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.

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