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: http://psychology.sas.upenn.edu/node/20474

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.

Departmental website

Viewpoint: Why social science grad students make great product managers

Litvak
A couple of months ago we featured Paul Litvak from Google in our Outside the Matrix series. After his interview, his inbox was inundated with questions from readers and he recently wrote a response on his own blog which we thought was so fantastic we wanted to republished it on InDecision as well. So, this week Paul shares his views on why social science grad students make excellent product managers. Note: even if you’re not a grad student yourself, it’s worth reading Paul’s views in case you’re ever in a position to hire one! 

After my interview with InDecision Blog, a number of graduate students emailed asking me about careers in technology (hey, I asked for it). They were a very impressive lot from top universities, but their programming skills varied quite a bit. Some less technically minded folks were looking at careers in technology aside from data scientist. Enough of them asked specifically about product management, so I thought I would combine my answers for others who might be interested.

What does a product manager do?
Brings the donuts. The nice thing about social science grad students for whom reading about product managers is news is that we can skip over the aggrandized misconceptions about product management that many more familiar with the technology space might harbor. The product manager is the person (or persons) that stands at the interface between an engineering team building a product and the outside world (here includes not only the customers/users of the product, but also the other teams within a given company who might be working on related products). The product manager is in charge of protecting the “vision” of the product. Sometimes they come up with that vision, but more often than not, the scope of what the product should be and what features it needs to have today, next week, or next year is something that emerges out of interactions between the engineers, the engineers’ manager, the product manager, company executives, etc etc. The product manager is really just the locus of where that battle plays out. So obviously there is a great need for politicking at times as well.

But wait, there’s more! Once the product is actually launched, it is typically still worked on and improved (or fixed). So the product manager is also the person that gets to figure out how to prioritize the various additional work that could be done. But how do they figure out what needs to be changed or fixed? This is one of the places where research comes in! So someone like me might do analysis on the data of people’s actual usage of the product (the product manager prioritized getting the recording of people’s actions properly instrumented, right? RIGHT?). Or a qualitative researcher might conduct interviews of users in the field and try and abstract an understanding from that. Either way, the product manager has to make sense of all this incoming information and figure out how to allocate resources accordingly.

Why would social science graduate students be good at that?
Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this. Products are increasing in scope. Even a simple app has potentially tens of thousands of users. Quantitative methods are becoming increasingly important for understanding what customers do. In such an environment, being savvy about data is hugely advantageous. In the same way that many product managers benefit from computer science degrees without coding on a daily basis, product managers will benefit from knowing statistics, along with domain expertise in psychology, sociology, anthropology even if they aren’t the ones collecting and analyzing the data themselves. It will help them ask the right questions and to when to trust results, and when to be more skeptical. It will help them operationalize their measures of success more intelligently.

The soft skills of graduate school also translate more nicely. Replace “crazy advisor” with “manager” (hopefully a good one) and replace “fellow graduate students” with “other product managers” and many of the lessons apply. Many graduate social scientists will have plenty of experience with being part of a lab and engaging in large-scale collaborative projects. Just like in graduate school, a typical product manager will spend hours fine tuning slide decks and giving high stakes presentations meant to convince skeptical elders of the merit of a certain course of research (replace with: feature, product, or strategy).

Finally, building technology products is a kind of applied social science. You start with a hypothesis about a problem that people are having that you can solve. Of course, as a social scientist, the typical grad student understands just how fraught this is! Anthropologist readers of James Scott and Jane Jacobs and economists who love their Hayek will have a keen appreciation for spontaneous order (“look! users are using this feature in a totally unexpected way!”), as well as the difficulties of a priori theories of users’ problems or competencies. In fact, careful reading of social science should make a fledging PM pretty skeptical of grand theories. For instance–should interfaces be simpler or more complicated? How efficient should we make it to do some set of common actions? If everything is easily accessible from one click on the front page, will there be overload of too many buttons? Is that simpler or more complicated? These sorts of debates, much like debates about the function of particular social institutions or legal proscriptions, are not easily solved with simple bromides like “less is always better”, or “more clear rules, less discretion” (I am reading Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass Sunstein right now, and he makes this point very well with respect to regulations). The ethos of the empirical social scientist is to look for incremental improvements bringing all of our particularist knowledge to bear on a problem, not to solve everything with one sweeping gesture. This openness is exactly the right mentality for a product manager, in my opinion.

