Widgets Magazine

Glam Grads: Seth Werfel on the intersection of political science, economics and psychology

The Stanford Daily sat down with Seth Werfel, a PhD candidate in political science, to discuss his ongoing research regarding the connections between political science, economics and psychology. Prior to studying at Stanford University, Werfel worked for former President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors as well as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Werfel shared his views regarding the importance of social science research in the political world, his interest in how society solves pressing political and economic issues and his plans to pursue research that positively impacts public policy decisions.

(Courtesy of Seth Werfel)

TSD: What aspects of political science interest you the most?

SW: I’m really interested in the intersection between political science and economics and also the intersection of political science and psychology. I think in the social sciences, there’s no one question I can think of that lies fully within one discipline. It’s important to be able to see things from different perspectives. Any decision people make in politics is usually informed by psychology and informed by economic forces, so I’m really interested in a lot of interdisciplinary work.

TSD: What research topics are you currently working on?

SW: Most people start with the really big question, and they realize they can’t answer that big question and narrow it down to smaller questions. The big question that I started with, perhaps too lofty, was how we as a society come together to solve big problems. I realized there are two general avenues that we take: one is through government and one is through civil society. By civil society, I mean nonprofits and charities and things that you and I can do in our daily lives like volunteering.

I became really interested in how those two channels interact with one another. The question that I’m working on now is, “Does engaging in civil society or does giving money to charity or volunteering make us more or less likely to support government action on the same problems?” I just finished publishing a paper that looked at that question in the context of the environment. When people save energy at home by recycling, turning off the lights and reducing energy, does that make them more or less likely to support government also doing something for the environment? I found something that most people wouldn’t expect, which is that when I reminded people of all the things that they did at home, they were less likely to support government action. There’s the idea that one crowded out the other, so that was quite interesting, and I’m still working on that problem in some other areas.

TSD: You mentioned earlier that you worked for President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors as well as the New York Federal Reserve Bank; how have those experiences influenced your research and/or your outlook on political and economic issues we’re currently facing?

SW: It made me realize how big the stakes are, how much is at stake, how large some of these problems are [and] how many lives could be affected with good policy. Working for a bunch of researchers in both of those environments helped me realize how useful social science can be. I think there’s a sense sometimes that [the work of] researchers or academics is only read by other academics. I think that’s been true for a number of years, but there’s a lot of areas where good social science research can really affect policy outcomes.

TSD: How has this Stanford environment shaped your research and your interests specifically?

SW: Stanford is a very collaborative place, and it’s a very innovative place. You can’t help but want to reach out to other folks and other departments and see what their most exciting ideas are and see how can we put our skills together and make something out of that. It’s definitely made me more collaborative, more interdisciplinary person and more creative and innovative just because that seems to be in the air here. The environment is very conducive to great research, and I’m glad that I’m here.

TSD: What are your plans for the future?

SW: I’d actually like to return to the policy world. I want to do social science research that’s actionable [and] has a real impact on people’s lives. I’m not sure where I’m going to do that, but I know that that’s my goal. So, we’ll see where the future takes me.


Contact Nicole Chen at 19nicolec ‘at’ students.harker.org.