphasize the process of enjoying writing. We do lots of writing and academic writing is restrictive and unfriendly so I really wish that somebody would have helped me find the joy in writing early on in my career.

For me this relates to another important topic: how do you enjoy the process of science to a higher degree? How do you look at the small nuances that happen and find joy in it? I think often people focus on the outcomes like getting papers published. The source of happiness should really be about the research itself, but I needed some help in enjoying the process of writing and communicating and that would have been a great help early on.

I most admire academically is George Loewenstein. I think George is an incredible thinker – I think of him as someone who sits and observes the world in a very keen and astute way. He also has a huge understanding of the literature and is able to ask new and interesting questions that connect what he sees and what we know and what we don’t know and come up with new observations. He starts with something that is about the real world outside and then connects it to an interesting theory and then develops it in a very nice way.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… is probably dishonesty, partly because I’ve worked on it more than any other particular topic. That’s part of it – my own investment in my own research. It is also important because I think it connects basic research with lots of policy implications. Often when we do experiments on decision-making we find out what people do badly which gives us opportunities to fix it. However, not all of these impact policy. But in the case of dishonesty, there are strong policy implications which I think are central to how we regulate banks and think about lobbying and all kinds of other things.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career or the one project that I should never had done… There’s probably a few of them, but there is one particular project on smart agents. The project was based on an interesting idea but then I had to learn Java and programming, and the amount of work that the project required was unbelievable – not just in terms of learning how to program but it was all based in simulation. Our field does not really appreciate simulations to a high degree, so I felt I learned something from it. However, the ratio of learning to effort was something that was not a reasonable exchange rate.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… Analyzing the data from a study we did in India. It was such a complex study and it took so much time and so much money. I think of analyzing data as almost a religious experience. Sadly, I don’t do it as much as I use to, but on that day I took a glass of wine and prepared the data set and created everything and started doing the analysis. When I do analysis I always start by looking at the means – I don’t care initially so much about statistical significance as I just want to see how things look like and want to see the patterns. That’s how I get my initial answer to the questions: was I right, was I wrong, and what’s going on? On this particular occasion it was really interesting because it was such complex data. Some of it worked as I expected which was great and some of it didn’t work as I expected which is also great because I learned something.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… I actually learned a lot about life in general from being a long-term patient in a burn department. I learned things about bandage removal, relations between people as well as feeling part of society and not feeling part of society. Many of those experience are hard to capture in an experiment because experiments are inherently simple: they are about a few conditions and don’t capture the complexity.

I’ve also written something that I posted on my blog about my life as burn patient and I actually wished we had an outlet for that stuff more: in medicine there are experiments and then there are case studies. Maybe in medicine they put too much value on case studies but I would like to do more of them. I actually tried to submit something to a journal as an ethnographic reflection but they said it did not follow their procedures and methods, and in some sense it is a shame because if you think of research as a collection of insights, it would be nice if we could include more insights, even ones that are not the standard academic ones that we know how to do in experiments.

A research project I wish I had done… For a long time I wanted to do research on productivity in the workplace as a function of different types of rewards: financial rewards, bonuses, kind words, paying with pizzas, group rewards, or whatever you could think of. I am getting closer – we are just starting to do a few, but there are many challenges.

On one hand compensation is main thing in business – it is the main line item for any business and yet we know so little about it. I would love to do experiments to with bonuses to CEOs and bankers and so on. I would settle for small bonuses as well with strong research practices. It’s is clearly something we need to study but the problem is that the people who are getting big bonuses don’t really want to know the answers. It’s definitely an important objective to figure how to do it and how to do it well, and in general how we do research on compensation.

 If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… Hard for me to say of course, but I have a deep love for biology. I sadly haven’t had enough time to study biology in the past few years, but I look at the advances in biology and molecular biology in particular and I am just amazed. That would have been one thing I would have loved to try to do. In another direction I would have loved to been architect as I think of them as designers of human interaction. Granted, not all architects but many are: they create the environment in which people live, and in that perspective I think they are like social scientist but in a particular domain. I would have loved to try that and have an impact on how people live.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… would be to understand the generality of the findings we have. We have lots of findings and different aspects and we have assumed for a long time that they would just carry over in different contexts and different occasions.

Of course, when we talk about the theory of mind or psychology, the context doesn’t have to be part of the theory, but as we get access to more people and more cultures, I think we’ll have to have a more nuanced understanding of our theories and we will have to learn to adjust them based on other intervening factors that might come from culture for example. We have been ignoring culture too much.

