Research Heroes: Colin F. Camerer

camererThis week we continue our Research Heroes series with Colin F. Camerer, who is the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Finance and Economics at the California Institute of Technology. Before joining Caltech, he earned his PhD from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business at the age of 22, and subsequently worked at the Kellogg, Wharton, and University of Chicago business schools. He’s published more than 50 articles and a book on behavioural game theory. He’s a past president of the Economic Science Association and in 1999 he also became the first behavioral economist elected as a Fellow of the Econometric Society. He’s also just become a recipient one of the 24 annual MacArthur Foundation Fellow grants.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… Learn more math! I was good at math but didn’t appreciate how important it is to learn it when you’re young. Math is central to applied economics and could be used more in JDM psychology. The same is true for statistics— knowing a lot of tricks helps you get the most from data, win arguments, and figure out what you do and don’t believe in other people’s papers. 

I most admire academically… (With apologies to many whom I’ve forgetfully excluded)  Dick Thaler, for setting a good example by writing a small number of papers on important questions, and making each a gem. Danny Kahneman for being so wise, getting wiser every year (how does he do it?) and writing so beautifully. Amos Tversky, for a steeltrap mind and tenacity in digging on a topic until he had it figured out and expressed in a simple formalism. George Loewenstein for his gift of synthesizing lots of ideas and examples into an insight in a way that is very fruitful for others to then pursue. Gary Becker for seeing the interesting economic elements in so many kinds of choices (like having children, and crime).  The economist Bob Shiller for being eclectic and for daring to write aggressively about the role of social forces in asset pricing (which everyone else thought was crazy and unmodellable but now is starting to gain traction). I also admire a lot of people JDMers may not have heard of in other fields. One is Joe Henrich, a cultural evolution anthropologist who did the first economics experiment in a small-scale society, which then led to an influential cross-society project. Three more are: Duncan Watts who knows a ton of things about social networks, Mike Kearns, a computer scientist who recently became interested in experiments on networks and problem solving, and Peter Dayan, a “dry” theoretical neuroscientist who is always coming up with remarkable bold ideas.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… If you’re doing it right, you almost always have the very genuine feeling that the paper you just finished is the best one (even though you had that same feeling N-1 times before). One of the best was our paper on taxicab driver labor supply (QJE 1997). It was a really simple insight and one of the earliest clear tests, outside of finance, between a behavioral alternative and a very standard economic idea—that labor supply curves slope upward (i.e., workers put in more hours when wages are higher). I was living in New York at the Russell Sage Foundation so off to the Taxi and Limo Commission I went. There sat a bored economist whose main job is to collect statistics so they can justify taxi fare increases every couple of years. It turned out they had done some studies asking drivers for information on the hours they drove on different days, so I left with a (free!) floppy disk full of data from them. We did not have any formal model in the paper, but others came along later, figured out the proper way to model it with reference-dependence, and replicated our basic finding.

With that paper, we also had a mixed editorial experience with a happy ending. We sent it to American Economic Review, where we ended up getting one silly short report basically saying “I don’t believe it” and mentioning measurement error, which we had addressed very squarely (with a good “instrumental variable”).  A lot of economists were (mindlessly) hostile back then. We withdrew it and submitted it to a special issue of the QJE honoring Amos Tversky and got incredible help from the editor there (Larry Katz) who is an outstanding labor economist and told us exactly what to do.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career… The worst was the first experiment we did in Charlie Plott’s class in winter 1980 at Chicago GSB. Charlie was an incredibly patient and generous teacher, so he required us to actually run an experiment. We were interested in finance at the time so we created an experiment to test whether specialists in stock markets would smooth prices as they are supposed to do in theory, by buying during price drops and selling during price increases.

We made every possible mistake. First, there was only one specialist per session and a lot of live traders, but only the specialist’s behavior was interesting. So the design had incredibly fragile internal validity—a distracted or confused specialist would just produce terrible uninteresting results. The instructions were a mess. And of course we did not plan well so 10 minutes before the experiment we were in the library– a 5 minute walk from the lab– Xeroxing the instructions. Now I tell students that their first experiment will be their worst—hopefully!, since there is a learning curve—so they should just pick something and get started, rather than fret and ponder endlessly trying to make it perfect.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… Probably the most memorable was a paper exploring whether you could create herd behavior in a horse race betting market. At the time, people in economics were just beginning to formally model “cascades”, in which you observe decisions other people make— like a crowd outside a new restaurant—and decide how to combine your own belief with what you infer from the crowd.

