Alex Steiny Wellsjo

I am an Assistant Professor of Economics and Strategy at the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego. I received my PhD in Economics from UC Berkeley and completed my postdoctoral training at the Haas School of Business.

My research covers topics in applied microeconomics, with a focus on questions relating to health and household finance.   As a behavioral economist, I incorporate insights from psychology into economic models to better understand individual behavior.  I am especially interested in applications that relate to performance at work, with insights for firms and individuals on how to effectively boost productivity. 

Working Papers

Simple Actions, Complex Habits: Lessons from Hospital Hand Hygiene 

Abstract: Across industries, routine tasks are often critical to performance but not consistently done. In the case of hospital hand hygiene, performance is critical for preventing infections but guidelines are followed only half the time. Using data on whether 13,606 hospital healthcare workers wash their hands 123M times that they are expected to, I document three facts about hand hygiene. First, hand hygiene is location-specific; healthcare workers are more likely to wash in rooms they have visited more often in the past. Disruptions in location, when people work a shift in a different department, reduce hand washing by 5%. Second, healthcare workers wash their hands 9% less when fatigued at the end of their shift. Time off work improves hand washing, but long breaks disrupt routines and reduce hand washing by 2%. Third, these responses are heterogeneous. High performers fatigue 43% less than low performers, but respond at least as much to disruptions to their routines. I argue that these facts are consistent with automatic cue-based habits. A better understanding of habit can provide guidance for motivating routine behaviors. 


Rent or Buy? Inflation Experiences and Homeownership within and across Countries 

with Ulrike Malmendier 

The Journal of Finance, forthcoming

Abstract: We show that past inflation experiences strongly predict homeownership within and across countries. First, we collect novel survey data, which reveals inflation protection to be a key motivation for homeownership, especially after personal experiences of high inflation. Second, using household data from 22 European countries, we find that higher personal exposure to historical inflation predicts higher homeownership rates. We estimate similar associations among immigrants to the US who experienced different past inflation in their home countries but face the same US housing market. As predicted by the experience-effects model, the relationship is strongest in countries with predominantly fixed-rate mortgages.

Predicting Mid-Life Capital Formation with Pre-School Delay of Gratification and Life-Course Measures of Self-Regulation 

with Daniel Benjamin, David Laibson, Walter Mischel, Philip Peake, Yuichi Shoda, and Nicole Wilson

Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol 179 (2020): 743-756. Special Issue "Understanding Cognition and Decision Making by Children". 

Abstract: How well do pre-school delay of gratification and life-course measures of self-regulation predict mid-life capital formation? We surveyed 113 participants of the 1967–1973 Bing pre-school studies on delay of gratification when they were in their late 40’s. They reported 11 mid-life capital formation outcomes, including net worth, permanent income, absence of high-interest debt, forward-looking behaviors, and educational attainment. To address multiple hypothesis testing and our small sample, we pre-registered an analysis plan of well–powered tests. As predicted, a newly constructed and pre-registered measure derived from preschool delay of gratification does not predict the 11 capital formation variables (i.e., the sign-adjusted average correlation was 0.02). A pre-registered composite self-regulation index, combining preschool delay of gratification with survey measures of self-regulation collected at ages 17, 27, and 37, does predict 10 of the 11 capital formation variables in the expected direction, with an average correlation of 0.19. The inclusion of the preschool delay of gratification measure in this composite index does not affect the index’s predictive power. We tested several hypothesized reasons that preschool delay of gratification does not have predictive power for our mid-life capital formation variables.

Work in Progress

Goals, Expectations, and Performance

with Avner Strulov-Shlain