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Interview with Chris Starmer

Behavioural Economics 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 series was initially a collaboration between Etinosa Agbonlahor and Merle van den Akker) features 12 behavioural economists and behavioural scientists whose work and research is at the forefront of the field. The series was so popular however, that I decided to make it a reoccurring part of the blog. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Chris Starmer. Chris is Professor of Experimental Economics at the University of Nottingham. Before joining Nottingham's team, Chris was Lecturer, and then Senior Lecturer in economics at the University of East Anglia. His main research interests are in individual and strategic decision making, experimental economics and the methodology of economics. Besides being a great (and very well published!) academic, Chris is also a great musician, referred to as StarMAN by his many fans. Let's hear it from Chris!

Who or what got you into Behavioural Economics?

The short answer is ‘Bob Sugden’. A slightly longer version is that my metamorphosis began when I went to UEA in the mid 1980s to do an MSc in economics. Bob had just arrived as the newly appointed professor of microeconomics and was looking for someone to help him run experiments. As an undergraduate, I had no idea that economists could employ experiments as useful research tools – indeed, the conventional wisdom of the time, often written explicitly in textbooks of the day, was that economics is a non-experimental science. But, as an undergrad, I’d had quite some interest in methodology so getting involved in something that seemed so novel, or even slightly taboo, was irresistible. The practical aspect of running experiments was great fun and there was a real thrill attached to taking the first look at brand new data that no one had seen before.

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural economist?

It’s really hard to pick a single thing so can I bend the rules and mention two? In terms of written contributions to the field, one thing I’m really proud to have been involved in is the book I wrote jointly with Nick Bardsley, Robin Cubitt, Graham Loomes, Peter Moffatt and Bob Sugden. Published in 2010, this was our attempt to reflect critically and, I hope, usefully on the methodology of experimental economics. It was a hard and long project to complete, not least because we were determined to write a unified book which the set of authors would jointly sign up to (rather than an edited volume of individual opinions). It took a while to get there, with lots of long round table discussions, but I’m happy we stuck at it. The second thing I’d like to mention is that I feel very privileged to have been part of a vibrant extended community of researchers (including those at CeDEx-Nottingham, UEA, Warwick and beyond). I realise this not really an achievement, but to the extent that I’ve played a role in supporting it – I’m really proud of that.

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

Difficult to say. My impression is that a few really lucky breaks crucially shaped my career development so who knows what I’d be doing if the cards had fallen differently. Some time ago, I toyed with the idea of becoming a professional musician. I’ve kept playing but I doubt I would ever have been good enough to make a decent living at it.

How do you apply behavioural economics in your personal life?

Studying economics can make you wonder whether you are behaving as optimally in every corner of your life as you should be: have I got the right insurance policies; am I spending too much on utility bills; am I saving optimally for the future, should I consider a career change? But life isn’t like textbook economics where every decision is an optimal choice given preferences, beliefs and constraints. Real people have to decide what to do. The idea that there is no internal book of preferences that must be obeyed in pursuit of the optimal choice is, somehow, liberating.

With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural economist? Are there any recommendations you would make?

The bulk of my research output is the product of work within collaborative teams where team members typically bring different mixtures of complementary skills in experimental design, theory, data analysis and so on. So, I put lots of weight on working in an environment where there are people who I can collaborate with well. One piece of advice that would have been consistently useful to me, had I ever managed to follow it, would have been ‘try not to get involved in too many projects at once’.

How do you think behavioural economics will develop (in the next 10 years)?

I’m not sure that there really is a unified sub-discipline of behavioural economics. It’s a shifting thing and the label means different things to different people. One dimension of the question is how behavioural approaches will evolve within the boundaries of the economics discipline. In relation to this, my impression is that experimentation has now become well established as part of the economics profession’s tool kit and I think that’s here to stay. What’s less clear is how ‘behavioural’ approaches will develop (or stagnate or decay) within theoretical economics – time will tell. Meanwhile, although my background training is in economics, and I continue to work in an economics department, I am increasingly inclined to describe myself as a ‘behavioural scientist’ (rather than behavioural economist). This is not because I think there is something wrong with economics – It’s just that I’m the sort of economist who likes to hang around with a pretty broad and interdisciplinary gang of researchers, studying foundations and implications of human behavior, without worrying too much about whether I’m abiding by the official rules of the economics game.

Thank you so much for these amazing answers Chris! 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!

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