By mistake I once put in a ticket for a race that had not been held yet, and the terminal screen came up “Do you want to cancel your bet?” So I realized you could make bets and cancel them before the race. Then I got the idea to make large bets on a horse, $500 or $1000, and see if those bets influenced others to bet on the same horse (herding) or to stick with their own hunches and bet against me. Either result would be interesting.

It was fun to actually make the bets and see what happened. It was a matched-pair design in which races with two similar horses were picked, and I literally flipped a coin to decide which of the two to bet on (the other one was a within-race control).  I had a little notebook and wrote down the betting totals every minute, it was fun being like a naturalist in the economic wild. It was also nerve-wracking because half the betting happens in the last three minutes, so there was always a chance I would get stuck in a slow line and not cancel the bet in time. Imagine having to explain to the university accountants why I needed to be reimbursed $1000 for a bet at the track!?

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… In graduate school and my first two assistant professor jobs, I had a small independent record label. I always wanted to write a short casual paper on behavioral decision making and valuation under ambiguity in businesses based on my experience. It was fun and actually made a bit of money, which was a miracle.

A research project I wish I had done… A few years ago Dave Perrett came to Caltech and showed some beautiful work using facial morphing. After that a PhD student (I think it was Meghana Bhatt) suggested that maybe you could make people think about the future differently by showing them an aged version of their own face.  We were lazy about actually doing it. Hershfeld et al. 2011 actually did this.  The general method of facial morphing could be used in lots of other JDM research, too.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… I would be a photojournalist or a documentary filmmaker. My first job after college was working for a beach newspaper in Ocean City, MD. I loved the idea of taking pictures and had an excellent semipro photographer coaching me. (This was in the old days where serious photographers would develop the film in a darkroom, in a chemical bath—it was tedious but cool!) Sadly, my pictures were terrible. At the very end of the job we discovered there was a light leak in the camera (sadface) so my pictures weren’t so awful after all. Anyway, pictures of dramatic events, especially political events and war, can be so riveting and important (like Nick Ut’s famous picture of the napalmed Vietnamese child running down the street). Documentaries can make the same impact in a longer form. And they are actually surprisingly profitable as a whole because they are cheap to make and because of the long tail from the possible huge box office gross.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… In my view, probably the biggest challenge and opportunity is to make use of the amazing change in accessibility of new field data (so-called “big data”).  Economists have a head start on this because most of the data they work with are not experimental or survey data they produced, so they are well-equipped to find data and get answers out of it. Computer scientists are looking at these data too, and they have a huge edge in being able to get data (e.g. scraping websites etc.) If JDMers are stuck only in lab mode we will miss an opportunity to use both field and lab data to study robustness, whether interesting effects evident in short lab experiments persist over longer periods of time, and so on.

Keep your eyes open for where data are available. Lots of useful data are available from the web. In the US, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires governments to release any data they collected unless it’s classified. Many nonprofits and government agencies are interested in using behavioral science to make sense of what they do, and they are often eager to publish results (whereas companies may consider findings intellectual property and don’t want to publish it in order to keep it private). Tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook have big research groups looking at their internal data and like having people spend time there as interns etc. A lot of people they hire are computer scientists who can be quite clueless about psychology and social science. JDM could add a lot.

Instead of thinking about what lab experiment to run, I hope some new researchers in JDM first think—what are the ideal field data to test my hypothesis?— then keep their eyes peeled for those data, including cold-calling companies asking for data. You can always run experiments as well if the field data are inconclusive about causality.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… From a career point of view, it pays to specialize in a topic you find really interesting and explore it thoroughly using various tools. When you come up for tenure you want to be know as “Ms. Emotion and Risk” or “Mr. Overconfidence” or what have you. Don’t be shy about introducing yourself to senior researchers at conferences and sending them papers. Usually we won’t read the papers (or if so, not carefully enough to comment) but it gets your work into our memory.

Another important thing is to have a very clear understanding with your colleagues and department chair about what is expected of you to get tenure. Some places have very clear criteria, in terms of the number of papers and what journals count the most.

