Research Heroes: Shlomo Benartzi

20110427_1192As one of the last posts this year, we’re featuring our 28th Research Hero: professor Shlomo Benartzi from UCLA Anderson School of Management, a leading authority on behavioral finance with a special interest in household finance and participant behavior in retirement savings plans. His most significant research contribution is the co-development of Save More Tomorrow (with Richard Thaler), a behavioral prescription designed to help employees increase their savings rates gradually over time. Professor Benartzi has also supplemented his academic research with both policy work and practical experience through advising government agencies in the U.S. and abroad as well as helping to craft numerous legislative efforts and pension reforms.  In addition, he has also worked with many financial institutions as an academic advisor. His latest initiative is Digitai.org where he’s exploring new digital interventions that will help consumers, businesses and policymakers leverage behavioral research. 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… that you should only do research you are really passionate about. Research often requires years and years of sustained effort, so unless you have a passion for these ideas, then you will almost certainly give up. (It’s like a marriage in that sense.) There’s also something magical that happens when you are passionate about the research. Not only is the work more fun, but it somehow gets published. Don’t ask me how it happens.

I most admire academically… I’m going to cheat and give you three names. The first person is Danny Kahneman. Not only is he super brilliant, but he’s also very insightful about questions outside his area of expertise. He never gives in to pressure, and always does what he thinks is right academically. Richard Thaler I admire for the diversity of his research program, and also his ability to see the big picture. John Payne is incredibly humble, yet an unusually deep thinker.

The project that I’m most proud of is… Save More Tomorrow, a little idea Thaler and I came up with that led more than 4 million people to double their savings rate. We weren’t particularly brilliant, but we were persistent and with a bit of luck we made a big difference.

The one project that I should never had done… I’m still trying to forget that.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… I was salsa dancing at the boathouse in Santa Monica and chatted with my friend Brian Tarbox who worked in the finance industry. I told him about my idea for Save More Tomorrow; I didn’t even think he was listening. Several years later I hear from him again and he hands over an excel spreadsheet with all the data. He said I have some good news: I tried out the Save More Tomorrow idea and it works. Your program quadrupled the savings rate of these low-income people.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… what I’d really love to do is follow-up with those people in Brian’s spreadsheet. The company insisted on being anonymous, and Brian passed away, but I’d love to know how those individuals are doing now. Are they still saving more? Have they managed to retire with dignity?

A research project I wish I had done… I had this hunch that automatic enrolment in a retirement savings plan would get a lot more people to start saving, but that it might also lead to a decrease in aggregate savings, since the default saving rate is typically very low, often around 3 percent. I wanted to test out my hunch, but Brigitte Madrian tested it out first and did a superb job.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… an unhappy architect. I love good architecture, but if it was my profession then it would no longer be a fun hobby. I would have to pay the bills and deal with clients.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… is increasing our impact. How do we take these proven behavioral insights and scale them up? How do we solve big societal problems around health care or retirement savings or education? In my future work, I’m going to explore how we can use the digital revolution to accelerate the pace of change. With digitai.org, I want to test out new digital interventions that will help consumers, businesses and policymakers leverage all of this new research. I think that smartphone in your pocket represents a tremendous opportunity to help people think better and make better choices, but we have to get it right.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… not to listen to me! Every young researcher needs to tailor their journey to their particular set of skills, interests and weaknesses. Find your own passion. Don’t follow mine.

Departmental website | Digitai.org

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Viewpoint: 6 Things a Conference Can Do For You

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There’s so many things about conferences that can fill you with hope, re-energize and recharge you as well as rebuild your confidence. Here are six things that academic conferences can help you with.

#1 Realizing that the tough love was worth it

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Let’s be honest, no matter how cool your advisors and professors are (and personally I have some ridiculously cool ones), sometimes you just feel like you can’t take anymore of their criticism.

They are just so very very critical. They wear you down and force you to reconsider everything. They question you, they question you, and then for a change of a pace they question you some more. Grad school can start to become a tunnel shaped like your advisor’s office with no light in sight.

But then you present at a conference. And the audience claps. And they clap not just politely, but with genuine enthusiasm. And all that pain now seems justified. And all of a sudden you feel a rush of thankfulness for your advisors and resist the urge to text them to tell your success and sappy thankfulness. You see another presentation and you see that student’s advisor was just “too nice” to them and now the student is a sitting duck in the Q&A.

