Eugene is known for many things: running, Ken Kesey, a politically engaged citizenry. But Carol Metzler, the science director at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, said Oregonians generally don’t know there’s a critical mass of research being done locally.
“Eugene, Oregon, is known nationally, especially in the behavioral sciences, as being a hotbed of behavioral research,” said Metzler.
“All of us together really create quite a critical mass of important behavioral science research that’s going on.”
Oregon Research Institute has about 150 scientists and research staff working on everything from tobacco and drug abuse to the best ways of promoting psychological and physical health.
Metzler thinks there are several reasons for the critical mass: Eugene’s high quality of life and the local spirit of independence. But there’s a history too, which goes back to Paul Hoffman, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon.
Back in 1960, he was frustrated because he wasn’t being quickly promoted, and he’d just received a grant from the National Institute of Health to study how humans make decisions.
Metzler said Hoffman didn’t want to teach. “He wanted to start a research institution where he could really just focus on research and not have to worry about all the other demands of, you know, being an academic at the university,” according to Metzler.
So Hoffman bought a former Unitarian Church, and the Oregon Research Institute was born. It was a small and slightly funky setting, but scientists were drawn to it for the unique work and smart scientists found within its walls.
“Over the course of the first 10 years or so, it really grew in size and stature,” said Metzler.
One of the scientists drawn to Eugene was Paul Slovic, who is now president of Decision Research, one of several think tanks in town to have spun-off from ORI.
Slovic said back then, ORI researchers were studying how experts make decisions, specifically how radiologists evaluated patient X-rays to determine whether patients had stomach cancer.
The radiologists were asked to check the X-rays for seven different cues, such as the size of a stomach ulcer and the shape of its borders, and then make a diagnosis.
ORI researchers plugged those seven cues into an algorithm and found that a computer could diagnose stomach cancer — just like the radiologists.
“This is way in advance of what we would now call machine learning or artificial intelligence,” Slovic said.
Perhaps more surprising, was that the decisions the radiologists made were all over the map and they often didn’t agree with each other.
The work showed that experts don’t consistently make the same decisions when presented with the same data.
Slovic said it was that kind of rigorous, data-driven research that attracted top-notch scientists to Eugene.
Of particular note were Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who in 1971 brought their entire families to Eugene for a sabbatical.
“These were two of the most brilliant psychologists in the world,” said Lew Goldberg, one of the first scientists to work with Hoffman at ORI. Goldberg said the work of Kahneman and Tversky contributed to a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.
But work for that prize started long before 2002. It really began when Kahneman was a boy, growing up in German-occupied Paris.
Kahneman told a story about turning the Star of David on his sweater inside out, so it couldn’t be seen. One day, a German solider hugged him and showed him a picture of his son.
Kahneman couldn’t understand how the soldier’s views relied so fundamentally on his religion. If he was Christian, there was obviously affection. Maybe even love. But if he was Jewish, there was death.
Kahneman and Tversky worked to understand such decision making at ORI. Slovic said they could be heard arguing — and laughing — for hours. Eventually, they showed that humans think in two very different ways: fast and slow.
“Fast is, you know, kind of intuitive. We rely on our gut feelings. Images float through our minds and they convey feelings. This is a vestige of how we survived in the Stone Age,” Slovic said. “But the modern brain also can think slowly, analytically, scientifically you know, statistics and logic arguments. We can do that.”
Slovic said both ways of thinking have their problems. Slow thinking can lack the urgency and passion of fast thinking. But fast thinking runs on stereotypes and doesn’t count well.
For example, if we see one person in trouble we might risk our own lives to help. But if we hear about a disaster that kills 88 people instead of 87, we don’t experience that same visceral reaction.
Unlike many scientific papers, when Kahneman and Tversky’s findings were published, they were immediately adopted by everyone from Wall Street investors to hospital administrators.
“It’s perhaps been the most cited such paper in the history of academic economics,” Slovic said.
In the end, the work conducted at ORI contributed to a Nobel Prize and put Eugene on the map.
But ultimately, ORI proved to be a victim of its success. Metzler said in the late 1970s it imploded as a dozen scientists left.
But there was a silver lining. She said several scientists spun-off their own local institutes.
By the 1980s, Eugene was home — and still is — to four behavioral research centers: Decision Research, the Oregon Social Learning Center, the Eugene Research Institute and a rebuilt Oregon Research Institute. It’s celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
“[ORI] allowed for the proliferation of these research institutes in Oregon, which really helped it grow into sort of a cottage industry here of behavioral science and psychology research,” said Metzler.