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Interview with Robert H. Frank

Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisations, 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 Robert H. Frank.

Robert is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor emeritus of Management and Professor emeritus of Economics at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos. For more than a decade, his "Economic View" column appeared monthly in The New York Times. His books have been translated into 23 languages, including Choosing the Right Pond, Passions Within Reason, Microeconomics and Behavior, Principles of Economics (with Ben Bernanke), Luxury Fever, What Price is the Moral High Ground?, Falling Behind, The Economic Naturalist, The Darwin Economy, and Success and Luck.


How did you get into behavioural science?

I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do when I graduated from college. I had taught a freshman mathematics course my senior year in college and I really enjoyed doing it and think I did a good job of it. So I decided at that point that I wanted to go into teaching. The next two years I was a math and science teacher in the Peace Corps in Nepal. It was quite common for Peace Corps volunteers to take an interest in development economics. So after this I applied to graduate schools in economics and my best offer was from Berkeley. When I arrived there I learned they didn't have a very good program in development economics, so I just became an economist. It was probably six or eight years into my teaching post at Cornell University that I began to lose interest in the traditional economic approach. It didn't seem that what my colleagues were doing was very closely connected to anything going on in the world. And so, after my first sabbatical I went in a very different direction and was much more behaviourally oriented, When I came back from my sabbatical Richard Thaler had joined the faculty and he and I became friends and spent a lot of time talking about issues together.

Throughout your career, what is it that you are actually proudest of having achieved as a behavioural scientist? And what would you still like to achieve?

I consider the most important implication of my work is that a quarter to a third of GDP is largely wasted. For example, the wine we drink these days is better than what the kings in France used to drink, even if it’s a $10 bottle. But when you’re someone’s guest for dinner you must bring a $30-$40 bottle. It would be fairly easy to design tax policies that would steer the same dollars that now go into consumption arms races into support for things that would actually make a difference in people's lives. I don't think of myself as having been smart to come up with that idea. But if the idea were implemented, I think it would do more for humanity than almost any other idea I can think of.

So that's at once the idea I'm proudest of, but it's also the idea I have the most regret about, having failed to persuade anybody to adopt it. I continue to hope, though, that others will eventually take up this idea.

Another strand of my work I’m proud of, one that was in many ways more intellectually satisfying, was my attempt to answer the question of why people do the right thing when no one's looking. That was a question that was of special interest to me because I've always been keenly interested in evolutionary biology. There are people who don't cheat when no one's looking, despite there being advantages to cheating, especially if you couldn’t possibly be caught. I've just written a history of how this idea developed when I was work working on it.

How do you think behavioural science in general is likely to develop in the next 10 years?

The cognitive errors branch of behavioural science has made valuable contributions – many countries now have nudge units that implement policies based on this literature. So I think that line of research has produced clear benefits. But my hope is that we'll go after the really big prize at some point, which is to adopt a steeply progressive consumption tax that that would divert the dollars we are pouring into destination weddings and 40,000 square foot mansions and 8 liter car engines into other things that would actually extend people's healthy lifespans and make them able to experience more of the things that we know produce human flourishing. There's a big literature on the determinants of human flourishing. You're from the Netherlands [directed at Merle], which is consistently among the top five happiest countries in the world. The countries ahead of you are all Scandinavian. All of these countries tax the rich more heavily and they invest more heavily in the public sphere. Evidence suggests that model is much more supportive of human flourishing. My most recent book was about behavioural contagion, which is a vastly underappreciated phenomenon in behavioural science. The world is so complex that if you didn't take cues from other people around you, you just couldn't make your way through it. Individually we know very little of what we need to know to survive, but collectively we know a lot. But when people think about the influence of peer behaviour, they nearly always have that coded with a negative valence. But contagion in any event is a very real and powerful phenomenon. And what it means is that when things start to change, they can change incredibly quickly.

Studies show, for example, that the adoption of solar panels is highly contagious. what leads people to adopt rooftop solar installations. In the early part of the adoption cycle, a new adoption would need just four months to spawn a copycat installation in the same neighbourhood. And when another four months pass, you've got another two. So after two years you have 64 installations because one new one happened two years ago. So I hope the field will continue studying this more intensely as well.

If you hadn't found behavioural science what do you think you would've have been doing?

Good question! I decided after that experience I had in college to be a teacher. So I think if I hadn't studied economics, I might've studied biology or psychology.

And would you’ve become a professor in that? Oh probably. But then again, who knows? I do think I would’ve always gone to the academy. I can't think of anything else that would've been obvious to do.

Do you apply any behavioural science to optimize your own life?

Behavioural science has useful lessons about which goals are most worth pursuing and how best to make progress toward them. As it happens, one of the ten chapters I drafted of a memoir last year focuses exactly on this topic, and I’m now thinking to expand that chapter into a book.

What advice would you give younger behavioural scientists looking to enter the field? Like are there any things that you would recommend doing things that you would not recommend doing?

