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CHIBE Remembers Former Affiliate Dr. Howard Kunreuther

howard kunreuther

The Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE) is saddened to announce the passing of former affiliate Howard Kunreuther, PhD.

Dr. Kunreuther was the James G. Dinan Professor; Professor of Decision Sciences and Public Policy and Co-Director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. He earned his AB in economics from Bates College and his PhD in economics from MIT. He wrote several books such as The Future of Risk Management, Managing Catastrophic Risk: How Companies are Coping with Disruption, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters, and Insurance and Behavioral Economics: Improving Decisions in the Most Misunderstood Industry.

He died on August 1, 2023, at the age of 84, according to his obituary.

In January 2023, the journal Risk Analysis ran a biographical profile on Dr. Kunreuther called, “Howard Kunreuther: An irrational economist committed to managing risk.” A note that ran along with the profile reads:

“I am honored to be profiled in Risk Analysis, a journal that has been central to my life-long research on risk and decision making. In March 2022, I was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, a grade-4 brain tumor. Following surgery and treatment, I have experienced what is called “expressive aphasia,” which means that even if I can understand, I cannot retrieve all the appropriate words to express my thoughts. I am therefore extremely grateful to my long-time colleague, Carol Heller, for compiling these responses, drawing on my previous writings and interviews, and to my daughter, Laura, who helped fine-tune some aspects through our conversation. I am deeply appreciative of their caring understanding of my life’s work.”

The article details how an encounter with a hurricane at a young age led him to start thinking about why people do not take precautions to protect themselves from natural disasters. In particular, Dr. Kunreuther’s research explored insurance purchasing against natural disasters.

In an editorial that Mark Pauly, PhD, MBA, a CHIBE affiliate, wrote in Risk Analysis called, “Howard Kunreuther: An Appreciation,” Dr. Pauly wrote about his friendship and collaboration with the self-designated irrational economist. He described how grateful he was to have him as a “colleague, foil, and inspiration over so many years.”

“We had lots of discussions, directed at puzzling our way through apparently inexplicable behavior and outcomes; so much so that our families in a shared minivan eventually asked us to switch to talking about football or anything but insurance economics,” Dr. Pauly wrote.

“Howard never took the point of view that, if you were smart enough to think of an interesting idea, the data and the funding for you to pursue that idea ought to fall from heaven,” he continued. “Instead, he has been a force of nature (embodied in the Wharton Risk Center which he founded) for engaging the insurance industry and its regulators in planning, funding, and (most important of all to an academic) providing the data that might answer the question of whether what people do could be done better. His ‘force of nature’ character assured me (and his other coauthors) that there would be relevant analysis with interesting data and surprising conclusions out of any project with him; projects always finished and did not dribble away.”

CHIBE-affiliated faculty member Katy Milkman, PhD, also shared her memories of Dr. Kunreuther:

“I feel incredibly grateful to have benefited from Howard’s generosity and mentorship over the years. I joined Howard’s department at Wharton in 2009 as an assistant professor and Howard immediately became one of my favorite colleagues. Whenever I was unsure of how to tackle a new research project or handle a political challenge in the department, he was happy meet over lunch (usually at Pod, and he always insisted on treating) and to help me think through next steps. I could depend upon him to arrive brimming with enthusiasm about whatever new project he was pursuing, and he somehow always seemed equally excited to hear about my work, which was incredibly flattering and encouraging to me as a young, anxious academic.

It was always a treat to walk into the 5th floor entryway of our department in Jon M. Huntsman Hall and see Howard holding court at a Risk Center gathering in the conference room. On many occasions, he was there with superstars who I’d long hoped to meet but never had the chance to interact with, and he would come out when I waved ‘hello’ to make sure we were introduced. I still vividly recall how excited I was to meet Paul Slovic (like Howard, a giant in our field) in just this way and how grateful I was that Howard went out of his way to give me that opportunity.

Howard was a champion for everyone who worked with him and one of the most optimistic, engaged people I’ve met in academia. When he retired several years ago and I learned that I would be inheriting his chaired professorship, I considered it one of the greatest honors of my career (and still do).

Howard will be remembered for his brilliant contributions to our understanding of how people think about risk, for his important practical contributions to policies related to disasters, and for his warmth and generosity.  I will always be grateful that I had the privilege to work in his department and benefit from his mentorship.”

CHIBE Director Kevin Volpp, MD, PhD, said of Dr. Kunreuther:

“As others have noted, Howard unfailingly demonstrated high levels of enthusiasm – for new ideas, for life, for mentoring, and for new experiences. One such memory was when we had a retreat in the early days of CHIBE in Pittsburgh with our friends at Carnegie Mellon. Due to a variety of travel challenges and cancellations we had to rent a van to drive back from Pittsburgh on short notice. We had a 6-hour van ride and despite being the most distinguished member of our mostly youngish crew I think Howard enjoyed it as much as or more than any of us. He regaled us with stories, and we had a vibrant non-stop discussion of ideas and life and the ride went quickly. Howard was hugely supportive of CHIBE and the involvement of Wharton faculty in medical school projects and vice versa. I always appreciated his support and knew we could count on it. Howard, his broad smile, and his infectious enthusiasm will be missed by many of us for years to come.”