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 Erik Angner. Erik is the Professor of Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University, his research is an effort to answer the classical philosophical question “How should people live?” by exploring issues of well-being, rationality, and social order. His approach is thoroughly interdisciplinary and he holds two (!!!) PhDs – one in History and Philosophy of Science and one in Economics – both from the University of Pittsburgh. In his work Erik integrates the best available social science with the most careful philosophical reflection. Erik has also written two books and a number of papers and book chapters published in journals of philosophy, economics, psychology, medicine, and history of science. With all that knowledge, let's dive into the interview!
Who or what got you into Behavioural Science? My point of entry was really a series of meta-level questions about the very idea of human and behavioral science. I was – and remain – interested in the nature of such a science, how it differs from other kinds of knowledge, and its proper use in the public-policy arena. These sorts of questions inspired me to pursue a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, which has a well-known program for such things. At some point I decided to schlep across campus to immerse myself a bit in the social sciences. And I was just very lucky. First off, the economists received me with open arms – which is not a given when you’re a philosopher (many people don’t like philosophers). And second, the people I met were so good. Al Roth, the 2012 Nobel laureate, was still there with a group of experimental economists. Mark Perlman, the famous historian of economics, ended up returning from retirement to supervise me. A little farther afield, at Carnegie Mellon University, Herbert Simon was still around, and I got to take courses with Robyn Dawes, George Loewenstein, and Baruch Fischhoff – not to mention Cristina Bicchieri, whose work in the intersection of philosophy and behavioral science has been a model for me ever since. In one of our first meetings, I recall Al Roth cautioning me that economics is a slippery slope: “You think you’re just going to take one course, and then you find yourself like this,” he said, gesturing wildly at the piles of economics papers strewn across his office like fresh snow. And he was exactly right. Having taken one course, I decided to take a few more, then to go for an M.A. degree, and having completed that, I decided I might as well pursue a PhD while I was at it. In the end, I defended my economics dissertation in the fall and the philosophy thesis in the spring. Pursuing two PhD degrees at the same time was maybe unwise. I could easily have failed badly. But I’m glad I did it, as Mark Twain said, partly because it was worth it – but mostly because I’ll never have to do it again. What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? My main contribution, I suspect, is a form of intellectual arbitrage. I don’t think of myself as the most able philosopher – nor the most productive economist. The thing I seem to do well is to identify developments in philosophy that can help shed light on questions being asked in the behavioral sciences, and the other way around. So I snatch well-worked-out ideas from one region of the intellectual landscape and transplant them elsewhere and see if I can make them take root. My training in history of science and history of economics is immensely
helpful. It gives me context, which is often missing, and allows me to see connections between superficially disparate ideas. Part of why this pays off is the extreme degree of specialization in modern academia. I understand the division of labor, and don’t mean to deny that it holds benefits also for the production of knowledge. But division of labor only works in the presence of trade. In the behavioral sciences there are so many related research programs that proceed on parallel tracks. The study of well-being is a great example. We have welfare economics, the psychology of well-being, the epidemiology of mental health, and so on, and all this against a backdrop of 2500 years of philosophical study in the Western tradition alone. There’s a strong case to be made that these intellectual traditions are all, at bottom, about the same thing – and yet, until recently, few connections were made. It turns out that one of the things that philosophy does (and does well!) is to explore how different parts of the intellectual landscape connect to each other: how ‘welfare’ in economics intersects with ‘well-being’ in psychology, for example – and how both relate to the corresponding concept in moral and political philosophy. As the University of Pittsburgh philosopher Wilfrid Sellars said, the aim of philosophy is to understand “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” As the sciences get divided up into increasingly narrow sub-subdisciplines, the task of figuring out how it all hangs together becomes evermore important. That’s at least part of the value of philosophy. My textbook is an expression of this desire to explore how all this –*waves arms around* – hangs together. Teaching behavioral economics to novice students is not in the first instance a matter of providing them with the right functional forms, or whatever, but rather explaining where the whole discipline comes from, what it’s trying to accomplish, and how we can use its methods and theories to explore the nature of the human condition – maybe even improve it. That’s the task I gave myself. This project has turned out to be my most satisfying longstanding project. Right out of graduate school, I was more single-mindedly focused on getting those publications – and for obvious reasons. But from my current, midcareer vantage point, my publications remain largely unread and forgotten, whereas the textbook reaches several orders of magnitude more people. And if only a small fraction of them are inspired to pursue behavioral science in the interest of making the world a better place – that gives me immense satisfaction.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? Without the behavioral science, I imagine I’d be a straight-laced philosopher – busy confronting other people’s theories with my unscientific intuitions and finding the theories wanting. Not that that would be a bad thing. But the interdisciplinary work I’m doing now strikes me as infinitely more exciting.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? In my view, scientific theories and methods should be evaluated in large part on the basis of what they help us do – and in particular, on the basis of whether they help us lead better, more meaningful lives. In fact, I think this is true of philosophy too. So I’m committed to testing my ideas in my life – and to evaluate the consequences. In graduate school, I had trouble choosing dissertation topics. (Actually writing the thesis ended up taking less time than choosing the topic.) At some point I was complaining about this to Robyn Dawes. He chuckled and said it really doesn’t matter: “The moment you pick something, cognitive-dissonance reduction will kick in, and the project will seem like the most important ever.” So I picked something, and it did. More recently, my family and I had to decide whether to stay in the U.S., where we were firmly entrenched and perfectly happy, or to move back to my native Sweden. We decided to evaluate the decision in terms of happiness research. There were advantages to both locations. The advantages of staying in the U.S. – more prestige,
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? A genuine curiosity about human beings and the human condition is a sine qua non, I think. A willingness to learn from others – whether teachers, students, friends, or various authors, living or dead, in our own discipline and outside of it – is critical. If our science is going to be cumulative, we’d better try our best to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. And then, a good amount of epistemic humility – an appreciation for how little we know and how much we have yet to learn.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? Baruch Fischhoff told me that the key to making successful predictions is to predict something that will happen, or a time at which it will happen – but never both. In that spirit, I should probably punt on that question. But I think we’ll continue to see behavioral science being better integrated with other disciplines and human endeavors – including things like design, architecture, and city planning. I also anticipate a bit of a backlash. Behavioral economics and the nudge agenda have become so very popular. They’re sometimes oversold, and sometimes overbought, as George Loewenstein puts it, and I think this will lead to a reassessment of what behavioral science can and cannot do for us.
Which other behavioural scientist would you like to read an interview by?
George Loewenstein and Cristina Bicchieri were the biggest influences on my work, and deserve all the attention they can get. Those two combine deep insights with fascinating applications and are just all-around charming people too.
Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Erik! Doing two PhDs at the same time sounds like a nightmare, honestly...
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!