For Dan Feiler, the most interesting and powerful explanations of human judgment and decision-making are the ones that are hiding in plain sight.
The son of a German immigrant, Tuck associate professor Dan Feiler grew up in inner-city Pittsburgh and attended a Christian elementary school, a middle school with a Jewish plurality, and a high school that was majority Black. He frequently navigated varied and sometimes unfamiliar social environments, observing social cues and trying to make sense of norms new-to-him.
Quickly he learned that cultural stereotypes didn’t offer much wisdom, as he experienced a great deal of heterogeneity within conventionally stereotyped groups.
It made me realize how little I knew, Feiler says.
And I felt like other people seemed to think they knew things way more than their experiences or knowledge warranted. I was always fascinated by that.
Intellectual humility, and the curiosity that it breeds, are hallmarks of the best professors, and Feiler has had them from a young age. His experiences among different demographic groups made him naturally interested in people. When he went to college, at Carnegie Mellon University, he was attracted to the structure and logic of economics as a starting point for how to think about people. Neo-classical economics is founded on a few key assumptions: people have rational preferences, individuals maximize utility and firms maximize profit, and people act on the basis of full and relevant information.
But for understanding the range of behavior that we see in society and in organizations, these assumptions felt like natural things to question and explore, Feiler says.
Feiler teaches the core course Managing People with Adam Kleinbaum, the elective Negotiations, and a new sprint course called Avoiding and Exploiting Decision Biases in the NBA.
As an economics and decision science major, Feiler could do just that. While economics is the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, decision science is a combination of risk management, decision analysis, and the psychology of decision-making.
Feiler frequently talked with his professors about their research. His advisor was George Loewenstein, a renowned scholar in economics and psychology. One day early in his senior year, Loewenstein asked Feiler to run a research study for him. Feiler was excited to do it. But instead of running the study, he went into Loewenstein’s office and sketched on the board why he thought it was a flawed experiment to run, and what study Loewenstein should run instead, to answer his original research question. Loewenstein’s response was to encourage him to get a PhD.
I sort of stumbled into something I was good at, Feiler recalls,
and my professors encouraged me to pursue it.
The following year, Feiler enrolled in a PhD program at Duke University, in the Management and Organizations department. When he started to focus his studies, he became interested in how people learn the wrong lesson from experience, and how the way we interact with the world shapes what we see. The paper that emerged from his dissertation was published in 2013 in Management Science: “Biased Judgment in Censored Environments.” This was the first paper in a stream of research studying the biased judgments that can result from a restricted view of the environment. For example, a manager might underestimate an employee’s capability if that employee’s work assignments have been constrained. Their failures might be clearly visible while their untapped potential obscured. In another paper from this stream, published with his Tuck colleague Adam Kleinbaum, Feiler explored how our limited social networks act as a constraint on our social observations. This mechanism can lead us, collectively, to come to incorrect conclusions about what “normal” really is.
Since those earlier papers, Feiler’s research has branched out in two other directions. A second stream studies the consequences of neglecting randomness in decision-making. Here, in papers published in Management Science and Psychological Science, Feiler has advanced the understanding of the relationship between positive error and choice, and on how regret can be driven by erroneously inflated beliefs about foregone alternatives. We experience undue regret from overestimating the one that got away. Feiler’s third research stream studies the sensitivity to framing as a source of bias, showing how framing impacts how decision-makers perceive conjunctive risk, where success depends on the occurrence of multiple uncertain events.
[Teaching] is an opportunity to impact how students think, make decisions, and treat others throughout their careers.
When Feiler began teaching at Tuck, in 2013, his first task was to refresh the Negotiations elective course. He is passionate about teaching, he says,
because it is an opportunity to impact how students think, make decisions, and treat others throughout their careers. He poured that passion into a new Negotiations course that focused on psychology, experimental economics, risk, signaling strategies, gender dynamics, and fairness. The course became more popular than ever, and it earned Feiler the Tuck Teaching Excellence Award in 2015, and a spot on Poets & Quants’ 2017 list of Top 40 Business School Professors Under 40 years old. In 2019, Feiler co-created Tuck’s new organizational behavior core class, Managing People, which covers topics such as team decision-making, productive conflict and cooperation, incentive problems and motivation, and performance feedback, among others, becoming one of the highest rated core courses at Tuck.
These days, Feiler’s interest has moved towards managerial decision-making and organizational behavior in the sports industry. He’s the faculty director for a new Tuck Executive Education program with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, and he’s been having a discussion series with executives from the NBA, talking about strategies for combining human judgment and analytics. This January, Feiler brought this project to Tuck students, in the form of a Sprint course called Avoiding and Exploiting Decision Biases in the NBA.
We examine decision biases and ask what they look like in the NBA, he says.
The idea is to practice applying these things in a high-stakes setting like the NBA, and then the final assignment is to apply them in a different field.
Feiler was drawn to basketball and the NBA because the sport mimics most corporate environments, where interdependence between people matters a lot for performance. It’s truly a team sport, where a given player’s actual value can’t easily be isolated in a statistic. Performance is in the synergies and complementarities between players, as much as their individual skill and talent.
These are multi-billion-dollar organizations making decisions about which players to draft and trade, he says.
It’s been fun to bring an outside perspective and learn how those decisions are being made—and how they can be made better.
This article originally appeared in print in the winter 2023 issue of Tuck Today magazine.