Interview with Dennie van Dolder

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 Dennie van Dolder.

Dennie is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Economics at the University of Essex, and the director of ESSEXLab. In addition, I serve as an Associate Editor at Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. Dennie is an applied micro-economist, with a special focus on behavioral economics. Whereas most empirical research in judgment and decision making relies on experiments or surveys, Dennie employs large and rich data sets from carefully selected field settings that can be characterized as natural (or “naturally occurring”) experiments.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

Initially, I started studying for a degree in “Industrial Engineering & Management”. After only a few weeks in, I realised that this was not the right path for me. Although I am sure the degree could be helpful for aspiring managers at tech firms, it was not academic enough for my tastes. Therefore, after less than two months, I dropped out. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I wanted to start with this initial mistake, as quitting is highly undervalued; I have seen many people be prisoners of their past decisions in a way that is detrimental to their well-being (myself included). As research by Steven Levitt also points out: when doubting whether you should deviate from the status quo, you probably should! Many forces make it tempting to stick with our current path, so we should put a premium on change.

After that, I decided to study Sociology at Utrecht University. There, I was introduced to the work of people such as Thomas Schelling, Robert Axelrod, James Coleman, and Gary Becker. Their work inspired me to go more into the game theory direction. I completed both a bachelor’s and a two-year research master’s in Sociology at Utrecht. While working on my master’s thesis, I read the book “Behavioural Game Theory” by Colin Camerer, which made me want to dive deeper into behavioural and experimental economics. I decided to do a master’s on that topic at the University of Nottingham and have worked as a behavioural economist ever since.

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

As a behavioural scientist, I am most proud of the portfolio of projects that I have built over the years. In my research, I use a broad range of research methods–including experiments and advanced microeconometric techniques–to further our understanding of human judgment and decision making. Next to the more standard experiments, I often employ large and rich data sets from carefully selected field settings that can be characterised as natural (or “naturally occurring”) experiments. I have used data from lotteries, game shows, casinos, and sports, to investigate a wide range of topics, including cooperation, bargaining, lying, information aggregation, and decision making under uncertainty. Next to their scientific merit, these studies also provide a great way to introduce a broader public to findings from behavioural science.

I would not advise everybody to follow this route. Indeed, the best advice is probably the opposite: specialise and focus on one topic so that you can become a respected name in that field. Several mentors advised me to do just that. However, I think my character is more suited to diversity, and I am happy and proud to have made this path work. As for what I want to achieve, I take it one step at a time, and I aim to keep working on exciting projects and write papers that I find interesting.

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

It would have been great to be a writer of popular science books, as I enjoy reading scientific work, and this would allow me to jump topics and follow my interests even more than I do now. Alternatively, I would also have loved to be a novel writer, which was my aspiration growing up. Most importantly, I need a job that provides me with considerable independence and that gives me a lot of time to s