What experiments do economists carry out, what is teaching and how to keep students awake: interview with Kosmas Marinakis


One of the areas of your work is experimental economics. When usual people hear the word “experiment”, they usually think about physics or chemistry. So what experimental economics is and what experiments do you carry out?

Let me tell you about how this started. When I was writing my PHD, I was working on the theory of incentives. My research was mostly theoretical, and one of my professors said: “You should probably collect some data and do something empirical”. So I tried to find some data, but, you know, data is valuable and people don’t want to distribute it for free. It ended up that we couldn’t find any data, so we decided to carry out an experiment which would help us to collect data. I had this experiment where I wanted to understand how relative performance evaluation works and how it compares to absolute performance evaluation. I was teaching two sections of macroeconomics, I created one section with the absolute scheme and one with the relative scheme. In the middle of the semester I observed the results of my students and saw what the effect of the schemes was on students. This experiment went very well, and such method is great when you need to find the best theory. 

In reality, there are two kinds of experiments: laboratory and field. Perhaps 90% of all the economic papers refer to laboratory experiments. They collect some students who are willing to spend a couple of hours for $10-15, they put them in a room and ask them to make different choices, to play games, to look how they behave. What we do is a very different kind of experiments, field experiments. It’s when you have people going about their own business, like my students. You investigate the subjects on doing their own business.

In chemistry, when you put two elements together, they don’t care, if you observe them or not, but humans behave differently when they are unobserved and when they know that they are observed. This poses a very big difficulty to laboratory experiments. In field experiments we can observe more real behavior and subjects.

Do you carry out any research currently?

Yes, right now we are working on a project, it’s about tournaments and how they affect the outcome of the market. In many sports, for example, you have many sequential tournaments. For example, Russian football team, they play in the Russian championship and than they make qualify to play in the champion’s league also. There are master tournaments like Champion’s League Tournament and local tournaments. We want to prove the fact that If you have the big difference between the rewards for a master tournament and a local one, the same team from the definite country will win the local championship again, again and again. And when the difference between the prize in the grand tournament and the local tournament is little, different team will win every year. We want to prove that this happens because of some economic facets. This is a pretty real subject that can be investigated theoretically, not so empirical.

You have your own YouTube channel. Have you ever thought about becoming a blogger?

Once students complained to me, that in the end of my lectures I go very fast, this is because it’s very difficult to give all the content in 80 minutes. Once I had a very interesting study, but I knew that I wouldn’t have any time to tell about it. So I shot a 10-minute video and put it on YouTube. My students were really surprised, and I kept doing it. Eventually I shot a “Coursera course”. I’ve learnt how to do many things, now I can make pretty elaborate videos. Also last year my students gave me an envelope and said: “You shouldn’t open it until you finish with the grades of the class”. So I made a vlog video about that where I’m reading what they wrote and reacting on their comments.

It seems so attractive: stop teaching, start blogging, doesn’t it? Bloggers now get a lot of money…

Yes, I know that. But I never thought about monetizing, even if I get to this, I will take 1 rouble or something like that. I do it because I like doing it. Teaching for me is a mission and a pleasure. I feel happy when I go to my students and tell them something interesting. I do my best to attract their interest and also I want them to get pleasure from my lections.

How do you appreciate students of this school?

I’m really impressed with them. I remember myself when I was in their age: I really wanted to become an economist, but I didn’t really know what economics was. I had my own imagination about economics, but not knowledge about what economics is. These students have much more knowledge than I had. They are very motivated, they ask questions and they think how to solve problems. I see that they raise their hands, they try to communicate. I’m really impressed with the level of students here.

In one of your Facebook posts you said: “When I ask to do something right, I hear: “Don’t worry, here is Russia!”, but when I use this phrase, people look at me as if I was from Mars”. How do you explain this and what do you think about the mentality of Russians?

I think that the mentality is not bad. The biggest problem of Russia is that people who are in charge now have grown in a world that was very different from the world we have now. These people have their own set of skills that are not applicable in Russia anymore. We are living in electronic era right now when in some cases an e-mail is an old method of communication, there are new methods that are more efficient. When I need to change something and I call for it, and I say: “That’s how’s done in the whole world”, people say: “No, no, no, here is Russia”. Such people feel very out of the comfort zone when it comes to new methods, which the rest of the world applies to. Younger people have no problems with it, they are ready to modernize. But sometimes when I do something a little sloppy and I humour about that like: “Here is Russia”, for example, when I need to make a report that nobody’s going to read, and I say: “Don’t worry about it, I will do it next month”, they say: “No, you must do it now, it doesn’t work like this”. So I don’t know when I can say: “Here is Russia”, may be it’s my fault, that I didn’t learn how to use this phrase.

There’s a problem in our education too. We have all these amazing students, who will be the Russia of tomorrow and the top of the world of tomorrow, because they are very competent and hard-working. But we put them in the mentality, where you are convinced, that even if you do a sloppy job, you may not worry, because “here is Russia”.

Russia is a wonderful country, very misunderstood by the rest of the world by various reasons. Only while living in Russia one can understand how good and welcoming are people here. May be they don’t have this customer service smile, but in real need they will help you, I have seen that several times. So I don’t like when these people tell me “here is Russia” because I think that if somebody does things better that you, you should look and learn, and do it even better. So when we teach our students, we hope that they will learn something and do things better than us. That’s why I don’t like “here is Russia” as an excuse.

Do you speak Russian a little bit?

I speak a little bit Russian, very a little bit. That’s necessary when I must communicate with a taxi driver, a waiter in a restaurant, a hairdresser. In such situations I can speak almost fluently, everything else I don’t understand so good. I see that the students like me speaking Russian. I think it’s funny how I pronounce.

Do you sometimes have a language bareer in Russia? How do you cope with it?

 Yes, I do. It’s a little strange, but it’s a country where with a smile you can go a long way. So, smiling and pointing at things helps people to understand you. But I do speak a little bit when I want to communicate, because there’s always a way to communicate.

Do you change your language for Russian students?

I don’t change my language, I’m confident that they are able to understand even harder language. What I change often is the terminology, I cut it down to the level of the education of students. It’s very important to get down to the level of the learner. I know many people who know much about science, but they don’t understand that other people don’t know so much.

How do you keep students awake during your lectures?

Sometimes you can never help it, but I try. I’m not a kind of person that says what is to be said and then goes. I want to be sure that learners will be able to absorb what I say. I try different methods to attract students, sometimes I scare them a little bit and they wake up. I had a professor who did this amazing trick: he had a list of students and he chose one of them to ask a question. He was teaching econometrics, which is not the most lively science, but when he took his list and his eyes passed in front of me, I remember that I was 100% alert and I would never fall asleep. Sometimes I do it to my students too, and it works.

You can read more about Kosmas Marinakis and his latest research on his own site. You also can find him on Youtube, Twitter and Instagram.