Former UC Berkeley faculty awarded medal of freedom

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One of 16 honorees to receive the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom, former UC Berkeley professor Daniel Kahneman was awarded the highest civilian honor by President Obama last Thursday.

Kahneman was recognized for his pioneering work in cognitive psychology, integrating the study of decision-making and judgment with economics and laying the foundations for behavioral finance as a new field of research.

“He changed the field in many ways,” said Eldar Shafir, a psychology professor at Princeton University who has known Kahneman for more than 20 years and co-taught courses at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “He did the right studies to change the way economists and social scientists do work and research now.”

Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Kahneman grew up in Paris but returned to Israel after escaping Nazi-occupied France. He studied psychology and math at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was later accepted as a graduate student in the psychology department at UC Berkeley, completing his doctorate in 1961.

“It was the only place I applied, I knew it was one of the best in the world,” Kahneman said. “I was quite eclectic as a grad student and started out my career mostly publishing in vision research and teaching statistics.”

Kahneman returned to UC Berkeley as a faculty member in 1986 and taught undergraduate courses in judgment and decision-making as well as in cognitive psychology. His courses influenced undergraduates such as Terrance Odean, now a professor of finance at Haas School of Business.

“He has been by far the most influential person in my career,” Odean said. “Most of the research I’ve done is built on the research he did, taking the ideas he developed in psychology into finance.”

According to Odean, his relationship with Kahneman began freshman year, when he was reading the spring course catalog in Evans Hall and saw that he was teaching a class that very afternoon.

“I immediately jumped on my bike and rode down to the lecture,” Odean said. “I knew he was teaching a class the next fall that was hard to get into, so I wrote him a long two page letter convincing him to let me in.”

Kahneman went on to teach at Princeton University’s psychology department and at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, earning the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. He and his wife return every summer to their house in Berkeley to visit old friends, such as Odean.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is celebrating its 50th anniversary and recognizes exceptional meritorious service. Recipients this year include Bill Clinton, Sally Ride and UC San Diego professor Mario Molina.

“I feel flattered,” Kahneman said about receiving the medal. “It’s more than I ever expected.”