I'm Behavioral Economist Benjamin Ho, and This Is How I Work

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This is one hell of a How I Work. Economist Ben Ho studies things like apologies, trust, and inequality from an economic perspective—the kind of approach that makes a good NPR story. He’s blisteringly hard-working, he gets excited about workflows and old-school text apps and portable keyboards, and he’s written his own applications. And he has a hack for his morning shower that frankly sounds impossible. He’s everything we look for in a How I Work guest.

Location: New York City where I live and Poughkeepsie, NY where I work

Current gig: Associate Professor of Economics, Vassar College where I do research on the behavioral economics of apologies, inequality, and climate change

Current computer: Rotates between Surface Go, Macbook Pro, a Macbook Air, and a Lenovo Yogabook. I try to carry as little as possible and I never throw anything away. So I just have computers laying around (some up to eight years old) at home and at work and pick up whichever one is closest. Dropbox and Google Docs makes this easy.

Current mobile device: Google Pixel 3XL

One word that best describes how you work: Peripatetically

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.

I went to college wanting to learn everything. And I did for a while. I picked up seven degrees from MIT and Stanford, but finally settled on the field of behavioral economics. I dipped my toes at a couple tech startups, at a big investment bank, and as lead energy economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers but have mostly been in academia, teaching at Cornell, Columbia, and now at Vassar.

These days I teach classes on topics ranging from behavioral economics to the ethics of climate change, and my research focuses on the economics of trust and inequality. I just finished partnering with Uber to run an experiment involving 1.5 million customers, to see how email apologies can help restore customer trust after your Uber ride is late. I’m currently working on a book tracing the history of trust from prehistoric tribes to modern day issues surrounding trust such as climate treaties and blockchain.

I’m still trying to learn everything, taking inspiration from everything from science fiction and comic books to my kids’ first laughs and smiles (they tell us a lot about the biology of trust).

“One random innovation in how I teach recently is that instead of writing everything on the chalkboard, I type them into a google sheet. I share this with the class so they have access to the notes, and the sheet lets me do things like have a random name generator for cold calls.”
Photo: Courtesy of Ben Ho

Take us through a recent workday.

I am not a morning person so it’s a struggle to get up when the kids get up around 6:30 a.m. (and sometimes as early as 5 a.m.). I help my wife get them fed and dropped off at school by 8. If it’s a teaching day, I start the 2-hour-45-minute commute of bikes and trains and driving to get from New York City to my office in Poughkeepsie New York, where I hold office hours with students, then teach for 4 and a half hours straight (three 75-minute classes), then more office hours and then repeat the same commute home, arriving around the kids’ bedtime at 8pm. My wife leaves dinner on the table for me (usually delivery, thank god for Seamless) and after some time with family, I usually find myself grading papers and answering emails until after midnight.

We live in the city because my wife is on the med school faculty at Columbia and she needs to be close to work more than I do. But the days I can skip the commute are much much appreciated.

On those days we can take more time getting the kids to school. Sometimes we stop at Starbucks for breakfast along the way (after a snooty coffee phase where I only went to fancy coffee shops, these days I’m quite happy with Starbucks nitro cold brew). Then I usually find some coffee shop or library to work in. A few hours of uninterrupted time is the greatest luxury, and I use those times to work on analyzing the data from an experiment, or writing a new chapter for my book, or revising a paper for submission. But usually that work gets interrupted by committee work or referee reports, or all the many things that distract us from our research.

“Five or the dozen or so keyboards I own”
Photo: Ben Ho

Besides your phone, what apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?

Podcasts. I currently use Pocket Casts. Abandoning the Apple ecosystem a few years ago was hard (I had owned every iPhone and nearly every other Apple product since the iPhone debuted). But I like the flexibility of Android. I walk a lot in the city and I commute for a long time. Podcasts make those times feel productive. Or at least not a complete waste. And Pocket Casts is way better at managing my podcasts than Apple Podcasts. Apple was always so opaque about what was downloaded or cached and gave you so little control.

I’ve also become obsessed with keyboards lately and have probably purchased over a dozen in the past few years. My favorite for its size and reliability is the Microsoft Folding Keyboard, which easily switches between my Surface Go tablet and my phone but fits in a large coat pocket. But my favorite typing experience is still on custom built mechanical keyboards. The fully programmable ortholinear Planck is my favorite. While it is somewhat portable, it is still heavier than I’d like.

A few years ago, I ordered what I thought would be the holy grail of keyboards from WayTools—a collapsible keyboard that’s smaller than your phone but whose beta-test users say is better than typing on a full sized. Delivery was supposed to be in 1-2 months. Over three years later, the company website still says to expect delivery within 1-2 months.

Oh and vi. I still use vi everyday.

What’s your workspace setup like?

I pretty much just need a screen (even a very small screen like on my phone) and a keyboard. I worked on Wall Street in the days when using a mouse was a sign of weakness. I also started programming on computers that didn’t have mice first using the line editor in GW-BASIC and then in vi, so I’m still a big believer in keyboard shortcuts.

Dropbox keeps all my files synced across all my devices. Microsoft Office, Google Docs, and Google Inbox (RIP) all work well across devices. So does Overleaf, a cloud based service for writing LaTeX (for writing scientific papers) which works surprisingly well even on a phone.

The only thing that doesn’t work well in the cloud is my statistics package (economists tend to use Stata). Migrating to Python will give me more cloud options, but for now I make do. The Surface Go runs Stata well enough, otherwise I login remotely into a Linux computer cluster for more heavy duty computational power.

“Nespresso machine, customized razor scooter, creepy one-way mirror since my office used to be used for psych experiments, makeshift standing desk from $15 amazon side table, unnecessary books.”
Photo: Ben Ho

What are your favorite resources for research?

