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Interview with Jon Jachimowicz

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 Jon Jachimowicz. Jon is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School, where he teaches the Leadership and Organizational Behavior course (LEAD) in the Required Curriculum. His research interests are employees' passion for their work and economic inequality. He particularly focuses on how those at the bottom of the income distribution can be supported to attain more favorable long-term outcomes. He received his Ph.D. in Management from the Columbia Business School. And he is a massive EDM fan!


Who or what got you into behavioural science? In college, I was part of this German scholarship called the Studienstiftung. And they do these summer workshops, I call them “nerd camp.” Basically, they have these academies where for two weeks in the summer, you go to this nice location somewhere throughout Europe, they bring together people who are on this scholarship. In the mornings, you have some academic content, and then in the afternoon, you're free to explore. At the time I was an undergrad, and I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I had just completed a stint in consulting, and was weighing my options of what to do next. And I didn't really know any other professors or people who are academics. This wasn't something that I had any connection to, or any real interest in. And so I was at this nerd camp and at one of the dinners I am sitting next to this guy, Raphael, who, at the time was getting his PhD at the University of Cambridge. And Raphael and I were talking, and he was telling me about what he does. And I thought, oh, that that sounds really interesting. And he asked me what kind of questions I'm fascinated by. And I told him kind of my frustrations with consulting and the kinds of questions that really grabbed me. And he said, “Oh, you should, you should talk to my supervisor, because you two sound like you have a lot in common”. And so that that was a Jochen Menges, who at the time, was a professor at the University of Cambridge who is now at the University of Zurich. And so he put me in touch with Jochen, and very quickly, I came to the realization that this sounds really fascinating and really interesting. But at the time, I was already recruiting for jobs after college and was in a little bit of a conflict: do I really want to give this a shot or not? And so I did two things: I applied for a Master's program at the University of Cambridge. I didn't know that you could just go and get a PhD. So I wanted to get a Masters first just get a sense of the lay of the land. But I was also interviewing, and I ended up getting a job at Google and then had to make a decision. Do I go to Google? Or do I do my masters? Playing into that decision, Jochem said “why don't you spend the summer before you would start your masters working for me as a research assistant? But here's the catch, I can't actually pay you, you'd have to be unpaid.” And I was weighing the options, and I didn't really have a good amount of money. And I was looking forward to start working for Google and actually bring in some money. But it sounded interesting. And I was talking to my brother at the time, and my brother said: “Listen, if you don't go and explore this unpaid thing now, whenever are you going to do it? The decision is only going to get more challenging over time. Once you're in a job, once you have a career, once you have a steady income, it's only ever going to get more challenging.” And so I took the unpaid internship and the rest, as they say, is history.

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? I'm very junior, I started my PhD in 2014. So I graduated a bit over a year ago. And so I don't have a long career to look back on and be proud of. The thing that really attracted me to being an academic was the ability of faculty to make a positive difference in the lives of others. And by that, I mean, specifically, our students. Obviously the students that we teach in our classes, but then also the students that we interact with, in all other sorts of ways. Whether that's through research assistants, whether that's through masters students, whether that's through PhD students, whether that's people at our own institution, people at other institutions. Once you are in a position where you have some degree of autonomy and power, I think the thing I'm proudest of is that I hope I'm wielding my power effectively. I'm very mindful of that. I just really care about how I use my position? How do I use my power now, to lift up the voices of others to make sure that other people have the ability to advance. That other people have the ability to really just grow into the best versions of themselves? And so when I'm thinking about my proudest moments, it's moments where it seemed like a student walked away from something that I taught for example, and learned something or was able to reflect afterward and got back to me. Or where I heard from students years later, in some cases, in how our interaction made a difference. Or when I'm thinking about the research assistants and PhD students that I mentor and seeing them thrive and seeing them just develop into such wonderful thinkers and scholars. When you ask me what am I proudest, I think that is just so front and centre for me. Something I’d still want to achieve relates to one of my topics of study: the pursuit of passion, how people pursue their passion, how passion is expressed and perceived. I think the overarching challenge that I see is that we live in a day and age right now where there's a huge amount of interest of people who want to pursue their passion. Of people who want to make a difference in the world. But there's very little guidance for how to actually do it, and how to navigate the challenges and pitfalls of what it means to pursue your passion. And as a result, I see a lot of people, whether they're young people, middle aged people, older people just become really disenchanted with their pursuit of passion. And become just almost disengaged and frustrated and as a result start reneging on their promise to pursue their passion or on their kind of idealistic elements of what it means to pursue their passion. And I would love to continue doing the research. This is super early stage, but at some point, I think, I'd love to have the wealth of evidence and hope that my colleagues come along with me, that actually allows us to say like, here's some best practices for what it means to pursue your passion and develop that into a course and teach that widely. It's all fair game if I say I want to help make the world a better place. But isn't it way more impactful to understand how I can help empower others how to make a difference in the world? Because if other people make a difference in the world, and then teach others how to make a difference in the world, and teach others how to make a difference in the world, that is how we make a true difference in the world—by empowering others to make a difference. So that's one of my long term ambitions where I hope my research and my colleagues research continues to develop toward and then hopefully, I can then distil that into a class that can be taught and circulated widely.

