Outside The Matrix: Tiina Likki

Tiina LikkiDr Tiina Likki is a Senior Advisor at the Behavioural Insights Team in London where she focuses on labour market and welfare policy. Prior to joining the BIT, she completed a PhD in social psychology at the University of Lausanne where her research focused on public attitudes towards the welfare state in Europe. She also helped set up Tänk, a think tank that aims to introduce to an evidence-based, behavioural science approach to public policy in Finland.

Tell us about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? 

I’m a social psychologist by training and work for the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). BIT is a former UK government unit, now a social purpose company that applies behavioural science to policy-making. My current focus is on employment and health and, therefore, I spend a lot of time looking at how the government could better support people getting back to work, or to stay in their current jobs. As a social purpose company, we cover a range of policy areas including education, financial and consumer behaviour, crime, international development, and energy and sustainability. Helping people and societies achieve good outcomes in these areas often boils down to supporting people in ways that allow them to make the right decisions.

Why you decided to go into industry instead of continuing in academia?

Towards the end of my PhD, I became increasingly passionate about the popularisation of science and evidence-based policy. I felt that findings from social psychology and behavioural science were incredibly important and that they should be more widely available for everyone to use. Some academics such as Richard Thaler and Carol Dweck do a great job of sharing their findings through accessible books, but many never make it from journal pages to policy-makers’ reading lists. In my current capacity, I am able to share and apply this vast scientific knowledge to deal with issues that affect large parts of the population. At BIT I have the benefit of being able to run randomized controlled trials and maintain close ties with academics, so I feel like I’m getting the best of both worlds.

What do you enjoy the most in your current role?

I enjoy how the role requires me to look at things from many different perspectives – those of the user, the client, the academic and the civil servant. This requires developing different skillsets in parallel, which can be challenging, but also very rewarding. I get incredibly excited when I get to apply the latest evidence to real issues. For example, I have been reading a lot on mental contrasting and implementation intentions which describe how to set effective goals, maintain the motivation to pursue them, and ensure you take the necessary steps to achieve your goal. I have been using this literature to develop coaching methods for people who are unemployed. I recently came across an article on the same methods in the Harvard Business Review. It is fascinating that the same theories can be applied to both jobseekers who have been out of work for a long time, and to high-level professionals looking to advance in their careers.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field?

I feel that there is an increasing openness among policy-makers globally to make behaviourally informed policy. The huge interest created by the recent BX2015 conference was a really positive sign. In the UK, having the support of past and present senior civil servants, such as Jeremy Heywood and Gus O’Donnell, has really helped a wider audience to see the value in behavioural insights. In my experience there is a real interest among civil servants to learn more, and the number of senior decision makers who have read books like Thinking Fast and Slow and Nudge has grown steadily.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners?

This is a relationship where everyone stands to win from engaging genuinely with each other. Practitioners can gain some truly useful tools and ideas, as well as support in evaluation, while academics can gain an understanding of where their research will have the biggest demand and impact. There is certainly room for more academic institutions to run workshops inviting representatives from policy and industry to share their challenges. Similarly, students could learn a great deal from hands on projects that allow them to apply the behavioural theories they have learned.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field?

If you are about to start academic work in this area (as a student or researcher), see if there are ways to partner with another organisation for field work or results sharing. This will give you a taste of running more applied projects and will help determine whether you enjoy it or whether you prefer to stay in a more traditional academic setting. If you enjoy the experience and decide to move into industry or policy, your applied research experience will give you a strong head start.

BIT profile | LinkedIn

Viewpoint: Three steps forward – a research agenda for behavioural change

three steps forward 2Alongside the blog reboot, we also have a new contributor, Tom Wein, who is the founding partner of Aware International, a social enterprise offering behavioural science for international development. Tom will be writing about the practice of applying behavioural science. 

Behavioural change has come a long way fast. In recent years, we have developed a far more fine-grained understanding of different behaviours in different contexts, and of the psychological processes behind them. We have a huge list of revealed heuristics and biases. We have too a healthy range of well-evidenced models for grouping and prioritising factors in behaviour, in relatively parsimonious fashion. We have begun (though there is much work to do) to think about how to consistently and transparently link our understanding of a behaviour to recommended interventions to change that behaviour. Neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists are enthusiastically attacking the problem of where these psychological processes might come from, and work has begun on the effort to validate and investigate findings across cultures.

