Interview with Katherine Milkman


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 Katherine Milkman. Katy is a professor at The Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania), the president of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, an APS Fellow, and an associate editor at Management Science (pauses to take a breath). She has worked with numerous organizations on research and/or consulting, such as Humana, Google, Wipro, Cummins Engines, the U.S. Department of Defense, 24 Hour Fitness and the American Red Cross. Katy also co-directs the Behavior Change for Good Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. Talking research, Katy explores ways that insights from economics and psychology can be harnessed to change consequential behaviors for good, such as savings, exercise, vaccination take-up and discrimination. In her TEDx talk, she describes some of her key findings on this topic. Take it away Katy!

Who or what got you into Behavioural Science?

I’m an accidental behavioral scientist. I went to graduate school to get a PhD in computer science and business. I’d studied operations research and American studies as an undergraduate and have still, to this day, never taken a psychology class. It was in graduate school, during a required course on microeconomics, that I learned “behavioral economics” was a new field devoted to modeling human imperfections like impatience and loss aversion. I was floored. I started reading everything Richard Thaler had written and signed up for a class the following term on behavioral economics taught by David Laibson and Sendhil Mullainathan. As you might imagine, that class was amazing. I also managed to get a one-on-one meeting with Max Bazerman, and I talked him into letting me join weekly meetings with his PhD students. His open-mindedness and warm mentoring style are the real reason I managed to sneak into the field through a back door.





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

I’m most proud of the amazing students I’ve had the honor of mentoring, who are doing important and impactful research. Hengchen Dai makes me particularly proud — she is now a star professor at UCLA’s Anderson School, but when she was my student, we worked together on studies of the fresh start effect. Together we proved that people are more likely to pursue their goals after “new beginnings” (like New Year’s, birthdays or even Mondays). Edward Chang also makes me incredibly proud — he just joined the Harvard Business School faculty, and his research is focused on applying insights from judgment and decision making to reduce race and gender bias in organizations. My current students — Erika Kirgios and Aneesh Rai — are every bit as marvelous, and I can’t wait to see all that they’ll achieve.





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

Oh gosh. Honestly, I would probably work on Wall Street. I know that’s an odd answer, but I interned at two different investment banks in college and actually really enjoyed both experiences. I particularly liked a summer I spent working in equity research: my job involved data analysis and writing and interacting with lots of smart, hard-working people. So I think I could have been happy with a career in that arena. The only problem is that I wasn’t fundamentally curious about which stocks are heading up versus down; whereas I am very curious about what makes humans tick.


How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

I often joke with my husband that I do “mesearch” because so many of my projects originate from observations about sub-optimal ways I make decisions and a desire to find a “fix.” The best example is probably “temptation bundling” which is a term I coined to describe combining something I know I should do but put off (like exercise) with something I crave but feel guilty about doing (like reading lowbrow fiction). I figured out that by only letting myself enjoy tempting novels at the gym, I could motivate myself to exercise more and stop wasting time at home on literary garbage. That realization produced a couple of academic papers too.

If you get a kick out of this sort of example, you might enjoy my monthly newsletter on behavioral science, which tends to focus on topics related to personal improvement. Anyone can sign up at www.katymilkman.com/newsletter


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

Well, I’d start by saying a really thick skin and optimistic outlook are a must. There is a lot of criticism, rejection and disappointment involved in doing research. Your prized hypotheses often turn out to be wrong. Your brilliant paper is likely to be rejected by several conferences and journals on the journey to publication. Audiences watching you present may find important flaws in your analysis strategy. That’s just part of the process and it’s valuable. But it’s also painful. If you can’t bounce back from setbacks and maintain excitement about your work, being a behavioral scientist is unlikely to work out for you. I also think it’s important to be fundamentally curious about human nature. People who light up when they’re talking to me about a research idea are the people I’m most likely to encourage to pursue a career in behavioral science.


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

I’d predict that behavioral scientists will start to focus a lot more attention on issues related to racial inequality than they have to date and, similarly, that we’ll focus a lot more attention on climate change. There has already been some really exciting work on both topics in behavioral science (more on climate thanks to pioneers like Robert Cialdini and Elke Weber) but given the growing attention to these important issues, I would expect to see more and more behavioral scientists find their way to studying them.



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

Do I have to pick just one? If so, I guess I’d pick Betsy Levy Paluck. Her work is just amazing, and I’d be very excited to read her responses to these questions.




Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Katy! I will most definitely reach out to Betsy!

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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