If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? So there's two alternative career paths that I have toyed with in the past. I would love, and I have no skills in this whatsoever, but I would love the idea of being an electronic music producer. And I'm German, so this is a huge stereotype. And I'm totally fine to live up to that stereotype. I'm a huge fan of good electronic music, and there's so much shitty electronic music out there. And again, like I have no skills, right? So maybe it’s a good thing I’m not an electronic music producer. The other thing that I've actually toyed more seriously with was being an entrepreneur. There was a time during my PhD when I was seriously considering quitting my PhD in order to start a company with a friend of mine. That would have been a behavioural science company that I think had a really powerful idea. And I continue to believe in the idea. We had some possible investment signed up, but then at some point, we had to make the call: are we both going to quit our jobs, quit our careers and pursue this full time? Or are we just going to stick with what we're doing right now and wait for something better to come along? And I think I'm too risk averse to actually be an entrepreneur. But being an academic is very similar to being an entrepreneur, you're betting on an idea, you're investing time, effort, and money into an idea. The one difference is that if in academia an idea doesn't pan out, then you still have a job. Whereas if, as an entrepreneur, if an idea doesn't pan out, you might be in debt, you might not have a job. In my case, I might not have had a visa to continue staying in the country and never been able to come back to the US. So there was a lot of at stake for me, but it was certainly something that that fascinated me, and continues to do so.

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? I do a couple of things that come to mind. One of them is I do multi-attribute variable rating schemes. So whenever I'm faced with life changing decisions, I bring out my Excel spreadsheet that I have from negotiation class, and I list out all of the categories. So all of the all of the different decision attributes, I then attach a weight to every decision attribute, and then I rank order all the different options and attach a weight to them and then calculate the final score. And so I built my own decision models, and then I literally just create different tabs in Excel that say something along the lines of what happens if my weights shift. I'm super nerdy like that. More applied to my own work, I've got this paper out on commutes as transition time. So thinking about how commuting [this was back in the old days when people would actually commute to work and we had like physical workplaces]. We were going to this prior work on commuting, where everyone basically said “we all hate commuting”, right. But then, when people were asked “what's your optimal commuting time?” Based on previous work, we would say the optimal commuting time should be zero. But actually, the average response was 16 minutes. And so you got to ask yourself, what value do people see in commuting? Because there must be some value otherwise people wouldn't say 16 minutes. And one value that we hypothesize and identify is that actually there is a physical and temporal buffer between different roles. When you're at home, you've got a bunch of roles that you're associated with, you’re a partner, you’re a parent. And then when you're at work, you have a bunch of different roles that you're associated with: you’re a supervisor, colleague, subordinate, whatever. But now we no longer have that transition anymore. So what does it mean when you no longer have that transition? Well, it's really hard to detach. There is work that my colleagues, Jeff Polzer and others have done showing that during COVI-19, the work day has actually gotten longer. That people work on average, about 48 minutes longer. Which is quite surprising, because you would imagine that now that people don't have to commute, they would just work less. But actually, people seem to be working more. And I think part of that is because we don't have any transition time. So we check our emails after dinner. We never quite leave our work roles. And so the way that I apply this to my own life is that I try to transition. So in the morning, I put on work clothes, and then in the evening, I take off those work clothes and put on my home clothes. My partner and I go for walks either before dinner, or after dinner, and I leave my phone at home during those walks. And then when I'm back it feels like work is behind me. I switch off emails on my phone when I try to finish work and try not to check them during the rest of the evening, even though I am obviously on my phone doing other things.

