Decisions, Decisions: Professor Helps Students Understand Why We Do What We Do

By Darin Estep |

Professor Ye Li knows why you are checking Twitter instead of working on that project that’s due next week.

Ye Li, Assistant Professor of Management, UCR School of Business
Ye Li, assistant professor of management

You might chalk it up to simple procrastination. But Li sees such things through the lens of his research of “intertemporal choices” – and the tradeoffs between immediate and later consequences. As an assistant professor of management in the School of Business, Li helps students understand the implications not just for business but nearly every aspect of life.

“I teach the Judgment and Decision Making course, which is at the intersection of economics and psychology,” he says. “I'm not really looking at the decisions we're supposed to be making, which is what most business classes cover, but rather how do people make decisions – the descriptive reality – and then understanding what mistakes people make.”

Li has a knack for helping students connect these concepts to real life. It was among the reasons he was recognized as one of the “Best 40 Under 40 Professors” in 2020 by Poets & Quants. Li also has been nominated for the UCR Academy of Distinguished Teaching, among other recognitions.

His work has been published in journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Psychological Science, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, and Annual Review of Psychology. A paper in the Journal of Marketing Research is forthcoming.

Showing an Interest in Students

Students have praised his enthusiasm for robust class participation. They also have noticed that he makes a point to learn the names of every student in every class he teaches. This reflects an interest in students that Li says comes naturally.

“So, one big thing that I absolutely have to cop to is that I like giving advice. And I especially like it when students come to me for advice,” he says. “That's why, after class, I always stay to see if anyone has additional questions. I actively invite people to my office hours. I love it when someone comes in, and I can just talk their ear off for half an hour and offer them advice.”

That’s important, Li says, especially for the significant number of first-generation students at UCR. Many of these students aren’t familiar with the strategies needed to succeed in higher education. “I try not to be intimidating. So, I think that's a big part of why there's this comfort to come talk to me in the first place,” he says. “And once you reach that connection, you can sense this relief of like, ‘Oh, this professor's a real person. And being able to engage with them one-on-one is not as scary as I expected.’”

An Academic Influence

Li can speak from personal experience about the value of engaging with professors. While an undergrad at California Institute of Technology, he studied and worked with behavioral economics pioneer Colin F. Camerer. This sparked his fascination with the psychology behind economic decision-making.

After earning two bachelor of science degrees (business economics and management and electrical engineering) with highest honors, he went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in behavioral science at the same graduate school where Camerer studied: the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

“And so, it really was this happenstance that I discovered this field,” he says. “And I just love it. For example, in my daily life, I love playing board games with my kids and my friends, which is all about making decisions.”

Learning from Perspectives

Because he teaches a behavioral science class, he encourages a lot of class discussion.

“We all have different perspectives. We make mistakes on one side or on the other side of the coin, and I always try to get the student perspectives in class,” he says. “And I tell people, ‘It's not about having the right answer. It's about having your perspective on things. And even if it happens to be wrong, we will all learn from it.’"

In behavioral economics, these perspectives apply to decisions with long-term consequences for business, but they also are evident in everyday life.

Li abounds with examples: Whether you should force yourself to finish a meal at a restaurant just because you paid for it (get the doggy bag); or whether you should go running in the morning, as Li does, even though it’s cold and unpleasant (you’ll feel better later); or whether you should accept $10 now versus $20 in three months (the latter is equivalent to a 400% annualized return).

“When you frame it that way, people are like, ‘OK, well, if you say it like that, then sure. It seems like I should do the long-term thing.’ And so, a lot of my research here obviously applies to business.”

Li encourages students to take a similarly long view, particularly when using their time at UCR.

“For the students who really take advantage of their time at UCR,” he says, “I think they can do really great things.”