When Prof. Sendhil Mullainathan was a young man, he would take long bus rides in upstate New York from Ithaca to Rochester to visit a girl. Snow covered the ground. And he passed the time staring out the window.
At first, it felt like a romantic adventure, gazing at the frozen fields as the bus rolled along the highway. But, after a few trips, his outlook changed. It was the early 1990s. There were no smart phones or WiFi. Reading on the bus made him nauseated. He started to get bored.
Mullainathan didn’t realize it at the time, but that boredom was feeding his brain.
“What’s funny is that I’m never bored anymore,” said Mullainathan, addressing a UChicago crowd at the inaugural Think Better speaker series hosted by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s Center for Decision Research at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago.
“If I had to take a bus ride now, I’d pull out my phone,” he said. “I’d listen to some podcasts. Maybe I’d check out Pinterest. But, is that good? My self-driving mind, even when left a minute by itself, says, ‘Hmm, I wonder if I’ve gotten any email. I wonder if there’s anything new on Twitter.’ My mind keeps driving me to these things, so much so that I don’t know that I focus on anything anymore.”
Mullainathan, a behavioral economist, joined Chicago Booth last summer as the Roman Family University Professor of Computation and Behavioral Science. He is one of only nine faculty members across UChicago to currently hold the University Professor title—chosen for internationally recognized eminence in their fields—and one of only 22 faculty members to receive the honor.
A former Harvard University professor and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation fellowship, Mullainathan uses behavioral economics to help solve social problems and to determine how artificial intelligence and machine learning affect complex human behavior.
In his first appearance at a public event as a Booth professor, in a lecture called “The Self-Driving Mind,” late last year, Mullainathan discussed ways in which the brain shifts into automaticity, or an automatic response to a familiar situation. While some automatic responses can keep people safe—such as slamming on the brakes when they see a red light ahead—many such responses are unhealthy.
In a wide-ranging presentation that covered crime, poverty and scarcity, Mullainathan explained that one significant way that the self-driving mind is hurting the human condition today is by stifling creativity and innovation. The onslaught of emails, texts, Google News, Facebook and Twitter posts and Instagram chats is overwhelming people with digital noise. Quite simply, he said, we refuse to be bored.
“In the 21st century, we are surrounded by these technologies that are making us dumber and completely oblivious,” Mullainathan said. “We are a nation overwhelmed with an abundance of media, and it’s unhealthy.”