Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisations, 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 Alex Imas.
Alex is an Associate Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics and a Vasilou Faculty Scholar at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where he has taught Negotiations and Behavioral Economics. His research spans a variety of topics across economics and psychology. He has explored the role of systemic factors and incorrect beliefs in discrimination, the prevalence of behavioral biases amongst expert and non-expert investors, and how to better motivate performance by incorporating psychology into incentives.
Who or what got you into behavioural science? I was always interested in human psychology. I took a lot of psychophysiology courses as an undergrad. I also worked in a psychophysiology lab. And then I heard a interview on NPR, which I believe was with Richard Thaler (but I honestly don't quite remember if it was him…). I found it absolutely fascinating that you can do something like that for a living. And right away I applied to an econonomics PhD program. So that was kind of what motivated the whole thing.
And the more I learned about it in graduate school, the more I liked it. Ultimately, I ended up doing behavioral economics as my thesis and getting, lucky enough to work with George Loewenstein and Richard Thaler and all my heroes down the road.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what would you still like to achieve? I’m proudest of my research on discrimination. It's research that's been well received by the community in the sense that it seems like it's actually making an impact in how people are discussing discrimination. As far as how people are potentially going to think about how this research is going to be making its way into policy, and also the measurement of discrimination. I have a paper on the dynamics of discrimination, basically thinking about the pipeline of how discrimination affects, in this case women, but it could be generalized to other protected minorities. The paper highlights how seeing a lack of discrimination at any given time doesn't mean that there's no discrimination in this setting and how one could actually measure the discrimination as part of a larger system, rather than in one particular instance. So I'm very proud of that work and I hope to keep doing it, for as long as I can since I find it very rewarding.
There's not like one single peak that I'm trying to get to. For me it’s ‘as long as they let me’, I hope to keep doing research that I find meaningful, and I'm hoping that my research progressively makes it way into the world, as far as either changing how people think about complicated issues such as discrimination or, changing policy, with respect to something like consumer financial decision making.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a medical doctor since I was in the process of applying to medical school when I heard that NPR interview, but potentially also a very unsuccessful musician. I was playing in a lot of bands, I had a punk band, and I had a folk band.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I always tend to think that the future I will be freer than I am today. So, I should make plans for the future and protect my time today. But in reality, the future will just be just as busy. So, I should probably protect it as much as I do today. I think that's the biggest insight that I have from behavioural science.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
That's a very broad question. I think if you and the answer really depends on where you want to get into behavioral science. I mean, if you want to get into academic behavioral science, then I would say, and depending on what your stage is, then you know, an economics PhD is a great place to start. There's also behavioral science PhD programs like social and decision sciences. So that’s a starting point. So a PhD is probably a good place to start if you're interested in behavioral economics on the academic side. On the non-academic side, I think you still probably need a PhD. But you don't necessarily need an economics PhD to be in a behavioral science unit in an agency.
As far as the research that I find most exciting right now. I think the new research on cognitive foundations of behavioral science is really interesting. So going back to kind of the cognitive psychology of decision making and incorporating it into models of behavioral economics.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? I think there is a tendency of human beings to overgeneralize. I think being careful both about your own work and how you talk about other people's work as far as how it generalizes and what you can learn from it. It is really important to be just humble in the face of uncertainty. That's not really a skillset. That's more kind of like an attitude. A skillset is much more specific to the branch of behavioural science you want to be in. In terms of actual skills, if you're doing behavioral science on the more psychology side, then I would say a good grasp of the psychology literature and understanding of that. If you're doing on the more economic side than a good grasp of mathematics and economic theory would be the skillset.
What are your biggest frustrations with behavioural science, as it currently stands? Overzealousness of applying behavioural economics findings without knowing enough about whether that will work or not. There's this tendency to view behavioural science potentially as more general than they are. My sense is to be careful and view things as more domain specific, or at least to be a little bit more risk averse before kind of rolling it out or claiming that it will work. I think behavioural science is an incredibly important and interesting field as a practitioner and, a researcher. We also need to be careful that it remains so and remains respected in both academia and policy.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? I think behavioural economics, which is what I'm more familiar with, is going to be progressively more focused on developing the cognitive foundations of the models that we've been using. The next wave of research in the field would be things like thinking about cognitive noise, bounded rationality, attention, memory, these sorts of processes and how they affect decision making and belief formation.
For a while now we’ve had these structural behavioral models that were kind of taken as if they're real and they’ve been very useful. That's the way that the field that progressed, but now I think there's this tendency and very exciting opportunity to open the box and try to understand more about how people think about decisions, and model that explicitly to make better predictions, make better policy recommendations, and I think that that's incredibly exciting. I'm starting to do research on that myself.
What are the biggest challenges for behavioural science? I think probably the challenges is continuing to train and place students in good places. When you're training a student as a faculty member, you really want them to get a good job and flourish. But, because it's still not a mainstream field, it's sometimes difficult to do that because a lot of departments aren't looking particularly for behavioural scientists or behavioural economists.
So I think the challenge is continuing to keep pushing until you drop the ‘behavioral’ and you just call it ‘economics’. It's moving in the right direction, but it's certainly not there yet.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? Well, you’ve already interviewed quite a few of them! George Loewenstein, Colin Camerer, Richard Thaler, Ulrike Malmendier. Just to name a few!
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Alex!
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!