Sendhil Mullainathan

Wisdom RFP Grant Recipient
Professor, Economics

Harvard University

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Sendhil Mullainathan is Professor of Economics at Harvard University and Director of the Policy Design Initiative at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. He is also a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Founding Member of the Poverty Action Lab, a Member of the Russell Sage Foundation Behavioral Economics Roundtable, and a Board Member of the Bureau of Research in the Economic Analysis of Development. He received his Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard and served on the faculty at MIT (1998-2004) before joining Harvard in 2004. In 2003 he received the MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant”.

Professor Mullainathan conducts research on development economics, behavioral economics, and corporate finance. His work applies insights from psychology towards the understanding of economic decisions. He is interested in how the architecture of choice environments can influence the real-world choices people make. Among other topics he has studied racial discrimination in hiring, the Medicare Part D insurance program, and public corruption and access to finance in India.

Professor Mullainathan has published extensively in top economics journals including the American Economic Review, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, and the Journal of Political Economy. He is the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including from the MacArthur Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Olin Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, and the Russell Sage Foundation.

Defining Wisdom Project Description

Two experiments have generated results. One study has found that access to personalized prescription drug plans increases the number of individuals selecting cheaper plans without sacrificing quality. Secondly, the research has found that framing retirement decisions in consumption rather than investment terms can change those decisions significantly. These findings indicate that, contrary to the rational choice model, wisdom is not a quality that belongs to an individual, but rather wise choices are influenced by context. Future study will explore whether financial stability reduces material hardship and help to understand what non-financial levers may improve household well-being, if income and assets are held constant.

Recent Publications
Psychology and development economics
"Psychology and Development Economics," Yrjö Jahnsson Foundation 50th Anniversary Conference on Economic Institutions and Behavioral Economics, edited by Peter Diamond and Hannu Vertiainen, Princeton University Press. In the standard economic model, people are unbounded in their ability to think through problems. Regardless of complexity, they can costlessly figure out the optimal choice. They are also unbounded in their self-control. In contrast to the traditional...
A Behavioral-Economics View of Poverty
"A Behavioral-Economics View of Poverty," with Marianne Bertrand and Eldar Shafir, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, May 2004, 419-23. Standard theorizing about poverty falls into two camps. Social scientists regard the behaviors of the economically disadvantaged either as calculated adaptations to prevailing circumstances, or as emanating from a unique “culture of poverty,” rife with...
A Memory-Based Model of Bounded Rationality
"A Memory-Based Model of Bounded Rationality," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117, (3), August 2002: 735-74. In order to investigate the impact of limited memory on human behavior, I develop a model of memory grounded in psychological and biological research. I assume that people take their memories as accurate and use them to make inferences. The resulting...
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Harvard University

Current Position

Professor, Economics

Highest Degree

Ph.D. Harvard University 1998

Research Interests

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