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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The National Science Foundation Fellow With a Passion for Working Around the Clock

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

When Alex Imas was nine years old, his family fled Bender, Transnistria, a disputed region that broke away from Moldova in the early 1990s. Following a civil war, the increasing instability in his hometown was so bad that it chased out many long-time residents.

“Seeing violence and poverty has certainly influenced my work,” Imas says.

After leaving Transnistria, he lived all over—Moscow, the Bronx—before settling down with his family in Chicago. “We were extremely poor for some time,” he says, “but my parents were able to eventually land good jobs and provide my sister and me with a good education.”

"I was always interested in human behavior and how it deviates from what economists view as optimal. I wanted to study how choices that people make can get them into trouble."

In 2007, Imas graduated with honors from Northwestern University. By 2014, he had an economics Ph.D. from the University of California-San Diego, where his advisor was the behavioral economist Uri Gneezy. (“He taught me the importance of having passion for the work, of choosing to work on problems that wake you up in the morning and keep you up at night.”) Imas had also won a National Science Foundation fellowship and the hard-to-get Hillel Einhorn New Investigator Award from the Society for Judgment and Decision Making.

By then, he’d made a career of studying how getting bumped around by the human experience can make us act. “Most of my projects focus on how people's circumstances and environment deeply change their decision making,” he says.

Imas’ research examines how prior financial losses can cause people to take on more risk to make the money back. After losing several hands of poker, for example, we’re more likely to keep gambling to climb out of the hole rather than cashing out and leaving the casino. “Such loss chasing can wipe out people's earnings and leave them deep in debt,” he says, which is why he also researches how to prevent that reactive chain of events.

In another project, Imas examines ambient violence and its effects on how people value goods over time. “Particularly,” he explains, “we find that exposure to violence makes people more impulsive. They are more likely to choose a smaller reward now rather than wait for a larger, better reward in the future.” One of Imas’ main goals is to devise interventions that might stop people before they make choices, shaped by circumstance, that later get them into trouble.

Imas also develops tools and identifies interventions to help people make better decisions. One of his main goals is to figure out how to stop people before they make life-shattering mistakes.

“I was always interested in human behavior and how it deviates from what economists view as optimal,” Imas says, explaining how he decided to dedicate himself to economics. “I wanted to study how choices that people make can get them into trouble.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).