Alex Imas is an assistant professor of economics in the Social & Decision Sciences department at Carnegie Mellon’s Dietrich College. His research dovetails perfectly into the department’s cross-disciplinary approach by blending behavioral and experimental economics, particularly how social concerns and emotions influence decision making and preferences.

His most current research examines the effectiveness of prosocial incentive schemes and how subtle changes in social norms can have large effects on behavior.

However, our conversation started with Alex discussing his findings with Sally Sadoff, from the University of California in San Diego, and Anya Samek from USC, on the effectiveness of loss contracts. Loss or clawback contracts are similar to incentives but instead of getting paid at the end of the work – contingent of successful achievement, the clawback or loss contract gives you money up front and you are forced to give it back what you don’t achieve the appropriate levels of performance. Many people would say they’d prefer a regular bonus structure – to get paid upon successful completion of their work – but Alex, Sally and Anya’s work found something different.

The loss contract proved to be a commitment device – it helped reduce shirking – and improved performance overall. Even people with a higher sense of loss aversion tended to benefit most from loss contracts. There are even some people who ended up preferring loss contracts. 

In our grooving session, Kurt and Tim discuss their real-world experiences with clawbacks: do they work and in what circumstances are they most successful?

With that, please sit back and enjoy our conversation with Alex Imas.


Alex Imas (CMU):

Alex Imas (Personal):

Carnegie Mellon University:

CMU Social and Decision Sciences Department:

"Do People Anticipate Loss Aversion?" (with S. Sadoff and A. Samek). Management Science, 2016.

“Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A field experiment.” By Roland G. Fryer, Jr., Steven D. Levitt, John List, Sally Sadoff

Index funds:

Jack Bogle index funds:

 “Myopic Loss Aversion and the Equity Premium Puzzle,” Thaler & Benartzi.

Abby Sussman:

Paul Smeets:

Ashley Wilhans:

Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain.



Bob Dylan:

Phoebe Bridgers:

Bright Eyes:

Boy Genius:

Conor Oberst:


Soccer Mommy:

Run the Jewels:

Cardi B:

Tom Waits, “Jockey Full of Bourbon,”

On May 3, 2019, Kurt and Tim attended an invitation-only Science Symposium featuring a track on behavioral science at the San Francisco headquarters of human and food transportation giant Uber. During the one-day assembly, we sat in on presentations delivered by academic researchers from UCLA, University of British Columbia, University of California San Diego, Dartmouth, Cornell, Columbia University and Stanford, among others. We also heard from practitioners of applied behavioral sciences who work at Facebook, Morningstar, TruFit, Cerego, Ipsos, Maritz, and, of course, Uber.

Kurt and Tim were exposed to a massive amount of new research data, new insights into human behavior from both academic and corporate fieldwork, as well as exciting hallway conversations with people that we wanted to share with you. We nabbed a few quick recordings during the breaks and, regrettably, there are times when the background noise is pretty high. (Our apologies.)

We are grateful to Candace Hogan, a leader of applied behavioral science at Uber, for inviting us and we appreciate the effort that Uber is expending to integrate behavioral sciences with their business model and to share them with us.

Guests (in order of appearance)

Melanie Brucks, PhD student at Stanford University:

Elizabeth Kim, first behavioral scientist at Spotify:

Charlotte Blank, chief behavioral officer at Maritz:

Ingrid Paulin, senior behavioral scientist at Rally Health:

Shirin Oreizy, founder and president at Next Step:

Scott Drummond, brand builder at Next Step:

Joseph Reiff, PhD student at UCLA:



Wendy De La Rosa, principal at Irrational Labs:

Hal Hershfield, PhD, professor at UCLA:

Brad Voytek, PhD, professor at UCSD:

Russell Golman is an Assistant Professor of Behavioral Economics and Decision Sciences in the Social & Decision Sciences Department at CMU.  His pioneering, interdisciplinary work has been published in a wide range of academic journals, including Science AdvancesDecision, the RAND Journal of Economics, the Journal of Economic Theorythe Journal of Economic Perspectives, and the Journal of Economic Literature

In 2017 Professor Golman organized the Belief-Based Utility Conference at Carnegie Mellon with generous funding from the Russell Sloan Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Professor Golman was trained as a game theorist with a Mathematics Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.  But whereas game theorists usually assume that people making strategic decisions are hyper-rational, Russell wanted to acknowledge that real people are influenced by each other and sometimes make mistakes. They often care deeply about their beliefs, not just about material outcomes. And they rarely settle into an equilibrium in which everybody is static and content. 

