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 Sudeep Bhatia. Sudeep is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies the cognitive basis of human judgment and decision making with the use of mathematical and computational models. His research focuses on two areas: 1) understanding how people sample and aggregate information in order to form preferences and beliefs, extending psychological research on perceptual decision making and memory retrieval to explain behavioral findings in domains such as multiattribute choice, risky choice, and probability judgment; 2) applying methodological insights from semantic memory research and computational linguistics to uncover knowledge representations for objects, attributes, and events that are the focus of everyday judgment and decision tasks. Sudeep aims to build models of judgment and decision making that know what people know and use knowledge in the way people use knowledge.
Who or what got you into behavioural science? When I was in college I was interested in the meaning of life, like so many other 18 year-olds. So what did I do? I went to look for the meaning of life. I read a few books, gave it a little thought and I became convinced that the meaning of life was to choose your own path and to choose your own values. And I still believe this. But if you accept that the meaning of life is to choose your own path, then the next question is, what is choice? Well, at that point, I started getting into the realm of psychology, decision making research and behavioral science. Which is exactly what I do now. It is still interesting to note that my trajectory into behavioral science went through economics. The reason for that was my Indian parents kind of forced me to do economics; I wanted to do philosophy. They were worried that philosophy wasn’t practical enough. So I did economics. Combining this with my interest in the meaning of life and the meaning of choice lead me down the path of behavioral economics, which then led me to what I do now.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve? That's an interesting question. I think one of the things that I'm most proud of is persisting in my goals and my aims as a junior researcher. When I was doing my PhD, I had a lot of support; there were so many kind, helpful, resourceful and very intelligent faculty and PhD students in my group. I was very lucky to be surrounded by so many great people. However, there weren’t many people in my department who were doing exactly what I wanted to do; I wanted to build cognitive models of decision making, and there was no one in my department really doing that. In all fairness, not that many people were doing this at all back in 2009, when I started my PhD. Despite this, I decided to continue following my interest and just bite the bullet. And it ended up working out. As it turns out, researchers do find cognitive modelling important, and the field has grown in importance. So, I'm proud of myself for sticking with that. A second thing that I’m proud of is my journey into machine learning. When I was finishing my PhD and transitioning into being an assistant professor, I started doing research on machine learning and natural language processing. This was back in 2012-2013, so not many people in behavioral science and decision making research were doing that. And again, I stuck with it. Which is fortunate, as this now makes up a major part of my current research program. I’d say it’s a very successful part of my research program as well! Now onto the last part of the question: what would I still want to achieve? I don't really know the answer to that question. I'm just happy to work on the things that I find interesting. I don't have goals in that sense. Maybe a personal goal would be to try and build richer and more complete computational models of human cognitive processes.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? Well, there were two trajectories. The first was for me to become an engineer like every other middle class Indian; I came from a middle class Indian family and that's what my parents pushed me towards. However, I think that maybe that option would have ended up with me doing something similar as to what I’m doing now, maybe Research and Engineering, or computer science.
The second trajectory would have been for me to follow my heart and study philosophy and write books. I would have probably been a struggling writer If I'd gone down that road: I'm very bad at philosophy and I'm not a very good writer. So it's good that I didn't study philosophy professionally. How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? Thanks to the pandemic and COVID-19, I feel like I've got a more detailed appreciation for risk perception. I now better understand the kinds of mistakes people make in assessing the risks associated with COVID. Same for financial risk perception. For example, investing in Bitcoin; I don't invest in Bitcoin myself, but I can understand the psychological forces that are driving the cryptocurrency bubble. I do think I can understand risky decision making better because I study risk decision making. Another way in which I apply behavioral science in my personal life is with child rearing. My daughter is three years old, and I love her to death, but sometimes you have to tell them to do stuff or get them to do things that they don't want to do. It helps to have some understanding of human psychology to nudge them along.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? Good question! I think the most important part of doing research is to be part of the defining technological movements of this era. For behavioural science that means investing in your computational and statistical skills. It’s important to be part of the defining technological movements in this era, in your field. We see this throughout history. 20 years ago fMRI was a defining technology, 50 years ago it was space and nuclear technology and say about 100 years ago it was cars and electricity. Amazing inventions and research has come out in those areas, done by people who trained themselves to be skilled in the applications of that technology. To get ahead in behavioural science it is important to learn, understand and apply machine learning and artificial intelligence and to be able to use those tools and to contribute to that movement. This is our zeitgeist. How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? I think there are two major trends in behavioral science. First, there has been, and there will continue to be an increase in mega studies, and especially mega field studies.
Another major development I hope will play a bigger role in the behavioral sciences is again focused on big data, computation, AI, machine learning etc. These technologies are not only extremely powerful they're now also extremely accessible to researchers. The datasets that are out there are remarkable; everything from Twitter and fake news to the movies that we watch on Netflix, to conversations that we are having, the digital data that shapes our day to day lives. These are all digitized and that data is increasingly available. So using that for behavioral science is going to grow in importance.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field? I would recommend doing good research, nothing flashy or crappy; that stuff might get some media attention, but we know that in the long run that's going to have adverse career consequences. You need to build your career on reputable research. And again, I can’t stress this enough: getting into statistics and computation. This is a great time for someone who's young to make great progress in those areas and applying them to behavioral science. So that would be my main recommendation. Beyond that, I’d recommend to just be a genuine researcher; care about the truth of what you're studying. Indulge your higher senses and your higher cognitive faculties. Do research because you find beauty in the work, not because you'll get a job or you'll get a publication. Maybe that's not good career advice, but I think it is good life advice: find beauty and an almost spiritual connection with your work. Don’t just use it as a means to an end.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? People that I would love to read in interview by are those who have influenced me the most: George Loewenstein, Jerome Busemeyer, Graham Loomes, Robert Sugden, Rich Shiffrin, and Ido Erev.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Sudeep!
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!