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Interview with Daniel Gilbert

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 Daniel Gilbert. Daniel is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and is mainly known for his research on affective forecasting. He is also the author of the international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, which has been translated into more than 30 languages and won the 2007 Royal Society Prizes for Science Books. He has also written essays for several newspapers and magazines, hosted a short, non-fiction television series on PBS, and given three very popular TED talks. As a writer, I'm sure his answers to my seven questions will be great!


Who or what got you into Behavioural Science?

In 1976 I was a high-school drop-out and an aspiring science fiction writer living in Denver, Colorado. One day I went downtown to the local community college to sign up for a creative writing course, but by the time I arrived at registration the course was full. I asked the person at the desk whether there were any other courses that met at the same time and that still had room for a student. She scanned the list and said “Psychology.” I shrugged, signed up, and the rest is history. If cartography had been open that day, I’d probably be a mapmaker.

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

My students. No close second.

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

I suspect I’d still be a science fiction writer (though some journal editors claim I still am).

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I believe my data and I incorporate their lessons into my life whenever I can. For example, many years ago we published a set of studies suggesting that people are happier with irreversible decisions than with reversible decisions because they rationalize the former more than the latter. My friend Dave Myers pointed out to me that this might explain why married people were happier than those who lived together. The idea is that when your wife does something mildly annoying you shrug your shoulders and remember her good qualities, but when your girlfriend does something mildly annoying you immediately start wondering if you should keep shopping for another girlfriend. This made perfect sense to me, so I went home and proposed to my girlfriend. And just as our studies predicted, I now love her much more.

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

Learn to write. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or what you’ve discovered if you can’t get other people to understand it and feel excited by it. Science is a community enterprise and to succeed you must communicate well.

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

If we knew where we were going we would be there already. Prognostications of this kind are either trivial or hogwash. And frankly, I am not among the vast majority of scientists who are hypnotized by the word “new.” What I love about my little field – social psychology – is that it stays in steady orbit around a core set of concerns. Other areas of psychology have revolution after revolution. They discover something new and instantly declare the past irrelevant. Social psychology is the exception. We kept cognition alive during the behaviorist revolution that denied it, we kept emotion alive during the cognitive revolution that ignored it, and today we are keeping behavior alive as the neuroscience revolution threatens to make it irrelevant. But history teaches us that revolutions in psychology inevitably collapse under their own weight, and that’s when psychologists start hunting for all the babies they tossed out with the bathwater. Social psychology is the place they typically go to find them. So I think the challenge for social psychologists who are watching yet another revolution that promises to leave them in the dustbin of history is to remember that so far we’ve outlived every revolutionary who has ever pronounced us obsolete.

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

Andrew Oswald is right down the hall from you…or at least relatively nearby. Why don’t you ask him what made an otherwise sane economist start studying happiness…and apes?


Thank you so much for these amazing answers Daniel! There already is a short interview with Andrew on this blog, although studying apes was not mentioned.

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!


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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