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 sit alone in a room and think, read, and write. Therefore, I consider myself very fortunate in my current career.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I did not apply behavioural science to my daily life for a long time, but this changed when I went through a very difficult period a few years ago. Now I approach life much more consciously and try to apply insights from behavioural science wherever I think they can improve my life, for instance, when I want to exercise more or reflect more on how I spend my (working)days. In such cases, I consciously try to create daily habits around these goals and track whether I am consistently hitting them and experiencing the desired result (and adjust if this is not the case).
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Many skills are needed in behavioural science. It is valuable to build (mathematical) models of behaviour, run simulations, perform experiments, and use advanced econometric techniques to fit models and make causal inferences from naturally occurring data. Not everybody can be an expert in all these areas, so being able to collaborate with others is essential.
In the end, the most critical skill of all in my eyes is the (more general) ability to think clearly and critically. Purely technical skills will not be enough. If you do not think critically about your setting and research design, you will fail to see alternative explanations for the patterns in the data, and you will draw erroneous conclusions. If you do not think clearly, you will have difficulty communicating your research to others convincingly.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next ten years)?
It isn’t easy to make precise predictions as behavioural science is a large category containing many disciplines that will not necessarily move in the same direction. Nevertheless, the one thing that seems clear is that the trend towards relying more on large datasets from outside the laboratory will continue.
I hope that this will also lead to greater interest in individual differences. Much of the research in behavioural science focuses on average effects, but there is so much heterogeneity between people. If we want to help people make better decisions for themselves and others, then we need to understand what intervention will work for a particular person, not what intervention will work on average. Similar to personalised medicine, we will also need a more customised approach for behavioural interventions.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
For an academic behavioural scientist, I would say that you must work on topics and papers that you find interesting. You will spend so much time perfecting and polishing your work that it is vital that you intrinsically find it worthwhile to do so. It is also essential to decide on how much you want an academic career and what you are willing to sacrifice for it. It can be challenging to find a permanent job where you want to live. It is good to consider such trade-offs explicitly so that you do not find yourself living far away from your friends and family and regretting it, especially since there are also exciting behavioural science jobs outside of academia.
Whatever path you choose, it will be crucial to select the people you will work with carefully. Much value is to be had in collaboration. I have been lucky to collaborate with some fantastic senior scholars in the past, including Richard Thaler (now Nobel laureate), Colin Camerer (only a few years after his book convinced me to switch to economics), and Peter Wakker. I have a tremendous long-term collaboration with Martijn van den Assem, which has led to many superb papers and will continue to do so long into the future. I also get to collaborate with many young and talented people every day. In addition, at Essex, I have a bunch of fantastic colleagues. Indeed, the wonderful group of people that work here was one of the major reasons to move here. As we are social animals, working with and being around people we like is very important for our happiness. It is easy to undervalue this or take such an environment for granted.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Ever since I first went to Nottingham for my master in Behavioural Economics, I have always been deeply impressed by the energy and creativity of Chris Starmer. I would love to read an interview about his path into behavioural science and his views on the field.
I also would love to see an interview with my former PhD supervisor, Peter Wakker. Peter is an exceptional scholar with a deep passion for decision analysis, and it was extraordinary to be part of his group at Rotterdam. It would be interesting to read about his path into the field and his views on behavioural science.
When it comes to younger scholars, I would love to read an interview by Alex Imas or Cary Frydman. They both do very inspiring work, so I would be interested in their views on the field and the path that led them to where they are now. My former colleague Jonathan Schulz is also doing exciting work, and I think he would have interesting views on the field.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Dennie!
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!