Another common mistake, in my opinion, is to invest too heavily in teaching pre-tenure. Teaching can be fun, you get positive feedback, and it’s deadline-driven. Research can be painful, frustrating, with negative feedback and no deadlines so that you can always procrastinate. To be very frank, as long as your teaching is adequate, research-oriented schools really do not care about teaching quality in making tenure decisions. If the colleagues who will be judging you say teaching does count a lot, get them to spell out what exactly that means and look carefully at the last 10 years or so of who actually did or didn’t get tenure. If star teachers with short vitas are getting fired that tells you what you need to do. When I was at Wharton business school there was a streak of people winning teaching awards then getting turned down for tenure just afterwards. It got so bad that people would start to worry if they won an award.

One more thing for women on the tenure track (and beyond): Many female colleagues complain that they get asked to do a disproportionate amount of service, such as serving on thesis committees, working on curriculum, recruiting, organizing speakers, and so on. Obviously these are activities that somebody has to do and you should feel obliged to do your share. The problem seems to be that women do too much. Maybe women feel more compelled to do it. Men seem to either not get asked as often or say No more often. It could also be that men do such a mediocre job that they get “punished” by not having to help out in the future.  While your tenure clock is ticking, you need to guard your research time fiercely (or enlist a senior colleague who can help you do that).

Departmental website

TED talk


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:

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

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.

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.


Research Heroes: Barbara Summers

barbara%20summersBarbara Summers is a Senior Lecturer in Decision Making at Leeds University Business School, UK, where she also serves as co-Director of the Centre for Decision Research. She has recently been elected to serve as President Elect of the European Association for Decision Making (EADM), and currently serves on the Society’s Board as Member at Large. Her research focuses on individual decision making from both cognitive and emotional perspectives, with application areas in health, marketing and pensions. Her work benefits from her previous commercial experience as Head of Systems Development at Equifax Europe UK.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career…… the advantages of walking and patience. Sometimes projects take a while to get going; you have an idea, but investigating it leads into slightly unfamiliar territory so you feel there is a lot of literature to get through. Or you might feel you have lots of bits of the puzzle but can’t see how they fit together. It’s human nature to want results quickly and to feel disheartened in these situations, but don’t – this sort of project can be the most interesting in the long run, so it’s worth being patient and working through it. I find the best way to trigger the “eureka” moment when the bits click into place is to stop thinking. Walking while not focusing on your thoughts or sleeping are really good ways to do this. The idea of sleeping on a problem usually works for me (and recharges your batteries).

I most admire academically… because…There are a lot of people, but the work of Kahneman and Tversky on Prospect Theory had the biggest effect on me. I had been doing work in another field and realized that this theory gave a better explanation of some data I had than the traditional explanations in the literature. I was converted and decided to investigate the area further – well worth it! There are many others as I explore different aspects of decision making, but this was the first.

The best research project I have worked on during my career…/the project that I am most proud of/ that has inspired me most….There are so many different ways a project can be best – and I have been lucky enough to have quite a range of experiences. Some projects broaden your ideas of how the world works (I feel this about the work I’m doing now on emotion), while others can produce real world impacts that are satisfying to see (I did work on a project producing decision aids for patients, for example, and another project helped a company predict and respond to customer needs better). Some projects can just be a good experience in terms of getting to know others. I try to see the best in all of them.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…/the one project that I should never had done…If you are doing research then some projects are not going to work. You might not get the results you want, you might even get results that prove you wrong. It’s frustrating, but most projects have some value in the longer term. The bad ones are ones you don’t enjoy working on.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….… is always the bit where the predicted results happen – I get a real buzz every time, because you now understand the world a little better.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…I used to be involved in organizing a professional conference (while an academic) and there was a project that needed real managers to take part in the research. I suggested we might use the future delegates for the conference, and we could give a talk on the results in my session in exchange for their participation. The project was trying to identify ways in which professional managers’ decisions in a particular field (to do with corporate failure/ creditworthiness) demonstrated expertise, and to make it more interesting we also got groups of lecturers who taught techniques for making similar decisions, and their students, along with a group of lay people to provide a comparison. The professional society helped us distribute the questionnaires and we put the talk in the program. Then the results came in. Lecturers and students generally performed better than the professional managers on the tasks, and in fact the managers were barely better than lay people (who really knew nothing about the subject area). Welcome to the conference talk from Hell – we had to stand up and tell people (who paid to be there) that they were hopeless at a job related task!

