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 George Wu. George is the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science at the Chicago Booth School of Business. Prior to joining the Chicago Booth faculty in 1997, George was an assistant and associate professor in the managerial economics area and then in the negotiation and decision making group at the Harvard Business School. He also has worked as a lecturer at Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) and was also the inaugural faculty director of the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership. Prior to graduate school, George worked as a decision analyst at Procter Gamble. George studies the psychology of decision making; goal-setting and motivation; and cognitive biases in bargaining and negotiation. Let's see how he answers my eight questions!
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
When I was an undergrad, I took a class on operations research. Part of that class was the study of decision analysis. I got a job out of college doing decision analysis at Procter & Gamble. When I started grad school, I thought that my academic career would involve the formal analysis of decision problems (i.e., decision analysis). But my studies led me to Kahneman and Tversky’s work, and much of my early research was inspired by that work, in particular their work on risky choice.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve? I always enjoy reading my old papers. There are parts of every paper that make you cringe – “really, I thought that?”. But I find myself enjoying reading some of my old papers and reliving the sense of discovery that I experienced when I was doing that research. One of the things I love about research is that feeling of discovery – when you know something that others don’t. That’s not so much a standard sense of pride – but it is part of the joy of research. And I hope that this joy continues.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
Honestly I don’t know. Even as someone who has studied decision making for years, I realize that so much of what happens in life is luck and opportunity. I consider myself lucky in that respect. I didn’t come to graduate school to study behavioral science – but that’s what I am doing now, and it’s something that I love and am decently good at. So, I’m not going to pretend to know what other path I would have followed if I hadn’t been as fortunate as I have been.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
It is impossible for me not to use what I study and teach to understand my own life and what happens around me. A lot of times this is really rewarding because it gives me insights into what I should do. On the other hand, the last 18 months of the pandemic has been humbling. Our frameworks for decision making don’t eliminate the confusion about what risks to take on in our lives. And for at least for me, our behavioral science theories are lacking in helping us understand how others are going to behave in this crazy time.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? Behavioral science is such a broad field. There are people who are psychologists, but also economists, and mathematicians, and engineers, and doctors, and lawyers, and all kinds of other academic professionals. And that’s what makes the field great – there are so many different ways of looking at decision making and human behavior. This means lots of different skills are relevant – in spotting puzzles in the world, developing psychological theory, writing down mathematical models, running lab or field experiments, analyzing archival data, etc. No one needs all those skills. But everyone has to have some skill, plus also, ideally, the ability to work with other kinds of researchers who complement their skill set.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
Great behavioral scientists also have to be great communicators. People interested in the field have a lot of different intellectual backgrounds, as well as real world that they are applying these insights to. Many of us have been beneficiaries of the amazing ability of the leaders in our field to communicate complicated ideas to different audiences, both in written and spoken form. This is something that we should all aspire to do as well as we can.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I think that we’ve already seen that behavioral science has become more applied. That’s a good thing. But one area that I hope gets more attention is improving individual decision making. Perhaps this interest reflects my entry into the field as a decision analyst. We have so much more to learn to help guide people to make better decisions.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I feel lucky that I’ve been a colleague of amazing behavioral scientists, Richard Thaler, for instance. And I am equally lucky to be friends with lots of great minds in the field – so I’ve been privileged to hear many tales of what inspired people in our field and what was the impetus to engage in certain bits of research. That said, I love to read just about any kind of good interview – people in our field or not – because everyone’s journey is different. I hope others will learn something from my journey.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions George!
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!