Of course there is vastly more to do in all these areas. For instance, there are new contexts to examine (the field remains dominated by health and financial behaviours) and our models need further refinement. Doubtless there are new heuristics and biases to uncover too. Yet these are areas that are receiving plenty of researchers attention; there are a number of crucial topics beyond this that remain under-examined.

This piece outlines three interwoven lines of work that seem particularly pressing. These are:

  1. linking linear behaviour change with our understanding of complex systems;
  2. developing a good basis for selecting behaviours to change; and
  3. understanding what we mean by behaviour in the first place.

Underlying all of this, a constant presence, is the need to check our work and replicate our findings.

Behaviour in complex systems

Those interested in behaviour change often contrast their work with that of traditional communications professionals. One of the key differences, they claim, is that behavioural change offers a much tighter focus on achieving a particular, observable change. Focus is surely a good thing, and many ordinary communications campaigns have hopelessly, unmeasurably broad aims – so broad that even if they could possibly succeed, one could never accurately judge their success. Yet the behaviouralist reaction to this can often lead to an overly linear approach. Too often, behavioural change posits a simple causal relationship between a specific campaign and an isolated behaviour. This is not how the world works.

Take, for example, preventing corruption: even the most well-researched, well-designed, tailored campaign to stop civil servants taking bribes will fail, if it fails to address the political and social pressures those civil servants are under from patronage networks below, corrupt benefactors above and co-conspirator peers. These groups have a strong interest in maintaining the corrupt behaviour, and will surely respond to our campaign. Or take obesity: our tightly-focused campaign to improve eating by these people now must be complemented by an understanding of the likely responses by peers and food companies, and by a consciousness of secondary and tertiary consequences.

Economists know quite a lot about the effect of incentives in complex systems; behavioural change advocates will need to match that expertise. A more focused approach to behaviour change brings benefits – but we need a much clearer and better evidenced picture of the downsides, of how and when targeted approaches succeed or fail, and of what the best response might be. Integrating the behavioural change approach with what we know of complex systems and how they come to change is an enormously important, daunting challenge. As a practical means of summarising how change happens in complex political contexts, international development’s Theory of Change approach (which allows actors to make their assumptions about social change explicit) might supply a starting point.

Choosing a behaviour

Most behaviour change approaches assume an objective has already been selected. The behaviours that will achieve that objective are then picked based on some combination of informal ethnography and political acceptability. (Good qualitative work happens sometimes, but it is certainly not the norm). Pragmatic flexibility must be preserved for behaviour change to thrive, but it is surely odd to devote so much detailed effort to determining how to change a behaviour, but so much less effort to figuring out if that is the most sensible thing to do. At the very least, some rules of thumb must be developed. What behaviours are to be candidates, and how are we to prioritise among them?

Just as we use search strategies for identifying the relevant papers, we need to establish search strategies for listing the behaviours we could seek to change in order to deliver a given policy objective. Then, we need to choose between the various options. How to do so? We need some criteria on which to judge behaviours, which at the very least makes assumptions explicit. As an initial set of considerations, those criteria should probably include the relevance of the behaviour to the eventual policy objective, the measurability of the outcome, an estimate of the likelihood of achieving the outcome and the ethics of altering this behaviour.

Without some more rigorous basis, we will design the interventions that suit us, or that suit the powerful. What is more, we will never have a justificatory basis for selecting a non-obvious route to change. This work will of course have to be linked to the understandings of systems called for above.

What is a behaviour?

If we are to list and choose between behaviours,  then we must know what a behaviour is; it is not clear that we currently do. Some suggested objectives are clearly broad and non-behavioural in nature. Similarly there is clearly a lower-bound – no one advocates three separate behaviour change campaigns to address reaching for the seatbelt, pulling the seatbelt down and securing it – but many cases are more marginal. Yet there is surely an ideal level of human action – not too vague, not too specific – at which change campaigns should aim. We just don’t know what that level is.

