Nobel Prize Conversations
“It is very good at developing good work habits”
In an increasingly chaotic world, how can you learn to concentrate deeply on a single problem? Guido Imbens found his powers of concentration while getting lost in chess games as a child. ”For four or five hours you would just shut out the rest of the world, you would be focused on one task.”
In this conversation, conducted in June 2022, Imbens also talks about the beauty of chess, the pitfalls in talking publicly about uncertain data and the challenge of keeping an open mind in research. He also speaks about the morning he received the news about his prize in economic sciences in October 2021 and how his kids and wife celebrated the award with him early in the morning.
Interview, February 2022
“You need to have trust to be able to do good work”
Nobelprize.org interviewed Guido Imbens on 7 February 2022. We spoke with him about how free time can provide space to think and the importance of friendship and trust for a successful collaboration.
Telephone interview, October 2021
“I like working with the students, working with young, smart people. There’s nothing better than that.”
Telephone interview with Guido Imbens following the announcement of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2021 on 11 October 2021. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Prize Outreach.
After a busy, tiring Sunday, mountain biking with the family, Guido Imbens’ Monday morning wake-up call came a little after 2 am with the news from Stockholm. “I’m sure that the adrenaline will get me through,” he says in this conversation recorded shortly afterwards, with the excitement building around him: “Things have been hectic here!” He speaks about the benefits of the social side of research, the enjoyment of working with bright young minds, and the pure pleasure of just getting up and going to work.
Adam Smith: Am I speaking with Guido Imbens?
Guido Imbens: Yeah, this is he.
AS: Hi, this is Adam Smith calling from Nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize.
AS: Hi, sorry to keep…
GI: How are you doing?
AS: Very well, thank you. Sorry to call so very early in the morning and…
GI: [Laughs] Well, things have been hectic here anyway. I’m not getting much sleep.
AS: No, the day has… the day is well underway.
GI: Yes, exactly.
AS: Were you actually asleep when the news came?
GI: Yes, yes, I’d managed to go to sleep. I actually had a busy day yesterday – we went, I went biking, taking the kids on some orienteering trip, so I was mountain biking myself, so I was pretty tired by the end of the day.
AS: Well, so somehow your body has to cope with a day where I guess it’s going to be hard to get back to sleep.
GI: Yeah, I’m sure the adrenalin will get me through.
AS: Indeed, and you’ll be carried along by all the people wanting to talk to you.
AS: Ah, and I think I hear the clanking of coffee cups around you, so maybe that’s…
GI: Yes, I’m going to get some coffee here.
AS: That’s good. Very wise. Your work is all about asking where is the evidence, and developing tools to extract that evidence from the data. I suppose a good place to start is to ask whether these natural experiments that you work on are hard to find, or whether there’s just an abundance of data out there, and it’s a case of just picking which bit appeals the most at the moment.
GI: I think part of the, the contribution, and in some senses that’s sort of more Josh and David’s contribution, is kind of showing actually there’s many of these, many places where these natural experiments occur. And I think my part of the contribution is then showing, if these things are there then these tools are going to be very helpful and that actually helps you see that many of these natural experiments are there. One of the techniques I’ve worked on is regression discontinuity designs. That’s something that came up… that was actually around in the psychology literature in the 60s but it wasn’t really used in economics. And then when, in the early 2000s, people started using it and the methodology got improved, and suddenly people realised that there were lots of places where you could use these methods. The same with the Local Average Treatment Effect stuff. Once the methodology was clear it became easy to recognise when… where these natural experiments were… when they might occur, and how you could exploit them.
AS: So it’s really a very symbiotic relationship between the gathering of the data…
GI: Yeah, and you know, the… what, where I was incredibly fortunate was very early in my career, kind of meeting up with Josh and kind of seeing how he was working, how he was thinking about questions, and that helped shape my research agenda in terms of the methodological questions, kind of figuring out how to do econometrics in a way that was actually useful for empirical researchers. Kind of later I had David Card as a colleague, I had David Card as a colleague, I had [unclear] as a colleague, at Berkley and Harvard and Stanford. So I’ve been very fortunate to be around these incredible empirical researchers, who can help ask great questions for the type of methodological work I was doing.
AS: It’s a lovely illustration of the social side of research, that it’s partly a case of sitting in your office and thinking, and partly a case of talking to people.
GI: Well, yeah… again when I was a first year assistant professor, my senior colleague there Garry Chamberlin, kind of said you know you need to go to the labour seminars, you need to talk to Josh Angrist, you need to listen to these people doing empirical work to get… because that’s how you do good econometrics. That’s exactly right, being around these leading researchers was incredibly helpful for me in developing my own research agenda.
AS: What keeps you focussed? What is it about the work that just keeps you going?
GI: That’s… it’s… at some level it’s sort of like doing puzzles. When I was a kid I was into chess, and once I get hooked on a question I think, you know, at some level econometrics is kind of like… it’s just like applied maths. You have to… The challenge is really coming up with good questions, but then once I have a good question I just get very deep into them and I keep… I like keep mulling over questions. And I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. My former colleague at Harvard, Gary Chamberlain, told me this story where, when he learned that you could actually make a living doing… being an econometrician or being an economic economist and get to work on the question you’re interested in, he said that was just a great eye-opening experience. He just… and I can relate to that. I just… I mean I am incredibly fortunate, I get up in the morning and I like going to work, I like working with the students, working with young, smart people. There’s nothing better than that.
AS: Beautifully said. And some days you end up getting up in the morning incredibly early.
GI: Well, that’s, you know, that’s, it’s… I’m incredibly excited. It’s really just icing on the cake. Last week I loved getting up in the morning and going to work, and if this hadn’t happened I would still love getting up in the morning and going to work, and working with the students. There’s a lot of projects I’m working on that I’m excited about, and the only sad thing is there’s not more hours in the day. I mean I do some professional service, I’m the editor of one of the main journals, and so I like reading the literature, and kind of talking to people, going to seminars, so it… a sad thing at the moment is there’s no conferences to go to, to actually have the live interactions with people. But I set up this online econometrics seminar a year and a half ago now, that’s been going on every two weeks, and it’s been a real great thing for the profession to build community in these challenging times.
AS: Well, it does sound as if you are indeed very fortunate. It’s a… it’s a lovely thing you describe. I have to let you go, but I have one last question – I hear people around you, is it possible that somebody could take a photograph of you and send it to me?
GI: Yep, yep, sure.
AS: …for Nobelprize.org because we want to capture this precise moment. We already have a photograph of David Card in his pyjamas, so this would be great.
GI: I’m not in my… could somebody take a picture of me for the Swedes? Is it OK to have my kids iin it?
AS: It’s better to have your kids in it, that would be just fantastic, please.
GI: Just give me one second to…
AS: Thank you so very much.
GI: We’re trying to get one of the kids.
AS: We’ll talk again another time.
GI: Sorry, I’m, I’m just losing a little bit, thanks so much.
AS: Thank you very much indeed, and congratulations.
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