Russell’s research interests expanded into behavioral economics and behavioral decision research as well as complex adaptive systems and social dynamics.  He took a postdoc in Social and Decision Sciences at CMU, where Herb Simon first conceived of the concept of bounded rationality 50 years earlier.  Professor Golman joined the faculty here in 2012.

We talked to Russell about information avoidance and curiosity and to what lengths people will strive for both. In our grooving session, Kurt and Tim discuss information avoidance from a corporate perspective and wonder, “what impact does a manager have when he or she avoids a difficult conversation?” We also talked about ways to reduce information avoidance in the working world and how incentives may help managers through tough situations.

We hope you enjoy this episode in our Carnegie Mellon series with Russell Golman.


Russell Golman:

CMU Social and Decision Sciences Department:

Carnegie Mellon University:


Golman, Russell, David Hagmann, and George Loewenstein.  “Information Avoidance.” Journal of Economic Literature, 2017, 55: 96-135.
Featured on The Academic Minute


Golman, Russell and George Loewenstein.  “Information Gaps: A Theory of Preferences Regarding the Presence and Absence of Information”  Decision, 2016, forthcoming.


Golman, Russell, George Loewenstein, Karl Ove Moene and Luca Zarri. “The Preference for Belief Consonance.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 2016, 30: 165-187.


GI Joe Fallacy:

Herb Simon:


Bluegrass music:

Great Blue Heron Music Festival:

Donna the Buffalo:

Jam bands:

The Pines:

The Cactus Blossoms:


Kurt Nelson: @motivationguru and

Tim Houlihan: @THoulihan and

Check out the Behavioral Grooves website:

Todd Fonseca is an executive in clinical research and communication for Medtronic and holds an interesting array of certifications including Certified Body Language Trainer. He is also the founder of the Anti-Networking Network Meetup and likes to ask meetup guests "What would be your superpower for an hour?" Needless to say, the interview brought interesting concepts to the floor and we had fun doing it.

The interview with Todd included short discussions on the placebo effectsituational awareness, and a lengthy discussion of Paul Ekman PhD's work on microexpressions. The seven key microexpressions (Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, Contempt, Fear and Surprise) are foundational to human communication and found to be universal - in other words, they exist among people everywhere on the planet. Our conversation delved deep into the identification and application of them. 

We grooved on the themes of the importance of having these microexpressions in our communication toolbox and talked about music from the Oh, Hello's and Robert Finley, an artist recently produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. 

Julie Downs, PhD is an associate professor of psychology in the Social and Decision Sciences department at Carnegie Mellon’s Dietrich College and fits perfectly into the cross-disciplinary culture of the group. Her interests have spanned anthropology to healthcare to economics and her zest for each of them is undeniable.

Our discussion with Julie started with some of her latest research on how to help women make the proper vaginal insertion of an HIV-prevention drug. While scientists at the University of Pittsburgh are developing the medicine, Julie is focused on the behavioral aspects including the proper way to apply it because the efficacy of the drug relies on proper application. The drug is extremely low-cost, doesn’t require refrigeration, and can be kept private in otherwise touchy situations with sexual partners.

We also discussed making decisions in an increasingly complex world of what to eat. Fast food is readily available, it’s cheap and easy to acquire for working parents with a hungry family. However, recent research on fast food consumption reveals the calorie counters on the food menus are not having a positive effect on what gets ordered. Julie is working to figure out solutions that make the calorie counts salient with an online ordering app.

In our grooving session, we chat about the concept of friction and how that applies to product development and communications AND we talk about insights we can take from a food ordering app that has a special calorie counter built into it and use those insights in our work.

So, sit back and enjoy another episode in our Carnegie Mellon series with professor Julie Downs.



Julie Downs:

Carnegie Mellon University:

CMU Social and Decision Sciences Department:




Sahel Desert:



The Beatles:

Louie Prima / Jungle Book:

Ella Fitzgerald:




Kurt Nelson: @motivationguru and

Tim Houlihan: @THoulihan and

Listen to Behavioral Grooves:

George Loewenstein, PhD is the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology in the Social and Decision Sciences Department in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University and is the director of the Center for Behavioral Decision Research.

George received his PhD in economics from Yale but was always interested in topics outside of the field. At one point, he considered switching from economics to another major but was advised to remain: “We need you here,” he was told by a sage researcher. We’re glad he did.