Without a good definition of the behaviour that we claim is at the centre of our approach, what response are we to give to those who suggest that we use a national communication campaign to ‘promote healthy lifestyles’, other than our general intuition that this is too vague to do much good? How are we to review the effectiveness of interventions, if we are less than certain what level of human action it is supposed to alter? This is more than a philosophical loose end; it is a gap at the heart of the enterprise. Much has already been written on the question of individuating actions in the philosophy and psychology of action literatures, but the behavioural change field has not examined or incorporated it.


We press always ahead into new areas, as we should. But our excitement at breaking new ground must be tempered by a realisation that much of our current knowledge is in doubt. Psychology is no science at all until it can replicate its findings, and sort the true from the merely promising. Too many of the most exciting discoveries of recent decades remain for now in epistemological limbo, neither false nor true, and we can only move forward with a solid base, and with healthy institutions that ensure that future results will receive the same scrutiny. This is not the place to propose how that should work, but any articulation of the discipline’s future that omits this duty is inadequate.

Practical, usable, explainable solutions in these three areas of research, plus the task of replication, would put us well on the road to an ‘end-to-end’ behavioural change approach, and begin to provide a transparent and explicit basis for decision-making at every level below that of high level policy and priority selection (which will properly remain the domain of consensus politics, not technocracy). Get to work!

You can learn more about Tom on our ‘Who we are’ page.

Tom is grateful to Dr. Chris Mills and the UCL Centre for Ethics and Law, who organised the November 2015 workshop on ‘Behavioural Public Policy: Theory and Practice’, at which many of these thoughts were crystallised. He is further grateful to both Chris and Dr. Jeroen Nieboer of LSE for their valuable comments on an initial draft.


Research Heroes: Dilip Soman

DS-Imag1Our first Research Hero of 2016 is Dilip Soman who is a professor at the Rotman School of Management and the Munk School at the University of Toronto, and the co-director of the university’s Behavioural Economics in Action research cluster. His research interests are in the area of decision-making, financial wellbeing, health behaviours and inclusive innovation. He is the author of several books, including the recently published The Last Mileworks with several governments, businesses and NGO’s in the area of behavioural insights and teaches an open online class (MOOC) on Behavioural Insights. In his past life, with degrees in engineering (B.E., Bombay), management (MBA, IIM) and the Behavioural Sciences (Ph.D., Chicago), he has worked in sales and advertising, consulted for several organizations, as well as taught at the University of Colorado and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He currently serves as a senior policy advisor at the Privy Council Office of the Government of Canada.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career…

….to spend a lot more time studying, understanding and developing (one’s own) philosophy of science. Many graduate students get thrown into a massive drift of domain specific knowledge right from the get go. And today, with all the pressures of publishing and getting started with your research early, there is even less of an emphasis on understanding the philosophy behind everything we do.

I most admire academically…

Richard Thaler. He hasn’t written as many papers as he could have over his career, but he taught us to try and make each paper important and meaningful. I could cheat and give you more names, but I’ll stop at the “most” admired.

The best research project I have worked on during my career…

The early work with John Gourville on transaction decoupling and payment depreciation. We were able to out some structure on the mental accounting model, and we had a lot of fun working on those papers. In one of the papers, we received data from a theater company on ticket sales and attendance. The data came in several shoeboxes stuffed with ticket stubs and paper order forms, and it too eons to get it into usable form. We did a number of other field studies (many which never made it to the paper) on ski slopes and at cricket games.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…

Honestly, none! There were some I fleetingly felt I should never have done, but on deeper reflection I learnt even from the ones that didn’t work out for whatever reason!

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research…

I won’t zero in on one, but doing fieldwork is always throws up the best moments. I did a bit of work in India a few years back on savings and healthcare behaviours. Many of the field studies didn’t work out given the sheer difficulty of achieving experimental control, but in a very small way we were able to change people’s lives and the happiness and gratitude they expressed more than made up for the unsuccessful studies!