Danny Kahneman once told me that he always tells junior colleagues to never publish a paper in an edited volume, because no one reads edited volumes. He says if you have if you have a paper that you want people to read, keep plugging away until you find a peer reviewed journal to publish it in. So that always seemed like good advice to me. I give an assignment in all the economics classes I teach, behavioural or not. I call it the economic naturalist writing assignment, which asks students to pose an interesting question, based on something they have either experienced personally or observed personally, and then try to use economic principles to craft an internally consistent answer to it. The title of the paper has to be a question, because I think having a question that's interesting is the most important start to any research project.

If you're interested in knowing the answer to the question, it's going to be so much easier for you to work on it. And you're going to put so much more of yourself into it to come up with an answer that you've feel you can defend to others. One advice about jobs; I’ve found it very difficult to get students to pay attention to any other dimension of the job offers they were considering other than the starting salary. And it’s a non-controversial idea that some jobs get paid more, because there’s aspects to the job that are not as satisfying (e.g., pursuing ethically questionable tasks). So there are all sorts of working conditions in jobs that matter to people besides the salary. If you're thinking to take a job because it offers the highest salary, you should at least ask yourself, what is it exactly that they want me to do that's so unpleasant, that they're paying me more than these other people are offering?

According to you, what is the specific skill or maybe even skill set that sets apart decent or right behavioural scientists from excellent behavioural scientists?

Phil Cook and I published a book in 1995, about the winner take all society. It was a book about how technology is extending the reach of the people who are the best at whatever it is they do.

Now the technology of production and communication is such that if you're the best at something, even if only a tiny sliver of the world population cares about what you do, they can find you and they're willing to pay a premium because you're the best at what you do. So the modern path to success is to become the best at whatever it is that you do. But then how do you do that? There's a big literature on expertise. There’s debate on the exact number of hours that needs to be spent to become an expert, but everyone agrees that it’s a really big number. one thing that stands out is that you need to be in flow. It's the very most pleasurable psychological state that can endure for hours at a time. For me, when I'm working on a book, I experience that. That’s why I want to read what I wrote the day before, then I start editing it, next thing, I'm extending it, and then it's time to open a bottle of wine. So if you find a job like that, you're much more likely to become really good at whatever it is you do. Because you're not going to have to whip yourself to put in the 10,000, or the 20,000 hours of practice, you're going to be doing what you want to do. And that is a great skill to grow other skills from.

Do you have any frustrations with the field as it currently stands?

George Loewenstein has written critically of the nudge movement, saying that's not really where the big problems lie. For example, if you focus on climate change the problem isn't that people aren't being environmentally conscious enough, but it's that the important activities that give rise to carbon emissions aren't priced correctly. We need a stiff carbon tax or if we can't do that, then we need massive investment in our laws that prevent companies from polluting; that's the real source of the problem. This was always very much in line with my own thinking. More recently, however, I’ve come to think difficulty about the role of individual action. It's traditional in economics to assume that people come into the world with fixed preferences and identities. Prices and incomes then drive decisions about what to consume, what trips to take, where to live, and all that. That's not how things work. We gradually become who we are in the process of living our lives; we develop our identities over time. And so if you engage in ‘conscious consumption,’ if you buy a hybrid car, if you put solar panels on your rooftop, it's true that your effect on the environment is way too small to have any real impact. But I think that that notion is incorrect for two reasons.

One is that it's not the effect of your action alone that's going to influence the environment, it's that plus the indirect effects of your action on the actions of others that are going to influence the environment.

A second, more important, issue is that taking these steps changes who you are. You were a climate advocate, at least in part, or you wouldn't have put solar panels up in the first place. But the mere act of putting them up makes you into more of a climate advocate. If you limit eating beef to two nights a week from your usual five nights a week, that makes you more of a climate advocate. And if you become more of a climate advocate, then you're much more likely to vote for legislators who will enact carbon taxes and the other policies we need to enact. So I think the criticism of calls for people to change their own behaviour is misguided. I wish I had seen that connection sooner than I did.

Realistically, do you foresee any challenges that we'll have to deal with and say, the next decade as well as the field at large?

I think the challenge that that we have here in the US comes from the right, from what I call movement libertarians. But they're not libertarians in the John Stuart Mill tradition, who acknowledge that it’s legitimate to restrict behaviour to prevent undue harm to others, And if it’s legitimate to regulate for the purpose of preventing undue harm to others, the movement libertarians’ objections fail. If you believe in Mill’s harm principle, vaccine mandates are justified because the alternative is to increase the likelihood that many others will suffer and die. On what grounds could someone assert such a right? Well, if taking the vaccine and that would make you likely to die, you you would of course have the right to refuse it. But short of that, if it's just because you have some poorly founded view that there's a danger in taking the vaccine that's never been demonstrated, well that argument doesn’t hold, according to real Libertarians. And I think behavioural science policies may struggle a lot with this kind of reasoning in the years to come.

Which other behavioural scientists would you like to read an interview by? You’ll want to talk to my colleague and friend Tom Gilovitch. And you’ve got to talk to Thaler if you haven’t already! And George Loewenstein of course. Have you spoken to Dan Gilbert yet? And last, I think Dacher Keltner would also make for an excellent interviewee.


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

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!


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