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 Alex Rees-Jones. Alex is is an Associate Professor in the Business Economics and Public Policy Department at Wharton. Prior to coming to Wharton, he received a B.A. in Economics and Mathematics and a Ph.D. in Economics from Cornell University, and then completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Health and Aging at the National Bureau of Economic Research. In his research, Alex explores the ways in which psychological biases and imperfect cognition affect economic policy analysis.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
So many academics have these incredible stories of the early roots of their interest in the area. I really don’t, for me a bunch of lucky breaks and chance encounters really guided the path.
As an undergraduate, I really had little idea about what I wanted to do with my life. Or rather, I always had some firm idea, but then I changed it over and over. At the beginning I thought I might want to pursue Political Science or prepare for a career in law. In the course of all this I took some econ classes, and I liked them a fair bit, although it wasn’t the case that I was immediately enthralled with the whole field. Partially through reading up on the conceptual foundations of economics, I got very into moral philosophy, then philosophy more broadly. I spent a while pursuing a philosophy major. I didn’t really have a plan for what I’d do with it, I just thought it was fascinating. I still do.
At some point I had nearly completed the major, and I had a semester where I had to take a couple of Philosophy courses on areas that really didn’t connect with me. And maybe three weeks into the semester I was just viscerally recoiling from all the stuff we were doing. I thought it was nonsense. I suddenly couldn’t imagine spending another moment in the major. So I dropped my philosophy classes and picked a few replacements semi-randomly from the limited pickings that were available at that late stage.
I can’t even remember the other classes I was taking that semester right now, but the important one that had space was a behavioral economics class taught by Ted O’Donoghue. I loved it. And looking back on it, I think that’s partially because I feel some natural pull towards the topic area, but a big part of it is merely the power of good teachers. While I liked economics plenty well on my own, I doubt I would have committed to that path so completely if Ted hadn’t been so compelling. I was relatively immediately a behavioral econ acolyte, and later was lucky to have Ted as a doctoral advisor.
After that fortuitous introduction, I had a couple more similar connections that pushed things along. In the first semester of my PhD, I met Dan Benjamin. He was a new assistant professor at the time, and he was wonderfully committed to engaging with students. He really took me under his wing. And through working with him I initially got connected with Ori Heffetz as well. An enormous fraction of what I know about doing research I learned from the two of them, and it really shaped and promoted my interest in behavioral work. And on top of that, Cornell had a seminar series set up where psychologists and economists participated together in talks. It caused me to get to know a bunch of really great graduate students from related fields. This gave me a ton of exposure to the psychology end of behavioral science, which I think is extremely unusual for an economics graduate student.
Keeping with this theme, once I started working as a professor, I joined an interdisciplinary group at Wharton (specifically the Decision Processes group in OID). The unifying theme of this group was some interest in judgment and decision making, with most of the faculty having more of a marketing-psychology style or a management style. So once again, I was surrounded by interesting people deeply involved in behavioral science, and often in areas I did not yet know well. I learned a ton from all of them, but to single one person out I found I connected surprisingly well with Joe Simmons. I say “surprisingly” because I believe I was the most “pure econ” and he was the most “pure psych” person in the department at the time, so that’s not a pair you’d immediately guess would strongly jive on research tastes. But we did. So through talking with him, and through his reading group, I once again found myself getting inundated with a lot of new behavioral science research that I otherwise probably wouldn’t be exposed to.
So succinctly answering the original question, of what got me into behavioral science, is as simple as this: I recurringly found myself in situations where there were excellent behavioral scientists around. And they were always extremely willing to share their ideas. And they’d always do so with enthusiasm and open minds. And a ton of these people were willing to give me the time of day when it really wasn’t obvious that anyone should do so. I remain very grateful for all of that. As time has gone on I’ve learned that my interest in economics is actually far broader than behavioral econ or behavioral science, and in some ways I was slow to learn that merely because the behavioral people around me were always so remarkably compelling.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
A major focus I had over the last decade or so was trying to illustrate the ways that behavioral economics and behavioral science can be important in considering tax policy. And importantly, not just to talk to behavioral scientists about that, but to get these ideas more on the radar of people who study taxation and who don’t intrinsically care about behavioral science at all. Looking at the field today versus ten years ago, I think behavioral ideas have flourished, and “behavioral public finance” is now a well-defined area. I certainly can’t call this “my accomplishment,” not by a long shot. There were major contributions from a bunch of people. But I do feel like I helped, and I’m proud of that.
What do I still want to achieve? I feel like that’s impossible to answer. I’m barely past the start of a research career. I certainly hope that nearly all of my work is ahead of me and not behind me. I’m currently focusing a lot of attention on trying to bring more behavioral economics into market design. As with the tax research I discussed above, I’ll consider this successful if ten years down the line “regular” market design researchers are a bit more aware of behavioral economics and willing to call on it when its useful.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
That’s an extremely hard question. At various times in life I considered being a lawyer, an academic philosopher, or a white-water rafting guide. And there are a ton of other areas I find interesting today. If I wake up one day and can’t stand economics anymore, I’ll have to flip a lot of coins to decide what to do next.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I consistently make suboptimal decisions, thus justifying my typical modeling assumptions.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
There are many types of behavioral scientists, so let me give recommendations for the class that is most like me: behavioral scientists with a heavy economics focus. The main recommendation I have for people following this path is to pick the economic topic areas you care about and develop deep expertise in that area. And by “economic topic area,” I don’t mean behavioral science. I mean the substantive economic thing that you think is importantly influenced by behavioral science.
Historically, a lot of behavioral scientists have had deep expertise in areas of judgment and decision making (JDM), and then have applied that expertise across large numbers of field settings where they have only a minimal amount of area-specific knowledge. In the early days of the field, this made perfect sense: lots of behavioral science can be applied in a reasonably cookie-cutter way, and there was a lot of value of introducing new fields to the low-hanging fruit of JDM. For example, you don’t have to deeply understand public finance theory to demonstrate that some nudges can help with tax collection, and demonstrating that is indeed valuable.
But among economists, at least, I think we’re moving past this stage. Behavioral scientists once faced an enormous ideological battle to get the average economist to consider heuristics or biases, or to accept that small nudges work. But those days are over. Everyone is now onboard with the conceptual enterprise. Now, the battlefront is really in establishing the details of how these observations can deeply influence economic analysis. Back to the tax example, the focus is more on questions of “how do behavioral issues change the way we model the costs of taxation, or guide us towards how to design the full tax system.” And many fields have their analog of that type of question.
Answering these types of questions requires people who know a lot about behavioral science to then develop a lot of expertise in the areas they want to influence. If your goal is just to demonstrate that a tax nudge works, you can skip reading 50 years of public finance theory before doing that study. But you can’t skip it if your goal is to do work amenable to integration into the theory itself. But doing that is valuable, it lets people see the more subtle ways that behavioral science can be important. And when it is successful, it can provide really stark demonstrations of how behavioral science can affect a field in foundational ways.
There are more and more examples of researchers taking this path, and some of the most successful behavioral economists of the last decade have proceeded in this way. I’d recommend current students try to follow it.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
An obvious change that’s underway is that “computational social science” is rapidly expanding. Its already growing to be an important part of the field, and I bet it will become a major share of all behavioral science before long. A field that once was heavily focused on lab experiments is largely leaving the lab, with some market share taken up by much larger online experiments and some market share taken up by CS-style social science research.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
[Same as my answer to 5]
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
To keep the list manageable, I’ll stick with people I mentioned in question 1 above: Ted O’Donoghue, Dan Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, and Joe Simmons.
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!
Keep your eye on Money on the Mind!