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…

Sometime in 1999, I received a paper on Dual Processes in Cognition to review. I was suitably confused as to why I had received it and politely wrote to the editor saying that I didn’t feel I had the expertise to review it. Several years later, I found out that Steve Sloman had received a paper on mental accounting to review and was similarly suitably confused! Unlike me, he told me that he labored through and completed the review. These were the days of manual paper processing, and clearly someone had confused Sloman and Soman!

A research project I wish I had done…

In many situations in life – in decisions relating to health, family, careers – we spend a lot of time agonizing over choices; and we do so with the implicit belief that there is some “truth” underlying each option and our job as decision-makers is to find the correct option. I’m beginning to think that we tend to overweight the importance of “the choice.” There are also a series of post-choice decisions that we need to make that will help shape the outcome of the choice. You could, for instance, end up at an seemingly inferior job but do well and actually succeed in your career; you could seek and find happiness in a city that wasn’t your top choice for places to live in. So I guess the study I would like to run is one which tests whether choices we believe are important in life actually determine success and happiness. As you can see, a good study like this one would need more than money!

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…

A physicist (I turned down admission to a Physics program to study Business) or a not-very-good cricket player.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years…

Both rigour and relevance. As a field I think we need to do a lot more to formalize our models – not necessarily through math – and test them more rigorously. A lot of researchers today answer conceptual questions about their model with empirical data. And we need to be relevant to someone – policy, welfare, business, consumers… anyone (this doesn’t simply mean being applied applied).

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is…

Two – first, leave the comfort of the lab. There is a whole world outside that is overflowing with data. Even if you choose to primarily do lab experiments, go out and observe behaviour or identify phenomena that you can test. Second, you could do research that explains a lot of phenomena parsimoniously (but none perfectly), or you could do research that explains a phenomenon thoroughly (but doesn’t explain much else). While the world might push you towards the latter, I think the former lives longer and has much more of an impact!

Departmental profile | LinkedIn | Twitter


InDecision: rebooted

reboot indecision imageAfter a very long break, InDecision is finally coming back. 

For a number of reasons, the blog has been on a break for 18 months – partly because some of the team went on the job market and have focused on settling into their new jobs, and partly because I have focused on other parts of my life.

Now, once everyone’s lives have started to settle, the time has come to reboot InDecision.

While we will continue to bring you interviews with Research Heroes, those who have stepped Outside The (academic) Matrix and who are applying behavioural science In The Wild, we will also include new content for young researchers as well as new types of interviews later on in the year.

We are also curious about who our readers are: originally we thought that this blog would only be read by a small group of academics but over time the readership has expanded considerably so we would like to know just who is reading and what type of content you like the most, so in the near future we’ll be doing a short survey – when you see it, please take it.

This month we have the pleasure of featuring Professor Dilip Soman in our Research Hero series, Dr Tiina Likki from the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team and several posts tailored for young researchers by our regular contributor Dr Troy Campbell.



Outside the Matrix: Lizzy Leigh

Lizzy LeighContinuing our interview series with people who have moved into industry after completing their PhD, this week we speak to Lizzy Leigh, a behavioural research analyst at Swiss Re in London. She has a PhD in Health Psychology from University College London, focusing on the psychological aspects of recovery from coronary artery bypass graft surgery.

Tell us about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? I work for one of the largest reinsurance companies globally.  Reinsurance is insurance for insurance companies, and as well as taking on the majority of the risk, we act as consultants, employing experts from a range of fields, who can advise on medical conditions (for critical illness insurance), predictors of longevity and mortality (for life insurance), occupational therapists (to help get claimants back to work) and so on.  My background is in psychology, and I work in a research and development team of about 10 (the majority outside of the UK) academics who take on pieces of research that will be beneficial for our clients, the insurance companies.  Though my PhD is in health psychology, I now work almost exclusively in behavioural economics.  We take insights from behavioural science and apply them to all areas of insurance where decisions are made, through live field trials with our clients.  For example, we suggest changes to underwriting (application) form questions regarding health behaviour and medical conditions, to try and encourage the applicant to be honest and accurate in their answer.  We also suggest changes to letters, websites, telephone scripts and apps, helping our clients to achieve what they’re looking for, be it better retention, faster turn around of claims or click through rates on a website.  We have the mantra of ‘test, test, test’ and we are now beginning to get some early positive results back.  So we directly apply concepts from the literature into practice, improving what we know as the findings come back.

