Professor Ted O’Donoghue lectures on risk-taking in Statler Auditorium.

Professor Ted O’Donoghue lectures on risk-taking. (Sreang Hok / Cornell University)

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By Joe Wilensky

The title of the behavioral economics course—“Better Decisions for Life, Love, and Money”—is unabashedly enticing, and Professor Robert Frank admits that his wife teases him about it. “It’s a shameless marketing gimmick that probably helped attract students,” he says—while noting that the name is actually pretty accurate.

Launched as a pilot project in 2018, the course offers life lessons from a team of six professors—a mix of psychologists and economists—who each deliver several lectures.

Their aim? To improve students’ understanding of human behavior, giving them the tools to make better decisions about finances, relationships, and life in general.

Students learn about making trade-offs over time in the behavioral economics course Better Decisions for Life, Love, and Money in Statler Auditorium
The course draws undergrads (and some grad students) from across the Hill.

The individual modules comprise what’s essentially a “best of” showcase of each professor’s most useful takeaways for how to behave—and to think—in a complex world.

They ponder such questions as:

How do common biases affect judgment, and what are the perils of overconfidence? How is your choice of a life partner impacted by your preconceived notions of a loving relationship?

How do both procrastination and the desire for instant gratification affect decision-making? What seemingly small, everyday choices can improve—or harm—your long-term health?

Officially known as AEM 2020 / PSYCH 2940, the spring semester class began in 2018 with just 26 students; the professors taught it as volunteers (and continue to do so).

The class began in 2018 with just 26 students; the professors taught it as volunteers.

After enthusiasm for the course spread via word of mouth, enrollment jumped to nearly 200 a year later and approached 300 by 2020. During the pandemic, the cap rose to 500 (then the Zoom maximum)—and when in-person teaching resumed in 2022, it moved to its present location in the 700-seat Statler Auditorium.

In addition to Frank, a professor of economics and management, the course is currently taught by Tom Gilovich (psychology), J. Edward Russo (management), Ted O’Donoghue (economics), Suzanne Bliven Shu ’90, MEng ’92 (marketing), and Bill Schulze (applied economics and management).

Its practical, research-based curriculum is an outgrowth of work being done at Cornell’s Behavioral Economics and Decision Research Center, founded in 1989 and often called the birthplace of its field.

“Making better decisions, being responsible with finances, and setting up goals for the future seem like basic topics,” observes government major Breanna Masci ’26, who wasn’t quite sure what to expect when she enrolled in the class, “but I was surprised to discover how little I knew about each of these.”

The course’s many life lessons include:

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Aim to be the person you’d want your kids to be—because we learn from, and conform to, the behavior around us.

Strive to be trustworthy; cooperation only works if people feel they can rely on you.

Your options are never completely neutral—someone or something is always structuring, limiting, or influencing them—so learn how to reframe them in ways that further your goals.

“Although I have a tremendous amount of respect for theoretical knowledge, this particular course has more life applicability than any other,” says Big Red men’s tennis coach Silviu Tanasoiu, MPS ’21, who took the course as a grad student in applied economics and management. “It is rich with lessons for our daily lives.”

It is rich with lessons for our daily lives.

Silviu Tanasoiu, MPS ’21

Despite all the evidence-based concepts the course covers, it also offers a surprising takeaway: no matter how carefully you use these tips, sometimes life boils down to luck.

Frank exemplifies that in a very personal lecture, in which he shares the tale of his own near-death: he collapsed on a tennis court in 2007, having suffered an episode of sudden cardiac arrest, which is 98% fatal when it occurs outside a hospital.

As it happened, though, two EMT crews had been dispatched to a pair of nearby car accidents, but only one was needed; the other sped to his side.

“So why am I alive today, and still able to function more or less normally?” Frank muses. “It’s because I was the beneficiary of what I consider to have been pure, dumb luck.”

Professor Ted O’Donoghue discusses decision-making during the class Better Decisions for Life, Love, and Money in Statler Auditorium
The course meets in Statler Auditorium—home to another iconic class, Intro to Wines.

The experience caused him to start investigating the concept—and how people don’t usually notice the role that random chance plays in their lives, unless it is particularly good or bad.

His story invariably makes an impression on students; in spring 2023, computer science major Joey Johnson ’25 was so moved that he told Frank it was the best lecture he’d ever attended. What’s more, the class as a whole has made Johnson re-examine the influences behind his past choices.

“Overall, what I’m finding from the course is that decision-making is ridiculously subjective,” he says. “It almost seems like it contradicts the point of the class, but there is no surefire way to have a good decision.”

And, Johnson adds, given how much he has gotten out of the class, he considers himself lucky to be taking it in the first place.

“I kind of ended up in it by accident,” he admits. “I wasn’t planning on it, and I had not sought it out. I just needed to fill a spot on my schedule.”

Top: Professor Ted O’Donoghue lectures on risk-taking. All photos by Sreang Hok / Cornell University.

Published April 19, 2023


  1. Bells Craig

    Is there a recording of this class someplace for somebody who wants to learn all of the life lessons we might have missed? Thank you😊

  2. Ann J Post, Class of 1983

    This course sounds amazing especially with lecture/speaker mix. Bravo Professor Frank. I would love to see a lighter version of these topics introduced to high school juniors.

  3. Alan Jacobson, Class of 1961

    This seems to be a perfect candidate for edX or some other online platform, like Yale’s very popular course on well being. I would enroll. I should confess that I am a big fan of Robert Frank who I met at a CAU program in Southern California decades ago and who fortunately did not have any problems on the tennis court there.

  4. Bergler, Class of 2025

    Aye I’m in the photo

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