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- Economists are employed in a range of organizations and agencies, including many where their work will not be recognized or known by the general public.
- Emily Oster, a professor at Brown University, has gained widespread recognition for her books, “Expecting Better” and “Cribsheet”, which focus on pregnancy and raising small children. Oster’s books apply an economic approach to the topics, which in some cases has meant confronting some stubborn conventional wisdom about both childbirth and baby and toddler care.
- One topic she covers in Cribsheet is “avoiding cognitive dissonance,” which leads some people to decide their choices are better than other choices and contributes to excessive worrying about the decisions they make.
- Readers of her books will gain an understanding of an economic approach to weighing up risk when confronted with conflicting advice.
- This story is part of our series, Practical Economics.
Economists influence a wide variety of corporate and government decision-making. Some remain in academic enclaves or are employed by large companies or industry organizations. Last week’s winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics were recognized for their work that focused on delivering tangible outcomes for the worlds’ poorest people, as opposed to more macro-focused research that defines many past honorees.
Some economists bridge the academic and the “real world.” penetrating public consciousness by focusing research on topics that relate to universal experiences. Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown University, falls into this category.
Oster’s academic work focuses primarily on health, and her Brown bio page includes links to papers with titles like, “Informativeness of Early Huntington Disease Signs About Gene Status.” Her mainstream books are decidedly more accessible, though no less rigorous. The groundbreaking “Expecting Better,” challenged many areas of reflexive thinking about pregnancy and childbirth, including diet, weight gain, and even alcohol consumption.
Oster’s 2019 follow up, “Cribsheet” is subtitled “A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool.” Oster applied an economist’s approach to topics that drive considerable parental angst, such as pacifiers, breastfeeding, and sleep training. Oster’s books are not lists of dos and don’ts – they provide a framework to weigh decisions that are right for each person.
The problem of “avoiding cognitive dissonance”
Parenting means constantly deciding what is the right thing to do. “The sheer number of decisions causes information overload,” Oster said. “When you look for advice, everyone says something different.”
Compounding the stress is the feeling that other parents are criticizing your choices. And you’re not imagining things – other parents are often judging you. But there’s a reason for that; it’s called “avoiding cognitive dissonance.”
“We all want to be good parents,” Oster writes in “Cribsheet.” “We want our choices to be the right ones. So, after we make the choices, there is a temptation to decide they are the perfect ones. Psychology has a name for this: avoiding cognitive dissonance.”
“If I choose not to breastfeed, I don’t want to acknowledge that there are even small possible benefits to breastfeeding,” Oster continued. “So I encamp myself in the position that breastfeeding is a waste of time…This is a deeply human temptation, but it is also really counterproductive. Your choices can be right for you but also not necessarily right for other people. Why? You are not other people.”
One of the defining features of Oster’s work is the way she frames risks in terms of personal choice. “I think the main thing is to put risks in context,” Oster explained. “We implicitly accept some risks all the time, and framing others in terms of ones we kind of know we are taking can be helpful. Beyond this, I think there is value in giving people a better sense of probabilities – again, using contexts that are more familiar.”
“Uncertainty is hard to really understand,” Oster said. “It’s one of the things that makes us so much more responsive to anecdote than data.”
From professor to bestselling author
Oster is the child of two economists, so the profession was an option she envisioned easily. She enjoys working with students at Brown University.”Being a professor is sometimes frustrating, but it’s basically a job where you get to think about ideas and learn things,” Oster said. “One of the things been the most fun about the books has been thinking about how to translate ideas helpful and intuitive to an audience that didn’t get a PhD in economics.”
It was not a lack of professional satisfaction that propelled her to mainstream authorship, but, as a parent herself, a recognition that a lot of the information available on these topics was misleading and unhelpful. “I think it was a combination of just really feeling frustrated, sensing a void, and also really enjoying the process,” she said. “I started writing and was just like “wow, this is really fun” – challenging in a way that is different from my job, but really great.”
Bestselling author status does not exempt Oster from professional competitiveness, and from seeking the validation of her peers in the academic community. “I want my colleagues to respect me, and for people in my field to respect me,” she said.
A speech she gave recently at the National Bureau of Economic Research Summer Institute sparked nerves. “It’s strange because I have tenure, so there was nothing practical that could happen to me [if it didn’t go well],” she said. “But I was way more nervous doing that than going on live on MSNBC.”