George may not be a household name, but he is a rockstar in the world of behavioral science. Nobel laureate Richard Thaler dedicated his last book, Misbehaving, to George, along with their colleague Colin Camerer. George’s insights into behavior and decision making are legendary and he is recognized as one of the founders of behavioral economics, in part because he was literally at the table when the field was named “behavioral economics.”

During his career, George has indulged his curiosities in research projects that span an incredibly wide variety of topics including risk, confidence, the effects of feelings, emotions, wanting and enjoying sex, sequencing, preferences, bargaining, incentives, privacy, healthy behaviors, investing, empathy, and sympathy…to name but a few. George’s work has been cited nearly 100,000 times in published articles and peer-reviewed papers. He’s not only remarkably curious, but he’s also remarkably productive. His book of essays titled Exotic Preferences is a terrific read and provides some insight into this extremely talented man.

We were excited to have George as a guest because his comments can be so insightful that they can be pondered for hours, and because he is so rarely recorded (and we are grateful to Linda Babcock for her support and participation in our conversation). We focused on some new work George is doing on the subject of boredom with a graduate student, Amanda Markey. We were surprised to learn that their work is breaking ground as there is no comprehensive functional theory for boredom.  And in the category of not knowing where a conversation might go, we compared individual experiences of boredom (and flow).  

In our grooving session, we discussed some of the implications of boredom in the workplace and ways you could make meetings more successful. We also touched on the temporal nature of attention and George’s comment to “use it or lose it.” Finally, we returned to a favorite topic whether it’s a good idea to listen to music while we work.

We hope you enjoy this rare recorded conversation with George Loewenstein.



George Loewenstein:

George’s H-Index:

Linda Babcock:

Exotic Preferences:

Carnegie Mellon University:

CMU Social and Decision Sciences Department:

Center for Behavioral Decision Research:

Richard Thaler, PhD:

Colin Camerer:

Amanda Markey:


Kurt Nelson: @motivationguru and

Tim Houlihan: @THoulihan and

Listen to Behavioral Grooves:

Silvia Saccardo, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Management in the Social and Decision Sciences department in the Dietrich College of Humanities & Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. Our conversation with Silvia is the fourth in our series on Carnegie Mellon professors. 

We sat down with Silvia in Porter Hall on a chilly day at CMU to discuss her findings on how motivated cognition and hidden biases shape our ethical (and unethical) decision-making. Her research on bribery and lying has been published in top peer-reviewed journals and we found her work with the Dictator Game particularly interesting, especially as it relates to measuring what we consider ethical behavior.

Dr. Saccardo uses the Dictator Game in her research in a unique way. In one case, she set up the game to put people in situations where they can lie to other players and the results are fascinating. We also discussed the way people are more likely to give blunt feedback to out-group rather than in-group associates. Her findings reveal very interesting aspects of the human condition and how we respond to it.

In our grooving session, we discuss the impact of what some people might consider small acts of kindness and how those acts may be construed as small acts of bribery in certain situations (i.e., dinners and small gifts). 

This conversation triangulated connections between two of our favorite Behavioral Grooves guests and Silvia and we couldn’t help but call attention to them: Francesca Gino, PhD as a fellow Italian American, and Christina Gravert, PhD as a co-author of papers with Silvia. 

We also want to thank Silvia for the opportunity to guest lecture and meet a classroom full of her uber-engaged and enthusiastic students. What a treat.



Silvia Saccardo:


Carnegie Mellon University:

CMU Social and Decision Sciences Department:

Saccardo, Silvia, Aniela Pietrasz, and Uri Gneezy. "On the Size of the Gender Difference in Competitiveness." Management Science. Forthcoming.

Gneezy, Uri, Christina Gravert, Silvia Saccardo, and Franziska Tausch. "A must lie situation–avoiding giving negative feedback." Games and Economic Behavior 102 (2017): 445-454.



Andrea Bocelli:


Kurt Nelson: @motivationguru and

Tim Houlihan: @THoulihan and

Listen to Behavioral Grooves:

At this writing, we’ve recorded and published 64 episodes of Behavioral Grooves and we’d like to make sure we’re on the right course for our listeners. If you would be so kind, we would appreciate hearing the answers to two questions at #behavioralgrooves.


Question 1: Why do you listen?

Question 2: What keeps you listening?


Thanks very much and keep on grooving!

