Learning to “Think Better” with Professor Sendhil Mullainathan

It’s always exciting to hear a professor speak about their research at Booth. You get to hear one of the most brilliant minds in the industry give you an insider view of the things they work on day in and day out.  Additionally, it gives us an alternative perspective to the professor’s work beyond what they teach in our classes and provides an opportunity to interact with them by asking questions about it.

For those unfamiliar with Professor Sendhil Mullainathan, he is the University of Chicago’s most recent faculty addition. During the fall quarter, Boothies and faculty alike had the pleasure of hearing him speak for the first time to a UChicago audience at an event hosted by the Center for Decision Research titled Think Better.

Professor Mullainathan’s talk began by discussing the self-driving mind and how, in situations of high-stress, we tend to rely on our automatic reactions rather than stepping back to reflect. While these automatic responses serve us well in most situations, the self-driving mind does not always lead us to the best outcome and the consequences of this habit could vary greatly depending on the characteristics of your life, especially your socio-economic status.

Professor Mullainathan also discussed the impact of the self-driving mind given our circumstances today of being surrounded by technology that renders us unable to focus. While I had heard the negative connotations of this reality being discussed before, what was interesting about this talk was that Professor Mullainathan put forth potential positive implications.

He claimed the ubiquity of technology today that helps us live our lives is also helping us by collecting data on our habits, which we have never had access to before. Similar to how blindspot detectors on our cars collect data on our surroundings to let us know when we are getting too close to other vehicles on the road, personal technology in the future could evolve to utilize the data we have on our ourselves to produce behavioral blindspot detectors.

That is, Professor Mullainathan claimed, a change in consumer demand could drive technology to help create personal tools that tell you everything from which times of day you look at your phone the most to the websites you visit that lead you to spend the most time surfing the web. These tools would not only provide us with meaningful insights into our behavior, but also help us lead more efficient lives by gaining insight and control over the self-driving mind.

One of my favorite parts of attending such events is the opportunity to discuss what I learned with my fellow classmates. Following this event, we talked about how Professor Mullainathan’s discussion tied to our leadership development curriculum at Booth, which urges us to experiment with our behavior in order to break out of our defaults. Needless to say, we are very excited to have the opportunity to take a class taught by Professor Mullainathan next quarter where we hope to hear more about his work and how we can apply it to our future.

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