A Sense of Wonder with John Beshears
Professor John Beshears describes his work helping others make sound financial and health decisions, and how a new addition to his family has deepened his appreciation for life’s complexities.
07 Dec 2016  
John Beshears is an assistant professor in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School, where he researches individual decision making and market outcomes, and teaches the second-year MBA course "Managing, Organizing & Motivating for Value." He is also a faculty fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

What is your area of academic interest and what brought you to it?

JOHN BESHEARS: I love behavioral economics, because it’s about studying the decisions people make every day. The decisions I focus on affect people’s lives in a slow, cumulative fashion, and only when we stop to pay attention do we realize how important they are.

For example, I study the financial decision making of households, or more broadly how and when we spend and save. We know that a lot of people find these decisions challenging and end up making a lot of mistakes. I also study health decisions, which are influenced by the same human biases—people tend to weigh things heavily that occur in the present while downplaying things that will pay off in the future. It’s easy to sit on the couch and watch TV and eat junk food, but the long-term consequences of doing that aren’t good. Very often, these are problems of follow-through—situations where people fail to follow the virtuous path they’ve planned for themselves—and I’ve discovered that I really like helping people bridge the gap between their intentions and their actions, be it through more practical savings plans or more informed health care decisions.

When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? What would you be doing if you weren’t a professor?

JB: I’ve always been drawn to the possibility that new discoveries can help improve people’s lives, and I like subjects that have a strong sense of underlying structure. So, chemistry and medical research really appealed to me in that way. But honestly, I went down the path that I chose because of impatience. The impact of your research can sometimes be faster and more direct when you’re working in the behavioral sciences. At the same time, I’m eternally grateful that some people have the patience to embark upon those longer campaigns in fields like medicine, because that’s how some of the biggest breakthroughs are achieved.

Can you describe any formative moments in your career?

JB: So much of the enjoyment of tackling these thorny problems is the ability to collaborate with other people who are similarly passionate about them. To have partners in crime. My first year of graduate school in the Harvard Ph.D. program, I vividly remember sitting in a class with Katy Milkman, who’s now a professor at Wharton and one of my closest friends and collaborators. Perhaps not paying full attention to the lecture, we started having a quiet conversation about a research idea, and that was the beginning of a long and ongoing list of joint research projects.

Does your work helping others ever cause you to overanalyze your own behaviors?

JB: Getting to the gym, eating healthily, saving for the long run—these are all things I struggle with, too, so I can absolutely identify. Fortunately, a lot of good research comes from having an innate curiosity about the world and aiming that at problems you grapple with yourself. For me, it’s all about setting up my own environment to short-circuit some of my bad habits. And of course, when I need to break a rule, I have a bit of an excuse, because I can chalk it up to doing research.

The thing that troubles me is that living your life in a financially sound way can be a Herculean challenge for so many people, whether it’s because of job loss or a sudden health problem. So many people are scrambling to make basic ends meet. At the same time, the thing that drives me is helping people see that steadier financial lives can be within their grasp.

How do you set yourself up to be productive and successful?

JB: There’s something to be said for using internal rules to enforce self-discipline. When I’m doing well (which is not always), I follow my colleague Max Bazerman’s advice: Morning is a great time to get stuff done. Your one task each morning is to work on the most important thing on your list. Even if the rest of the day is taken up with emails and meetings and tending to all the other things thrust upon us in our busy lives, at least you’ve made some progress on what’s important to you. If you don’t do that, you’ve spent the whole day tending to stuff that other people want of you. And if you go along at the cost of your own priority items, you’ve done yourself a disservice.


Do you have a favorite book, piece of art, or song that really resonates with you?

JB: I can’t say that I play it, but I’m a big fan of jazz music. It’s a great balance between structure and freedom. There’s a chord progression to organize everything, but on top of that there’s endless room for improvisation or creativity. A great musician is one who takes listeners along in such a way that they still feel somehow grounded, but then they’re drawn into a world that’s created on the spot. As that relates to my work, what drew me to my path is the idea that there is some sort of underlying structure to the way people make decisions, but then building on it and playing on it in creative ways is what makes the work fun and interesting.

What have you not done yet, personally or professionally, that you’d really like to do in the future?

JB: I have a five-month old daughter, Charlotte. I’ll of course devote a lot of my energy and enthusiasm to her over the coming years. It’s kind of magical to see how she’s very slowly and miraculously discovering how the world works. To see her interact with things with a sense of wonder gives me a new appreciation for how complex our human institutions are. Getting to those is a process of slow, incremental innovation and occasional revolution. But we take so much of that for granted every day. It gives me a renewed sense of wonder about the amazing things we’re able to accomplish as a society.


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