“I encourage young people to just have a little bit of curiosity”
We spoke to economist Robert Wilson on 3 February 2021 about teaching future laureates, collaborating with fellow laureate Paul Milgrom and dealing with failure.
What made you decide to pursue economic sciences?
Robert Wilson: It’s a rather strange circumstance. I wasn’t actually trained as an economist and I hadn’t gone to a business school back in college. I majored in mathematics and philosophy. But then there was a professor at my college. He was going to the business school. He was moving from a statistics department to the business school and I liked him a lot. So I went to the business school and from there I got a job after the doctoral degree.
There was a time in my career in the mid-sixties when I sort of got interested in economics and game theory. I sort of learnt it on my own and I didn’t have training in it, but I acquired an interest in it. It was more accidental. I was sort of led into it by, I was curious about the subject matter and I just had to learn more in order to understand it and do research in that area. I was always shooting multi-person problems. Game theory involves more than one person in a strategic situation. So even without game theory, I was still interested in how people coordinate and cooperate.
Do you have a defining moment where you decided that this is what you wanted to do?
I took a visiting term at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. There I was working with economists and I liked it. Two years later I had a sabbatical year, which I then spent in the economics department at Stanford. So that was a defining moment where I said, okay, I’m going to take a whole year. I got to study economics. I got to live with the economists, I’ll have an office at the economics department. I kept with it and from there on I was really heavily involved in economics.
Is there a particular teacher or mentor that really has influenced you?
Later in my career, as I became involved in economics and game theory, I think there were these very influential older scholars that during the 1970s had a lot of influence on my thinking. One was Lloyd Shapley, who was a game theorist and got a Nobel prize by the way. Another was Robert Aumann who would come every summer to Stanford and he too got a Nobel Prize. So those had a lot of influence on me. But before that, I can’t think of there being a particular mentor along the way. I sort of drifted through college without any particular direction or mentor. I had come from a very small town in farm country, in the Midwest. Going to Harvard was a shock for me, a cultural shock. I was unprepared for it. Most of the fellow students had gone into prep schools and had lots of prior work and I just drifted along without a focus. In some ways my undergraduate education was kind of wasted. It didn’t have any focus to it.
Many of your previous students have become laureates and they have said you were a great mentor – what is your view on teaching and being a role model?
It’s a little mysterious as to why I’m considered a good teacher, because I actually haven’t done very much! I do have a course that’s apparently been very influential. For around 50 years now I’ve taught a PhD course that tries to convey what the frontiers of research are in the application of game theory to problems in economics. So of course, I worked very hard on that course, and I think it’s influenced a lot of the students.
Do you have any advice that you usually give to your students?
As a teacher, mostly I’ve just encouraged my students. I like them. I admire what they’re doing. I encourage them to work on what they’re interested in and they usually just pursue it with a lot of interest in vigor because it is their own interests. Unfortunately, this is very difficult these days because young people feel they have to do empirical work in order to get a job and that the golden days of theory are kind of over.
What qualities do you think a successful scientist needs to have?
There are different kinds of scientific endeavors. I mean, certainly the people doing empirical work, they’re just trying to find out what really is going on here, they have this curiosity about what is the truth. I’m more of a theorist and for me it just requires this kind of unrelenting curiosity. You have to be curious about something that’s really minor. When I started my work in economics, the prevailing model was what we call generally equilibrium theory. It was an elaborate theory that has a main purpose to show that there would exist prices that could make a demand equal supply in all or many markets.
The curiosity that drove me was where do these prices come from? Who sets them? Are they set by dealers and brokers or who are quoting prices?
The thing is that it only takes the slightest bit of curiosity to then lead you down a whole trail of interesting questions to study. I encourage young people to just have a little bit of curiosity about something basic from fundamental and then pursue it.
Your three students that become laureates – can you tell us a bit about them?
All three students Alvin Roth, Bengt Holmström and Paul Milgromare extremely talented, intelligent and skilled people. It’s not surprising that they do well. They would do well working with anybody. It’s not clear that I had a particular role. We were just very lucky. I was very lucky to have such talented students. You can see they were very talented. It’s turned out that way.