It has less to do with the theory and more to do with application: as we try to apply things and try to change human behavior, we will need to understand those nuances to a larger degree.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… research in general is a lonely long term endeavor. I think before you start with it, it is important to figure out exactly what you love doing – even if other people are not particularly in favor of and it is not particularly the hot topic of the day. I think that is less important – if it is something that you deeply care about, go for it, because at the end of the day the quality of the work is something that requires that thinking and investment over days and months and years and the only way to do it is to do something you really love.

Love first – suitable with the profession second.

Inside the Black Box: Journal of Behavioral Decision Making

JBDMThe Journal of Behavioral Decision Making is a multidisciplinary journal publishing original empirical reports, critical review papers, theoretical analyses and methodological contributions. The Journal also features book, software and decision aiding technique reviews, abstracts of important articles published elsewhere and teaching suggestions. The objective of the Journal is to present and stimulate behavioral research on decision making and to provide a forum for the evaluation of complementary, contrasting and conflicting perspectives. These perspectives include psychology, management science, sociology, political science and economics. Studies of behavioral decision making in naturalistic and applied settings are encouraged. Associate Editor Frank Yates gives us his insights into the journal.

What makes you go “Wow!” or “Yuck!” when first read a submission? Papers that surprise me because of their conclusions or even their topics are the ones that most often make me go “Wow!”  So do papers that exhibit different ways of thinking about old topics, ones that force me to say, “I’ve never seen this idea before.  That is so cool.“  I must also say that I love manuscripts that clearly point toward ways that people can decide better than they normally do.  And if the authors can complement their messages with concrete and elegant illustrations, that’s even better.

I can honestly say that I have never said “Yuck!” in response to a submission, even to myself.  I realize that virtually every submission I have ever seen represents the culmination of a huge investment by the authors.  I would feel guilty if I didn’t acknowledge that investment.  On the other hand, certain aspects of some submissions do make me groan (“Oh, no!”).  Papers that are weakly motivated tend to do that, especially ones that report the results of studies that I infer began with nothing more than: “I wonder what would happen if we tried this manipulation.”  Groans are also evoked by papers that are unnecessarily hard to read.  This happens, for instance, when papers are overly abstract or are too tedious and too long relative to the significance of their messages.

What are the common mistakes people make when submitting/publishing? Well, whatever actions produce the kinds of groans I just mentioned are good examples.  An especially common error that authors make is assuming that the reader appreciates and knows as much about their focal research problem as they do.  This makes their papers dull and impenetrable.  One way to avoid this is to simulate the journal reading experience in advance of submission.  That is, recruit friends and colleagues who are similar to the journal’s audience but are naïve to the topic.  Then ask them to review and discuss with you in detail their interpretations of your work.  You are virtually guaranteed to uncover misconceptions that will amaze you: “Really?  That’s what you thought I meant?”

What are your best tips on how to successfully get published? My first suggestion is to somehow choose to work on problems that are easy to convince people are interesting and important to solve, and then solve them.  Our field is like baseball, where an outstanding hitter fails 2/3 of the time.  That being the case, successful authors necessarily must be unusually energetic and well organized.  That is, they must always be working on several projects simultaneously.  Therefore, despite the low “hit rate,” they maintain a steady flow of results that are ready to submit for publication.  My second tip is to learn to view and use reviewers as one’s collaborators.  Typically, reviewers are among the most knowledgeable people in the world concerning an author’s focal problem.  So why not exploit the expertise underneath their comments to sharpen your writing, your thinking, and your next studies?

How are reviewers selected? My goal is to have every submission read critically and constructively by 2-4 people who know more about an author’s research problem and related topics than just about anyone else in the field.  Some of these people are likely to be on our editorial board.  Many others will have been authors of articles cited in the manuscript.  Because it is a multidisciplinary journal, at JBDM, we make a special effort to have at least two different specialties represented on every team of reviewers.

How can a young researcher become a reviewer? When is the best time during one’s PhD training to start doing so? In my view, the best time for a PhD student to start reviewing is after he or she has developed expertise and credibility in a particular area of research and therefore would have something useful to offer and to gain as a reviewer.  Having successfully published in that area is usually a safe indicator of such expertise.  At that point, the student might be well advised to write to editors of journals that publish work in the student’s area of specialization, volunteering to review occasional submissions on particular topics.  The response is likely to be immediate and positive, since editors are always on the lookout for good reviewers.