With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? One of the biggest challenges that we have is that having an idea is the easy part. Having an idea is not the hard part of the work that we do. I think a really hard part is idea selection. So knowing what idea to work on. And giving up on ideas. Once you've started working on an idea, understanding when it's time to let go and not pursue it, because sunk costs are a real thing. And escalation of commitment is a real thing. And then I think the third thing is project management. So I think as academics, we never get trained actually in how to run projects efficiently, and how to manage other people towards timelines within financial constraints. People who have varied motivations. People that oftentimes we don't really have any formal authority over, because there are people at other institutions or people who outrank us. And so in addition to idea selection, and killing your darlings, once you have an idea that you think is great, how do you actually deliver on that? How do you do the biggest and best version of this. I think that oftentimes, behavioral scientists pursue ideas that are not as interesting, or we pursue ideas that we should have given up on a long time ago, or we fail to manage projects adequately. And then the result is just not an interesting project. Because nobody really wants to work on it, or we just tend to think too small. Because we don't manage our projects effectively. We don't really understand what the best and biggest version of this of this project could be.

How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? Are you asking me for what I think is going to happen, or what I hope will happen? Let me start with my hope: There's really fascinating work that's happening in large part supported by a commitment to open science practices, replicability, putting materials online, access to participants through platforms like Mturk, etc. So there's some really wonderful work happening in the lab space that is replicable and solid, and provides us with evidence bases to call what we do as science. Which is I think, not a given, I think that if we look back 20-30 years, a lot of what we were doing does not qualify as science. Not everything, but a lot of what we're doing doesn't and I think more and more we're working toward it. So I hope that we continue doing that. I hope that these practices more and more become the norm and required and expectations and that that not following those requirements becomes an exception. More broadly speaking, I think that we need to understand the limits of doing this kind of work. And think much more about the implementation. For example, we know that defaults work. But then what does it mean to actually have defaults work in practice? How do we think about the different effects of context? And how do we actually think about behavioral outcomes, rather than scales as outcomes and ratings and judgments as outcomes? I hope, in the next 10 years, we will continue to work with organizations, private or public, government, it doesn't matter. But that we just continue to have vehicles set up that allow us to actually run large scale studies. I hope that becomes more and more than norm for Behavioral Science. At the moment, I think that for a lot of the stuff that we do, we're not adequately set up to have the evidence base to understand how a lot of our interventions might work out on a lot of different contexts. So how can we build that evidence base over the next five to 10 years through public/private relationships that actually allow us to put us in a place to do that?

Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? What I'm really excited about is the future of the field. I care a lot about what people who are rising through academia now are thinking. Who are entering academia now, who have fresh eyes. I want to know what their aspirations are. Because their aspirations is what I hope we, as a community, can try to work toward. How we might be able to foster, how we might be able to develop, how we might be able to help them achieve those. It’s all fair game to say, “Oh, you should talk to all these other famous people and hear their thoughts,” I don't know to what extent that'll be helpful to you or your audience. I think it's much more interesting to think about what the junior people are thinking about the field.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Jon! And don't worry, as this interview goes up, I will be running the Next Gen Interview series, so that younger behavioural scientists also get a voice!

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

Personal Finance



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