Professor Sendhil Mullainathan talks about media as the 21st century’s digital junk food

by Avani Venkateswaran and Nikhita Giridhar, Class of 2019

For most of us, epiphanies are born in moments of intense brain activity. Or so we think. When Sendhil Mullainathan was a young man, he would take long bus rides in upstate New York to visit a girl. As he rode the bus from Ithaca to Rochester he would pass time staring out the window. Though it felt like a romantic adventure at first, gazing out at frozen fields as the bus rolled along, his outlook quickly changed. At a time with no smartphones or WiFi, he was inexplicably bored. What Mullainathan didn’t realize at the time was that the boredom was in fact feeding his brain.

“What’s funny is that I’m never bored anymore,” said Mullainathan, addressing a UChicago crowd at the inaugural Think Better speaker series hosted by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s Center for Decision Research. “If I had to take a bus ride now, I’d pull out my phone,” he said. “I’d listen to some podcasts. Maybe I’d check out Pinterest. But, is that good? My self-driving mind, even when left a minute by itself, says, ‘hmm, I wonder if I’ve gotten any email. I wonder if there’s anything new on Twitter.’ My mind keeps driving me to these things, so much so that I don’t know that I focus on anything anymore.”

In a lecture called “The Self-Driving Mind,” late last year, Mullainathan discussed ways in which the brain shifts into automaticity, or an automatic response to a familiar situation. One significant way that the self-driving mind is hurting the human condition today is by stifling creativity and innovation. The onslaught of emails, texts, Google News, Facebook and Twitter posts and Instagram chats is overwhelming people with digital noise. Quite simply, he said, we refuse to be bored.

Professor Sendhil Mullainathan, Professor of Computation and Behavioral Science, and George C. Tiao Faculty Fellow at Chicago Booth

Professor Sendhil Mullainathan, Professor of Computation and Behavioral Science, and George C. Tiao Faculty Fellow at Chicago Booth

Commenting on the verge of change that we find ourselves in, Mullainathan expounds on people consuming media today much as they were consuming food in the 1950s. After World War II, food in the US was plentiful and convenient. Now the US is fighting obesity. Consuming media is no different. People are gorging themselves on data in unhealthy ways. But there is hope. “Before long, companies are going to start to offer products to help us manage our media intake, just like Weight Watchers or Atkins. And it is artificial intelligence that will help us get there.”

Born in India, Mullainathan eventually made his way to Cornell University, where in addition to taking courses in computer science and mathematics, he studied under Richard Thaler. A Cornell economics professor at the time, Thaler was just beginning to combine psychology and economics into what would become known as the field of behavioral economics.

Mullainathan was hooked. He went on to receive his Ph.D. from Harvard before starting his career in 1998 at MIT. He moved to Harvard in 2004 where he was an economics professor for more than a decade until joining Booth. Now he is an affiliate at Booth’s Center for Decision Research where his early mentor Thaler is the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics.

Mullainathan joined Chicago Booth last summer as the Roman Family University Professor of Computation and Behavioral Science. He currently teaches Artificial Intelligence, with the focus on its application in social science. 2Y Greg Kim, a student in his Winter quarter course, adds, “Sendhil gives a critical eye to the fascinating topic of AI, providing us a lens with which to view the claims of life-changing algorithms. He allows us to explore our own ideas for its applications in a reasoned, tenable way.”

Content from Chicago Booth Media Relations/Newsroom and CDR’s Think Better Series