Since reviewing is hard work and takes time, why would (or should) a PhD student want to serve as a reviewer?  What exactly is there to gain from doing so?  One reward is the sense of contributing to the advancement of the field at its cutting edge.  But the main advantage is the unparalleled potential for learning and inspiration.  The author, reviewers, and action editor for a journal submission are essentially an especially exciting (and consequential) expert seminar on a topic of great interest to everyone involved.  Moreover, all the members are highly motivated to get things right.  The reviewers and editor work really hard to make sure that they do justice to the author’s contributions.  In addition, no one wants his or her comments to appear foolish to the rest of the group.  Finally, the review process often serves to spark new insights and research problems in the minds of all the participants—authors, reviewers, and editors.

What constitutes a good (i.e., well explained/written) review, from an editor’s standpoint? Or what makes one a good reviewer? Good reviews offer valid analyses of the author’s ideas, reasoning, and methods, answers to this question: “Is this legitimate?”  In addition, though, for the benefit of the author as well as the action editor, a good review also clearly explains how the reviewer arrived at his or her conclusions.  The best reviews also provide helpful suggestions and guidance, including useful references and even design ideas that might help settle key questions that have been left unresolved by the author’s current efforts.  And good reviews are never mean-spirited.

How do you resolve conflicts when reviewers disagree? Although it is tempting to do so, I never rely on a simple “vote count” among the reviewers.  Instead, I try to understand why the reviewers disagree.  In my experience, more often than not, reviewers only appear to disagree because they are focusing on different aspects of the author’s work.  This frequently occurs because the reviewers’ own research programs have different foci.  So, relying on the specifics of the reviewers’ analyses as well as my own reading of the manuscript, I arrive at summary conclusions about the sensible disposition of the submission—acceptance, revision and resubmission, or rejection.

What’s the best/worst way to react to a revise and resubmit, and worse, to a rejection? This is an exceptionally important issue.  My sense is that such reactions are often critical determinants of many people’s career paths.  I have known numerous researchers who seem to have found rejections so demoralizing that they eventually abandoned their research careers.  But I have also known several highly productive investigators whose success seemed largely traceable to how they dealt with the emotions evoked by negative feedback in the review process.  Three elements of their strategies seemed to stand out and perhaps deserve emulation:

#1: Expect reviewers to identify weaknesses in your work, and accept that as a good thing; you have the opportunity to benefit from their expertise.

#2: Don’t allow yourself to brood over negative comments, even rejections; instead, immediately start working on your next move, be it a revision, a clarifying follow-up study, or the abandonment of a now-recognized dead end.

#3: If and when you revise and resubmit, in your cover/response letter, make sure to respond—respectfully—to every major reviewer comment; reviewers simply hate being ignored.

Is there a paper you were skeptical about but it turned out being an important one? That’s a funny question.  There definitely have been a few such papers, and you have probably read them.  It clearly would be unwise for me to identify them, though.

I assume that you asked the question because you wonder why my initial appraisals of such papers were “off” and what can be done to try to reduce such mistakes, or at least their impact. One basis for misappraisals, which seems uncommon, is that reviewers and editors sometimes misjudge the technical quality of authors’ reasoning and methods.  Given human fallibility, occasional misjudgments like that are inevitable.  I recommend that authors maintain vigilance for such mistakes and call attention to them in cover/response letters for submissions of revisions—again, respectfully.  Another reason that editors occasionally underestimate manuscript potential is that some authors prove to be unusually good at making marked improvements from one revision to the next.  They are especially adept at building on reviewer and editor comments.  Cultivating that skill seems wise.

As an editor, you get to read many papers and thus have insight about emerging trends.  What are the emerging trends in research topics/methodologies? Perhaps the most obvious trend is toward studies that focus on biological underpinnings, or at least correlates, of overt decision behaviors.  Our field has also seen a noticeable, and perhaps surprising, uptick in efforts to understand the role of time in people’s decision making.  There has been a good bit of excitement about the involvement of emotions in decision making, too.  Yet another noticeable trend has been toward assessing and explaining individual differences in decision making character and quality.

What are the biggest challenges for journals today? In my view, two related challenges are at the top of the list. The first is the increased volume of journal submissions. The second is the need for good reviewers to read and respond to those submissions, thereby accelerating the advancement of the field.  The problem seems to be exacerbated by increasing institutional pressures on potential reviewers to perform other duties.

