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Interview with Joshua D. Greene

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 series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Joshua Greene. Joshua an American experimental psychologist, neuroscientist, and philosopher. He is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. Most of his research and writing has been concerned with moral judgment and decision-making. His recent research focuses on fundamental issues in cognitive science. However, his background is in philosophy, having studied a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Harvard, followed by a Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton University. If this combination tickles your fancy, Joshua has also written "Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them." Let's hear it from Joshua!


Who or what got you into Behavioural Science?

I got interested in moral philosophy in 7th grade when I started doing debate. I did a kind of debate called "Lincoln-Douglas Debate" which is focused on policy-relevant moral questions, often about tradeoffs between individual rights and the greater good (e.g. privacy vs. national security). In thinking through these questions as a debater, I tried to formulate my own philosophy. I have pragmatic inclinations, and I found myself drawn toward utilitarianism, according to which the best action or policy is the one that maximizes overall happiness. But then I was stumped by dilemmas such as the "transplant dilemma": Is it ok to kill one person if that person's organs can be used to save the lives of several others? I also wondered, a la Peter Singer, whether I and others like me could justify spending money on luxuries when some people are desperately in need of basic necessities for survival. I wondered about the psychology behind these judgments, and in my first year of college I started working with Jonathan Baron on precisely these sorts of questions. I ended up changing schools and becoming a philosophy major, but I continued to think about the cognitive mechanisms behind our moral judgments and the ways in which they may be faulty. In particular, I was struck by the Trolley Problem as a "fruit fly" for understanding the apparent contradictions in our moral thinking (and feeling). Later, while I was getting my PhD in philosophy, I met up with Jonathan Cohen, and together we tested some ideas about how moral dilemmas might arise out competing processes dependent on different systems in the brain. And that led to my main line of research on the cognitive and neural underpinnings of moral judgment. 

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? For me, pride comes and goes very quickly. As soon as I congratulate myself on something I've done, there's a little voice in my head that reminds me of all of its limitations. But I can tell you what I've tried to do. I've tried to demystify morality. I'm best known for the neuroscience of moral judgment and decision-making, and yet none of my primary scientific or philosophical conclusions require neuroscientific methods per se. I think that value of studying morality as a neuroscientist (and also as a cognitive scientist) is largely a matter of revealing the ways in which moral thinking is mechanical, and therefore inevitably limited and fallible. Understanding this allows one to step back from one's moral convictions, including the moral convictions that divide us as "tribes". My hope is that understanding morality as a natural biological and cognitive phenomenon can help us see past the things that divide us find new ways forward. I've argued more specifically, and controversially, that a scientific understanding of morality supports a more pragmatic approach to moral problem-solving. (I am talking about "utilitarianism", but I don't like that label, which leads to endless misunderstanding. I prefer to call this philosophy "deep pragmatism", but so far that term has not caught on). All of this is explained in my book, which attempts to sum up the first fifteen or so years of my work. I'm excited about the new work that I and my collaborators are doing on the "language of thought" as well as more applied moral cognition projects aimed at improving decision making, promoting cooperation, and encouraging effective giving. I am, of course, very proud of the fantastic grad students and postdocs who have come through my lab. I've learned more from them than they've learned from me. If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? I don’t know that I’d be any good, but I think I would enjoy being an architect or a filmmaker. My thinking is very visual. And I like building things that are functional and meaningful. How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? I'm a proponent of Effective Altruism. This has influenced my work -- including some research that is just getting started--but it's also personal. My wife nd I give a percentage of our income to the charities that have proven most effective at saving lives and improving human well-being, in particular those endorsed by GiveWell and The Life You Can Save More generally, I think that my experience as a psychologist and as a philosopher has helped me make better decisions. It's made me more aware of my biases. 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 that technical skills (programming, statistics) are increasingly important. But there’s still no substitute for good-old-fashioned philosophical exploration--for reading widely and thinking broadly. Scientists tend to emphasize (and too often fetishize) their technical tools. But tools for answering questions are of little value without first finding good questions. And that's actually the harder skill, and harder to teach, because there's no formula, no well-defined procedure. You just have to follow your interests, keep an open mind, and try to make connections. How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? Deep learning hit like a bomb about five years ago, building on developments that were in incubating for years and even decades. Enthusiasm has leveled off as people have appreciated the limitations of current deep learning methods. These are essentially about perception and pattern recognition, and one can only get so far with those things alone. I predict that within the next ten years there will be another wave of neurally inspired machine learning, as researchers learn to combine perceptual architectures with architectures that can handle more abstract and symbolic processes. This may not give us conscious machines or "artificial general intelligence", but I predict that it will add new capabilities unlike anything that exists now. And this will do for large swaths of behavioral science what deep learning has done for perception and pattern recognition. We will neural models of comprehension, imagination, and complex decision-making. I also expect to see more creative fieldwork testing important social scientific ideas using randomized controlled trials. I think the recent Nobel in economics given to Duflo, Banerjee, and Kremer is not just a reward for past work but a leading indicator of what's to come. Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? I would love to hear more from Jenn Lerner, Jenn Richeson, Fiery Cushman and Dave Rand.


Thank you so much for doing the interview Joshua! Thanks especially for the in depth and long answers, I'm sure they'll give many others a deeper insight into the interaction between philosophy and behavioural science. 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!

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Behavioural Science

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