Google. Google Scholar.

What’s your best shortcut or hack?

Brushing teeth while I shampoo my hair? I know it sounds ridiculous. But you’re supposed to brush teeth for two minutes, which is enough time to shampoo your hair, too. Saving two minutes a day by combining the two is 720 minutes in a year. Twelve whole hours or half a day! I know that’s not a work hack but 12 hours is a lot!

The tricky part (that took years to figure out) is that while tooth brushing can be done one-handed, shampooing usually requires two hands, one hand to squeeze the shampoo into the other hand. Or three hands total. That was a problem. The solution was to squeeze the shampoo onto the back of the hand holding the toothbrush. Put the shampoo down, and then scoop the shampoo off the back of the toothbrush hand with the now freed hand.

Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.

Grading. (I loathe grading btw. I think every professor does.)

I’ve come to realize as a behavioral economist that there are many things wrong with the usual grading system of A’s B’s and C’s. One thing that’s wrong is that grade inflation has made students expect to get A’s. I once guest taught in a department where an A- was considered a failing grade. I did not know this at a time and I had students come to me despondent after getting an A-. All students only got A’s in that department.

The other problem with grades is that they are often graded out of 100, and then students lose points for getting questions wrong. As a behavioral economist, we are keenly aware that feelings of loss are twice as potent as feelings of gain. This system of subtracting points puts the emphasis on what you don’t know, rather than emphasizing what you do. So I tend to use a system of checks and check plusses (with half checks and double pluses) to circumvent the grade inflation (because students don’t come in with pre-conceived notions of how many check plusses they should receive) and to put the emphasis on what is learned rather than what is lost.

Screenshot: Ben Ho

Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?

My research assistants and co-authors. Research is a heavily collaborative activity. Working with student research assistants can be hard. Because they are there primarily to learn, getting the work done is secondary. Still I find the teaching rewarding. One of the main benefits of having co-authors on research projects is that they set deadlines for you. Otherwise, a professor with tenure could procrastinate indefinitely on completing their research.

Since my collaborators are around the world, I rely on video and text chat apps. I’m annoyed that the apps people use for video chat and text chats keep changing (why can’t we settle on just one) but for now I’m mostly using Zoom and Slack.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?

Google Keep. Which works great but is annoyingly slow. Why is it so hard in 2018 to make a note taking app that loads quickly. I wrote a note taking app almost three decades ago in GW-BASIC when I was 10 years old. You’d think there should be something better by now. (My venerable vi todo text file, supported by custom scripts, had to be retired because it didn’t really work on my phone.)

“I tend to rotate between different coffee shops and libraries on my research days. Starbucks is nice because of reliable Google wifi and easy power outlets, and a welcoming space. I used to be more of a coffee snob, but honestly, the cold brew has been the great equalizer, and Starbucks cold brew is for me as good as any of the trendy coffee spots like Blue Bottle which just opened a branch nearby.”
Photo: Ben Ho

How do you recharge or take a break?

Super low-key Final Fantasy game on my phone. I remember playing the original Final Fantasy on the original Nintendo. I actually haven’t played video games much since college but it’s nice to be able to pick up and play a couple battles in between other things, especially while waiting for the train.

What’s your favorite side project?

Learning Python. Python is the most popular language for the types of machine learning that would be useful to me, so I’ve been working to pick that up. One of my degrees was actually in artificial intelligence, but what I learned is now way out of date. However machine learning is the new “big thing,” even for academic economists, so I’m trying to get back into it.

I actually learned to program when I was around 8 and I still really enjoy it, but these days, I feel obligated to delegate most programming tasks I have to research assistants. It’s a good learning experience for them, and I feel like it makes more sense for me to teach these tasks rather than do them myself. However, it’s nice to have an excuse to program myself.

“After owning every iPhone since the first, as well as one of almost every other Apple product, I made the switch to Google Pixel a few years ago. One of the many things I appreciate about Android is the ability to really customize your homescreen.”
Screenshot: Ben Ho

What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?

Just finished The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Wei. The book jacket has an endorsement by Barack Obama! First novel translated from Chinese that I’ve read. Wei’s scifi book started out in the physics department in cultural revolution China, which has deep resonances with my own family’s history, but winds up deeply asking how civilization would be shaped by the vertiginous chaotic movements of three bodies in space.

Just started Monstress, the comic book series by Marjorie Liu, the first woman to win the highest writing award in all of comics (in 2018! How are still having “first woman” headlines in 2018?!). The art (by Sana Takeda) is amazing, and the world building is out of this world.

There is a Chinese theme here which is not that typical for me. But this seems to be a very Asian-American year in pop culture. It’s also rare for me to be reading anything aside from research papers, so my go-to book recommendation is usually anything by Neal Stephenson.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

The Slate Working podcast (one of my favorites) had an amazing series on comic book creators asking them many of the same questions. But I loved hearing about all of the names of the cover, not just the headliners.

Maybe a podcast producer. In particular, the longform narrative producers like at This American Life or Serial.

“With academics spread around the world, I often collaborate with people who I haven’t seen in person in years. I am annoyed that there is no standard for text chat and video chat, and instead we are forced to keep many different ones installed depending on who we are talking to.”
Screenshot: Ben Ho

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

My brother’s ex-boyfriend’s mother is a life coach. At dinner many years ago she said that in any conversation, the most important thing is to validate the other person’s side of things first. To hear what they are saying and then to reply with “Yes, and” rather than “Yes, but.” I think about that advice often. It has been important both in my personal life, but also in our increasingly polarized political discourse. It’s also a key part of how I operate in the classroom.

What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?

How to accept the fact that there are more books on my Kindle than I will ever be able to finish in my lifetime (as well as more TV and movies on my Netflix queue than I will ever have time to watch).

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