Why you decide to go into industry instead of continuing in academia? I was in academia for 5 years after my undergraduate (psychology) and masters (health psychology), working as a research assistant in two different departments for 2 years then completing my PhD for the final 3. My decision to leave academia wasn’t a certain one. My current job was brought to my attention by a fellow PhD student, but the application deadline was the day after I submitted my thesis and the first interview was the day after my mock viva (in which my thesis was ripped to shreds). So I didn’t have much time to prepare, and didn’t think for one second that I would get the job. The company I work for is relatively unique in the way it combines academia with business, employing lots of people with masters in all sorts of subjects, and the occasional person with a PhD too, and I had no idea the opportunity existed. I now see how low my confidence was at the end of my PhD and how much higher it is now I don’t work in academia any more, and I really enjoy working in a job where I am valued and given loads of new opportunities, which is exactly what I needed following the gruelling final year of my PhD.

What do you enjoy the most in your current role? When interviewed for my role I was asked, how did I feel I would cope with moving from focusing on one project for 3 years to dealing with several all at once in the new job. I said I was looking forward to the challenge, but now that I’ve settled in I think this is one of the things I enjoy the most. That, and the fact that application of the theory happens pretty quickly. In fact, there’s barely enough time to read the literature before I’m expected to make suggestions about a client’s website/letter etc. The results still take a while to come, but knowing the client is happy and you got great results make them worth the wait.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? We have a few challenges in terms of: a) client buy in, and b) client willingness to try out tests, but even if we get great results and convince everybody that the new behavioural economic informed ways of communicating are better than the originals. Insurance is in many ways an old fashioned, and slow to keep up industry. Underwriters have decades of experience in working out how to ask people questions in a way that will elicit accurate information, and don’t necessarily agree with suggestions of new ways to do it. The majority of life insurance policies in many markets are sold via agents or independent financial advisors. If those guys don’t read the question as we’ve redesigned it then we have little control over that. Perhaps as there is a gradual move towards policies being sold online we will have better control of our application of behavioural science, but whether we like it or not, if someone wants to deliberately not disclose the truth, there’s little that insurance, as the industry currently stands, can do about it.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? The best insight I can give here is on the relationship between academic researchers and people who work in industry who are interested in research. The company I work for is very interested in topics surrounding epidemiology, medicine, economics and so on and so we have collaborations with researchers in those fields and others. From my time here I’ve been gaining some insight on how academic researchers perceive private sector companies who could possibly fund academic research and vice versa. I have been surprised and pleased to observe a very mutual respect from both sides, and not the stereotypical perceptions you might expect.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? My perception is that it’s such an interesting topic, it’s quite possible to pick it up quickly, so I would recommend not spending too long trying to understand the theory but try and get stuck straight in with doing testing (I’m sure plenty will disagree). I also strongly recommend thinking outside the box of where you could work. I have since met others using behavioural science in the insurance setting, and I believe there is a place for it in every industry, so think how you could take it to that industry.

LinkedIn | Twitter | Academia.edu

In The Wild: Nathalie Spencer

2014 03 Nathalie Spencer by Amin Akhtar

Photo credit: Amin Akhtar

Continuing our In The Wild practitioner series, this week we’re pleased to feature Nathalie Spencer who is a behavioural economist in the RSA’s Social Brain Centre (The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the UK), a team whose role is to explore how a better understanding of human nature and behaviour change can be applied to help overcome various challenges of today. With a business degree (McGill University) and several years’ experience working in the private sector, Nathalie returned to university to complete a Masters degree in Behavioural Economics (Maastricht University), and has since been working primarily in the third sector with the RSA’s Social Brain Centre, engaged in research and writing in various areas including behaviour change, decision-making, and cognitive biases.

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? I work in the Social Brain Centre at The RSA, as a Senior Researcher. The Social Brain Centre uses new views of human nature as a fresh perspective on some of our most enduring and persistent social challenges. We apply decision-making psychology and behavioural science more generally to areas as diverse as educational disadvantage, innovation, climate change, and financial capability (coming soon!). Understanding what motivates people, the factors that influence decisions and behaviour, where and how we pay our attention, and the barriers to behaviour change are all key areas of focus for our team.

