With one wall covered with a string of numbers and Greek letters reminiscent of a Beautiful Mind and another containing a beautiful oil painting whose backstory is worthy of its own HBS case study on supply chain systems, the four walls of Professor of Economics Emir Kamenica’s office are as multifaceted as his research interests. On how his research has developed through time: “My research has been more scattered than is typical, but over the years, it has become more focused on a particular topic, namely design of information—thinking of who knows what when as something that we can manipulate in order to achieve better outcomes.” Kamenica has tackled many topics from many angles, both empirically and theoretically: To what extent are politician’s votes influenced by how people next to them vote? What is a good way to structure rules of sports and gambling to generate the most suspense and excitement? Perhaps a topic that MBAs may find most interesting: how does men’s aversion to wives with higher income manifest itself in the workplace and household behavior of wives? These are all topics that Kamenica has explored in his research.
Returning to Coffee on the Third Floor by popular demand, Kamenica describes what he has been up to since ChiBus last checked in with him. “Marianne Bertrand and I are looking at the extent to which the lives of the rich and the poor have converged or diverged over the last half century. Looking at data on time use, social attitudes, brand consumption, and media consumption, we’re asking the question: ‘if I knew how you spent your day in 1965, how well could I tell if you’re rich or poor? How does that differ from today? If I know what your views are about the social issues of the day, how well I can tell if you come from a high or low income household? How has that changed over time?” Perhaps applying his learnings on suspense, Kamenica leaves us with no hints of the preliminary findings.
On the source of inspiration for his work: “most of my work is world-driven rather than literature-driven, meaning that there is something about the world that I’m curious about or don’t understand. Sometimes there are things that we don’t know and I think ‘well, I know how we could figure this out.” Consistent with this, Kamenica spends some of his free time taking courses at the University of Chicago, courses ranging from biology to physics to even a PhD course on Wittgenstein. On being on the other side as a student: “it’s really not that different. A huge part of my job involves going to seminars, and a key part of them is trying to learn what other people have discovered. It’s not that different sitting in a seminar trying to understand a paper and going to a classroom and listening to a lecture. Being a professor and being a student aren’t that different.”
Describing his game theory course as a “baby that needs to be tended to and taken care of,” Kamenica cautions against searching for a short-term application of that course in the business world: “it’s very much geared to MBAs, but we’re also in a school that offers a lot of classes. If you really want a class that has immediate applicability -- as in, you walk out of the class for a consulting interview, repeat things from class, and do well -- you shouldn’t be taking game theory. There are other, more suitable, classes for that. Game theory is meant to be horizontally differentiated from classes like competitive strategy. Game theory has many applications, but the applications are a side effect of understanding.” TNDC hangover or game theory? Take your pick. Kamenica doesn’t feel the slightest bit bad about making students drag themselves to campus at 8:30am on Friday mornings of Spring Quarter to experience his game theory class: “I love teaching Friday morning classes. Sometimes you get people who are falling asleep because they were out on Thursday, but in general, you get people who are more motivated. The most energetic and fun sessions I’ve taught were Friday morning sessions.”