Decision making researcher, UO professor awarded prestigious Bower Award

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Paul Slovic sits in his Eugene office on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. The University of Oregon professor of psychology and president of the local institute Decision Research, has received the Franklin Institute’s 2022 Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science. Slovic's research on decision making has been applied to issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paul Slovic sits in his Eugene office on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. The University of Oregon professor of psychology and president of the local institute Decision Research, has received the Franklin Institute’s 2022 Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science. Slovic's research on decision making has been applied to issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Eugene-based researcher who for six decades has studied how and why people make the choices they do has been named the recipient of a prestigious science award.

Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon professor of psychology and president of the local institute Decision Research, has received the Franklin Institute’s 2022 Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science. Slovic's research is important to government, medical and other fields reliant on understanding how people process the decisions they make.

The theme for the 2022 award was "decision making."

"I don't work alone. I've worked with hundreds of colleagues over the years. I see the award as a recognition of the work we've all done together," Slovic said. "It's a tribute to them and a tribute to our whole field of judgment and decision making in which I work."

The Franklin Institute honored Slovic "for foundational theoretical and empirical contributions to the study of decision making, including understanding perceptions of individual and societal risk, and cognitive and emotional factors affecting preference."

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Slovic has lived in Eugene since 1964 when he joined the Oregon Research Institute. He worked there until 1976 when he and two colleagues founded the nonprofit Decision Research, focused on decision-making habits and the valuation of potential outcomes.

He joined the UO staff in 1986 and works there today primarily as a research adviser.

UO professor Ellen Peters, Philip H. Knight Chair and director of the Center for Science Communication Research, nominated her longtime colleague for the Bower Award.

"Eugene is a hotbed of research in decision making and science communication, and that's largely because of Paul Slovic," Peters said. "He revolutionized the science of decision making, especially with respect to risk perception and risk communication."

Slovic entered the field while working for a University of Michigan professor studying gambles with the chance to win money. Illustrative of the kind of work he still does, they studied how people gamble based on factors such as probability of winning or rewards.

"We found the same gamble was evaluated very differently when we asked 'How much would you like to play this gamble' or 'How much would you pay to play the gamble?' We would get opposite responses depending on the way we asked the question," he said.

Slovic's research has been applied to issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, an event he believes is marked by a "profound failure of communication."

Slovic dug into research from decades ago to reveal apparently unlearned lessons about how poorly people intuit ideas like "exponential growth" and how using it to explain the spread of the virus failed.

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"That lesson was not heeded. In fact, it was disregarded by our government," he said. "Not enough was done to stop it, so then it grew exponentially and we see the results."

Decision-making research can be used to determine the most effective ways to present options, such as whether to undertake a risky surgery, Slovic said, or to understand if people will be willing to factor in the the global community when weighing their choices.

"We now have to contemplate things that are huge in scale and affect millions of people. Our intuitive brain does not understand millions," Slovic said. "Our risk perception is mostly a feeling of how risky it is, and our feelings don't do arithmetic particularly well."

The Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science will be presented to Slovic in 2022. The prize is $250,000, but Slovic said he hasn't yet decided how he'll spend it.

The 2021 winner was Kunihiko Fukushima, who in 1979 invented the convolutional neural network “Neocognitron," contributing to the development of artificial intelligence.

Contact reporter Adam Duvernay at aduvernay@registerguard.com. Follow on Twitter @DuvernayOR.

This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Decision making researcher, UO professor awarded Bower Award

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