Illustrated portrait of Richard H. Thaler

(Illustration by Graham Smith)

Richard H. Thaler

Questions for the Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist.

What surprising job have you had in the past?

In college I had a part-time job delivering “books on vinyl” to housebound unsighted adults. Many lived alone, which I found unimaginable. A VW Beetle made that job possible.

What would you want to be doing if not your current profession?

I was hoping that my cameo in The Big Short would launch a movie career, but somehow that is not happening. Other “jobs” seem to require hard work and following orders. I am not good at either, so I was lucky to fall into teaching and research.

What do you hate that everyone else loves?

Even as a young kid, I always hated marshmallows, which most kids adore. The famous marshmallow test would not have worked on me. A version with Oreos as the temptation would have been another story.

What was the last book you finished?

Silverview, John le Carre’s last book. A fitting ending to a wonderful career.

What was the last book you recommended to a friend?

I am not sure whether to call it a book but Malcolm Gladwell’s new audiobook Miracle and Wonder focused on Paul Simon. Gladwell is experimenting with new genres in the audiobook space. Here, listeners are given the chance to listen to Simon talk about songwriting and get to listen to the music. All books by or about musicians should be done this way.

What was the last book you put down before you finished it?

I would not pick out one in particular. It is the rare nonfiction book that keeps me reading until the end. In my books I tell the readers to quit reading if it is no longer fun. That’s what I do too.

What book changed your life?

Not a book but a series of articles written in the 1970s by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. I read about five of them one afternoon, based on a suggestion from one of their students whom I had met. It was a genuine “aha” moment, and I knew it at the time.

What person, alive or dead, would you want to write your life story?

Maybe John Maynard Keynes. He was a fantastic writer and a behavioral economist before such a thing existed. I’d love to get his take. If you can arrange that, please do.

What’s your least useful talent?

I am moderately good at preferring (in a blind tasting) expensive wines over the cheap stuff.

What advice would you give to a brand-new Maroon?

You should not pick an occupation based on the subject you liked best in college. Think more about what a job is like day-to-day and whether you could imagine doing that for the rest of your life.

What UChicago classroom moment will you never forget, in three sentences or less?

The day I learned I had won the Nobel Prize in Economics, in a 5 a.m. phone call, I had a class scheduled for 6 p.m. Three hours! Fortunately I was coteaching the class and my partner had arranged champagne and a cake, and she told me to go home after an hour.