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Theme project unites psychologists, economists

Tue, 10/26/2010 - 2:21pm
Cornell University

How do jurors arrive at a dollar amount they award to plaintiffs? This is among the questions Valerie Reyna, professor of human development, is investigating with colleagues in the Institute for the Social Sciences' 2009-12 theme project "Judgment, Decision Making, and Social Behavior" (JDSB).

"If it weren't for this particular project, where we were brought together to reach across disciplinary lines, I would not be working on this," Reyna said. "There's already been a successful payoff in terms of my research."

The project unites 12 Cornell faculty members, from such disparate disciplines as economics, psychology, government and law, to examine questions of common interest and find new approaches to problems.

Psychologists working in behavioral decision research generate a lot of knowledge about human judgment and human decision making; economists working in behavioral economics incorporate these ideas into their work in hopes of making better predictions about economic behavior and outcomes.

Despite the rapid expansion of both fields, there has been remarkably little collaboration between the two. But Cornell is unusual in its significant interactions between psychologists and economists. The goal of the JDSB theme project is to take these interactions to the next level and create a brand of interdisciplinary collaboration unique to Cornell.

During this second year of the JDSB project, faculty are interacting regularly via shared office space, weekly seminars, workshops and conferences. In addition, many top scholars from outside Cornell are visiting campus to participate. During the first year, workshops were held on dual process approaches to decision making and on social preferences, to which many Cornell faculty and graduate students were invited.

Because the team entered already sharing an initial connection, it was able to put together some events even before the focal second year.

"People are very excited to spend time with each other," said JDSB team leader Ted O'Donoghue, professor of economics. "Seeing people in informal ways really matters. Our goal is to create ways for people from different areas at Cornell to come together over the long term."

Approaching questions from different perspectives holds the potential to enrich research and open new areas of inquiry. For example, economics' "rational choice model" of human behavior assumes that "whatever you plan to do, you'll carry out those plans," said O'Donoghue. "In contrast, psychology says when it comes time to carry out those plans, you tend to indulge immediate gratification. That's begun to convince economists that this idea of people sticking to their plans may not be the best assumption."

JDSB team member Dan Benjamin, assistant professor of economics, added: "It's been inspirational talking on a regular basis with such an amazing group of social scientists. A number of us have worked on the topic of social preferences. Throughout this year we have workshops planned to explore themes of common interest among the group. A lot of collaborations are going to come out of those workshops."

Benjamin spends about half his time in the institute's Myron Taylor Hall offices. "I have been surprised to find out what our colleagues in the Law School are doing that overlap with things I've been thinking about," he said. "Law is a field that is defined by its topic rather than its methodology. It uses methodologies from a variety of fields, and I've learned a lot about what issues are important for law researchers."

David Dunning, professor of psychology, and Peter Enns, assistant professor of government, are meeting to discuss how to incorporate more ideas from psychology into public opinion research. Dunning and O'Donoghue have plans to discuss the role of immediate emotions in decision making.

In the final year of the project, O'Donoghue said, participants will take stock of their progress and look for ways to establish long-term collaborations. Thus far, he said, "Our project has been very successful. We're really able to connect with each other. I know that I have learned a lot, and my students have also benefited."


Studying juror awards leads to big scholarly payoff

Because of JDSB, Reyna has an active collaboration with Law School faculty members Valerie Hans, an expert on the jury system, and Jeff Rachlinski, who specializes in judge decision making. "We are writing a paper together for a special issue of Cornell's Journal of Empirical Legal Studies -- which has been a groundbreaker in advocating [for] the use of social science evidence and scientific data in law," Reyna said.

The three scholars looked at situations in which jurors determine monetary jury awards. It is built on Reyna's work in numeracy, or literacy with numbers.

"There is widespread innumeracy in the United States," Reyna said. "It's estimated that over 93 million people are not sufficiently numerate to make everyday decisions, for example to calculate the dosage of medication they would give their child based on body weight. That's been shown to influence things like health care and other kinds of important outcomes."

They asked such questions as: How do juries come up with damage award numbers? Are the numbers coherent? Are they arrived at by rational decision making? How can jurors be helped to understand the magnitude of numbers to arrive at just, sound awards?

"I was able to combine the work that I have done on how people do and do not understand numbers with the expertise of my Law School colleagues," Reyna said. "We're creating a new area of research; amazingly, there's been almost no work done on it."

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