Pomona Hires First Behavioral Economist

The Pomona College economics department has hired a behavioral economist for the first time. John
Clithero PO ’05, a postdoctoral scholar of neuroeconomics at the California Institute of
Technology, accepted the position of assistant professor of economics with a focus on behavioral economics on
Feb. 20 with plans to begin teaching brand-new courses and running a research lab during the 2014-2015 school

“He will contribute unusual methodological breadth and
intellectual depth to conversations about decision-making, both at Pomona and
throughout the 5Cs,” assistant professor of psychology Shlomi Sher wrote in an
email to TSL. “He’s also an extremely nice and thoughtful guy, and it will be
terrific to have him as a colleague.”

who graduated from Pomona with a bachelor’s degree in economics, completed his master’s and doctorate in economics at Duke University. He began postdoctoral research at Caltech in 2011, focusing on the
different neural mechanisms that underly economic decision-making.

Clithero said that he is looking forward to returning to his alma mater.

always a very lively, active intellectual curiosity on campus, a lot of
interactions between the students and faculty, different evolving issues and
discussions, and I’m excited to come back and be a part of that,” Clithero

Sher said that Clithero’s research lies
at the intersection of economics,
neuroscience, and psychology.

is developing cutting-edge formal models of decision-making that are inspired
by recent findings in neuroscience,” Sher wrote. “This is important research, and it’s very
exciting that John will be bringing it to Pomona.”

Pomona economics professor Eleanor
Brown was Clithero’s adviser during his
time at the college. Brown said that following the departure of two faculty members,
the economics department was eager to open a position for a behavioral

knew at that time we really wanted a behavioral economist because our students
have been so eager for us to be able to offer it here,” Brown said. “I
think the research opportunities will be a real draw and a real plus for our

search team reviewed all applicants—a total of 220—scoring them on a numerical basis. After
interviewing the top four candidates at the start of spring semester, Clithero
was offered the job.

was one of the most disciplined applicants that we had, and his letters of
recommendation were absolutely fantastic,” said Alex Kellogg PO ’15, an
economics department liaison and member of the search team. “He
has the potential to be a groundbreaking neuroeconomist.”

has plans for two courses, one on behavioral economics in the fall and another
on experimental economics in the spring.

really excited to add these to the curriculum for economics majors and other
interested students,” Clithero said.

The department is considering Pomona’s Principles of Microeconomics course as a prerequisite for the new behavioral economics course, but has not yet finalized course requirements.

trying to keep the course available to as broad an array of Pomona students as
possible,” Brown said.

Kass PO ’16 considered forming his own major in neuroeconomics, but decided
against it. He said that Pomona’s economics department was not previously able to provide for that kind
of major, so he is excited that the department is beginning to move in this direction. 

want to see if this is going to be a trend in our economics department, or
whether it’s just one thing that’s added on in the periphery,”
Kass said.

other central aspect of Clithero’s arrival will be the opening of his
laboratory, the location of which has not been finalized.

be conducting my own experiments and also hopefully getting some undergraduate
TAs [teaching assistants] to work with me, to help me with my research and to conduct research of
their own,” Clithero said. 

students and faculty members are excited about the connections Clithero will
forge between the economics, psychology, and neuroscience departments.

feel like economics is a really big department in and of itself, but it doesn’t
have as many connections to other things as we would like it to have,” Kellogg
said. “This
would be a really great opportunity for us to branch out and do work with
psychologists or neuroscience people, which would be really cool.”

movement toward behavioral economics and neuroeconomics reflects both the nature of decision-making
and the demand for interdisciplinary research.

traditionally sharp boundaries between fields—economics, psychology, and
neuroscience—are blurring,” Sher wrote. “This vibrant exchange of ideas has given rise
to two new research areas—behavioral economics and neuroeconomics.”

Although behavioral economics and neuroeconomics are
considered departures from the traditional field of economics, Pomona’s economics
department welcomes Clithero to help the department evolve and satisfy student
curiosity in behavioral economics.

think people are pulled to economics in the first place because they like the
rigor of our mathematical models, but at heart they are social scientists,”
Brown said. “While
students like the rigor, they also like it when we get back to people really
being human.”

According to Brown, economists
can use behavioral economics and experiments to take a step back from the idea of “hyper-rationality,” which assumes that individuals make only rational decisions. Instead, real-time experiments are used to show which models best represent what happens in real life, where individuals do not always act rationally.

I think is happening is just that experiments are becoming a very useful tool
for economists to have, regardless of what they’re interested in,” Clithero

Brown said that Clithero’s connection with Pomona as an alumnus did not contribute to the decision to hire him, though it was the icing on the cake.

such a pleasure when you can hire one of your alumni because we know he’s a
great human being on top of being such a great economist,” she said. “It’s very rewarding.” 

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