Interview with Jana Gallus

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 Jana Gallus. Jana is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Behavioral Decision Making at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. She studies incentives and organizational design. Much of her work has focused on analyzing the effects of social recognition on motivation and performance in the knowledge economy. Methodologically, Jana mostly uses field experiments. Her collaboration partners include organizations such as NASA, Wikipedia, the American Red Cross, hospitals, schools, and various private sector firms, mostly in tech. She is the coauthor of Honours versus Money: The Economics of Awards, Oxford University Press. She joined UCLA from Harvard and received her PhD in Economics (summa cum laude) from the University of Zurich in Switzerland.


Who or what got you into behavioural science?

I had the most wonderful PhD advisor, Bruno Frey, without whom I would not have gone into academia. He showed me that becoming a professor would allow me to stay curious and to continuously ask and pursue questions I find interesting – rather than having to answer others' questions or even worse: regurgitating others' responses.

What led me into behavioural science was a curiosity about what motivates people, why incentives sometimes backfire, and how organizations and policy could be improved to maintain and foster people's motivations and to facilitate desirable behavioural change.

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

This got me thinking. In general, what I get excited about is when I see that my research is relevant not just for some academics, but also for practitioners. And when it gets others interested in academia, either as a future career or as a partner in the field who interacts with academics. One such proud (and funny) moment was when I had run a field experiment with the community of Wikipedians, and the award scheme I had designed and studied ended up winning an award for helping address the volunteer retention challenge. And when this study led other organizations to reach out to me to collaborate on field experiments (ha, usually I have to do the outreach), or when I saw the results referenced by people in tech when discussing wider policies and platform design choices for motivating contributors (e.g., to open source).

Another "accomplishment" I am proud of is that my research has changed my own views. Let me give you two examples: While I started my academic career with a super positive view on the merits of awards for individuals and organizations, some of my later work has shown that they can have serious potential downsides. Another case in point is that I used to think of incentives in terms of monetary vs. non-monetary ones, as if that was the main difference. But my recent work with others suggests that this dichotomy might be misleading, and that we should think of the schemes (how the incentive is used) much more than the means (the “kind” of incentive: money, awards, etc.)

What do I still want to achieve? So many things! Among them is the goal to continue to fill in the different pieces of a puzzle and develop an empirically-based theoretical framework to understand how incentives function.

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

I had always wanted to become a diplomat.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I have four kids and constantly think about how to apply incentives (broadly construed) without screwing up their interests, motivations, and relations. They are all under the age of four, so at this point this is mostly about the use of language and our communication, which is fascinating.

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

I think there are various different skillsets that could all allow you to become a good behavioural scientist. So I would not want to single out a specific one. Instead, I would again emphasize the importance of developing one's curiosity, and of not shying away from learning that one's initial beliefs were wrong.

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

We’ll probably see a continued rise in field experimentation and exciting partnerships between academics and practitioners. More and more inter-disciplinary collaborations. And interesting uses of machine learning and “big” data (surprise).

What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?

Start out by exploring a wide range of topics and methods, and talk to people who do what you could see yourself doing to try to learn from their experience. Then start working on your own projects. And don’t be afraid from abandoning some or changing track altogether.

Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?

Herbert Simon.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Jana!

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!