Living One’s Work: An Interview with Dr. Gigi Foster, Part 1

Dr. Gigi Foster, provided by Dr. Foster

by Maya Moritz

This year’s Ringvorlesung, organized by the Fachschaft VWL, began with a topic few economics students have ever encountered in their courses: love. Between drawing models of supply and finding first order conditions, students are rarely offered the opportunity to study the only happiness in life, per writer George Sand.

This semester’s program, entitled “Economics, Love, and Sexuality,” offers students the opportunity to hear from experts in economics whose research encompasses matching in the marriage market, internet dating, disease prevention, and (in the case of Dr. Gigi Foster) love. You can read the original write-up of the Ringvorlesung series here.

Love is a unique research topic in a discipline famous for abstractions away from irrational, emotional decision-making. This singularity may have contributed to the significant crowd of sixty-odd students attending the online talk. When it came time for questions, students thought up profound queries about the research process and the workings of economics in their daily lives.

Most of all, it was the renaissance woman Dr. Gigi Foster who drove a thorough, extensive discussion of the methodologies, models, and outcomes of research pertaining to love in economics.

Dr. Foster is a Professor at the School of Economics in the University of New South Wales, Australia, having joined UNSW in 2009. She has a B.A. from Yale University in Ethics, Politics, and Economics and a PhD in Economics from the University of Maryland. Her research has crossed disciplines and engaged with topics as diverse as education, social ties, and health.

Her co-authored book covering research into emotional ties and love, An Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups, and Networks, was published in 2013. This year, she has written about how altruism and love considerations can be better integrated into economic work in a chapter currently under review for inclusion in a handbook about behavioral economics.

In part one of our interview with Dr. Foster, we discuss economics as a discipline and the difficulty of confronting long-held expectations and assumptions in research.

In the upcoming second part, we will discuss the pandemic, public reactions to economic arguments, and what the future holds for studies of human emotions like love. Our next interview from the Ringvorlesung series will be with Dr. Matthew Quaife of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concerning his work on HIV prevention.

An Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups, and Networks by Gigi Foster and Paul Frijters
An Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups, and Networks by Gigi Foster and Paul Frijters

Can you describe your background- where did you study and how did your interest in studying human connection develop?

My mother was the greatest influence on my life and was a cognitive behavioural feminist clinical psychologist.  I learned from her very early how to self-reflect, how to step back from a human interaction to try to decipher it, and the role of internal psychology and mental models in driving our behaviour.  My father was an engineer, and gifted me with the systems thinking and pragmatism that I also draw on heavily in my work today.

I studied advanced math and languages in high school, and when I arrived at Yale University I thought I’d most likely major in comparative language and literature.  I “shopped” John Geanakoplos’ Microeconomics 1 course sometime early in my degree and felt at home at once:  this was a discipline that codified how I already thought about the world!  I considered majoring in economics, but I didn’t want to take any more tedious mathematics courses (which a straight economics major would require) and also wanted a broader study plan encompassing more of the human experience and different viewpoints, so I decided upon the composite major of Ethics, Politics, and Economics (Yale’s version of Oxford’s PPE program).

I have been interested in human interaction – via the spoken word and otherwise, such as via the performing arts – since I was a young child.  I’ve also, since I can remember, felt personally drawn to the economic problem of how to get the most for all from the scarce resources we have.  When asked as a child of about 10 by my mother what I thought the purpose of life was, I immediately responded “to make other people happy.” My answer has since broadened to include myself (!) but this is basically what economics aims to do. 

I might also mention that I was an only child and had quite a lonely childhood, being the teacher’s pet and never part of the in-crowd at school, and I think this helped me develop both self-confidence and an imperviousness to social disapproval, which has helped me in my work when I have had something controversial to say.  It also gave rise to a deep curiosity about why all the other kids behaved as they did, which I pondered from my place of aloofness, like a scientist staring through the microscope at a colony of bugs.

I’m struck by the range of topics that you’ve researched (especially the work on horse chestnuts). How do you come up with ideas for your studies?

I have a broad suite of interests, from homeopathy (the horse chestnuts) to education to time use to corruption to social norms to power and love.  I generally decide what to research based on a combination of factors: (1) how innately interested am I in the question? (2) do I think others are likely to hit upon this question and answer it satisfactorily, so I don’t have to? (3) who would I imagine working with on answering this question, and do I enjoy working with them?  My own level of interest in a topic is partly a function of how much I feel science (and economics in particular) needs it to be answered (would the answer change the way we think about some aspect of society or decision-making?), and partly a function of what I’ve experienced in my own life.  In this sense introspection partly drives my research agenda.

In terms of coming up with the ideas themselves, for me that has not really been the hard part.  I find myself busy mentally, without making a conscious effort, with certain topic areas.  The main topic I come back to again and again in different forms is the complex influence of other people on individual behaviour.  Ideas for studies and projects regularly pop out from that mishmash of thought.

It feels sacrilegious and somehow dangerous then to put [love] under the microscope

Can you compare your international research experiences? Which countries were best for data access, collaboration, and publishing?

