Star Track: Peter McGraw

Following on the success of our Research Heroes interviews, we’re launching a new interview series: Star Track. In this series, we turn the spotlight on researchers who will play an important role in shaping the future of the field. These people have already made a significant contribution with their ground breaking research and engagement in the research community –  you might know about them or might not, but you should definitely listen to what they have to say – enjoy!
First in our new series is Peter McGraw, an DSC_0667-1associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, who is an expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral decision theory. His research examines the interrelationship of judgment, emotion, and choice, with a focus on consumer behavior and public policy. Lately, McGraw has been investigating what makes things funny. He directs at the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL), a laboratory dedicated to the experimental study of humor, its antecedents, and consequences. He has co-authored The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, which hit the bookstores on 4/1/2014. Of recent note, McGraw made the 2013 Stylish Scientist List – probably because he likes to rock a sweater vest.

I wanted to pursue an academic career in this field because… I thought that pursuing an academic career would yield a stimulating yet leisurely intellectual life. (I was half right.) While researching grad programs, I read Tom Gilovich’s book: How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. By the end of chapter 2, I was hooked on the idea of studying judgment and decision making.

I find the inspiration for my research mostly from… Entrepreneurs and artists. Scientists don’t often think of their research as a creative endeavor that is important to share broadly with the world. I believe that the process of creating and disseminating scientific insights is enhanced by emulating people who have a different perspective and a broader array of tools. Also, behaving like an artist or an entrepreneur is much more fun than just trying to please peer reviewers.

When people ask me what I do, I say…. I study what makes things funny.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… In the summer of 2008, Caleb Warren and I set out to answer the question of why people laugh at moral violations. That project changed my life, as it spurred a quest to crack the humor code (something that behavioral decision theory’s “emotional revolution” had overlooked). The resulting paper, which published in Psychological Science in 2010, brought together my two main research areas at the time: moral judgment and mixed emotions. Caleb and I introduce the benign violation theory of humor and showed that moral violations can be a source of pleasure (something every good comic knows).

Everything came together just right; the paper was accepted with no requested changes – something that I never expect to happen again.

The paper that has most influenced me is… When Caleb and I were examining the research on humor, the theories didn’t seem quite right. Fortunately, we found a little-cited paper published by a linguist named of Thomas Veatch. To us, it was a huge advance over existing theories. Veatch’s work served as the foundation for the benign violation theory, which in turn, serves as the foundation for the research conducted in the Humor Research Lab.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… Starting some sort of business.

The most important quality for a researcher to have is… Perseverance. Repeat after me, “They can slow us down, but they can’t stop us.”

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… Finding a way speed the peer-review process.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… Write every day. Start today – and purchase the book: How to Write A Lot.

The one thing I’ve found most challenging is… Staying asleep until my alarm goes off. The work academics do is highly evaluative and uncertain – two conditions that contribute to anxiety. And anxiety gets me out of bed early. On the other hand, it has a silver lining. I believe that every day is a big day and should be lived with a sense of urgency. And big days rarely start with the snooze button.

For more information on Peter McGraw visit his page: http://www.petermcgraw.org/

For more information on his book see: http://humorcode.com/

In The Wild: Tom Ewing

tom ewingNext up in our series of practitioners embracing the world of JDM research is Tom Ewing, Chief Culture Officer at market research agency BrainJuicer, where he works in the Labs team, helping translate the findings of decision science and psychology into methods that create business advantage for clients. His background is as an Internet analyst, social media researcher and journalist. His 2012 paper for BrainJuicer, “Research In A World Without Questions”, looked at the possibilities of observational and behavioural research in a commercial context, and it recently won the ESOMAR Excellence Award for the best market research paper of the year.

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? BrainJuicer is a commercial market research and behaviour change company whose mission is to take advances in human understanding and to turn them into commercial advantage. And “human understanding” means behavioural economics, psychology, and decision science.