More ‘Inside the Black Box’

Research Heroes: George Wu

George Wu, professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth

This week we go back to our Research Hero series with George Wu, who is Professor of Behavioral Science at Booth School of Business, University of Chicago and has previously taught at Harvard Business School and Wharton. He was president of the Society for Judgement and Decision Making in 2011-12. Since the 1990s he has carried out research on reference points, goals, prospect theory, probability judgment, and negotiation. Those of us at the SJDM conference in 2012 may remember his entertaining president’s speech about marathon runners – in which he estimated the effort a runner exerts to stay just under a specific goal (such as 4 hours) to demonstrate that they experience  loss aversion, as predicted by prospect theory, when they miss the goal.

Professor Wu is also a keynote speaker at this week’s TIBER conference in Tilburg, Netherlands. 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… about judgment and decision making! I’m serious! I didn’t come to our field in a straightforward way. I majored in Applied Mathematics as an undergrad and then somehow landed a job as a decision analyst at Procter & Gamble out of college. Back then, I was fascinated by decision analysis and ended up getting a PhD in Decision Sciences (don’t look for the program; it doesn’t exist any more). At some point, I got hooked on JDM research, even though I didn’t know the field existed until I was almost done with my PhD.

I most admire academically… Howard Raiffa and Amos Tversky. Howard was my PhD advisor and is famous as the father of decision analysis. Among the things I learned from Howard: (1) how to think (start with the simplest possible problem that has some resemblance to the problem you are interested in, understand that, and only then move forward to something slightly more complicated); (2) the importance of great communication (if you haven’t read one of his books, do so); and (3) that one goal of decision research is to help people make better decisions. Amos Tversky is my other academic hero. His work was beautiful in the way that he blended psychological theorizing, empirical demonstrations, and mathematical modeling.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… My early work on the probability weighting function with Rich Gonzalez. As I noted, I came into the field in an unorthodox way. Our collaboration was so satisfying (to me at least) because we each had skills that the other one lacked but wanted to have. Back then, I didn’t know much psychology but was a reasonable modeler. Rich is a great psychologist and a very good modeler, but not as strong at modeling as I was. Our collaboration was so much fun because we were studying a topic of mutual interest and teaching each other lots of things along the way.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career… No comment. Please forgive me if you were a collaborator on this project.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research…. There are lots of amazing moments. In my satisfying projects, there are moments of clarity when you “get it.” And sometimes there’s that little buzz when you realize that you understand something that no one else does (at these moments, just don’t ask yourself whether anyone else cares). When I reread some of my old papers, I come across sentences or sections that remind me about all the things that I didn’t know before I started that project.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…If you want to tell a story, you’ll find a chance, whether or not the timing is appropriate.

A research project I wish I had done… I’m going to answer a related question. What research do I wish was done, though not necessarily by me? There are lots of hard and important questions that I wish we had better research on. For example, I tell my MBA students about the value of good decision making processes. But we don’t really know whether organizations that have better decision making processes make better decisions.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… Hopelessly bad at making decisions.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… During my Presidential Address at JDM last November (2012), I said that one of the field’s biggest challenge was understanding non-status quo reference points. I gave that talk just last year, and I don’t think anyone has figured it out over the last few months. It’s clear that reference points matter a lot, but the field doesn’t really have an empirical or psychological account of how reference points are formed and/or modified.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… I often think about a question that Drazen Prelec asked me when I was getting my PhD: “What article do you wish you had written?” I think it’s a really useful question for us all to answer, probably periodically throughout our career. I didn’t have an answer to that question then (or if I had one, it was a bad one). Today, I would choose Kahneman and Tversky’s (1979) Prospect Theory. Not because the paper has a measly 27,264 Google Scholar cites, but because I see that paper as a model in two regards. First, there is a craft and beauty in that paper. But there’s one more reason. A few years ago, I read a 1975 draft of prospect theory. Just about everything that we know about prospect theory today is in that manuscript (everything except the name; it was originally called “value theory”). But Kahneman and Tversky worked and reworked that paper. And the published version – empirical demonstrations, modeling, exposition, etc.- is just that much better.

So, my final bit of advice: take your time to get things right.


Meet the Editors: Neda

Neda Kerimi

Neda is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the department of Psychology, Harvard University after receiving her PhD from Stockholm University and a working at Uppsala University. Her research interests include decision-making, happiness, risk as well as human-computer interaction. She’s also the news editor for the European Association for Decision Making. Besides being a self-confessed technology geek, she loves useless facts and futurist science.

I’m working on InDecision because…Someone has to do it! Ever since my PhD studies I have been involved with different scientific societies, and I noticed that especially in JDM, a forum for early career researchers did not exist. In addition, there is just so much graduate programs or conferences can teach you. We wanted to create a forum where people can discuss the science itself and everything else that we all go through during our academic careers. We get so much satisfaction from running the blog that we have decided it’s well worth the time and energy.