I’m also engaged in several other projects outside of The RSA, including consulting, pro bono projects, and freelance work all in the field of behavioural science including JDM. For example, I write monthly for ING’s eZonomics website, relating concepts from decision making psychology to issues of personal finance and money management. I find writing these articles a great exercise in bringing theory right back down to a practical level.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? At one point while commuting to work in my old career, I read Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational. I couldn’t stop thinking about the book and how fascinating the research in the field was. So I realised that I needed to do something about this new-found interest and looked into Behavioural Economics programmes in Europe and the USA. Maastricht University offered an amazing programme that ticked all the boxes on my list (one year, taught in English, with a lot of student participation). The MSc in behavioural economics was so much fun and served both to deepen my understanding and to fuel my interest in the field even more. After I finished my degree, some of the professors from the programme and I ran a couple of experiments based on my masters thesis. While we didn’t get the results we expected, the experience gave me a taste for running trials and an appreciation of some of the practical constraints of conducting experiments.

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? A few years ago I would have said that RCTs in peer reviewed journals are the most useful, for their isolation of effects, rigour, and neutrality. Now, however, I appreciate white papers which have more of an injunction or discussion, and see the value in other research methodologies besides (or in conjunction with) RCTs, too. In terms of content, I’m always very interested in variations on the classic experiments or ‘games’ (dictator, public good, ultimatum, etc) which provide a fuller, richer picture of our behaviour in those settings. Something which particularly interests me right now is intrapersonal empathy gaps, because I think this concept can go some way towards improving our understanding about why it can appear as if our decisions and behaviour is at odds with our own wellbeing, and it throws up all sorts of other good questions about stability of preferences, commitment devices, and others. Additionally, I find the evolutionary perspective on our decision making and behaviour really fascinating, and am hoping to learn more about this.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? I think that some people (still) perceive these approaches as being manipulative. There is a perception that a better understanding of how we make decisions will result in abuse through sneaky or deceptive use. True, it can be used to a person’s detriment and to the benefit of the ‘choice architect’ – whether that is a commercial enterprise, a government or public body, or some other organisation. But it doesn’t have to. And, we know from the decision making psychology field that decisions are influenced by context; they never happen in a vacuum devoid of some sort of framing. So the question becomes whether you prefer decisions to be influenced by a haphazard design, as would be the case if not using behavioural science approaches, or to have some thought put into the design of the choice environment to help people to make decisions that are in their own best interest. But a consideration is still “who decides what is in someone’s best interest” (and preference instability can further muddy the waters). I think we’ll see discussions get louder around the ethical considerations of using these approaches as the field continues to grow in popularity.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? It’s a great question. The RSA’s Action and Research Centre (of which the Social Brain is a part) is a ‘think-and-do-tank’, so our work often seems to straddle academia, policy and practice. We aim to take the key insights about human nature from the academic literature and translate them into answers for the questions “why does this matter to the average person or to us as a society?” and “how does this perspective help us to understand the stubborn problems of our times?”

Outside of think-tanks, I think the relationship between academics and the rest of the world is getting stronger, perhaps thanks to the popular books such as Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow which have reached a wide audience. These books pique interest in the field but also illustrate the amount of research and number of experiments that underpin the interesting insights. My impression is that practitioners and academics are working together more frequently, and this is a win-win situation. Academic consultancies, such as the Behavioural Economics Lab, can help to bridge this gap by providing the expertise to carry out experiments for organisations who want to apply insights from the field to their own work.

Networking events can be an excellent way to bring together practitioners and academics (and enthusiasts!). London seems to be a hot-spot for this right now, with the London Behavioural Economics Network ‘behavioural boozenomics’ monthly meetups, and these are branching out to other key cities like New York and Copenhagen as well. I have met so many interesting people at these events, often resulting in direct collaboration.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? Ask bigger questions. In academia you almost necessarily have to narrow your focus and investigate one very small part of a larger picture. However when working in a think-tank and hoping to influence policy makers and practitioners, you need to really understand how these insights affect the ‘real world’. You have to communicate your ideas well, in an appropriate manner to engage whichever audience you are trying to reach. In this sector, work can be more exploratory; rather than seeking to prove a hypothesis, there is value in putting forward reasonable conjectures, grounded in research, and encouraging greater discussion around and further investigation into those ideas put forward.

