Research Heroes: Barbara Mellers

BarbMProfessor Mellers is the 11th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor at Penn University. Her research examines how people develop beliefs, formulate preferences, and arrive at choices. She focuses  on why  people deviate from principles of rationality and how those deviations influence consumer choices and cooperative behavior. She is currently exploring how to elicit and aggregate probability judgments to arrive at the best possible predictions of uncertain events. She has authored over 100 articles and book chapters. She was a recipient of the Presidential Young Investigator Award and a past president of the Judgment and Decision Making Society.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career that all careers come to an end.  When I was young, I felt invincible, I thought I had all the time in the world. But reality caught up with me, and I have a different perspective now. Each research project might be the last, so each one should, at least in principle, be better than the one that went before it.

I most admire people who are clear thinkers, beautiful writers, big dreamers, and hard-core scientists. They work through the implications of their ideas and are their own worst critics. And they do it all in the most graceful and elegant way imaginable.

The best research project I have worked on during my careermight be the one I am doing now on human forecasting. This is a large and long-term project that gives me the opportunity to work with many talented people with wide ranging and diverse skills. This project reminds me of an onion; we keep pulling off layers and finding more layers to go. It gets better and better. 

The worst research project I have worked on during my careeris the last thing in the world I want to talk about.

The most amazing or memorable experiences when I am doing research….happen when I am surprised by the results of an experiment. I once did an adversarial collaboration with Hertwig and Kahneman, Kahneman described the process perfectly. When the data don’t turn out right, we suddenly gain 20 IQ points. Everything seems to make perfect sense in a brand new light that was completely obscure until that moment! Unfortunately, those IQ gains disappear when the surprise is over.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…is hard to imagine because there are always opportunities to tell stories. So I would never hold back on one that was worth telling.

A research project I wish I had done…is something I always thinking about.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be in doing science in another field, and the choice of which field to pursue is a difficult forecasting problem. It is hard to know what areas of science will be the most exciting twenty years from now. The best fields to work in are ones that are changing fast due to the synergy of several good ideas and ingenious technological innovations. Neuroscience, astronomy, and genetics are good examples.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years…is figuring out how we can make better judgments at individual, societal, and national levels. This goal applies to everything – medical decisions, career decisions, military decisions, romantic decisions, legal decisions, business decisions, policy decisions, and more. We need theories, but we also need to generate useful knowledge. That is the only reason why the public will listen.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is…replicate everything you do several times. The truth, however hard it is to accept, is what moves science in the right direction and leads to progress. Admit your uncertainties; you aren’t the only one who has them. Remember that you can’t praise people too much (yes, we really are that shallow!). And last but not least, when in doubt, give credit to others. Time usually sorts things out.

Departmental site: http://psychology.sas.upenn.edu/node/20474

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