New Yale professor of psychology David Rand wants to make the world a better place by understanding how people cooperate. From minute biological beings to massive banking behemoths, Rand’s work examines why collaboration happens, and the consequences it can have through the lens of not only psychology, but also game theory, computer science and financial modeling. Rand received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 2009, and in 2012, Wired Magazine listed him as one of the “50 People Who Will Change the World.” The News talked with Rand about his hopes for research, the economics of cooperation and why he chose Yale.
Q: Could you explain what the academic essence of your research and its findings has been, and why your interdisciplinary focus lies with cooperation specifically?
A: What I’m fundamentally interested in is why people pay costs to benefit others — that’s what I mean by cooperation. I want to understand from an ultimate causal perspective why people have come to be cooperative, and what we can do to make people more cooperative. I combine a lot of different people and fields, but my approach is primarily influenced by game theory. I like to distill things down to a simple set of choices, and then I look at how different elements of the situation decide peoples’ choices, such as in the Ultimatum game. Then I combine that with computational models.
Q: What is it that inspired you to integrate a range of fields including economics, computer science and psychology in your research?
A: I actually started as an evolutionary biologist, working in evolutionary game theory. We looked at, for instance, what was favored by natural selection, and I made a lot of models to gather data on these situations. I thought that [the models] were really cool, but I also wanted to look at what real people actually do in the modern world; I wanted to see if these things corresponded to real life. At that point, I got more and more into social game theory, and then the actual psychology of decision-making.
Q: What made you want to continue this research at Yale specifically rather than somewhere else?
A: I think the biggest thing, the most important factor was the collection of faculty in psychology, management and economics that were doing really exciting work that was also closely aligned to what I was interested in. People like Paul Bloom and George Newman, they’re all interested in things like morality and combining them with evolution; I combine really well with other faculty members here. I felt like people at Yale were genuinely excited about the fact that my work is interdisciplinary, and they also gave me the chance to actually explain what I was doing to them — which is a rare thing.
Q: What’s the concrete substance of your research at the moment? Are you in the lab or in the field?
A: At the moment, most of the paradigms I’m using are economic game paradigms, involving people making real decisions regarding themselves and, say, dividing the money, like in the Ultimatum game. Peoples’ first response is to be altruistic, but then when they think about it, they lean more and more towards selfishness. The work that I’m doing at the moment is trying to demonstrate why that might be.
Q: When it comes to these economic games about fairness, do you see behavior in the lab mimic that of the real world? To what degree can we transfer your findings to the real world?
A: When you find yourself in the unusual situation of these lab experiments, your first response is to keep treating it like the real world, where it is a game of reputational consequences. But when you think about it, you realize: “Oh, this is actually different.” At the moment we’re trying new experiments where we get people used to collaborating for a long time, getting into the habit of doing it, and then we show that the people getting used to cooperating are more willing to punish selfishness. This can then be applied to how we build institutions, and how to create cooperative tendencies.
Q: What are your long-term goals for your research here at Yale?
A: I think that cooperation and understanding how to encourage pro-sociality, cooperation and altruism is a fundamental cornerstone of our society. I want to move from these lab experiments to field experiments, and see how we can increase cooperation, especially in a world where the calculus of self-interest undermines social predispositions. This is not only for policymakers from the governments but also for managers of big organizations, to help people design the world and their sub-worlds in ways that will lead people to be good to each other. Basically, I’m trying to make the world a better place.