I spent my childhood in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with my parents and two sisters. My first scientific presentation (an 8th grade science project) showed an early interest in psychology, as it involved mice, a maze, and a Lashley jumping stand. My interest in animal behavior was furthered by an adolescence that included many dogs and horses. I entered Bryn Mawr College in 1982 and immediately enrolled in Psychology 101. Here, I learned to appreciate the rigor of animal learning theory and began working in Dick Gonzalez's laboratory. I spent many happy hours in Bryn Mawr's Dalton Hall running Pavlovian conditioning experiments with goldfish. (For those who are interested, the conditioned stimuli were bubbles and red lights and the unconditioned stimulus was shock, which usually caused the fish to become agitated enough to swim through two photocells that recorded a response.) After the fish completed an experiment they were peacefully retired to the duck pond at neighboring Haverford College, where their descendants live to this day.
After listening to Katharine Hepburn give the commencement address at my college graduation, I moved about 10 miles away to West Philadelphia to start graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. I spent several years running animal learning studies in Bob Rescorla's lab, studying interesting topics such as what animals learn about a noncontingent relationship between the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus. Unfortunately, this line of inquiry was not terribly fruitful, as the results were inconsistent across studies. Fortunately, I had an emergency backup research interest (something I recommend that all graduate students have), which provided me with a dissertation topic. A fellow graduate student, Steve Robbins, and myself, in addition to writing “Ratman and Pigeon” skits for the Psychology Department variety show, had begun some studies on human contingency judgment. The research question was whether associative models of animal learning could account for human judgments about predictive relationships. In my dissertation, I tested a specific prediction about trial order that differentiated associative models from statistical models. The results favored the associative models, although some data required a modification of these models.
At about the same time that I began investigating human contingency judgment, I took a class taught by Jon Baron on judgment and decision making. I was initially interested in this area because of its relationship to contingency judgment, but I soon became engrossed in the entire field. After leaving the land of animal learning, I decided to make judgment and decision making my new home. To gain expertise in this newly selected area, I pursued a postdoctoral fellowship before searching for more permanent employment. Having spent the first 25 years of my life in Pennsylvania, I reasoned that another couple years wouldn't hurt. I moved my books across the street to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School to begin a postdoctorate program with the decision sciences group, working with mentor Eric J. Johnson. Decision-making research identifies biases, or ways in which judgment deviates from rational models, and then tries to explain these biases. Johnson and I examined loss aversion (the fact that people weigh losses more heavily than gains) and tried to explain why people are more loss averse for some things than for others. We also tested a potential mechanism of the anchoring bias, in which judgments are influenced by a random or uninformative number.
After spending two years at Wharton, I mailed off scores of job applications and was fortunate to be offered a faculty position at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. There I worked with colleague Arthur Elstein in the small section of Clinical Decision Making. I had not previously thought of my work as applying to medical decision making. However, most decision-making research has some application (to business, law, medicine, policy, etc.), and I was happy for the opportunity to learn about the medical applications of decision theory. Elstein and I had (and still have) a productive and thoroughly enjoyable collaboration. One of the first projects I began working on when I arrived at the University of Illinois at Chicago was on how people discount delayed health outcomes. Health economists argue that when evaluating health programs, future monetary costs should be discounted (to reflect, e.g., the investment potential of immediate money). Furthermore, delayed health benefits should be discounted at the same rate as money for consistency. I wanted to know whether individual decision makers did, in fact, discount health and money at the same rate. My first studies showed they did not, and many subsequent studies examined possible reasons for this discrepancy. From that point on, time discounting has been a major research focus for myself. My research has explored (a) why content domain (e.g., health vs. money) influences discounting, (b) how people evaluate sequences of outcomes, and (c) how time discounting is related to preventive health behaviors—behaviors that involve an up-front investment for a long-term benefit. Funding from the National Science Foundation and the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research helped me pursue these questions. Other research questions in medical decision making also captured my attention, including the role of patient education in decision making about breast cancer treatments and the impact of order of information presentation on physicians' diagnostic judgments.
I greatly enjoyed living in Chicago and working with Elstein and my other colleagues. I learned a great deal about conducting psychological research in a medical setting and was able to devote a large amount of time to research. My partner, Paul Breslin, still lived in Philadelphia, however. Breslin and I had met in graduate school, and Breslin had found an ideal job studying taste psychophysics at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. In an attempt to eliminate the Chicago–Philadelphia commute, we began looking for jobs in other places. Thus, after four years in Chicago, I moved to Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. My partner and I are now able to live in the same house, along with our two dogs and two cats.
Rutgers provided a large university setting, a nearby medical school, renowned health psychology colleagues, and a supply of graduate students that allowed me to expand my research program. I continued to work on the role of time preferences in health behavior by studying, in collaboration with several graduate students, compliance with hypertension medication regimens, cholesterol-lowering medication, and annual flu vaccines. I also pursued the study of differences between time preferences for health and money, finding, for example, that agreement between the two domains is improved when decision makers view health as tradeable for money. Spurred on by the interests of my students, I have also examined (a) the effects on choice and cognitive processing of adding an additional option to the choice set, (b) the relationship between health misperceptions and health behavior, and (c) the quandary of what actions count as decisions. My students and I have a side pursuit of trying to document choice biases in trick-or-treaters' selection of candy. In addition to my students, I feel I am fortunate to have at Rutgers a number of fine colleagues and collaborators in medicine, health, cognitive, and social psychology.