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Interview with Dan Benjamin

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 Dan Benjamin. Dan is a Professor in the Behavioral Decision Making Group at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and in the Human Genetics Department at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. His research is in behavioural economics (which incorporates ideas and methods from psychology into economic analysis) and social-science genomics (which incorporates genetic data into the behavioural sciences). Some current research topics include understanding errors people make in statistical reasoning; exploring how best to use survey measures of subjective well-being (such as happiness and life satisfaction) to track national well-being and evaluate policies; and identifying genetic variants associated with outcomes such as educational attainment and subjective well-being. Dan received his Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

Since my father is a psychiatrist and my mother is a therapist, I may have been predestined to become a behavioural scientist!

Predestined or not, I was lucky to have a sequence of amazing mentors who helped shape my interests, all of whom were interested in behavioural science and talked about it with me. My uncle influenced me to become a competitive chess player when I was around 11 years old. My chess teacher, Dan Heisman, was a highly effective teacher, in large part because he is keenly attuned to the psychology of skill acquisition and expertise. My next chess teacher, Bruce Rind, was a psychology professor. While we traveled together to play in international chess tournaments, I quizzed him about social psychology and statistics. Toward the end of high school, I became excited about economics and decided that at university, I would be an economics major.

In my first year as an undergraduate, I had the good fortune to take a class with David Laibson, and I became involved in his behavioral economics research as a research assistant. Because behavioural economics combined my interests in economics and psychology, I was passionate about it from the beginning. David Laibson has been my mentor and professional hero (and collaborator) ever since.

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?

I am proudest of co-creating, with David Cesarini and Philipp Koellinger, the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium. The work we and many others have done conducting genetic studies of behavioural and social traits has contributed toward making it possible for behavioural scientists to incorporate measures of genetic influences, called polygenic indexes, into their research.

There is so much left to do! In social-science genomics, better data is continually becoming available, enabling us to construct more predictive, and hence more useful, polygenic indexes for an ever-wider set of behavioural and social traits. Better data and methods are also beginning to enable us to construct polygenic indexes that are less confounded by non-genetic factors, as well as polygenic indexes for more diverse samples. I want to reach a point where it is straightforward for social scientists to incorporate polygenic indexes into their work, and where the methods for doing so and the appropriate ways of interpreting the results are widely understood. (Appropriate interpretation is especially important in the context of genetics because there are many common misconceptions and a history of misuse based on them.)

Another line of my work is about measuring well-being using survey questions. With survey questions, you can ask about aspects of well-being such as having a sense of purpose and the quality of social relationships that are missed by standard economic measures. So far, none of the single survey questions we’ve studied—such as asking people how happy they are, or how satisfied they are with their life—seem to capture everything that people care. But work that I’ve done with Kristen Cooper, Ori Heffetz, Miles Kimball, and other co-authors indicates that it should be possible to construct a measure of well-being by asking questions about various aspects of well-being and then aggregating the responses to those questions. I’d like to finish developing the methodology for doing that and demonstrate it, ideally in collaboration with a government agency.

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

It’s hard to imagine not being a behavioural scientist! But if I couldn’t be either an economist or a psychologist, I guess I’d be a founder or manager at a mission-driven company or organization. I like building and managing teams toward a larger goal.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I try to avoid the sunk cost fallacy. For example, I quit a TV show or movie when I’m no longer enjoying it, I don’t worry about paying again to rent a movie I like that I didn’t finish, and I don’t eat something I paid for if I don’t like it.

I try to think about money in absolute terms rather than percentage terms. For example, I don’t worry about sales and coupons for small purchases, but I look for small percentage reductions in fees on mutual funds for retirement investments.

When making time versus money tradeoffs, I try to value my time correctly and think about lifetime wealth rather than current income. For example, I pay for Uber/Lyft for my commute so that I can work during the commute, and I buy a lot during every trip to grocery store (and take out a lot of cash every time I go to the bank) so that I can take fewer trips.

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 ways to be an outstanding behavioural scientist. For a behavioural economist, one valuable skill is psychological intuition: judging which explanations for behaviour are most plausible. These days, it is possible to become fully trained as a behavioural economist by exclusively taking economics courses and reading economics papers. However, instead of doing that, I recommend also reading research in psychology because research in psychology is full of good psychological intuition.

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

It seems clear that various trends will continue: more field experiments, more machine learning, more novel data sources (e.g., natural language processing), and more integration of behavioural economics into mainstream economics. Attention, memory, and beliefs are becoming more central topics in behavioural economics.

What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?

The advice I would give to anyone is to find a mentor. Good mentorship has been extraordinarily important in my own career.

The advice I would give to anyone who wants to be an academic is to get involved in research early. You learn how to do research by doing it, so get involved in any capacity. For example, volunteer to be a research assistant.

Don’t worry about working with someone senior. Often, the best people to learn from are the young researchers, who are more focused on research, have the most creative ideas, and know the most up-to-date methods and related work.

Don’t be afraid to work on ideas or use methods that are outside of the mainstream if you’re convinced that they’re important. Often, the most creative research takes a while to become mainstream. And often, the best ideas come from having a different perspective than everyone else.

Maybe most important of all: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Research is hard. It’s normal to fail, and most ideas that most of us have don’t pan out. Try to think of every failure as progress: one more failure to learn from so that you can get to the successes. And if you’re not failing sometimes, then you’re probably not pushing yourself to come up with the most innovative and important ideas you’re capable of.

Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?

There are too many to list, but my list would surely include David Laibson, from whom I always learn a lot.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Dan!

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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