In the end things were not so bad. The obvious “How can this have happened?” response gave way to an investigation of how the task (which the managers thought was important) fitted into their role as a whole, and led to an understanding that their real expertise was not in getting the right answer in the first place, but in managing the relationship with the company they assessed for credit as it developed (so these skills made more difference). We even managed to get a laugh when we gave the talk! I probably have told this to some people, so apologies if you heard it before…

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…I’ve not given up yet on any project I wish I’d done yet. If I still wish I’d done it, I still hope to manage it. Sometimes things drop off the list because I realise they won’t do what I want, but that’s it.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be……probably back (or still) in the commercial world. I spent a lot of time in Business Analyst type roles doing quite a lot of greenfield development projects, where the company was moving into new territory or the client wanted to do something but didn’t have anything in place. These have quite a lot in common with research, certainly in the thinking process, so are fun. Some of the ones I was involved in were international joint ventures, so I got some chance to travel and see other perspectives. Not quite as much fun as academia, but still fun.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years…Getting the real world more widely engaged. We’ve had a burst of interest in behavioral work in the UK, with the government setting up a Nudge unit. There are however a lot of fields where more behavioral aspects could give real benefits in solving real world problems (like helping people make informed decisions), and in benefitting business too. Students who’ve taken the Management Decision Making course run by our centre regularly report how useful it is in their careers from interview stage on, giving them a perspective on avoiding pitfalls in decision making (I wish I had done it before being a manager myself!). I see many opportunities, but we need to keep up momentum to get there.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is…Enjoy what you do – you do better on projects that catch your imagination. Make contacts and work with others – ideas develop faster with more than one person thinking about them. Establish what you need to get to where you want to be. When I got my first lecturing post the Dean of my School gave me a list of promotion criteria for the next grade up and told me to start ticking them off as soon as possible. I found this really helpful in getting established, as someone moving across from industry, but I think it would have helped anyway. If you’re in this position, I wish you all the success in the world and have great time – academia is a great job.

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Research Heroes: Ralph Hertwig

Hertwig_Ralph_RGB_WEB[1]This week’s Research Hero is Ralph Hertwig, the Director of the Center of Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. He received his PhD from the University of Konstanz in 1995. Before being recruited to take the prestigious role as a director at the Max Planck Institute, he was professor for cognitive and decision sciences and dean at the Department of Psychology, University of Basel. He has received many grants and awards such as Fellow of APS, and won the teacher of the year award for the Department of Psychology two years in a row. His research focuses on models of bounded rationality such as simple heuristics and on decisions from experience. He has co-authored two books, and written numerous articles in journals such as Psychological Science, Psychological Review and many more.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career…That to make it in academia you need more than the obvious skills—you also need the ability to juggle lots of projects, to multitask constantly, and to delay gratification. Not to mention plenty of perseverance and a thick skin for weathering all the rejections, which keep on coming no matter how advanced you are in your career…

I most admire academically… because…People whose writing I love, such as William James, Stephen Jay Gould, and Steven Pinker. For me, Egon Brunswik was also an extraordinary writer. Many people tell me his writing is difficult to decipher. But I have the feeling he thought very hard about each of his sentences and that each one conveys exactly what he wanted to express.

The best research project I have worked on during my career…/the project that I am most proud of/ that has inspired me most….I’m most proud of the research projects where I teamed up with somebody from another field or another school of thought and we were able to produce something I could never have come up with on my own. Those sorts of collaborations have resulted in papers that I still find interesting when I peruse them today—for instance, work on the different experimental cultures in psychology and economics (with Andreas Ortmann); how to link the ACT-R architecture and simple heuristics (with Lael Schooler), and how to model parental investment with a single heuristic (with Frank Sulloway and Jennifer Davis). I enjoy starting a project in an area about which I know little and going home every evening with the feeling of having learned something new.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…/the one project that I should never had done…I can’t think of a “worst” project. But I have a most difficult one. It was an “adversarial” collaboration with Danny Kahneman (and Barbara Mellers as arbiter). With the explicit goal of agreeing on designs that, no matter the results, would settle our disagreements, we exchanged many, many e-mails to hammer out the details of our joint studies—to no avail. The fickle deity of data thwarted all our plans: we just couldn’t agree on how to interpret the results. It was a painful process, but I’m glad that we could cordially agree to disagree and gained respect for one another along the way.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….My most amazing research experience was as a student, when I was doing an internship at a psychiatric research hospital. I had the idea of applying signal detection theory, which I’d just learned in class, to analyze an existing data set. It was the first time I wrote little statistical programs, and I was amazed that they worked and I could get the computer to do what I wanted… well, after a lot of trial-and-error and cursing. It made me so happy. Even more so when my advisor told me my fledgling analyses had produced some new findings. They led to my first published paper.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…If I ever had one, I’ve already forgotten it, so it can’t have been that great a story.