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Star Track: Marcel Zeelenberg

FOTO Zeelenberg GROOTThis week on Star Track we’re moving across the Atlantic over to Europe with professor Marcel Zeelenberg who is the head of the department of social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. After receiving his PhD from University of Amsterdam in 1996, he held posts at Eindhoven University of Technology and University of Sussex before moving to Tilburg in 1998 (first in the Marketing Department, and since 2000 in the Social Psychology Department). He’s also the academic director of the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research who organise an annual symposium on psychology and economics. His research interests include impact of emotion on decision making, consumer decision making and financial behavior.

I wanted to pursue an academic career in this field because… I ended up studying psychology simply because my brother did it, and he liked it. I started out studying Biomedical Sciences, but found out quickly that this was not something for me. My brother, also rather oblivious about how he was going to make a living, ended up studying psychology (I forgot why). Since he is older than I am, and I always followed his footsteps, I thought it would be something for me as well and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I had made so far. Both of us ended up majoring in cognitive psychology at Leiden University which is where we met Willem-Albert Wagenaar who was extremely influential in fueling my interest in psychology in general and in JDM research in particular. He was inspiring, supportive and super smart, and the best teacher you can imagine. I followed all the courses he taught, including one on gambling (using his own book “Paradoxes of Gambling Behavior”) and one on the psychology of decision making (using Frank Yates’ book). Later on, through social psychologists Henk Wilke and Eric van Dijk I got introduced to social decision making and economic psychology. Looking back, I think the solid basic training at Leiden University clearly prepared me for a career in academia.

In 1992 I was thrilled to be able to work on a PhD project on affect in decision making at the University of Amsterdam (supervised by Joop van der Pligt, Tony Manstead and Nanne de Vries) where my interest in emotion was formed and where I also started working on regret (and later, with Wilco van Dijk on disappointment). That is also when I met Jane Beattie, who also had a big impact on me: Jane and I had submitted a Marie Curie proposal for me to do a postdoc under her supervision at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, but before the funding came through, Jane got ill and died. In the end we got the funding, but with Jane gone, Brighton lost most of its appeal. Luckily, I found a postdoc with Gideon Keren, at Eindhoven University of Technology, and soon after that a tenure track position at Tilburg Univesity (where I still am), where I started to work with Rik Pieters.

I mention all of these people, because for me pursuing a career in academia is so much the result of working with inspiring people and being able to educate yourself continuously. What other job allows you create your own work and study things that you think are relevant or interesting?

I find the inspiration for my research mostly from… Half of it, I think, comes from observations of everyday behavior that I would like to understand. The other half comes from reading papers or seeing talks and thinking, “hmm, that does not work that way. That is actually much more simple than that!” Eric van Dijk taught me that each time you read an article and think “hmm”, you have an idea for a new article. I was skeptical when he first told me that, but over the years I have learned that he is right. I actually tell my students the same thing now and hope it helps them to come to new research ideas easier (a thing that I found difficult in the beginning).

When people ask me what I do, I say… I say that I am a psychologist, and then quickly explain that I study decision making , emotions and how those two interact. Most people find it interesting and want to learn more. I have always had mixed reactions upon telling that I am a psychologist because people more often equate it with being a therapist than with being a scientist. I could say that I am a behavioral economist because it covers most of what I am doing but because I have no formal training in economics that does not feel appropriate.

The paper that has most influenced me is… There is no single paper that I can name. I have read many interesting papers, but I can mention 2 papers that I like a lot and that I think are underappreciated.

Beattie, J., Baron, J., Hershey, J. C., & Spranca, M. D. (1994). Psychological determinants of decision attitude. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 7, 129–144.

I read this paper shortly before I met Jane Beattie for the first time. I liked it then and still like it. They introduce the concept of decision attitude (in analogy to risk attitude), which refers to the propensity to make or avoid making decisions. People can show decision aversion and decision seeking.

