Elke Weber has made it her life’s work to understand why and how people make the decisions they make. Not a simple task. Take, for example, smoking cigarettes. Doctors’ warnings of the deadly consequences of becoming addicted to cigarettes have been publicized for nearly 50 years now, but this hasn’t stopped millions of people from taking up the habit since. Irrational? Many would argue so. And what about other, less direct forms of unhealthy behavior that seem irrational? A perfect example today would be the continuation of practices known to cause catastrophic damage to our planet’s environment, and by extension, to ourselves.
Working at the intersection of psychology and economics, Weber is an expert on behavioral models of judgment and decision making under risk and uncertainty. Recently, she has been investigating psychologically appropriate ways to measure and model individual and cultural differences in risk taking, specifically in risky financial situations and environmental issues. She describes her research as follows:
“I try to gain an understanding and appreciation of decision making at a broad range of levels of analysis, which is not easy, given that each level requires different theories, methods and tools. So at the micro end of the continuum, I study how basic psychological processes like attention, emotion and memory (and their representation in the brain) influence preference and choice. At the macro end of the continuum, I think about how policy makers may want to present policy initiatives to the public to make them maximally effective. This range of topics and methods is challenging, but at least in my mind the different levels of analysis inform and complement each other.”
Currently, Weber is focusing the majority of her time on two very different, but crucial issues: “… environmental decisions, in particular responses to climate change and climate variability, and financial decisions, for example pension savings.” Like all of her research topics, even these seemingly unrelated issues are linked in that both involve choices with consequences that are delayed in time and are often highly uncertain.
Weber is past president of both the Society for Judgment and Decision Making and Society for Mathematical Psychology, and she is the current president of the Society for Neuroeconomics. She is a fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society, and a member of the Society for Medical Decision Making, the Society for Risk Analysis, and INFORMS. She has served on two advisory committees of the National Academy of Sciences on Human Dimensions in Global Change.
Weber has been co-editor of the journal Risk Decision & Policy, associate editor of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and is current associate editor of Management Science. She serves on the editorial boards of eight other journals.
Weber joined Columbia University in 1999. She is the Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business in the Management Division of Columbia Business School and a professor of Psychology. She also founded and co-directs two centers at Columbia, the Center for the Decision Sciences and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. Her areas of expertise include cognitive and affective processes in judgment and choice, cross-cultural issues in management, environmental decision making and policy, medical decision making, and risk management. She serves as a member of the Academic Committee at the Earth Institute.
Some honors and awards Weber has received include the 2000 Chazen International Research Prize from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, the 1994 Outstanding Young Investigator Award from the Society for Medical Decision Making, the 1988 Young Psychologist Award from the American Psychological Association and the 1980 Vanier Award for Academic Excellence from York University. She received postgraduate and postdoctoral fellowships in natural science and engineering research from the Council of Canada. Since 1985, her research has been funded continuously by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and several other funding agencies.
When Weber is not publishing or winning research awards, she tends to still be working in one form or another, though she doesn’t mind. She says, “I feel incredibly privileged to have found an area of research and teaching that is so exciting and fulfilling that I really don’t mind to work most of my waking hours, simply because it is fun rather than ‘work.’” Even in her spare time, she finds ways to connect her personal life to her work by going to plays, art galleries, the opera and reading novels that build on her understanding of human nature.
She is married to another decision researcher, Eric Johnson, the Norman Eig Professor of Business in the Marketing Division of Columbia Business School, who, she says, “understands and shares my passions and obsessions.”
Weber has a B.A. summa cum laude from York University in Canada, 1980; and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard, 1984.