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 academics in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Nick Chater. Nick is a professor of Behavioural Science at the Warwick Business School, which he joined in 2010 after holding chairs in psychology at Warwick and UCL. He has over 200 publications, has won four national awards for psychological research. Nick is co-founder of the research consultancy Decision Technology; and is on the advisory board of the Cabinet Office's Behavioural Insight Team (BIT). Apparently he had enough "free" time left to write the nicely controversial book The Mind is Flat.
Who or what got you into Behavioural Economics? It was my friend and, later, co-founder of Decision Technology Ltd, Henry Stott, who got me interested, when he came as a PhD student to the Psychology Department in Warwick. Henry persuaded me that decision making is of crucial practical importance, as well as being theoretically deep and interesting.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural economist? I don't really think of myself as a behavioural economist, but as a mixture of a cognitive scientist and behavioural science. My favourite topic, at the moment, is virtual bargaining - a new theory of social interaction, developed with colleague at Warwick (especially Jennifer Misyak, Hossam Zeitoun and Tigran Melkonyan). I think this may help us understand lots of problems in communication and joint action, with potential implications for psychology, organizational theory, economics and even ethics. But I have lots of co-favourite topics!
If you weren’t a behavioural economist, what would you be doing? I can imagine working in a nearby area, such as philosophy of science or the psychology of perception, both of which I think are fascinating, and incredibly illuminating about the mind. But outside research, I'd be totally stuck!
How do you apply behavioural economics in your personal life? Not much! Following the lead of Warwick psychologist Gordon Brown, I do quietly tell myself that I really enjoy things that I want to do more of (e.g., writing papers) - and being very suggestible, this seems to work.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural economist?
Not many actually! The main thing is curiosity, scepticism about existing accounts, and willingly to pick up whatever you need to tackle the immediate problem you are facing. I do think having a broad 'big picture' view of related fields (psychology, economics, philosophy, AI, politics, ethics, depending on your interests/focus) is very useful in helping break out of narrow assumptions that we can easily get stuck with.
Are there any recommendations you would make? To remember that people are far smarter and more creative than any computational system we can conceive of---so the primary question is 'how is it our decision making is so good?' rather than 'how come we are so hopeless?'
How do you think behavioural economics will develop (in the next 10 years)?
My personal guess is that richer models of how people interact (the hidden promises, contracts, threats, and so on, that underpin social life) will increasingly be a focus. I wonder, too, whether we'll start to think about rationality in more social terms---the idealization of the individual as a lone theorist, attempting to predict and control the world, often seems unhelpful, and perhaps we can do better.
Last question then: Having done this interview, who would you like to read an interview with?
If I were to answer this question in a more hypothethal manner (e.g. in history) there are so many to choose, but I might go with Frank Ramsey, inventor of Dutch book arguments, ideas of optimal taxation, important bit of mathematics, and the subjective interpretation of probability, and lots more. He managed all of this by his terribly early death at 26. For this interview specifically, how about Ralph Hertwig? He would make for a great interviewee.
Thank you so much for these amazing answers Nick! 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!