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…That would be a case study of Monica Lewinsky that never got off the ground. It was back in 2002. I was working at Columbia University (in Elke Weber’s lab), and a friend and I went to a public question-and-answer session that Monica Lewinsky gave at Cooper Union in Manhattan. I think we were all struck by how intelligent she seemed, how thoughtfully she related her experiences, and how plausible her answers appeared. In fact, we came away with the impression that there were two Monica Lewinskys—the one we’d just seen in person and the image the public had formed of her. And that got us thinking about research on the fundamental attribution error, which says we all tend to attribute other people’s behavior to personality while largely overlooking the situational factors. We thought Monica Lewinsky would make a fascinating case study of the fundamental attribution error, so we wrote her a letter—I recently came across it in my files—asking whether she’d be interested in talking to us….

Of course, the reason the case study never happened is that she never responded to our letter. We knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who was probably able to get the letter to her, so I do believe she received it. Who knows, if she had responded, the fundamental attribution effect might be known today as the Monica Lewinsky effect.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…A political scientist. I can talk politics with friends and family for hours on end (ask my wife).

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years…If I had to pick only one—and I believe there are quite a number—then it’s to work together to integrate our theories. It’s been said that psychologists treat theories like toothbrushes (no self-respecting person wants to use someone else’s). I think there’s a lot to that, and we need to change this.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is…To read to the right and left of psychology, and to discuss your ideas with everyone around you. In my experience, new ideas don’t simply come to you but often arise in conversations, while attending a talk, or over coffee with colleagues.

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Research Heroes: Jay Edward Russo

RussoThis week’s Research Hero is Prof. Jay Edward Russo. Prof. Russo received his PhD in Cognitive Psychology from University of Michigan. He has been working at Cornell University since 1985, and holds the S.C. Johnson Family Professor of Management at the business school. He has also been on the Faculty of the University of Chicago, the University of California, San Diego as well as holding visiting positions at Bocconi University (Milan), Carnegie-Mellon, and Duke, and Penn (The Wharton School). Prof. Russo’s research focuses on managerial and consumer decision making and one of his most important contributions is the work in information distortion and process tracing methods. Prof. Russo has published extensively in prestigious journals as well as co-authoring Winning Decisions (2002) and Decision Traps (1989). He has been on the editorial boards of leading journals such as Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Psychological Science, and many more. He has also done consulting work for National Bureau of Federal Trade Commission, GTE Laboratories and General Motors Research Laboratories. 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career…Throughout your career, but especially prior to tenure, you will very likely be forced to make a tradeoff between good science and careerist tactics. A research topic that may contribute most to understanding J/DM may not be one that is currently well recognized and accepted by the field. The more novel the topic of one’s research, the more challenging will be its path to publication in journals, to grant support, and to other markers of acceptance by the field. The likelihood of lots of published papers is far greater if you work on currently accepted topics. You will need the publications, maybe many of them, to achieve careerist goals, especially tenure. The price to good science may be work that is incremental at best and “backfill” at worst.  I urge you to be fully aware of the tradeoffs that you make between better science and career advantage.

I most admire academically… because…
Herb Simon because he aimed so high as a scholar and as a citizen of his university and of the world at large– and because he was so successful as both scientist and a citizen.