Conclusion
I hope I have at least partially convinced you that as an empirical social scientist, you would make a great product manager. Now the question is, how do I convince someone in technology of that? The short and most truthful answer is, I’m not 100% certain. It might take some work to break into project management, but I see lots of people with humanities background doing it, so it can’t be that hard (One of my favorite Google PMs is an English PhD). One thing I would suggest is carefully framing your resume to emphasize your PM-pertinent skills–things like, group project management, public speaking experience, making high stakes presentations, etc. You might also consider making a small persuasive deck to show as a portfolio example of a situation where you convinced someone of something (your dissertation proposal could work?). This would be a great start. Another thing is consider more junior PM roles initially–as a PhD coming out of grad school you are still going to make a fine salary as an entry-level product manager. If you apply these principles I have no doubt that you will quickly move up.

Read Paul’s original interview here.

4 Things We Vow to Do After Every Conference (But Rarely Do)

#4 Read the Program

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During the conference, you give the program a nice skim. You note how many great sessions you just don’t have the time to go to and you vow to read the abstracts on the plane.

But a week later the program is lost in a drawer somewhere.

Reading conference programs is the best way to be on the cutting edge on the field. Most websites post the programs, so misplacing the program is no excuse to not read.

Reading the program is potentially much more valuable than reading the latest issue of any journal. Journal research is 3 years old—conference research is much fresher.

#3 Email that Person

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Whether it’s with a professor or a fellow graduate student, at every conference we almost always have a great stirring conversation and then vow to keep up that conversation. However, a week goes by and first email isn’t sent, and the contact seems to be lost.

Statistically, chances are that the best person to talk about your research is not at your school. Don’t let a potential great conversation pass you by.

#2 Focus on What’s Important

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After a particularly stirring talk about research philosophy or a spectacular talk that combines field work and theory, you vow to focus on the important things. You vow to take a step back, evaluate your career, and start doing research that makes a difference.

However you return home and on Monday morning you dive into a data set and all that desire to really focus on the bigger picture goes away.

Professor Jim Bettman of Duke University advises, try to make the greatest impact you can and don’t always rush to the data. After a conference we have the momentum and inspiration to focus on big impactful research, don’t let momentum die.

#1 Talk More

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At research conference you actually spend time talking to people about research. At school you spend time reading research or collecting data. But at conference you talk and it is wonderful.

At conferences we often find a ten minute conversation with a fellow researchers is more valuable than the tens of hours we’ve spent reading on that topic. Don’t dive into a book when you get back. Cultivate that conference vibe of going out to happy hour with friends and talking research.

There’s a reason we spend thousands of dollars on conferences every year, because face to face conversation about research is valuable. However, we often forget this in the comfort of our daily academic lives.

Passion – The Converging Theme of the SCP Doctoral Consortium

ImageJim Bettman, Punam Killer, Greeta Menon, Barbara Kahn, and many of the other speakers and round table leaders all touched on one common theme: “one should do work on what you are passionate about.”

This doesn’t mean ignoring the necessary unfun pieces one has to do to have a successful career, but it means making passion the center of one’s career. The faculty also made the point that success comes first and foremost from passion.

Jim Bettman kicked off the day of advice by putting passion as the first principle of his research plan (passion-ownership-impact). Overall, the faculty converged on the idea that passion helps motivate good work and supports a good life.

This advice stands in stark contrast to the advice graduate students often hear about being strategic. One roundtable panelist noted that “One can be over strategic” and another suggested that doing a paper just for an easy “A” publication is bad idea. Other speakers noted that one should follow their passion even if that passion leads them out of academia and into industry.

Jim Bettman summarized that that passion is a way to inspire, drive, and sustain programmatic research.