We want to create behavioural change for our clients. For commercial clients, this means applying the behavioural sciences to a brand owner’s problems and creating opportunities for them and their retail customers. For public service clients, this often means changing behaviour for healthier outcomes. For shoppers, customers, users of services, this means making decision-making faster and easier, and often making it more enjoyable too.

So our Behaviour Change Consultancy will take a client’s brief, understand the behaviour they wish to change and create behavioural activations that we test experimentally to demonstrate their effect.

Our research approaches support our goal to change behaviour for our clients, and are designed to “reflect and predict what people will actually do”, rather than what they think they do and say they will do – the standbys of traditional research. For instance, we put people under time pressure to recreate fast, System 1 decision-making in packaging and promotions research; we harness people’s social sense to understand the likely success of new product launches; we establish how people feel about advertising to predict its efficiency. And much as we like to test iteratively in our behavioural work, we like to re-test our recommendations to clients to demonstrate the value that we can bring.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? On a personal level it’s a natural fit with the curiosity that inspires most market researchers. First of all, you’re curious about what other people do, then you’re curious about why they do it. And then you realise that the stated reasons aren’t actually getting you very far and you want to dig further into how things really work.

As a company BrainJuicer has had an interest in consumer psychology long before I joined – we’ve been doing emotional ad testing since 2007, and tapping crowds for concept testing since 2004. Putting behavioural economics at the heart of our offer has been exhilarating for us as a company and fits with our conviction that market research has been getting consumers wrong for years – putting too much trust in claims and norms and not being curious enough about what people actually do.

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? There’s often a gap between the interesting and the useful! Behavioural economics is made up of such a horde of studies, biases, heuristics, and findings that it feels initially like a game of Pokemon: you gotta catch ‘em all, and it seems almost impossible. In order to make it useful you have to make it accessible and tangible to non-specialists – which means you have to streamline it. We use a “Behavioural Model” which uses broad categories of environmental, personal and social influences on decisions that make sense to clients.

The idea is always to get from theory to action as quickly and easily as possible. So the work that leaps out at us tends to be the field experiments that help us to illuminate and bring the thinking to life – real-world test sites, ideally measuring real money changing hands at some point. That’s the arena we’re looking to play in, and frankly those are the findings which get us and clients most excited.

We are fans as well as practitioners. I still love a beautifully constructed experiment or unexpected finding. But it doesn’t really match the satisfaction of being able to change behaviour for our clients; to show how we might reduce hospital infections resulting from poor hand hygiene or to demonstrate how we might reduce binge-drinking.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? Yes. The long term challenge is pretty similar to the one that faces economists trying to turn around textbook economics thinking. You end up with lots of acclaim and a few prizes but people still make the same mistakes based on the same bad theories. Changing behaviour is hard, and it doesn’t stop being hard just because you know about behaviour change. Industrialised market research has twenty years of norms which exert a powerful and reassuring pull on decision makers, even though they’re based on completely faulty models of how decisions work. We can’t talk about fast and easy decisions without facing up to the fact that choosing the existing option is the very definition of one!

The short term issue, I think, is that there’s an awful lot of excitement at the moment around technology – the power we now have to collect behavioural data. New technology is sexy, easy to adopt and an easy incremental step to take; changing your whole worldview is difficult, breaking habits is hard and systems are in place that make change difficult. So it’s understandable that technology often seems of greater interest to the industry than decision-making science. Who needs psychology when you have big data? Well we do, and more than ever. You absolutely need a thorough grounding in psychology to explain behaviour and tell you how to change it.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? For BrainJuicer, it’s been mutually beneficial. Our Behavioural Model and the thinking that underpins our products has been developed in conjunction with academics. But you can’t change behaviour through pure argument and persuasion. If we are to change the behaviour of marketers, advertisers and other people in the research industry, we need to make the case for behavioural economics as engaging and as seductive as possible. I am firmly on the side of the popularisers over the purists.

