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Interview with Ganna Pogrebna

Behavioural Economics 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 much longer series on this blog, which you read here. In today's interview the answers are provided by Ganna Pogrebna.

Ganna is a decision theorist and a behavioral scientist. Before joining The Alan Turing Institute, she worked at the University of Innsbruck, the University of Bonn, Humboldt- Universität zu Berlin, University of Sheffield, and Columbia University in New York. She is currently a Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Birmingham and a Research Fellow at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick. Within the Alan Turing Institure she is the Birmingham lead and Behavioural Data Science lead. Ganna has recently published a book: Navigating New Cyber Risks: How Businesses Can Plan, Build and Manage Safe Spaces in the Digital Age. And if she is not doing academic research, she is consulting, or blogging, on topics of behaviour, data science and AI!

Who or what got you into Behavioural Economics?

This is a long story, I am afraid. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a surgeon (everyone on my mother’s side in my family is a medical doctor), but my parents were categorically antagonistic to the idea as (to them) it implied working long hours, having huge responsibility and, at least in their minds, it was associated with a very bad work-life balance. So, when I went to the University, I had to opt for “anything but medicine”. I have decided to study International Relations as it was the only course that offered a 50-50 split between natural sciences and humanities (i.e., allows me to take loads of mathematics and statistics, but at the same time study economics and law – clearly, I had no clue about what I wanted to do). It also allowed me to study 4 foreign languages simultaneously, which was a lot of fun.

When I was 18, I won a Freedom Support Act scholarship to go to US and study Economics. But even then, I was not convinced that Economics will eventually become my career. In the end I graduated with two Master’s degrees – one in International Economic Relations and another in International Law. I even worked as a trainee in the Council of Europe in Strasburg in the Directorate of Biotechnology and Law for some time after graduation. But then, by complete chance, I ended up sneaking into a lecture by Andreas Ortmann at the Charles University of Prague (some of my friends were going to that university). Andreas was teaching Experimental Economics and that day was running an in-class auction experiment which demonstrated the “winner’s curse”. I have never seen a decision experiment before in my life, but at that moment I knew that I finally found something I wanted to do.

I can’t say I do pure “behavioural economics” though. I would call what I do “behavioural data science” as my work cuts across behavioural science, AI/computer science and business analytics. My goal is to address theoretical and empirical challenges related to human behaviour through development of innovative, impactful, and responsible cross-disciplinary approaches. By combining AI, data science, and behavioural science methodologies these approaches have a capacity to help cities, businesses, charities and individuals better understand why they make the decisions they make, and how they can optimise their behaviour to achieve better economic and social outcomes.

I know some people find what they want to do very early in life. For me it was a long journey, but after working with many people from many different fields: Economics, Psychology, Computer Science, Mathematics, Statistics, Engineering, I finally found my calling in behavioural data science.

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

Ask me this question when I am 80… I think it always depends on a context. I still believe that I am at the start of my career (I am sure, when I am 80 I will feel the same wayJ). If someone told me 15 years ago that I would eventually become a university professor, I would laugh them out of the room. And I am not sure about being “proud” of my work, I am certainty very excited about what I do. Sometimes I think that I have done very little. Other times, I remind myself that I managed to get something done: I helped set up the Decision Research at Warwick group at the University of Warwick, I have organized the Foundations or Risk and Utility conference (our flagship decision theory conference) in 2016, I have published in top journals, won almost £14 million of grant funding over the last 5 years, provided consultancy advice to many innovative companies around the globe, and taught the most talented students in the world. This year I also published a book for practitioners which argued that cybersecurity is a behavioural science rather than a technical field. I have set up a new Behavioural, Experimental and Data Science network at the University of Birmingham. I lead Behavioural Data Science strand within the Alan Turing Institute trying to popularize behavioural data science as a field. But at the end of the day, I don’t know whether all this is something I should be proud of. Time will tell whether in 10, 20, 30, 50, 100 years’ time anyone will remember any of my work… Then we will know what I “should have been proud of”.

What gets me excited academically is current work I do with my colleagues on hybrid modelling between decision science and AI (Anthropomorphic Learning) and I feel very privileged to be working with the top practitioners and academics, who are not afraid to cross the boundaries of their own fields and disciplines. I guess the highest reward I get out of my work is when I see that my ideas are implemented in practice and change lives.

But to be completely honest, I think my best accomplishment to date is giving birth to my son Madoc. He is only 3, but he already is a very independent young man, who surprises me and makes me more and more proud every day. I would like to get a life achievement award as a mother rather than as a scientist one day. By the way, to those women who are currently thinking whether to have or not to have children – I definitely recommend becoming a parent! It is scary and not easy sometimes and you often don’t know whether you will be able to combine career and family, but it is worth it. Kids do put everything in perspective!

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

I still think that the world has lost a great surgeon… Definitely… Maybe…

How do you apply behavioural economics in your personal life?

We know from behavioural research that when you give a person a choice between a chocolate cake and a fruit salad and ask them to make that choice (i) today and (ii) a week from today, they usually go for chocolate cake now and for fruit salad in a week’s time. This forms a basis of the “hyperbolic discounting” phenomenon. I just used this argument to convince my husband to lose over 30 kilos. Does that count?

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

One of my academic mentors used to tell me: “There are two types of early career researchers – some have skills, others have imagination. You can always acquire new skills, but you can never acquire imagination”. So, if I were an early career researcher in behavioural science, I would not worry too much about skills. I think the most important thing is to find an interesting problem you are genuinely passionate about, a problem you really want to solve. Then use your imagination to develop a vision about solving this problem. This would help you to understand what skills you need; so even if you don’t have the right skills, your passion will lead you to people who will help you acquire those skills or who will collaborate with you to solve your problem. Think of Greta Thunberg. Do you think she spends much time worrying about skills? No – she wants to change the world and has imagination. Skills and people willing to help will come if you have a dream!

I can give you another example. Last summer a student came to me wanting to work on a problem in urban analytics. She previously studied history and had no knowledge of any statistical packages and had not written a line of program in her life. However, she was very passionate about the problem she wanted to solve. So, in 3 months she learned Python and found people in UCL and MIT who helped her get the right programming and data analytics skills to solve her problem. She now runs a very successful AI company in the Silicon Valley.

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

I hope in the next 10 years there will be more people working at the intersection between behavioural economics, AI and computer science. In my opinion, Behavioural Data Science and Behavioural AI is the future. There are many important questions to answer. How do we increase human wellbeing at scale? How do we use technology to decrease inequality? How do we deliver personalized goods and services to customers, and yet use their personal data in responsible ways? How do we equip people with necessary skills to recognize cyberattacks? I also hope that behavioural science of the future will concentrate on making sure that technology and people can co-exist in harmony.

Thank you so much for these amazing answers Ganna! 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

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