Interview with Prof. Ralph Hertwig

Ralph Hertwig is director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. He is well known for his interdisciplinary research on cognitive search, judgment, and decision making under risk and uncertainty. To this end, his lab uses a wide array of methods, ranging from experiments, surveys, and computer simulations to neuroscientific tools. 

Ralph Hertwig

What I enjoy most about my job as a researcher … What I most enjoy is the opportunity to team up with people from other fields or schools of thought and produce something I could never have come up with on my own. Those sorts of collaborations have resulted in papers that I still find interesting when I look back on them today. I enjoy starting a project in an area about which I know little and going home every evening with the feeling of having learned something new.

The biggest challenge in my career so far was … I can’t think of a “biggest challenge”—there are many, and they also have changed over time and roles. But I can think of a really difficult challenge—an “adversarial” collaboration with Danny Kahneman (and Barbara Mellers as arbiter). We exchanged many, many e-mails to hammer out the details of joint studies that, no matter the results, would settle our disagreements—but to no avail. The fickle deity of data thwarted all our plans: we just couldn’t agree on how to interpret the results. It was a painful process, but I’m glad that we could cordially agree to disagree and gained respect for one another along the way.

One research project I will never forget is… My most unforgettable research experience was as a student, when I was doing an internship at a psychiatric research hospital. I had the idea of applying signal detection theory, which I’d just learned in class, to analyze an existing data set. It was the first time I wrote simple statistical programs, and I was amazed they worked and that I could get the computer to do what I wanted… well, after a lot of trial-and-error and cursing. It made me so happy. Even more so when my advisor told me my fledgling analyses had produced some new findings. These findings led to my first published paper.

What I look for in a student who wants to work under my supervision … There are a few properties that seem obvious such as intellectual curiosity and perseverance. But, perhaps, the characteristic that I value most is the ability to feel passionate about the problem that the student has set out to solve.

Student research could be improved by … practice, practice, practice. No one is born a master. Students should have as many hands-on learning experiences (plus feedback) as possible. Feedback need not always come from the advisor; it can/should come from all the members interacting in one’s lab.

Academically, I most admire … People whose writing I love, such as William James, Stephen Jay Gould, Herbert Simon, Steven Pinker, and Lola Lopes.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career … That to make it in academia you need more than the obvious skills—you also need the ability to juggle lots of projects, to multitask constantly, and to delay gratification. Not to mention plenty of perseverance and a thick skin for weathering all the rejections, which keep on coming no matter how advanced you are in your career.

The largest changes in psychological science in the next 10 years will be … Depending on which source you believe, Niels Bohr or Yogi Berra said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” I don’t know what the largest changes will be. But I expect that “big data” will change to some extent the way psychology collects data. Another change I’m hoping to see is the better integration of neuroscientific methods, experimentation, and theorizing to produce even better accounts of human behavior. Relatedly, I hope that in the future we will all work together to integrate our theories. It’s been said that psychologists treat theories like toothbrushes (no self-respecting person wants to use someone else’s). I think there’s a lot to that, and we need to change it.

About the author

Jonas Haslbeck Jonas is a Senior Editor at the Journal of European Psychology Students. He is currently a PhD student in psychological methods at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. For further info see http://jmbh.github.io/.

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