On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr Edward Webb who graduated with a PhD from the University of Copenhagen. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.
Attention and perception in decision-making and interactions
Alexander Sebald, Peter Norman Sørensen
Attention and perception aren’t things we often talk about in health economics. Why are they important?
There’s been a lot of work done on attention and perception in economics recently, which I think is a great development. They are really vital topics since unless you know how people perceive the information available to them, and what aspects of their environment are most likely to command their attention, it’s difficult to forecast their behaviour.
I think attention and perception will become more widely talked about in health in future, as there’s many cases in which they have a lot of relevance. For example, you might want to know whether rare symptoms grab doctors’ attention because they’re unusual, or whether they don’t notice them because they’re not expecting them. (There’s a great study by Drew, Vo and Wolfe where radiologists looking at CT scans of the chest failed to notice a picture of a gorilla embedded in them by the experimenters.)
Or if you’re planning some dietary intervention, you might want to take into account how unhealthy food such as pizza and chips attracts people’s attention much more than healthy food, and to look at why this is the case.
What can the new theoretical frameworks described in your thesis tell us about individual behaviour?
Most of the literature in psychology is about how individuals behave. I tried a lot in my thesis to move beyond studying individual decision making to look at how the effects of attention and perception change in different economic environments, as this can often be counter-intuitive.
As an example, in one of the chapters of my thesis I explore the effects of individuals having limited ability to tell the quality of different products apart. It turns out that the effects on a market can be radically different depending on whether there are fixed or marginal costs of quality.
I was also very interested in looking at how individuals with limited or biased attention interact with profit maximising firms. There’s an expectation that companies will rip people off and exploit them, and certainly, that can happen, but I was able to show that it’s not necessarily the case. The case of individuals having limited ability to tell products’ quality apart which I mentioned above is a good example. When firms rely on product differentiation to earn profits, they’re actually harmed by people with this limitation, rather than exploiting them.
Did you find yourself reaching beyond the economics literature for guidance, either in the subject matter or the techniques that you used?
Yes, I read quite a lot outside the standard economics literature during my thesis. Behavioural and experimental economics more or less sits on the boundary between economics and psychology, so it felt very natural to seek guidance from other disciplines. This was especially the case for the eye-tracking experiment that I carried out with the help of my co-authors Andreas Gotfredsen, Carsten S. Nielsen and Alexander Sebald. I needed to learn quite a bit about psychological work on visual attention.
I like that economics is as much a set of analytic tools as a subject area, which gives it the advantage of being able to take on nontraditional topics.
You studied in Denmark, yet your thesis is written in English. Did this raise any additional challenges in completing your PhD?
Danish people speak better English than what I can! Language really wasn’t a problem at all at work, since English is very much the language of academia. Seminars were in English, PhD students and a lot of masters students wrote their theses in English and nearly all postgraduate and some undergraduate teaching was in English. I did feel quite privileged to have the advantage of being a native speaker of the language, and appreciative that most of my colleagues were fine with working in a second language. That’s why I was always very willing to help people out with proofreading English. I only hope I didn’t make too many mistakes!
On the social side, you can get away with living in Denmark without speaking Danish, and many people do. Indeed, I probably wouldn’t have made the effort of becoming a (moderate) Danish speaker if my partner wasn’t Danish.
Copenhagen, and Denmark in general, is a fantastic place to live and work, and I’d urge anyone who is thinking about moving there not to be put off by the language barrier.
How did your experiences during your PhD contribute to your decision to work in the field of health economics?
The question makes it sound like I had a coherent plan! In reality, I’m terrible about thinking about the long term. (I must be a natural Keynesian.) I ended up moving back to the UK after I graduated ironically because of my Danish partner, as she had found a job here. She also works in health, as a medical physicist and cancer researcher at Leeds. I applied for economics jobs in the area and was over the moon to secure a place at the Academic Unit of Health Economics at Leeds.
It’s a little more applied and hands-on than what I was working on before, which is great. I came into economics because I was interested in finding out how people act and interact, and so it’s fantastic to have the opportunity now to work principally with discrete choice experiments, trying to work out patients’ and clinicians’ preferences.
Since I started at Leeds a few months ago I’ve really enjoyed my time. The environment is very stimulating and all my colleagues are extremely friendly and easy going and are always willing to help out or discuss an interesting new idea.