Interview with Scott Rick

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 Scott Rick. Scott is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. He received his PhD in Behavioral Decision Research from Carnegie Mellon in 2007, and he then spent two years as a post-doctoral fellow at Wharton. His research focuses on understanding the emotional causes and consequences of consumer financial decision-making, with a particular interest in the behaviour of tightwads and spendthrifts. The overarching goal of his work is to understand when and why consumers behave differently than they should behave and to develop marketing and policy interventions to improve consumers' decision making and well-being.

Who or what got you into behavioural science?

For me, it all started in Las Vegas. I spent a lot of time there in my early teens. My grandparents lived in Vegas, and my parents loved to visit. They all loved to gamble. And I didn’t mind one bit – I was king of the casino arcades, we were always going to fun restaurants and shows, and I usually got a cut of the winnings when someone got lucky at Bingo. But, as you might imagine, I did have a front-row seat to all kinds of puzzling, deeply suboptimal decision-making. For instance, I remember seeing clusters of slot machines that had signs like “Certified loose—Average 97% payback!” I couldn’t understand why that would be appealing (wasn’t the sign just saying that on average you can expect to lose 3% of what you gamble?), but of course people were just pouring money into those machines. So that sparked a lot of curiosity about decision-making. Relatedly, watching lots of game shows as a kid, like Family Feud and The Price is Right, also helped. (Now that I’m reflecting on all this, it seems like a pretty indoorsy childhood.)

Later, in college, I got a job interviewing people over the phone for the Gallup Poll. This was back around 1999, when people would still take a call from an unknown number. The job was sometimes harrowing (like when it became clear my call was interrupting a sad or otherwise distressing moment), and sometimes absurd (like when describing, in great detail, a Captain Crunch commercial to a respondent, trying to keep a straight face while other interviewers are watching me and cracking up). But it was always an interesting window into how people interpret, answer, and avoid answering questions about their behavior.

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?

I’m not quite sure, but I will mention the one that made me happiest. That was back in my second year of grad school, when I received a NSF graduate research fellowship. The stipends in my department were pretty modest at the time, and I was (and continue to be) a total spendthrift, so things got pretty tight those first couple of years. The fellowship was just a total game-changer.

One project I’ll be focused on over the next couple of years is writing a trade book. It will cover how people balance financial and psychological well-being, particularly within the context of romantic relationships. The hope is that some of the work that I’ve done, along with related work by many others, can shed new light on how people should manage this difficult balancing act. I’m very much looking forward to this new adventure.

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

It would probably be some profession that allowed me to say “Let’s dig deeper”—maybe a therapist, or detective, or investigative journalist. (I was originally a journalism major.)

How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?

Very imperfectly, but I try. Lots of commitment devices: for example, sometimes I’ll take a melatonin gummy at a reasonable hour to prevent anticipated bedtime procrastination. I am definitely a believer of the Whillans et al. (2017) finding that buying time-saving services can promote happiness, and I try to do that often. I haven’t quite figured out how to do it in a totally guilt-free way, though.

When it comes to work (and periods of workaholism), I try to keep in mind research on what people come to regret later in life (e.g., too often choosing work over fun; Kivetz and Keinan 2006). My favorite example of an attempt to overcome workaholism comes from George Loewenstein (2018), who reports that he once attempted to bribe his very future-oriented daughter with a cash prize if she would get a low grade in one of her middle-school classes. (She told him that parents aren’t supposed to do that.)

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

I love Colin Camerer’s response to this question, so I would first refer interested readers there. But I would add that everyone in behavioral science needs to have an up-to-date understanding of pre-registration (how best to do it, why to do it, and why it might not always be good or necessary). The recent JCP research dialogue on pre-registration that Aradhna Krishna organized (between Simmons, Nelson, & Simonsohn and Pham & Oh) is a total must-read and is sure to update whatever your priors are.

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

I definitely do not know, but I’m excited to see how the self-control literature develops. There’s already been so much good work on how to improve self-control. But recently there have been some important new perspectives on self-control. For example, Vosgerau, Scopelliti, and Huh (2020) convincingly argue that we need to rethink what constitutes a self-control failure. It’s definitely not as simple as choosing hedonic over utilitarian options. And, related to the workaholism point above, Loewenstein (2018) highlights some of the problems associated with excessive self-control. He notes that the field’s consistent emphasis on the benefits of self-control seems to reflect a bit of a “puritanical bias.” I’m eager to see how these nuanced understandings of self-control influence new work in this area.

What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field? For those very early on trying to figure out if an academic research career is for them, I would recommend looking into the multi-year, full-time, salaried pre-doc positions available via the consortium. Many early-stage PhD students would benefit from reading Jessica Calarco's "A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum." For those in the JDM/consumer research space, Max Bazerman's (2001) "Consumer Research for Consumers" and Joe Alba's (2012) "In Defense of Bumbling" are essential, foundational reads. (And of course, in the midst of all this prep and career-building, please don't neglect your mental and physical health!)

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

I’ll try to avoid suggestions that’d be obvious coming from me (e.g., my co-authors, former students) or people who have already been interviewed. Some of the many names that pop to mind are Jonathan Berman, Shai Davidai, Wendy De La Rosa, Anat Keinan, Eesha Sharma, Steph Tully, and Broderick Turner.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Scott! I'm excited to see what more research you'll do!

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!