Gary Charness (1950 – 2024)

Gary Charness was a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research primarily delved into experimental economics, significantly enhancing the field by merging psychological insights with traditional economic theory. Gary had a unique ability to decode human behavior, tackling a broad range of topics from social preferences to experimental labor economics and behavioral Game Theory.

His most influential research agenda revolved around social preferences, demonstrating that individuals are motivated not solely by distributional concerns, but also by reciprocity, eEiciency, and competitive preferences. His research showcased the value of commitment through cheap talk communication, emphasizing the vital role of keeping promises in fostering trust, cooperation, and achieving socially optimal outcomes.

Gary was one of the leaders in the development of behavioral labor economics, through his works on optimal contract design, team production, motivation, and group identity. He also produced influential research on behavioral interventions and incentives, notably in the domain of health policy. His core interest was in understanding how to improve eEiciency and foster beneficial social outcomes through the design of institutions and incentives, coupled with a deep understaning of human motivation and beliefs.

Gary, in his unique way, was particularly vocal about methodological issues, always bringing a fresh, provocative and insightful perspective. He made useful methodological contributions on the validity of the strategy method versus the direct method, the comparative eEicacy of various methods to elicit risk preferences, or the comparative advantages of using either a between-subject or a within-subject design in experiments.

Gary was truly a one-of-a-kind individual—passionate, creative, and boundless. Player at heart, he loved intellectual challenges. After earning a B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Michigan en 1971, and before delving into the study of economics, he engaged in several activities, including stints as a semi-professional poker player and real- estate broker. He made the decision to pursue a PhD at Berkeley, under the supervision of Matthew Rabin, after reading a newspaper article about a Stanford professor (who later won the Nobel prize) and thinking “I know him; he’s not that much smarter than me! If he can be a Stanford professor, I can surely get a PhD.” Starting his Ph.D. only at the age of 41, his approach was characterized by a sense of urgency and an insatiable thirst for exploring novel research avenues. He often grew restless with established studies, preferring instead to treat research with the enthusiasm and wonder of a child in a candy store.

In 30 years, he published over 100 papers and was ranked 3rd in the world by REPEC in the field of experimental economics. He served on the editorial boards of several journals

including the American Economic Review, the Journal of the European Economic Association, Management Science, Games and Economic Behavior and Experimental Economics.

While he relished the opportunity to spar with more senior colleagues, Gary was extraordinarily supportive of young researchers. He was always eager to assist, collaborate, and impart his creative thinking skills to the next generation. His kindness and dedication to mentoring young talent were as much a part of his legacy as his scholarly contributions.

Gary possessed a sharp sense of humor, was often provocative, and was a stuborn person. Once he believed in something, nothing would change his mind. But stronger than his fights were his friendship and consideration for those he respected.

We are grateful to have had the chance to know Gary, to learn from him, to argue with him. In recent times, he had begun writing his biography and was happy to talk about it. We were eagerly looking forward to discovering anecdotes that he had not told us yet. Sadly, the conclusion was written too early.

Gary was a very good friend. We miss him already.

Uri Gneezy and Marie Claire Villeval