In Memoriam: Gary Charness

The department remembers Professor Gary Charness (1950-2024).

May 23, 2024

Professor of Economics Gary Charness died on May 17, 2024. Our hearts go out to his wife, Wendy, and their children Jacob, Emma, and Ben, as well as to all of Gary’s colleagues, students, family, and friends.

Professor Charness joined our Department of Economics in 2001. He was a world leader in experimental economics, which is a field of economics that tests and refines the predictions of economic theory by examining the behavior in laboratory settings that resemble the domains of those theories. Professor Charness was Director of the Experimental and Behavioral Economics Laboratory at UCSB.

Professor Charness earned his BS in the honors math program at the University of Michigan. After completing his undergraduate degree, he spent nearly 20 years working in the Bay Area, where he pursued a diverse range of professions, including semi-professional poker player, options trader, and art importer. At the age of 40, he came across a newspaper article about the Nobel Prize in Economics that featured a classmate from the Michigan honors math program who had become a professor of economics at Stanford. This inspired Professor Charness to pursue a career in economics. After receiving his PhD in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, he taught at Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona before moving to UCSB.

Professor Charness made seminal contributions in numerous areas, including social and risk preferences, communication, health, networks, and experimental methodology. His work in each of these areas showcased his exceptional creativity.

Throughout his career, Professor Charness was renowned for his groundbreaking work on fairness. Traditionally, economists have assumed that people are solely self-interested. However, Professor Charness’s best-cited paper reveals that people not only care about the distribution of resources across others, but also about the fairness of the distribution process. Professor Charness’s work on gender differences in risk attitudes highlights systematic differences between men and women. Another influential line of research describes the effect of communication on strategic behavior. His work on networks, including a paper that won the prestigious Exeter Prize for best paper in experimental, behavioral, or decision economics, extended his impact. An important study measured how people’s exercise habits respond to incentives. In addition, his contributions to experimental methodology have shaped the way that economists conduct laboratory experiments.

Through his pioneering work, Professor Charness established UC Santa Barbara as a leading hub in experimental economics. Every other year, he organized a highly-regarded conference in experimental economics, which became known as “Gary’s Conference”. This event consistently brought leading experimental economists and economic theorists to campus.

Professor Charness was a prolific, influential, and highly cited scholar, with over 31,000 citations listed on Google Scholar. He repeatedly appeared in Clarivate’s annual list of highly-cited scholars, ranking in the top 1% of economists. He served as editor for several leading journals.

Professor Charness has left an enduring legacy. He will be remembered not only as a preeminent researcher and scholar, but also as a mentor to many students and junior collaborators.