Daniel Oppenheimer, PhD, known to all as “Danny,” is a professor of psychology in the Social and Decision Sciences department in the Dietrich College of Humanities & Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. This is the third episode in our Carnegie Mellon series, and Danny is a researcher with a wide variety of curiosities. His writings have been published in more than 50 peer-reviewed publications, as well as a number of book chapters and media contributions. Among his notable works, he co-authored Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn’t Work at All Works So Well, published by the MIT Press, and Psychology: A Cartoon Introduction, a cartoon book published by WW Norton on, you guessed it, the simple and humorous aspects of psychology.  

He is also an esteemed recipient of the Ig Nobel award for his paper titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” Need we say more?  

We spoke at length about how a person’s take on helicopter (and submarine) parenting strongly correlates to their view of governance. These findings cross-party affiliation and self-identification as liberal or conservative and can also vary from topic to topic. All in, it’s a fascinating discussion.

We recorded our discussion with Danny just a couple of weeks before the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal was brought to light. We discuss the implications of Danny’s observations in our grooving session.

Danny shared that he’s lived for long periods without a mobile phone and that he prefers delegating his music selection to radio DJ’s, who might be considered expert in this situation, to bring him new music without the stress of finding it himself.

In our grooving session, we returned to helicopter and submarine parenting styles and how they might impact the next generation of entrepreneurship, corporate policies and management styles. We also spend some time on the ways business leaders manage data inputs from various sources and the potential impact these decisions have.

We hope you enjoy our discussion with Danny and that you subscribe to Behavioral Grooves at the link below. It’s free!



Danny Oppenheimer:

Carnegie Mellon University: 

CMU Social and Decision Sciences Department: 

“Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn’t Work at All Works So Well” (MIT Press)

“Psychology: A Cartoon Introduction,” (WW Norton)

“Easy does it: The role of fluency in cue weighting,” Anuj K. Shah and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, Princeton University:

 “The Science of Giving: Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charity”


George Lakoff:

Jonathan Haidt & Greg Lukianoff: “The Coddling of the American Mind”


Helicopter parenting:

Free-Range parenting:

Snowplow parenting:

Submarine parenting:

College Admissions Bribery Scandal:

Mechanical Turk:

Postmodern Jukebox:


Kurt Nelson: @motivationguru and

Tim Houlihan: @THoulihan and

Subscribe to Behavioral Grooves:

Jeff Galak, PhD is a professor at the Social and Decision Sciences department in the Dietrich College of Humanities & Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. Jeff’s primary assignment is as an Associate Professor of Marketing in Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business; however, he is on loan to the Social & Decision Sciences department in the Dietrich College, which is where we caught up with him. This is the second in the series featuring professors from Carnegie Mellon.

Jeff earned his PhD from NYU and often works on research projects across functions, making him a terrific fit for the already-interdisciplinary department of Social & Decision Sciences. He’s so fond of collaboration, he’s even published peer-reviewed papers about how scientific research benefits from it.

Jeff’s research expertise spans a wide variety of topics and interests including consumer behavior, consumer psychology, as well as judgment and decision making. His findings have been published in top academic journals and he has presented his research at top marketing and psychology conferences worldwide. He’s a very curious guy and we found him engaging as he shared his work and the applications of it.

In our discussion with Jeff, he discussed a few of his research initiatives and focused on three areas: (1) his findings in new research on hedonic decline, (2) how high heels became the measure for the social implications of moving to and from a different socio-economic zip codes and (3) we talked about political lies and two primary subcategories we see in political lying: Lies about policies and lies about personal things. His research reveals how we tend to disregard one more than the other.

In our grooving session, we tackle the work and life implications to some of Jeff’s findings. Specifically, we discussed how product developers can create more successful products by leveraging both simplicity and complexity and we discussed implications of high-heeled social changes.

We hope you enjoy our conversation with the very curious researcher, Jeff Galak.



Jeff Galak/CMU:

Jeff Galak/personal:

Carnegie Mellon University:

CMU Social and Decision Sciences Department: 

On hedonic decline: When It Could Have Been Worse, It Gets Better: The Effect of Uncertainty on Hedonic Adaptation

On socio-economic status and sales of high heels: Trickle-down preferences: Preferential conformity to high status peers in fashion choices

Clayton Critcher, UC Berkeley:


“Let It Go” (Frozen Soundtrack):

“Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen):

“Bohemian Rhapsody” (Lake Street Dive)

“The Entertainer” (Billy Joel) “…and they cut it down to 3:05”:

Toto (founded in 1977) recorded “Africa” in 1982:

 “Aja” (Steely Dan):


Kurt Nelson: @motivationguru and

Tim Houlihan: @THoulihan and

Subscribe to Behavioral Grooves:

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