I’m most passionate aboutKnowledge and people! I love learning, especially if it helps me to understand humans better. I have come to terms with the fact that I am a science geek in heart and soul (indeed, 90% of my conversations start “I read an article about a study…..”). In addition, I am passionate about understanding the core of human mind, whatever that may be. Don’t know if we will ever have a grand theory of the human mind but we are learning new things everyday. I am also passionate about how we can use knowledge and scientific progress for the greater good (more on that in upcoming future series).

At a conference, you’ll most likely find me in a session with key words like… Financial JDM, social JDM, and technology. More or less anything that can please my tech-geek and JDM-geek identities. For me conferences are not solely about the talks but also an opportunity to connect with new people and reconnect with those that I seldom see in person. So I might skip a few talks just to get the time to chat with an old friend or a new friend.

How I ended up doing research in this field… I started in IT and studied psychology alongside with my full-time job, but I soon realized I wanted to pursue my Phd in psychology. Being a bad decision maker (I couldn’t even decide where to eat lunch), it came naturally to me to immerse myself in the science of decision making. Fortunately, a PhD in the subject has actually made me a better decision maker. However, I can’t say how much of it should be credited to my PhD or to the fact that I have gained more experience in making decisions.

My personal research heroes are… so many that it is not worth mentioning names. For me, a research hero is more than someone who has come up with a ground-breaking theory – it’s also about the person. I have been incredibly lucky to meet so many people who, despite their fame and prominence, have taken the time to meet or chat with me, which I find hugely inspiring. I especially admire the many female researchers who lead the way for other women to progress in the field. The scientific community has traditionally been male-dominated, and I am pleased to see that is changing, and it is because of the excellent work than many female researchers do.

What I find most challenging is… not losing focus! I feel that research has become so much fiercer and competitive than before. The currency in our field is publications and citations and whether one get a job or a funding relies on the number of publications and citations (which I do not see as a good currency). I guess my challenge is to focus on what gets me going and not be affected by the stress and pressure that come with working in academia. Another challenge for me is to say no to projects. I get overly excited about everything that has to do with the human mind and science and want to run a project on it. It is a challenge, but I am getting better at it.

What I’d be doing if I wasn’t a researcher… I would most likely work with psychology or technology (maybe both?) in one way or another. I actually think more scientists should embark a career outside academia. We need to share the valuable knowledge and experience we have with also non-academics.


Other things to read:

Meet the Editors: Elina

A couple of days ago we posted a letter from us, the editors, promising to subject ourselves to the same kind of scrutiny as our interviewees during these past seven months. This week we’re introducing Elina and Neda, but in the next couple of months you will also get to meet our contributors and sub-editors. 

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Elina is a part-time Marketing PhD student at University of Turku (Finland). Her research focuses on consumer decision making strategies in cross-cultural contexts. She also leads a double life as the founding partner of The Irrational Agency, a London-based market research agency that uses behavioural economics and consumer psychology to advise companies on pricing strategy. 

I’m working on InDecision because… I had previously set up a similar blog for cross-cultural psychology students earlier and it was positively received so I thought something like that should exist for early career researchers in decision making psychology as well. In general, I’m passionate about promoting younger researchers because good ideas can come from anywhere, yet without accolades and years of experience under our belt it’s hard to get your voice heard. Our thinking creates the future of the field, so why not start showcasing it sooner?

We deliberately wanted to keep the scope of the blog broad as so many fields contribute to our understanding of how humans make decisions. While some might argue we should focus solely on judgment and decision-making or behavioural economics, similar research issues are also being addressed other fields. Research on motivation, persuasion, values, attitudes and culture as well as economics are all important so we wanted to include these areas as well – besides, as Jim Bettman says, good research is like “ideas having sex” so hopefully featuring the full spectrum we can help in “cross-fertilising” ideas.

I’m most passionate about… Bringing academia and industry closer together. Having worked in market research for years while keeping one foot in academia, I’ve long despaired over practitioners’ ignorance of the diversity of knowledge available within the scientific literature. At the same time, I’ve been equally surprised at the lack of engagement from marketing scholars in the world of business, which sometimes leads to work that is irrelevant to practitioners. Both worlds have their strengths and weaknesses, but if they learned from each other and worked together at least a little bit more… we’d all be better off. For industry, not every wheel needs to be reinvented nor all lessons need to be learned the hard way – asking an expert may save you a lot of money. For academia, industry could offer an opportunity to ground our work in real life, access to funds most of us chronically lack and, most importantly, a chance to make a difference!

