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Humans, Robots and Money

Elena Asparouhova portrait
Elena Asparouhova’s work is a unique blend of economics and psychology.


Elena Imagine U BannerThe David Eccles School of Business Professor of Finance started her career steeped in the concrete study of numbers and probabilities. She earned a master’s degree in statistics at Sofia University in her native Bulgaria before coming to the United States with her husband, who was completing a PhD program at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It was there, while studying English, that she learned about experimental economics.

In 1997, she participated in a Keynesian Beauty Contest—a study model designed around the British economist’s theory to describe the behavior of stock market investors trying to anticipate “what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.”

She never looked back, earning a doctorate in economics from Caltech. In 2003, she joined the Eccles School. The same year, she founded the university’s Laboratory for Experimental Economics and Finance (UULEEF).

“The questions that drive my research are the ones that cannot be answered using field data,” Asparouhova says. “My goal is to identify the individual behavioral traits that lead people to make suboptimal financial decisions and risk taking (either taking too little risk or taking too much risk).

“If your financial advisor is using a theory that does not hold in the lab it is very likely that it does not hold in the markets,” she adds.

Asparouhova is one of 20 exceptional University of Utah faculty members featured in the Banner Project, an initiative from Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Dan Reed to recognize some of the best and brightest teachers and researchers at the university. The banners hang from light poles along 1300 East and South Temple streets in Salt Lake City.

Reed says the banners are meant to highlight the innovative work of university faculty and their commitment to the future.

“Our students and the community may not really know much about the amazing work our faculty are doing and the impact they have on our community,” Reed says. “It’s a way to get the word out that we’re changing the world.”

As a teacher, Asparouhova is focused on inspiring women to join STEM and business fields. Her latest research centers on the effects of information on the stock market, dark markets that traffic in illicit goods and the interaction of humans and robots in financial markets.

“I hope that my research changes how policymaking works,” she says. “Current policymaking relies on archival data. If we compared that to warfare, it would be the equivalent of generals training their army based on World War II data.”

Asparouhova lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and three children.