Australia is awful by international standards in terms of data access, and international journals (particularly those housed in the US) don’t generally look kindly on publishing studies that only use Australian data, so being an empirical researcher in Australia has not been easy.  I’ve employed a variety of strategies to circumvent these problems, such as collaborating with US-based coauthors, using US data, and running experiments to collect data rather than relying only on administrative or survey data that would be seen as more innately “Australian”.  That said, compared to the US, Australia is very small and the group of people doing research in any given subfield is hence also small.  Many of them, like me, are ex-patriates. Over the years a group of applied microeconomic researchers in Australia has become sort of like an extended family for me.

Why do you think there has been so little work on love in economics and other fields?

Love is not seen as an economic concern by most economists publishing today largely because they were taught that economics is about understanding and interpreting material choices that are made based in part on “preferences”, rather than about understanding where those “preferences” come from.  In fact, the whole narrative that there is such a thing as fixed preferences (which is still taught in graduate economics programs) is a fiction, but many people’s status in the profession depends upon it being a fiction that is maintained in the discipline, because they have published work that assumes this fiction is true.  So, they resist the idea that we should relinquish the fiction that people’s preferences (with their loves and loyalties) do not change over time, and expand our brief to the understanding of the dynamic human motivations, whether underpinned by greed or by love, that drive material choices.

Love has been acknowledged, if not often in economics but in sister sciences like psychology, but generally it has been merely taxonomized rather than analysed. I think this stems in part from an aversion to putting under the microscope something so precious and dear to us.  Love is the most important thing in the world.  It feels sacrilegious and somehow dangerous then to put it under the microscope:  if we discover how love works, will we no longer be prone to its influence, or no longer be able to enjoy its extraordinary benefits?  (I can confidently say, based on personal experience and for the benefit of worried readers, that developing a model of love does not render one’s heart impervious to it or to its joys.)

If you had an endless budget and resources, how would you test love?

Haha.  Well what I would want to do would not pass the scrutiny of modern ethics boards, as to test my theories I’d need to be able to manipulate both power and desire, triggering the unconscious mind to vary its love response.  Truly manipulating people’s perceptions of the powers they are under is pretty much a no-go zone in modern economic research.

How has your experience as a mother and partner changed your perspective on the topic and in your research, as you wrote that your partner does all the laundry?

I have absolutely drawn on introspection in my hypothesising and discoursing about love, and I have also tested my theories in my own life, in my own love relationships.  My papers on female breadwinning and domestic labour are partly inspired by my own experience, as are my papers on international education in Australia, peer effects in education, social norms, and other topics.  To me this sort of living of one’s work is a way to be an authentic and useful social scientist.  By contrast, I do not feel it helps science to scribble things on a whiteboard that have no bearing on, and have not been informed by, the real human experience.

Do you think there exists a time element to the models, as social norms and family structures change? What about a cultural element, as cultures place different value on loyalty and duty?

Norms (formal and informal) certainly change over time, and cultures are different too.  That’s why I am interested in understanding why norms – and habits, and ideals – change, as well as what behavioural consequences a given set of norms/habits/ideals might have.  The power of these phenomena to influence behaviour is an outgrowth of group dynamics, and a channel for group influence – and groups are something I study heavily in my research. 

Also, I believe that the basic pathways that give rise to and sustain love and loyalty are common across all people and all times.  The nature of love is an outgrowth of our evolutionary programming and as such does not change with the winds of fashion, culture, or norms.

Do you think love is a topic that lends itself to interdisciplinary research? What other fields do you draw on most often and which do you hope to incorporate in the future?

Most definitely, love is a hugely important feature of the human experience and it is only natural that multiple social sciences are interested in it.  In addition to psychologists’ taxonomies of love, I have also looked at sociologists’ discourses on the broad influence of groups, and political scientists’ thoughts about the nature of power.  I feel some of anthropology may contain nuggets that I have not yet fully appreciated and that could enhance my thinking about love and power, but I find anthropological studies tedious to review since they generally focus on how different societies are subtly different, whereas my goal is to find the ways in which we are the same.  Economics is a “convergent” science, unlike some of its sister “divergent” sciences.

Also, to publish successfully about love, you do have to choose one social science as your “home” because it is only within those siloed homes that the best journals and highest readerships are found.  Truly interdisciplinary work generally has a small audience.

What resources do you suggest for students interested in the topic? And what’s next for you in your research?

Ha, well a good start would be to read An Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups, and Networks (CUP 2013), produced jointly with my great friend and fellow traveller Paul Frijters, and some of the references therein.  But of course, I’m biased.

Right now, amongst other things, I’m writing a book on Covid policy and how we got it so wrong (and how we might avoid a similar calamity in future); an article reporting on an experiment investigating the endowment effect of power; and an Ethics application for a time use survey to be sent to academic and professional staff at my university, in which my co-author and I aim to determine what Covid has done to work schedules and processes at universities, and how work is organised and distributed across staff and projects.  I expect to write more on love, power, and Australian policy (and probably many other things) in the future.

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