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. How should organizations encourage routine behaviors? The answer depends critically on the nature of habits. In an important health setting, I find that behavior is well-described by a model of automatic cue-based habit: habits are automatically triggered by cues, rather than a conscious process. Habits remain stable even as cognitive costs, like fatigue, vary. However, habits are cue-specific and can be disrupted over time and across settings. I document these features of habit in data that tracks whether 13,606 hospital healthcare workers wash their hands 123M times that they are expected to. Hand hygiene is critical to the prevention of healthcare-associated infections, which affect millions of patients and cost billions of dollars each year. Yet, workers wash their hands only half as often as guidelines suggest. The data reveals substantial heterogeneity in behavior consistent with automatic cue-based habit. Habitual washers fatigue 43% less than people who wash more consciously, but respond just as much to habit disruptions. Consistent with location-specific cue-based habit formation, healthcare workers are more likely to wash in rooms they have visited more often in the past. 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

Revise and Resubmit at The Journal of Finance

Abstract: Homeownership rates differ vastly across countries and cohorts. We show that past inflationary experiences play a significant role in explaining individual homeownership decisions. Novel survey data reveal inflation protection as a key motivation for ownership, especially for those who have lived through high inflation. Using microdata of households from 22 European countries, we find that higher personal exposure to historical inflation predicts significantly higher homeownership rates. The effect is robust to estimation within-country and among immigrants to the U.S. As predicted by our model, the effects are 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

New Model and Evidence on Goal-Setting as a Motivating Tool

with Avner Strulov-Shlain