Many of us are familiar with recommender systems, especially from sales platforms. Based on our previous decisions, they recommend other products that could also be of interest to us. But can they guide us towards “better” options that are genuinely more beneficial for us? Mathias Jesse, doctoral student in the doctoral school DECIDE, is investigating the working mechanisms of various technical concepts.
Let’s imagine that we are browsing a recipe platform for Christmas biscuit recipes that are usually full of sugar and fat. Nowadays, it is widely known that the ingredients in biscuits are not necessarily beneficial for human health. In his thesis, Mathias Jesse will be examining which “enticements” can be used to steer us towards healthier, low-sugar and low-fat biscuit recipes by means of nudging.
His research revolves around the so-called recommender systems. Based on previous decisions, these systems recommend other things that we might like or might be interested in. While sales platforms primarily want to boost their profits, there are, as Mathias Jesse explains, some applications with more lofty goals, as the example of the recipe platform shows.
We ask him whether there is, in fact, a fair amount of manipulation involved in influencing people to come to “better” decisions. Mathias Jesse tells us: “People are not always able to make the best possible decision for themselves. Sometimes they need a little push, a so-called nudge.” The term originally comes from behavioural economics and was first introduced by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. They see a nudge as a method of persuading people to behave in a way that is better for them, without applying prohibitions and rules. So, if someone is hunting for Christmas biscuit recipes, they are more likely to be shown those recipes that have fewer detrimental effects on our blood sugar and cholesterol levels or our hip and stomach measurements.
Mathias Jesse programmes various kinds of applications for this type of technical nudging and investigates the extent to which these also produce the desired effects. One example is the “default” function. If the healthier alternative is predefined as the default case, people will be more likely to choose it, so the assumption goes. A multitude of psychological, economic, but also ethical factors underpin the different applications, which, as Mathias Jesse explains, need to be considered from an interdisciplinary perspective.
Ever since his school days at the HTL Mössingerstraße, Mathias Jesse has been interested in the intersections between computer science and other subjects. “Computer science alone seemed too boring”, he tells us. In the end, the Information Management degree was exactly what he was looking for, combining the best of two worlds: technical knowledge from computer science and business management expertise from business administration studies. Following the completion of his Master’s degree programme, Mathias Jesse applied for a place in the doctoral school DECIDE (Decision-making in a digital environment). The topic of his thesis resulted from discussions with his supervisor Dietmar Jannach. Mathias Jesse adds: “For quite some time now, the interaction between man and machine, i.e. including the user interfaces on websites, has been my main focus. So, nudging in conjunction with recommendation systems seemed the ideal solution.”
A few words with … Mathias Jesse
What would you be doing now, if you hadn’t become a scientist?
The question is not easy to answer, because I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to be. Most likely I would have chosen a profession where I could learn and teach – i.e. a teacher. And if I am allowed to dream, then an artist.
Do your parents understand what it is you are working on?
On the whole, I would say yes. They are genuinely interested in my work, which makes it a lot easier to talk about it and discuss it.
What’s the first thing you do when you get to the office in the morning?
First, I make myself a cup of tea, then I get the laptop started with some music. After that, I’m ready to start work.
Do you have proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?
Although I would like to say yes, it’s not 100 % true. Work is always at the back of my mind, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. I like to allow my thoughts to wander on the subject, it only becomes problematic when a deadline is looming.
What makes you furious?
I am not really the type of person to get into a rage.
And what calms you down?
Basically, all the things I enjoyed as a child: My hobbies, friends, video games, music and anime.
Who do you regard as the greatest scientist in history, and why?
My choice would be Leonardo da Vinci. Even though many scientists have achieved great things in their lives, he is one of the people I most look up to. He had the ability to be involved in many different sciences. He was also able to make his own notes and drawings. A true all-rounder.
What are you afraid of?
Being marooned at sea.
What are you looking forward to?