At a conference you’ll most likely find me in a session with key words like… self-concept, narratives, identity, individual differences, culture, consumer, brands, heuristics, choice. My academic tastes are perhaps somewhat eclectic and I love the knowledge festival aspect of conferences – it’s probably what go me hooked into academia! Over time, the “fount of knowledge” novelty has given way to the anxiety brought on by presenting your own work, but I still enjoy learning new things and meeting new people. My research interests lie in understanding how the way we see ourselves affects the choices we make in life, as well as how one’s cultural context factors into the process. We’re story-tellers by nature, so what stories we tell ourselves about our lives must also affect the way we make decisions – that also filters how we see the choice environment. Perhaps focusing on what feels like the messy end of decision making is a bit hippieish (“we’re all different yet equal”) but that’s also what makes it so fascinating.

How I ended up doing research in this field… For cross-cultural psychology, my life-long interest in languages and the cultures they live in has always been in the background. However, the experience of living in other countries and trying to make sense of other cultures has made me realise that there is no one truth, no one way to look at the world – instead, what we see hugely depends on where we grew up, what language we speak and what we see as valuable in life. As might be the case for many of us in psychology, a lot of it is about trying to understand yourself through studying others. What part of me is my own personality, what part is the cultural context I grew up in? For decision making psychology, it’s also always been in the background, but my deeper immersion was kick-started by meeting my friend and business partner Leigh Caldwell, who opened up my eyes to a whole new world of behavioural economics and JDM. It felt like finding a long-lost treasure – I don’t know if I would’ve discovered it on my own so I’m forever grateful to him for introducing me to this field.

My personal research heroes are… many, but some stand out more prominently than others. Coming across the work on adaptive decision making by Bettman, Payne and Luce a year ago was equivalent to an epiphany – it made a huge impact on me. Because of my interest in cross-cultural research decision making, I’ve also been impressed by the work of Elke Weber and Chris Hsee in this area. However, my big research heroes lie in cross-cultural psychology: Hazel Markus and Richard Nisbett. Their work has been influential to my thinking and interest in the field. Finally, the work by Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan on the WEIRDness of psychology research is probably the most fascinating article I’ve ever read. While not everything is influenced by culture, without validating our findings in multiple cultural contexts I don’t believe we can claim them to be universally human – if even colour perception isn’t safe from it, how can anything else be?

What I find most challenging is… Finding a balance.  As a self-diagnosed infoholic, I’m drowning in papers and books I want to read. Every time I look up a paper I end up downloading three others because they look interesting so my laptop is buckling under the hundreds of papers I’ve vowed to read one day yet never have time for. This condition is exacerbated by the dual nature of my work: one the one hand there are papers I want to read for my own research, on the other my commercial work requires me to look for answers everywhere from social cognition to sensory marketing via partitioned presentation of multicomponent bundles. Sometimes I feel like a Swiss army knife with a small, handy tool to tinker with everything while not having enough leverage for anything big! Still, I feel incredibly lucky to combine my passions this way even if I’m perpetually feeling guilty about not knowing enough about the world.

What I’d be doing if I wasn’t a researcher… I really don’t know. Sadly, understanding what makes people tick is the one thing that really makes me tick, so I’d struggle to think of an alternative career. I’ve always loved animals so maybe I’d like to work with them, even though that’s still trying to figure out what goes inside their head…

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Letter from the editors

On the 3rd of January, we published the first post on InDecision. We had modest hopes for the blog: we thought maybe a couple of hundred people would read it. Seven months and 46,000 views later, we’ve had over 22,000 visitors from 147 countries – far beyond what we could have imagined. From the US and Europe to Eritrea, via Singapore, Korea, Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Mongolia – decision making science is everywhere.


In the past six months, we’ve featured 22 Research Heroes whose thoughts have been incredibly inspirational and encouraging to young researchers – we certainly feel privileged to always be the first ones to read the interviews. We’ve also brought in practitioners’ views on how the knowledge created in our field is being used in the sometimes obscure “Real World”, as well as looked at what life looks like when you leave academia after your PhD. 


All three have spoken about the importance of academics and practitioners working together, whether in form of more field studies or thinking about the wider implications of our research. At the same time, it seems clear that the relationship is not without its problems – lack of a common language, different incentives and goals as well as practicalities all present challenges for deeper engagement between the two worlds. From our part, we’ll continue to highlight stories from both sides of the fence, in the hope that we can at least some way bring the sides closer together.