Conferences remind you that all that “tough love” your advisors give you is really out of “love” not just “tough.”

#2 Reminding you that you do have interesting ideas

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 4.43.42 PMEveryone at your own school has heard you go on and on about your ideas for years now. They have become desensitized, and when people become desensitized to concepts they find them less interesting and can even underestimate the concepts’ general “objective” or “social” value.

But when you are at a conference talking about your ideas to fresh ears, your ideas tend to ring with more authority and more impact. Plus, the ears of conference attendees tend to be in many ways a better sounding board to test your ideas. Your ideas fall on ears without prejudice. To them you’re just a researcher. That’s an incredibly freeing experience.

 #3 Connecting you with that person who nods and smiles in the audience

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 4.41.59 PMIs there anybody in life that makes you as happy as the person in the audience who smiles and approvingly nods along with your presentation? Okay, hopefully your life partner or best friend makes you feel a little better, but still that person in the audience activates the happy dopamine pretty damn hard.

The only person who comes closer to the nodding audience member is the stranger who comes up to you randomly a day after your presentation to say “Good job.” For a moment you feel like the lead singer from the band Fun who sings, “There are people on the street / They’re coming up to me / And they’re telling me / That they like what I do now.”

 #4 Remembering that there are people in the world like you

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Maybe you find qualitative research interesting, maybe you have an odd presentation style, maybe you find applied or niche theoretical research really interesting. Whoever you are you, at times you probably feel like an outcast at your own school. However, when you come to a conference you find that at least some others see the world the way you do, find the same topics interesting, and have the same research philosophy.

Even at the best programs, you can’t find everything you optimally need. That’s why conferences are so beautiful: they fill in the cracks. Chances are, your advisor has probably told you to talk to certain people at conferences to help fill in those cracks. Good advisors know the limitations of a single department. Recently Professor Rucker spoke about this issue and even designed a Doctoral Symposium to specifically address the issue. He wanted students to be more exposed to different ideas and find what methods of doing research they “clicked with.”

#5 Reminding you that you are a person

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 4.34.45 PMIn graduate school, sometimes it is hard to feel like you’re a person. You read, write, analyze, go home, exercise, or maybe not exercise (I promise I’ll do it tomorrow or next week), and then watch an episode of Breaking Bad and go to sleep. That’s what graduate school becomes. While your friends post Facebook pictures of roof top bars, you post an article about the ethics of data collection or a psychological analysis of Doctor Who.

But conferences force students out of their labs and out of their routines, and drop them onto the streets of some truly fantastic cities. If you’re lucky, your conference will even throw an amazing after party at a downtown club where you can feel like a VIP for the night – all this serves to re-energize you as you look down the glass floor of the CN tower or toast a drink at the John Hancock bar and bond with conference friends.

Professor Meg Campbell spoke at the Association for Consumer Research 2013 about how for many graduate students it is important to have a life, excitement, and friends. This all gives students the energy they need to trudge through the academic life. If as a student you do nothing exciting, you may crave an emotional boost from looking through a funny tumblr, but if you know you have excitement in your future, if you feel satisfied with that picture of your conference friends walking the Golden Gate at a lunch break, then dealing with that awful reviewer #2 is not so bad. Conferences can be a personal affirmation.

#6 Wait, there is new research out there! I forgot that.

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As one proceeds in academia one reads more often but reads exciting things less often. By the nature of our craft we start drilling into one area so far that nothing seems very novel or new. And if it is new it seems like a tweak not the grand advancement we got into graduate school looking to make. It can lead you to lose confidence that there’s anything new in the field. It can also just make you depressed, as the days of being excited by daily reading something new in intro grad classes are long behind you.

But at conferences every session, every conversation, and every chance encounter  is full of disparate and new ideas. This has two wonderful effects. First, it is simply wildly entertaining. We forget sometimes how much just listening to new intellectual ideas entertains us. Second, it starts to build “broad connections” that can help you develop your ideas. Professor Jim Bettman advises academics to consistently read up on areas not directly related to their line of study. This takes advantage of the availability bias and leads you as a researcher to keep different ideas available in your head. This means that there are greater chances you’ll find spontaneous connections with your own work.