This summer I worked on a research project exploring the influence of contextual effects on decision making with Professor Sudeep Bhatia and PhD student Wenjia Joyce Zhao in the Department of Psychology. Decisions are inevitably made in contexts, so researchers have increasingly become interested in the ways in which different contextual effects (“nudges”) can influence the decisions people make. Our research aims to create a taxonomy for contextual effects in decision making, through the lens of a Drift Diffusion Model (DDM), to illuminate the underlying connections among the effects. The DDM, a widely used framework for decision-making analysis, uses different parameters to characterize the decision-making process. These parameters form the basis for the taxonomy, with contextual influences that affect the same parameters grouped together.
During the summer months, we designed and ran pilot studies in preparation for the large-scale study beginning this fall. In the experiments, we presented participants with restaurant and hotel choices. A subset of these choices—those with the “nudges”—included additional information or were presented differently; for example, in the default nudge condition, one option was pre-selected for participants. We recorded the participants’ choices and reaction times, which will be used to determine which DDM parameters the nudges affect.
Through being involved in the pilot stages of this project, I gained valuable insight into the process of designing and evaluating a social science experiment. I spent the first few weeks researching the different contextual effects we would be testing. This process taught me how to effectively review existing literature, concisely summarize the relevant information, and adapt it to our own study. During the pilot sessions, we encountered several issues, such as with timing and instruction clarity, and continuously modified the experiment accordingly. Playing a role in the process of evaluation and revision allowed me to understand the challenges of running studies involving human subjects and appreciate the importance of even the smallest details. Through running and managing the logistics of the experiment sessions, I was also able to hone my organizational skills and ability to effectively manage diverse groups of people. I also gained exposure to Matlab programming, which I believe will prove very useful in my future studies.
Finally, the project has greatly reinforced my interest in the field of behavioral economics. I have always been fascinated in both economics and psychology, and this project allowed me to uniquely combine my interests by exploring the power of their intersection. In my last two years at Penn and beyond, I hope to delve deeper into this emerging field and learn more about how it can be applied to positively impact the world.