Our vision for the blog remains unchanged: to create a platform for young researchers to talk about their work and reach audiences beyond the realm of academic conferences and journals. Not everyone will have their work featured in the New York Times, yet many of us early career researchers do fantastically interesting work that deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

valkotorniDespite the opportunity, it’s been challenging to persuade people to write in public – chronic lack of time means prioritising, and engaging with the world by writing for a blog is not yet hugely incentivised by the academic world, yet as researchers we’re increasingly faced with requests to demonstrate the relevance of our work. What better way to do that than by showing the world what we’re up to in our ivory towers?

The other challenge is that many young researchers don’t want to expose themselves in the run-up to entering the job market – writing in public is seen as a risky. “What if I don’t know everything and say the wrong thing? What if someone steals my research idea?” Writing about your work is also very personal, and it’s hard to put yourself out there. However, a couple of brave souls have stepped up, and in the next couple of months we’ll be seeing content curated by them on their area of expertise within decision making psychology. (If you’re reading this and want to get involved, drop us an email!)

At the same time, it wouldn’t be right for us to ask of others what we’re not willing to do ourselves, so in the next couple of posts you’ll get to meet us, the editors. We’ve been asking a lot of questions from everyone, yet not told you much about ourselves, so it’s time to subject ourselves to some scrutiny.

Even though we originally intended the blog for a purely academic audience, enthusiastic feedback from the outside world suggests there’s a lot of interest in our work. While we’ll try to balance content so that there is something for everyone, we want to remain true to our mission and serve the interests of young researchers in particular, so our latest interview series is focusing on the editors of different journals in the field of decision making science. (Practitioners – consider it a rare glimpse into our world and the laws that govern it!)

We hope that you continue to enjoy the blog and, as always, welcome your feedback on how we can make it even better.

Elina & Neda

Inside the Black Box: Frontiers in Psychology

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Next in our Inside the Black Box series is Frontiers in Psychology, an open access journal that aims at publishing the best research across the entire field of psychology. Frontiers in Psychology publishes articles on the most outstanding discoveries across the entire research spectrum of psychology. The mission of Frontiers in Psychology is to bring all relevant specialties in psychology together on a single platform. Field Chief Editor Axel Cleeremans gives us his insights into this journal.

What makes you go “Wow!” or “Yuck!” when first read a submission? I go “Yuck!” instantly if the paper looks like it’s poorly written, if the figures don’t look good (see Tufte’s advice on that), if it contains typos, or if looks very verbose or boring. There is an important message there: If you don’t fine-tune the presentation of your findings, it’s as good as nothing.

“Wow!” can result from different factors. Sometimes it’s the finding itself — for instance, I find Geraint Rees’s recent demonstration that one’s experience of the Ebbinghaus illusion is inversely proportional the size of one V1 stunning. Other times it’s the sheer power of technique — Bonhoeffer’s applying two-photon microscopy to visualize synaptic growth in vivo is a good example of that. The cleverness of an experimental design is a further “Wow!” inducer; Jacoby’s process dissociation procedure, when I first read about it, definitely elicited a “Wow!” response from me. And then of course, I go “Wow!” when reading about impressive ideas. Rumelhart and McClelland’s PDP volumes made we go “Wow!” for years, as did Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach”.

What are the common mistakes people make when submitting/publishing? Submitting to the wrong journal. Making the story too complicated. Not having any story. Reporting uninteresting findings. Reporting uninteresting findings but trying to make them sound interesting. Failing to cite relevant work from many years ago that old editors know about.  Leaving typos in the manuscript. Ugly figures.

What are your best tips on how to successfully get published? Work on the most important issue in your domain. Build a good narrative. Papers that read like detective stories (and finish with an satisfying resolution!) are always good. Get the writing absolutely perfect. Of course, interesting and solid data. Simplify. Kill all the typos. Cite previous work. All referees first look for flaws because if any are found then the review is done and the referee can focus on something else. It is only when no surface flaws are found that the referee actually thinks about whether the paper is interesting…

How are reviewers selected? That very much depends on the journal. Some editorial systems are almost entirely automated, which has advantages (speed) but also disadvantages (relevance). Some editors hand-pick their referees based on different criteria (mostly, whether they think they know something about the topic and whether they think they’ll compose their review in time). Many systems offer referee suggestions based on keyword matches. Authors can also often propose referees themselves. This is a good idea as it speeds up the work of the editor, who will typically select referees both from the author’s suggestions and from his own pool of referees.