Jones. S. K., Frisch, D., Yurak, T. J., & Kim, E. (1998). Choices and opportunities: Another effect of framing on decisions. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 11, 211–226.

I remember seeing Steven Jones give a talk about this paper in 1997. The point they make is that decision researchers typically study decision making by confronting participants with a choice between alternatives (do you choose brand A or brand B?), while in daily life we often do not compare alternatives, but simply evaluate the attractiveness of a single option (you favorite band has a new CD out, do you buy it?). And then they show that there are important differences between choices and opportunities and that research about choices cannot simply be projected on opportunities.

I like these articles because they show that we can learn so much from looking at how people make decisions in the real world. I also admire the authors for being able to bring these ideas back into more mainstream JDM research. These are articles where I whish I had written them.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… This is a hard one. I am inclined to say that the things that we are working on today are the best we have been doing but that is not the type of answer that you would be interested in. So, what I like best is projects that evolve in something bigger: they may start out as a single paper, but then quickly new questions pop up and new studies need to be done. That has happened a few times now, first with our research on regret and disappointment and later on with our research on shame and guilt. And currently we are working on the economic psychology of greed (this is Terri Seuntjens’ PhD project) and we generate so many ideas for studies that it is impossible to run them all.

Also, over the past years we have become more and more interested in examining mundane financial decisions (insurances, pensions, poverty, etc.) which is gratifying because of their direct relevance. There are so many interesting problems to study – it is an embarrassment of riches.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… The justice system and the law have always intrigued me. During my undergraduate years I have taken some courses in law and forensic science (what we would call CSI-studies now).  I think I could be a lawyer.

The most important quality for a researcher to have is… Stamina! I mean we are all smart and well educated, but I think a large factor in success is to simply do the work that is needed. There are so many obstacles in our work and the delay of gratification is extensive. It can take years to become an expert in something and many studies to give the insights that you hoped beforehand. Data collection can be difficult. Journals do not always like your work. Also, especially in the beginning of a career jobs are often temporary and you may need to move several times before getting a tenured position. Without stamina you will give up.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… That must be solid science. We need to change how we do research and how we report about doing research. There are many good initiatives (archive data, share materials, increase transparency about data collection and analysis, facilitate replication; basically things that we all learned as undergraduates and that the open science framework is doing now) and we need to journals to take responsibility as well (Jon Baron is doing an excellent job with Judgment and Decision Making, by also publishing data and materials with the articles). We also we need to accept that results are most often not perfect, so we should not demand perfect data. And, because we are not p-hacking anymore (Simmons, Nelson, & Simonsohn, 2013), we need larger sample sizes and should accept (or embrace) that we can publish less papers.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… Find a topic you really like and go for it. Do not get demotivated because no one else is studying it. I never recommend a student to investigate something that is fashionable. The risk is that by the time you get your work done, either someone else has been working on the same questions, that people got bored with it and the topic is not fashionable any more, or worse, that you are not really into it and your work shows that.

The one thing I’ve found most challenging is… When I was a PhD student I constantly questioned whether I would have good ideas, or better, ideas that were good enough to acquire a position. I felt comfortable about my skills because I found the education at Leiden University to be thorough but my capacity to ask the right questions was never really put to the test before I started my PhD project and then I felt that it all came down to being creative and smart and that made me uncertain.

It also did not help that JDM research is not main stream at most departments, causing me to be peripheral with respect to research in most places I worked. It takes so long to get feedback from the field (you need to develop your studies, run them, write them up, get them published, and only then people can read them), that for a long time I feared that one day someone would found out that they made a mistake by appointing me (I think I suffered from the imposter syndrome.). That did not happen, and slowly I found out that there were people that liked my work and that there were good students that wanted to work with me.

It took some time to find out that what I was doing was good enough and interesting to others. Thus I think the most challenging thing was to be persistent and believe that my own ideas were worthwhile investigating.

The call for papers for 13th TIBER Symposium 2014 is now open: deadline for abstract submissions is 18th May. The symposium itself is on 22nd August with keynote speakers Shane Frederick from Yale University and Richard Zeckhauser from Harvard University.

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