The best research project I have worked on during my career…/the project that I am most proud of/ that has inspired me most….I stumbled on the phenomenon of decision makers’ distorting new information to support the currently leading alternative. I investigated this predecisional distortion of information for a decade or so, revealing some of its manifestations, boundaries, and consequences. One strategy for good science is to try to identify the underlying causes that explain why a phenomenon occurs, in the hope that even one of those causes may be fundamental enough to explain other phenomena as well. The attempt to explain predecisional distortion led to work that identified the goal of cognitive consistency as the main driver. This work relied on multiple methods, including some new to me (semantic priming and a lexical decision task) or simply new (in-progress assessment of goal activation). The result was unexpected and quite clear: only cognitive consistency caused information distortion, with alternative goals like saving effort playing no role at all. Subsequent work has confirmed that the goal of cognitive consistency is at least one driver of several other J/DM phenomena, thus validating the scientist’s strategy of seeking depth of explanation.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…/the one project that I should never had done…There is no one project that I regret. Rather my regret is working on too many projects, drawn to each one because it was so genuinely interesting. I probably should have focused on those that were both most interesting and most important.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….After so many decades of research (five), there are many experiences; but it is more categories than individual events that come to mind in responding to this question. For instance, when I was younger, it was a great pleasure to have a senior scholar whom I respected proffer kind words about my work. Now I have the pleasure of supporting young researchers, reminding them that it may take several good ideas to find one both worthwhile and feasible and to remember in their enthusiasm and impatience that science is slow.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…“There’s nothing new here.” These were the words of all three reviewers of one of the first submitted manuscripts on information distortion. Fortunately, each one identified a different well-known phenomenon of which information distortion was asserted to be merely another (unnecessary!) illustration. I do not recall the exact three, but early in this research stream the following were offered: attitude extremity/polarization, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, the desirability bias (wishful thinking), the halo effect, and the prior belief effect. Fortunately, the editor was sensitive to the unusual combination of reviewers’ complete agreement (“reject this manuscript”) and complete disagreement (“just another example of [three distinctly different phenomena]”). As a result, he gave me and my co-authors the chance to explain why there was, in fact, something new in the phenomenon of information distortion. The subsequent explanation was accepted, along with the manuscript. The lesson I took from this experience was how reviewers (which means most of us) can so naturally filter our judgments through our own lenses. The question that I ask myself is whether I have applied that lesson consistently when I evaluate others’ work. The answer: probably not, but I do keep trying.

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…I cannot claim to have no regrets whatsoever (that would be hubris), but none of them involve a research project that I regret not attempting.

If I weren’t doing this, I would be…Likely retired, an unpleasant thought. There is still tread left, so please don’t retire me.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years…One challenge is to encompass the growing breadth of J/DM phenomena and methods. Among the phenomena are those that are nonconscious, emotional, and contextual. Among the methods are those of neuroscience and of process tracing. In considering the opportunities and barriers to adopting these newer research topics and methods, I recall the observation that so often seems best to characterize a field’s response to such a situation, “We love progress; it’s change we hate”. My belief is that J/DM researchers, senior as well as junior, can master new methods and solve new problems. My hope is that more than a few will.

A second challenge is paradigmatic. J/DM emerged as a field by testing the optimal models of economics and statistics, especially EU and Bayesian updating. Violations of these models engendered the anomalies paradigm that has characterized J/DM for the last four decades. Let me suggest a challenge in the form of a question: what would J/DM look like if studied the way other higher-order psychological phenomena are approached, such as problem solving/reasoning and language comprehension? That is, what if we built theories of cognitive (and other) processes from process (and other) data, but without specifying optimal performance? Indeed, if we view behavior as driven by multiple goals not all of which are even conscious, can we really specify optimal performance? What if, instead, we viewed our subjects as adapting to the task environment that we scientists create in order to perform sufficiently well rather than optimally?  Great progress has been achieved in understanding how people read without the use of an optimal model of language comprehension. Might similar progress occur in J/DM by focusing less on how our observations compare to optimality criteria and more on the complexity of decision makers’ attempt to achieve multiple goals simultaneously?

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is…Learn how to select research problems, not just how to solve them.   Try to be strategic in how you approach your topics, colleagues, and journals.  Often I’ve seen a graduate student (or a credentialed researcher) happy just to find a candidate problem: “That would make a dissertation topic.” or “That could be publishable”. With my own students who are ready to find a dissertation problem, I ask them to identify three potential topics, to research each one for at least one week, and to evaluate their comparative merits. Then, and only then, do I want them to pick one.

Understand the J/DM paradigm in which you are working and think about whether a different one, maybe a newer one, might yield greater contributions to the field. Are input-output data sufficient, or would process data yield more insight? Is this the time or topic to bring in neuroscience? Should the analysis move from the attributes of the alternatives considered in a decision to the benefits that those attributes convey, or even to the goals that those benefits help to achieve? One of books that most influenced my graduate training is Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which focused on scientific paradigms. I still begin my doctoral seminar by asking students to read it.

