George Loewenstein

George Loewenstein is an American educator and economist. He is the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology in the Social and Decision Sciences Department at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the Center for Behavioral Decision Research.

What motivated you to work on Behavioural Science?
A fascination with human psychology — with what ‘makes people tick’. My mother was a psychiatric social worker, so we talked a lot about human psychology when I was growing up; I think I picked up the bug from her. I love hearing people’s stories, overhearing conversations, reading novels with barely any plot that reveal something about characters’ inner lives.

What do you think is the future of Behavioural Science in the next five, and ten years? What major challenges do you foresee?
I think the major challenge is to catch up with, help make sense of, and come up with useful policy recommendations to deal with, the disastrous consequences of the internet. Behavioral scientists have made a start on this, but we are way behind the curve.

Which behavioural scientist(s) do you admire the most and why?
The list is too long, and inevitably I would leave people off who would be rightfully insulted.

What advice would you give to a beginner in Behavioural Science? What are some of the crucial skills one has to develop to succeed in this field?
Figure out what really interests you, personally — what you really care about. It is very difficult to motivate yourself to work on something you are not intrinsically interested in.

If you were starting your career again today, what would you do differently?
I don’t know what I would do differently, but I can say that I ‘lucked out’ (and I don’t mean this as a form of humble-brag); I went into graduate school knowing that I wanted to do economics and psychology. My timing was fortuitous; thanks largely to the pioneering work of Richard Thaler, I got into the field of behavioral economics just as it was emerging and on its way to becoming a major movement within economics.

What books/publications would you like to recommend to our readers?
I get a lot of my ideas from novels and biography. One novel I found particularly packed with ideas ripe for being turned into research was Out of Sheer Rage, by Geoff Dyer. I would also highly recommend Robert Massie’s biography Peter the Great.

What is your favourite quote in Behavioural Science?
From Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (saying that economic progress is based on a psychological illusion):
“Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it.  It is then, in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and disease, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with from the injustice of his enemies, or from the perfidy and ingratitude of his friends, that he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquility of mind, than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys.”
…“it is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe.”

If you could interview any one fictional or historical figure, who would you choose and why?
Ben Franklin; I just think he would be entertaining and enlightening to talk to. Other than his awful family life, I admire his intellectual life, creativity, and his lifestyle.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
That people who happen to be smarter or better looking or more charismatic, or lucky enough to be born to richer or better educated parents deserve to live materially better lives. There are some practical issues when it comes to incentivizing people to exert effort, but beyond dealing with these I would advocate a more egalitarian society than would, I believe, the vast majority of people.

Tell us something interesting about yourself most people don’t know.
I feel that my inner self is almost entirely different from how I come across to other people; not that I have any real clue about the latter, and even on the former, I find that people often seem to be the most blind when it comes to understanding themselves.

How do you apply the notions of Behavioural Science in your personal life?
Although studying empathy gaps, which help to explain how people get swept up by the emotions of the moment, doesn’t help me not to get emotional myself, I think understanding how emotions operate sometimes helps me to respond, behaviorally, in a less emotional, more calculating, fashion. Well, maybe I’m just imagining that right now because I’m in a relatively cool emotional state at this moment.

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