Interview with Abby Sussman

Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisation, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Abigail Sussman. Abby is Associate Professor of Marketing at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. She is interested in how consumers form judgments and make decisions, from underlying mechanisms to applications. She investigates questions at the intersection of consumer behaviour, psychology, and economics, with the aim of improving human welfare. Her central research examines psychological biases that can lead consumers to commit errors in budgeting, spending, and borrowing. She also explores how the same biases extend beyond financial domains to choices in other areas. [I have to mention, I am a massive fan of Abby!]

Who or what got you into behavioural science? The two people who had the biggest impact on my early interest in behavioral science are Steven Sloman and Eldar Shafir.  As an undergraduate at Brown concentrating in cognitive science, I had the good fortune to take few very small seminars with Steve and then to have him as my senior thesis advisor.  He is the person who first got me excited about how the mind processes information, and he continues to be an inspiration.  When considering starting a PhD program, I was immediately drawn to Eldar’s work. In addition to being a fan of his earlier JDM work, I was excited by his simultaneous engagement in core psychology research and public policy discourse.  The combination of these two mentors early on was invaluable.

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist?

I am proudest of my interdisciplinary collaborations with colleagues in economics and finance.  It is important for academics to be able to communicate with others outside of academia, but also with those in other fields within academia.  I view these as related and synergistic endeavors that expand research’s impact. I also find it really fun and rewarding to chat with people who have very different disciplinary perspectives.

If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?

A large part of my motivation for my interest in behavioral science is a desire to positively impact the choices people make and ultimately their wellbeing.  If I weren't doing research in behavioral science, I would likely still be pursuing this underlying goal, probably at a nonprofit with a mission of helping women and families.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

Behavioral science is everywhere.  For me, one of the most impactful insights is that the choice environment influences decisions, irrespective of whether it was deliberately designed to do so.  I am constantly observing ways that features of this environment influence my decision-making process. For me, the challenge is in isolating my underlying preferences in the absence of these environmental factors.  In many cases, it doesn’t seem to warrant the effort. For example, I might realize that I’m choosing a particular product because it is an easy choice (going to a website that I know will have only one model available) rather than doing the work to find the best product for me (at a site that will have many, perhaps superior options to choose from). The CD player example from Tversky and Shafir’s, 1992 Decision Under Conflict paper rings very true to me. I’ve come to realize that I am a satisficer when it comes to many purchasing decisions!

With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? Many of the skills needed for becoming a behavioral scientist are quite similar to those for success in other areas. I would point to three main (and related) characteristics.  Hard work, thick skin, and passion. Each of these feeds into the same basic need to maintain focus and keep putting one foot in front of the other to accomplish goals.  This requires hard work and motivation to keep going. In terms of a thick skin, it is important to be able to identify constructive criticism and focus on the “constructive” part of it to make your work better, without getting discouraged or distracted by the “criticism part”.  Negative feedback can be just as frequent as positive feedback, making a thick skin and ability to bounce back critical.  Finally, you need to love it. Given the amount of work and perseverance needed, the most successful people will be those who are passionate about their work... and who don’t view it as work.

How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? On the content side, I think that more research will emerge on understanding how people communicate with one another, and factors that make individuals receptive or unreceptive to others’ ideas and arguments.  Also on the spread of misinformation. Additionally, behavioral researchers will start caring more about effect sizes, and will be focused on identifying the relative impact of interventions. This will also require researchers to have a strong grounding in theory, and to draw close connections between theory and meaningful interventions.

Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? Just one? I would start with Elke Weber. She is doing amazing work on climate change and making a huge impact in both psychology and policy.  I could add many more names to the list too, of course!

Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Abby!

As I said before, this interview is part of a larger series which can also be found here on the blog. Make sure you don't miss any of those, nor any of the upcoming interviews!

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