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Research Heroes: Karl Halvor Teigen

TeigenGraduated as a psychologist from the University of Oslo in 1966, where he is now an emeritus professor in general psychology. He also held positions in cognitive psychology at the universities of Bergen and Tromsø (Norway) where he was for some years the northernmost professor of psychology in the world (until a colleague beat him with half a mile). He is a past president of EADM, and has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bergen. His main research interests concern probability judgments, including verbal probabilities, social cognition (counterfactual thinking), and the history of psychology.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… that I would have a career! I also wish I had been strongly encouraged to go abroad and to attend international conferences. Norwegian psychology at the time I graduated was quite provincial. In 1967 it was considered a big leap even to move from one Norwegian city (Oslo) to another (Bergen). It took me more than 15 years before I dared to step out on the international scene, so I now have to continue research far into senility to make up for those lost years.

I most admire academically … As a young student I came across “Chance, skill and luck” by John Cohen (Penguin books, 1960). I admired his studies of psychological probability which he combined with a rich historical perspective. In fact this was a book I would have liked to write myself. Later came Kahneman and Tversky who did similar studies even better, except leaving out the historical aspect. It is in such cases hard to distinguish between envy and admiration, but it has fortunately been shown that benign envy outperforms admiration (Van de Ven, Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2011), so I can confess my benign envy for a number of scholars inside and outside of our field. 

The best research project I have worked on during my career…/the project that I am most proud of/ that has inspired me most….Many years ago I became puzzled by the fact that newspaper articles about “lucky” people (with the exception of occasional lottery winners) almost invariably described accident victims. When I asked students to give autobiographical instances of their own luck, they produced similar, rather negative instances. Degrees of luck seemed to be almost completely determined by the discrepancy between what happened and what could have happened, that is, by close and worse counterfactuals. The closer and the worse they are, the luckier you feel. This issue has haunted me for years, partly because of its popular appeal (journalists love it), and partly because it can be linked to several other themes, like risk perception, counterfactual thinking, probability judgments, superstitions, and gratitude. But its main fascination resides in the observation that people seem to know it, through the stories they tell and the judgments they pass, yet our findings make them puzzled and surprised.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…/the one project that I should never had done…I once had to conduct a research project with students and decided to spare them for background reading by finding a topic that had never been experimentally investigated before. It turned out that nobody had at that time studied “sighing” in healthy adults (it had been studied in patients with panic disorder and in rats), so we had to invent our own “sigh-cology”, for instance by observing participants working on insoluble puzzles. They had to give up every new attempt, and they sighed. I wrote a paper which, to my surprise, was accepted for publication, but did not exactly revolutionize the (nonexistent) field. It would have remained a forgotten oddity, when I suddenly received an invitation to receive the Ig Nobel prize in psychology from Improbable Research “for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh”. So I had to go to Harvard for a parodical celebration of “research that makes people laugh and then think”. Or in our case: to make people think and then sigh.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….There have been several such experiences. Doing research often feels like trying to force open a door that appears to be slightly ajar. You have an idea, a theory, an intuition that you feel could work, but the door proves surprisingly resistant to all applications of the foot-in-the-door technique.  Then there are moments where the door simply needs a gentle push before swinging wide open. Such moments, when you get more than you asked for, are the researcher’s peak events. I experienced one almost 40 years ago when I first “discovered” that people consistently violated the 100% limit when estimating probabilities for several mutually exclusive alternatives. Again when I found that most people have to be unlucky to feel lucky, as described above; that they attach more confidence to specific (fallible) rather than to general (true) statements, that they think that events are more unlikely when they happen than when they do not occur, that negative outcomes are less surprising than equivalent positive ones, and several other robust paradoxes that seemingly defy common sense.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…Peter Ayton already told the story of the spider in Cambridge, which I can confirm (although we may disagree about the details).  I also experienced in Cambridge (same SPUDM meeting I believe) my most successful presentation; the audience seemed more attentive to what I had to say than ever before (or since), showing their keen interest with synchronized head movements to the right and to the left, following me like a bunch of hypnotized cobras. Only after the talk I discovered I had been standing in front of the projector, obstructing their view of the screen.

