Jennifer S. Lerner, PhD

Thorton F. Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy & Decision Science
Harvard Kennedy School

Harvard University

Dr. Jennifer Lerner is the Thornton F. Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy, Management and Decision Science at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the first psychologist in the history of the Harvard Kennedy School to receive tenure. Professor Lerner also holds appointments in Harvard’s Department of Psychology and Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences. Drawing on experience teaching decision science to senior executives in the public and private sector, Professor Lerner took a one-year leave from Harvard to serve as the U.S. Navy’s first Chief Decision Scientist, reporting to the Chief of Naval Operations (2018-2019). 

Research: Drawing insights from psychology, economics, and neuroscience, Lerner’s research aims to improve decision making in high-stakes contexts and to expand the evidentiary base for designing policies that maximize human health, security, and wellbeing. Together with colleagues, she developed a theoretical framework that successfully predicts the effects of specific emotions on specific judgment and choice outcomes. Applied widely, the framework has been especially useful in predicting emotion effects on perceptions of risk, economic decisions, and attributions of responsibility. For example, she and her colleagues discovered and explained why fear and anger – although both negative emotions – exert opposing effects on the perception of risk. In other lines of research, she examines the science of risk communication and ways to reduce stress within organizational settings. Published in leading scientific journals (e.g., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), and collectively cited over 35,000 times in scholarly publications alone, Lerner’s research also regularly receives coverage in popular media outlets (e.g., National Public Radio; NOVA; the Wall Street Journal; the Washington Post; and The New York Times).

Selected scientific awards: In a White House ceremony, Lerner received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to scientists and engineers in early stages of their careers. She has also received the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Award and the National Science Foundation’s "Sensational 60” designation. (The 60 members in this latter group are designated as the most prominent American scientists whose first grants were graduate school fellowships from the NSF.)

Teaching: As devoted to teaching as she is to research, Lerner has received multiple teaching awards including the Harvard Kennedy School’s “Dinner on the Dean” award for outstanding teaching, the Harvard University “Innovations in Learning and Teaching (HILT) Award” for curricular innovation, the Harvard Graduate Student Government’s “Lectures That Last Award,” and the Raymond Vernon Commemorative Award for mentoring junior faculty. Notably, she is also the founding faculty director of Harvard’s popular “Leadership Decision Making” executive education program.

Boards and Steering Committees: Lerner serves on the board of directors for the Forecasting Research Institute; on scientific advisory boards for two corporations using machine learning to improve decision-making (OnCorps and Accolade); on the Faculty Steering Committee for Harvard’s Mind-Brain-Behavior Initiative; and on the advisory board for the U.S. Naval War College (Newport, RI). Previously, she served for two years on an expert panel within the National Institutes of Health and for three years as the first behavioral scientist ever appointed to the United States Secretary of the Navy’s Advisory Panel. For this role, providing input to the Secretary on critical matters faced by the Navy and the Marine Corps, she received the Navy’s Superior Public Service Award. 

Education and employment history: Lerner received her B.A. in psychology from the University of Michigan (Honors College) and her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California – Berkeley. After a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA, Lerner joined the Carnegie Mellon University faculty. She served as Assistant Professor of Social and Decision Science, and later the Estella Loomis McCandless Associate Professor of Social and Decision Science. Lerner joined the Harvard faculty and received tenure in 2007.

Personal: Lerner lives in the greater Boston area with her husband (Brian P. Gill); they are proud parents of a daughter in college. Lerner is a strong advocate of increasing employment for persons with disabilities; she herself has had Systemic Lupus Erythematosus since childhood.