Star Track: Marcel Zeelenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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