Guest post: Why we should talk to the media (part 2)

claudia hammondFollowing the guest post from Lisa Munoz at SPSP, this week we hear from Claudia Hammond, an award-winning presenter, writer and psychology lecturer, on why she thinks young researchers in particular should engage more with the media. In addition to being part-time faculty at Boston University’s London base, she presents All in the Mind on BBC Radio 4 and Health Check on BBC World Service, and is the author of “Time Warped: Unlocking the mysteries of Time Perception“.

In my many years hosting radio programmes for the BBC I have interviewed dozens of young researchers. When a new paper comes out, we like wherever possible to talk to the people who have done the research themselves instead of relying on a commentator. From our perspective it makes science programmes sound better, providing listeners with a direct link to the scientists.

So that’s what’s in it for us as broadcasters, but why should researchers bother? Scientists can sometimes feel frustrated that their work is misunderstood by the general public. Science literacy varies massively amongst the population and speaking about your work to the media can help to demystify it. All my work, whether making radio or TV programmes or writing books aims to make science accessible and to increase the understanding of the importance of evidence. Researchers themselves have a vital part to play in this and by doing interviews they can reach vast numbers of people in one go. BBC World Service where I host a weekly programme featuring newly-published health and medical research, has 44 million listeners.  If the public is to be expected to continue to fund scientific research they have a right to know how their money is being spent and this is a great way for scientists to get their message across about the importance of their research.

There can also be advantages for researchers themselves. Increasingly grant-giving bodies are making public engagement a condition of their grants, so it’s as well to start practising early in your career.

I also know of many situations where appearing in the media has led to new research collaborations. People often get in touch with me after they hear an interview wanting to contact someone they heard on my programme. When we have studio discussions the participants often exchange emails afterwards so that they can work together. I’m surprised at how often they are unaware of other researchers in the same field. It sometimes feels like a researcher dating agency, but it’s good to see people sharing their ideas.

Sometimes researchers worry about what their peers will think and to be honest, the secret to doing to a good interview is to imagine you are explaining it to a non-scientific friend. Don’t imagine your supervisor by your shoulder. You know your own work inside out and you can explain it. You’re not going to be asked questions which are so in-depth that you can’t answer them, but it’s important to consider the context of your research. Has this topic been in the news recently? How big is the problem that your research addresses?With a little preparation before an interview, you can have an impact.

Website

Highlights: Jim Bettman’s SCP Career Talk

ImageJim Bettman brought his blend of insight and humor to his career talk this morning at the Society for Consumer Psychology Doctoral Consortium. Here’s what he advised students.

His guiding principles: “P.O.I.”

Passion – “Love it or leave it.” Only do things you believe in.

Ownership – Do your own ideas, not your advisors’. Or take your advisors ideas and make them your own as his former student Mary Frances Luce did by applying emotion to Bettman, Payne, and Johnson’s established decision research.

Impact – “Go for the gold.” Aim to change the field.

Reading advice: “Make generating study ideas a focus of whatever you’re reading.”

 If you ever get the pleasure of getting a manuscript of yours reviewed by Bettman, you will find that nearly every paragraph has a comment about a potential future direction or connection to another literature. This persistent focus on generating ideas is what has allowed Bettman to be so wildly impactful. Though Bettman often appears very programatic, this should not be taken as sign of him not thinking diversely.

On what to follow up on: “Be ready for lightning bolts.”

Bettman said be open to new ideas and when you find one you are passionate about embrace it and then follow up on it. Inspiration comes first and then the programmatic process begins.

Caveat: “Not a once size fits all.” 

Bettman indicated that even though be believed in his research style, there have been many people in the field who have succeeded in following a different style of research.

Funniest quote: Good research is like “ideas having sex.”

Bettman noted that good ideas come when ideas are pieced together with other ideas, when ideas are allowed to cross-fertilizer and different combinations of idea chromosomes come together.

Second funniest quote: “When talking about how Mary Frances Luce suggested emotion be brought into decision research, “We had never discussed emotion, or been emotional.”