A research project I wish I had done… And why did I not do it…I am fascinated by the role chance plays in shaping our lives, from the small details that make our day amusing, to more momentous decisions about marriage and career. We once carried out a set of pilot interviews with colleagues, asking them about their choices of research themes. They seemed to believe in the idea of a recurrent theme, or common thread running through their professional life, but when we pushed it further back they typically responded: “It all began quite accidentally”.  We did not follow this up, for methodological, theoretical, and perhaps even philosophical reasons, but I wish there was a neat and tractable way to observe chance at work in real-life settings. Perhaps I will stumble over one, accidentally.

 If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…perhaps a historian – of ideas, or of art. But every time I have had a brief encounter with these fields I have thanked God that I belong to a discipline where one can do experimental work, not restrained by events already settled in a hazy past, and where hypotheses can actively be put to test. To indulge in my historical interests I have published quite a bit on the history of psychology.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… To disentangle the psychology of judgment from the psychology of decision making. These are in my opinion two overlapping themes rather than a single field. And even if I am strongly in favor the cross-disciplinary applications of JDM in economics, management, political science, medicine, and law, I feel it extremely important that it should keep and perhaps expand its psychological roots.

 My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… (1) Travel and seek new research environments; (2) realize that your freedom of choice concerning themes, ideas, theories, methods, and approaches is greater than you think; (3) listen to advice, so that you can disregard it on purpose, and have something to tell when Elina, Neda or their successor ask you, 20 years from now, what you had wished someone had told you at the beginning of your career (they did).

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Research Heroes: Ellen Peters


This week’s Research Hero is Prof. Ellen Peters. Prof. Peters received her M.S. and Ph.D. from the Department of Psychology, University of Oregon in 1994 and 1998, respectively. She is currently a professor in the Psychology Department at The Ohio State University. She works extensively with the National Cancer Institute and the Food and Drug Administration to advance the science of human decision making. Prof. Peters’ research focuses on how affective, intuitive, and deliberative processes help people to make decisions in an increasingly complex world. She studies numeracy and number processing, how affect and emotion influence information processing and decisions, and how information processing and decision making change across the adult life span. Prof. Peters has received over 10 academic awards, been on the editorial board of various academic journals, published numerous articles and continues to be one of the experts in medical decision making. 

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… how much fun research can be. It is serious business in some ways, but the process of discovering something new about the human mind is simply fascinating. What we study is so much more complex than other “hard” sciences that it continues to amaze me that we can and do find some order in the chaos.

I most admire academically… I most admire people who combine great scientific rigor with a desire (and actions) to do some good in the world because we only get one life time to try to make a difference.  There are many examples including Paul Slovic, Elke Weber, Baruch Fischhoff, Eric Johnson, Laura Carstensen, Karen Emmons, and countless others (my apologies if I forgot to name you).

The best research project I have worked on during my career… is about something we called evaluative categories and how they influence judgments and choices about health insurance plans and hospitals. It started off as a topic that looked really boring (sorry Judy Hibbard!); it ended up being a great blend of basic and applied research. Although it’s among my favorite projects, it took the longest to publish!

The worst research project I have worked on during my career… I’ve learned something from all of them.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… This experience is my most memorable but also the saddest. It also taught me a lot about the research process. We were doing a study for HCFA (Medicare) with older adults subjects.  I was doing cognitive interviews with some materials in a senior center. One of my participants was having some surprising difficulty with a relatively easy task. As we talked about it, she suddenly broke down crying.  It turned out that her husband had died about a year ago and he had always made these kinds of insurance and other money decisions for them. What I thought was a simply comprehension task was filled with grief and powerful narrative for her. The “decision” she faced was completely different from the one that I thought I had given her.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… I think I’ve told them!

A research project I wish I had done… Any time I have wanted to do a research project, I have done it. We’ve gone to Africa and Peru, worked with older adults and younger, and have studied theoretical topics from affect and emotion to numeracy and applied topics from health-plan choices to donation behaviors to climate change.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…Writing fiction or running a restaurant with my husband.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… Be relevant. Develop theory because this is what is needed. At the same time, the theory needs to matter to “something that matters.”

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… Pay attention to opportunities and take some risks.  Whether the opportunities you find actually benefit you is probabilistic (just like everything else in life), but taking a chance is often worth it.

Do what you enjoy or feel is important to society, hopefully both.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get to enjoy doing most of it. I’ve been really lucky.

It’s good to have your own money – spend time writing and rewriting grant proposals.

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