Our behaviour change projects often involve extensive literature reviews by academics. We read a lot ourselves and have a database of studies with proven real-world effects. If it wasn’t for the academic research there would be no practitioners – we stand on their shoulders and we have to do right by them. And as practitioners it’s our job to apply the theory and make it matter.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? I think at the moment a background in decision science would be an incredible asset for a commercial research company – particularly if you’ve got experience in setting up experiments and how to properly control them. Market research has always been a melting pot of a profession – it’s drawn in psychologists, anthropologists, statisticians, technologists, arts graduates – and while it’s slightly more professionalised these days there’s still a thirst for relevant experience among the smarter companies. But we also need creatives, illustrators, designers, statisticians, writers and speakers to apply the theory, check it works and make it famous. So jump in, it’s an exciting time!

Twitter | Website | Blog

Outside The Matrix: Florian Bauer

Bauer-Florian_Druckvorlage
Following on from Kiki Koutmeridou, we’ll continue this week with another Outside the Matrix interview: Florian Bauer from Vocatus AG in Germany, who studied psychology and economics at the Technical University in Darmstadt, at MIT, and at Harvard University. He has devoted himself to research into behavioural economics and the psychology of pricing, which were also the subject of his doctorate (“the psychology of price structure”). Starting his career as a strategy consultant at Booz, Allen & Hamilton 1996, he joined with two colleagues in founding Vocatus AG (a full-service market research and consulting company) in Munich in 1999. He’s also a member of the board of the German Market Research Association (BVM), and regularly teaches as a visiting professor at several universities in Germany. In 2005 and 2010 he won the ‘German Market Research Award‘ for the ‘Study of the Year‘ and in 2010 the ‘Best Methodological Paper Award’ at the ESOMAR Congress (global market research conference), and has subsequently won the the ESOMAR “Research Effectiveness Award” both in 2012 and 2013. 

Tell us about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? Well, all I do is in fact decision making research. I see market research as nothing else than trying to understand the basic building block of an economy – the customers decision making process. And here, there is no better theoretical and methodological basis than behavioral economics even though this is often neglected in classic market research approaches.

Why you decide to go into industry instead of continuing in academia? Well, it was primarily “anticipation of regret”. I had a hard time deciding which path to follow. The reason why I picked business was for one part the idea that I could regret it later not having taken the chance to start my own company. For the other part it was the fact that I really wanted to apply the stuff I was doing and put it to test in the real world. Still today, this a thrill to me.

What do you enjoy the most in your current role?  Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? I love that I can do what I like most: Focusing on applying behavioral economics in marketing in general and pricing in specific. I love that we were able to attract a team of more than 70 colleagues that share the same interest and want to rock the boat. The only challenge I can see is the reluctance to adopt new approaches when the old ones are still massively promoted by large international research agencies. But quite frankly, the solution to this is to seek for more innovative clients that are willing to switch gears and go beyond the classic market research approaches. And that works quite well.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? I think the perspectives are extremely different although they could profit much more from each other. While academia is focusing on a specific effect, on a specific theory, and the analysis of different ways of looking at the issue, practitioners are focusing a broader array of different questions. Where in the end they have to make a recommendation fast and still good enough.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? Test and decide, maybe try to do academic and market research in parallel. In any case, find your own way and do not focus on traditional career paths.

Website

Outside The Matrix: Kiki Koutmeridou

Kiki_20130929135455608Third in our series of those who moved into the private sector after completing their PhD in decision making psychology is Kiki Koutmeridou – a behavioural economics researcher within GfK NOP, a global market research agency based in London. She has a background in Psychology (BSc) and Neuroscience (MSc) and she completed her PhD in Cognitive Psychology at City University in 2013 focusing on memory and the strategic processing of retrieval cues. In her role as the head of the Centre for Applied Behavioural Economics, Kiki works in collaboration with City University, GfK and clients trying to explore how behavioural economics can be incorporated in the traditional market research.Since joining GfK NOP London in September 2012, Kiki has introduced behavioural economics theories to numerous research projects which focus on the application of academic findings to real-life situations.