I can tell you a story about Bengt Holmström when his time was up at Stanford. The money was running out and he had a post-doc fellowship to go to – he only had about eight weeks left and he still had not written his dissertation. He locked himself in a room and worked steadily for six weeks. He produced this magnificent manuscript all in one in this intensive period. Then he went, with this post-doctoral fellowship, to the University of Louvain. He traveled through Germany to there from Finland. As they traveled through Germany to get to Louvain in Belgium, they stopped in a little town. While the car was parked outside the hotel, his manuscript was stolen. It turned out that he put an advertisement in the paper, in that town in Germany, saying ‘This is a terrible thing. My briefcase that has my doctoral dissertation in it has been stolen.’ It turns out that the thief’s mother read that and demanded that her son returned it and he got his dissertation back
Your co-laureate is a previous student of yours, Paul Milgrom. How did the two of you meet?
During the mid 1970s, I’m a professor at [Stanford] business school. After finishing college, Paul Milgrom worked seven years as an actuary. Then he came to the MBA program, and my colleague identified Paul Milgrom as this exceptional MBA student with strong analytical and mathematical skills. We invited him to transfer from the MBA program into the PhD program, which he did. My understanding of this story is that he asked Bengt Holmström which advisors he should choose and Holmström said, ‘well, you should work with Bob Wilson’.
I was the chairman of the committee for his thesis and that’s how it started. We had a little seminar series where we would meet at least every week. We would be pursuing topics, I was particularly interested at that time in auctions. I’d done some sort of exploratory work, but it wasn’t very deep rigorous, but Paul had these tremendous skills. He did very rigorous analysis of these topics in auctions.
Are you still working together?
We haven’t done any joint work since that time but we’re friends. He and his wife Eva go hiking together with me and Mary. Eva’s quite a hostess so she invites us over for dinner and there’ll be large groups of people and an absolutely beautiful banquet of food. She’s quite the entertainer.
How did you end up informing Paul Milgrom about the prize?
The Swedish Academy of Sciences called us, it was 1:40 in the morning. Since this is in the period before the election, I thought it was one of these political advertisements. So I turned off the phone, but fortunately the Swedish Academy knew my wife’s cell phone number and they called her. Then we talked to them and the chairman of the committee said, ‘well, we’re actually having problems reaching Paul Milgrom and we understand he lives across the street. Could you go over and wake him up?’ My wife and I put on clothes and went across the street. The reason there’s a video of this is that they have a system at the front of their house, that the doorbell where the chime that you would push the bell in order to ring at the door, it’s actually a camera and a microphone. As we approached the door, it’s taking a picture of us and recording what we’re saying. It’s sending all of this over the internet to Paul Milgram’s wife, Eva Myerson Milgrom, who was in Stockholm because she’s Swedish and visiting her son, granddaughter and mother. At that very moment, it was like 10 in the morning in Stockholm so she’s trying to talk to us, but we don’t hear her very well so we’re trying to get to through to Paul and knock on the door and say, ‘You’ve won a Nobel Prize!’ So that was a lot of fun actually and this video got distributed all over the world within hours.
How does it feel to share the prize with Paul Milgrom?
It is fun. For the award ceremony, because of the pandemic, it could not be done any other way than here. The council came and it was held in Milgram’s backyard patio. The whole ceremony was filmed just in the patio. That was a lot of fun.
You have been to a Nobel Prize award ceremony before, haven’t you?
I came to Holmström’s award ceremony in Stockholm [in 2016]. I dressed up in white tie and tails. My wife and I were his guests and we sat up at the third balcony for the ceremony. We went to the banquet and had a lovely time.
How do you cope with failure?
There are lots of problems where I’ve worked on the problem for a year, failed to solve it, and then finally reluctantly given up on it. Since I retired, I have a problem I’ve worked on for nine years and I’m still working on that. Once I’m hooked on a problem and I think I know the answer, but I can’t prove it to be true, it’s very frustrating. It’s like a dog gnawing on a bone that won’t give it up, you know? So that’s hard.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
These days, I’m 83. I used to be interested in gardening, I’m kind of too old to maintain the garden now. I have a gardener that does it so I don’t actually work in at that much anymore, but I used to do it.
Nowadays, we spend more time on birds. But hiking is our main thing. My wife and I like to go hiking. Normally every Wednesday we go on a hike – so that is probably what we will do after this call.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First published February 2021
Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.