How can a young researcher become a reviewer? When is the best time during one’s PhD to start doing so? I wouldn’t do it too quickly — say, three years in your Ph.D. Reviewing an article is an important and difficult job. It gets much easier as your knowledge of the field grows and as your expertise at reviewing increases, but the first reviews you do are always very intensive jobs. You worry that you’ll be ridiculous in the eyes of the editor and the other referees. You worry that you missed a central point. You’ll spend days on your first review. On the other hand, knowledge of what’s going on in your field before it gets published can be invaluable — but for this, you can count on your advisor.

What constitutes a good (i.e., well explained/written) review, from an editor’s standpoint? Or what makes one a good reviewer? A good reviewer is a reviewer who turns in her review in time and who manages to discuss the paper from a neutral tone while clearly listing the issues that concern her, if any. And of course: Good reviews also contain a clear recommendation that is congruent with the listed points. Sometimes you get almost self-contradictory reviews. They begin by “This is a very interesting paper that uses clever methods” and finishes by “I recommend the paper be rejected”. This makes it almost impossible for an editor to use the review, as do reviews that contain too many subjective comments. Reviews should almost be written as though they were public comments, that is, with all the care one would use if one were talking in public about someone else’s work.

How do you resolve conflicts when reviewers disagree? That’s a tough one. I regularly receive conflicting reports, sometimes at either end of the spectrum (i.e. Referee #1 says “Reject”; Referee #2 says “Accept without revisions”). If both reports make sense (that is, it is clear both referees understood the paper), most typically, I will consult a third referee (which sometimes doesn’t help). When all else fails, you read the paper and make the decision yourself… (just kidding: editors read the papers, but then there is a difference between reading a paper and forming an expert opinion about it). It is worth mentioning here that some open access journals (i.e. Frontiers in Psychology) have adopted a completely different manner of resolving differences between referees, namely to ask referees and authors to interact until a consensus between referees is reached. Many conflicts between referees are solvable by iterated interaction — something that can be tough to achieve with the standard reviewing process.

What’s the best/worst way to react to a revise and resubmit, and worse, to a rejection? Revise and resubmit is pretty much the norm — it is exceptionally rare for a paper to be accepted right away. Dealing with rejection is understandably difficult. Your reaction to it very much depends on what you can attribute the rejection to. Being rejected from Science is not an indication that your research is not good; just that it’s not good enough, or not novel enough, or not interesting enough in the eyes of Science’s editors. You may think otherwise and feel wronged somehow, but it’s not your decision to make in either case, so it’s best to move on and submit to another journal. The worst case scenario is when you submit to a mediocre journal, wait for months, and find that your paper is rejected. If you really feel a “reject” decision was incorrect, it’s always a good idea to interact with the editor. As an editor, I only use “reject” when all referees agree that the paper is not publishable. Dealing with a revise and resubmit is easy: Just address all the points raised by the referees one by one and thoroughly. In the vast majority of cases, papers in that category will end up published;  it’s just a matter of taking all the points seriously and in detail.

Is there a paper you were skeptical about but turned out to be important one? Not that I can remember as an editor. A couple of my own papers as an author, though, had very difficult beginnings and turned out to be considered as quite important. Science is about data, but also involves rhetoric: Not only do the data have to be important, but you also have to present the results and their implications in a persuasive manner.

As an Editor, you get to read many papers and have an insight emerging trends, what are the emerging trends in research topics/methodologies? There is an important ongoing discussion on twitter, blogs, facebook, email and the press about the importance of replication in psychology. Developing methods that make it possible to analyze replication efforts properly, as well as promoting the publication of replication findings, are important issues. One of the most interesting methodological developments in this respect is the emergence of novel statistics based on Bayes’ ideas. I also continue to be impressed with the increased sophistication of neuroimaging methods — think MPVA for instance. Increased meta-data in all fields will also make all sorts of meta-analyses possible.

What are the biggest challenges for journals today? The challenges are not the same for traditional journals and for new, online, typically open-access journals. Some journals are more or less immune from challenges because of their extraordinary status in the field. The challenge for traditional journals is to stay relevant in an increasingly open-access, rapid-fire world: Interesting results are tweeted or otherwise shared almost instantly, and people want to download the relevant material freely and right away. The challenge for open-access journals is to accrue enough credibility. A challenge that faces every actor today, individuals and journals alike, is to find interesting ways of attracting attention. So much is published today (considerably more than even a few years ago) that it becomes a challenge to even find relevant material.

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