Tell us about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? I’m currently the head of the Centre for Applied Behavioural Economics at GfK NoP, part of the GfK Group, an international market research organization. The Centre for Applied Behavioural Economics is a partnership between City University and GfK NoP in an effort to promote applied knowledge in the decision-making field. So, by definition, my work is all about decision-making psychology. I’ve just completed my PhD in cognitive psychology and more specifically in memory. When the opportunity presented itself to explore human decision-making behaviour in an applied setting, I didn’t think twice and have been working at GfK for two years now.

My role at GfK is two-fold. I contribute to the various client research proposals across the company by integrating the academic knowledge on decision-making into the suggested research design. I’m looking into ways in which the client’s research question can be answered via the various theories and findings from the behavioural economics field. For this purpose, I help at all stages of the project (experimental design, client meetings, field work, data analysis, presentations). In addition, I work in unison with several external (academic or not) collaborators to conduct fundamental research promoting applied knowledge of decision-making behaviour. As a consequence, we are in a position to subsequently approach suitable clients, to share our findings with them and to make a proposal that would be in their best interest.

Why you decide to go into industry instead of continuing in academia? Actually, I don’t think I’ve made such a decision. I haven’t excluded one for the other (yet!). Like I said, the Centre for Applied Behavioural Economics is in strong collaboration with City University. I spend a day per week at City University, where I finished my PhD, meeting with academics, discussing potential projects and visiting the library. Being still part of an academic institution gives you opportunities for collaborations, fruitful discussions and knowledge sharing. Being part of the industry gives you the chance to apply all this knowledge in the real world and observe the outcome. I consider I get the best of both worlds.

What do you enjoy the most in your current role? My role is not restricted to market research. On the contrary, I explore ways in which people can make better decisions in a variety of settings (consumer, health, financial etc…). What really thrills me is the opportunity to either apply the academic knowledge in the real world or derive new knowledge from the applied experiments towards this end. This is a two-way street that can change the status quo of how things function. The idea that I can be part of these changes gives meaning to what I do and great satisfaction.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? While there is great conversational interest about the academic findings and some recognition of their benefits, it can at times be a challenge to encourage clients to move beyond tried and tested approaches. When I first joined the market research industry I was surprised that psychology wasn’t incorporated more in the everyday business. In every meeting about any project, the discussions were ringing bells about possible psychological theories that could be applied. But experimenting is often not on the table. However, Applied Decision-Making or Applied Behavioural Economics if you like, is still at its infancy. The challenge is to provide strong evidence of its benefits. It’s a matter of finding the right people, in the right places that can promote this line of research and highlight the benefits of decision-making psychology and its methods until they become part of the norm.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? In a word: complementary. Academics and practitioners bring different but equally important elements into the equation. My current role is an example of just that: the academic environment provides new findings, old and new theories and innovative methodologies; businesses offer the opportunity to apply all this to the real world and they can provide large sample sizes (the nemesis of the academic world along with the funding). In addition, practitioners have hands on knowledge of the effects that academics describe. Collaboration between the two can only lead to better formulated, more accurate theories and predictions about human behaviour.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? The irony is that I’m in need of that advice too as a young researcher myself! However, based on my experience so far I have 3 suggestions

  1. Seize every opportunity as you never know where it might lead. I started working at GfK as a part-time data analyst. If you had asked me back then I wouldn’t be able to foresee my current role.
  2. Be open-minded. Nowadays, the boundaries are hazy and every field can be combined with just about any other. Do not limit your imagination about potential new applications or approaches.
  3. Be confident and proactive. There isn’t one right way of doing things so always voice your opinion. You are not supposed to know everything and quite frankly no one does. Remember that we learn more from our failures than from our successes. The important thing is to keep trying to find the answers and to keep reading around your field of interest. Brain is like a muscle – keep it fit!

Also from GfK NOP: interview with Colin Strong (In The Wild series)