Doctoral Student

Kate Barasz

Kate is a fifth-year doctoral student in the Marketing Unit at Harvard Business School.

Her broad research interests are in judgment and decision-making, and she is currently focusing on the mistaken inferences we make while observing other people’s choices.  In one working paper, Kate and her coauthors look at the incorrect conclusions we draw after seeing someone choose between two dissimilar goods.  Their results show that observers erroneously assume that the unchosen, dissimilar item was disliked and actively rejected; in contrast, these same observers readily acknowledge their own ability to simultaneously like dissimilar things, and do not systematically reject dissimilar things for themselves.  This mistaken belief—that dissimilarity equals dislike—leads to a distinct self-other gap in preference predictions.

Kate is also interested in presentation and framing effects that alter choices and behavior.  More generally, she plans to apply some of her research to a medical decision-making context.

Kate received her A.B. in Economics and Public Policy Studies from Duke University in 2006.  After graduating, she worked at Bain & Company as a management consultant.

  1. Overview

    by Kate Barasz

    The course of any single day can be mapped out by the sequence of choices we’ve made—choices about what to do with our time, where to go and when, with whom to interact, what to consume and what to expend. We may consider our choices to be discrete moments in time—the instant of execution when we said yes, or turned left, or pressed “send,” or selected answer C—or as more integrated, complex processes, both the culmination of inputs and commencement of effects. As such, any single choice is comprised not only of the completed act of decision, but also of its upstream antecedents (e.g., the heuristics and decision rules that guided the choice) and its downstream consequences (e.g., the direct and indirect repercussions of a choice). In my research, I investigate this continuum of choice, examining factors that influence the choices we make, ways to affect choice at the moment of execution, and signals our choices convey about us (both correctly or incorrectly) to others. As such, my research is situated within three distinct streams—(1) Choice Considerations, (2) Changing Choices, and (3) Misperceptions of Choice, each briefly described briefly below. Choice Considerations. While people’s choice outcomes are generally public and highly visible, the factors upon which the choice was made are far more muddied and difficult to perceive. As a result, when choices are controversial or unpredicted, observers are often left questioning what could have possibly driven a person to make the decision they did—and believing that the basis for that decision was equally unpredictable or erratic. In this stream of research, I investigate those instances in which choices may seem irrational or surprising, but may in actuality be the product of predictable but hidden cognitive biases. In particular, I consider the role of emotion and affect on decisions, both on how people make decisions and perceive the decisions of others. Changing Choices. By now, the idea of nudges is ubiquitous; researchers, firms, even entire governments are coaxing and prodding their subjects to make different—and usually better—choices. Yet, despite how extensively nudges have permeated our environment, there is still much opportunity to identify and investigate additional ways of subtly influencing behaviors to attain desirable results. In this stream of research, I explore factors that shouldn’t affect people’s choices, but do – and how these can be used to change people’s motivation and effort levels in unexpected ways. Misperceptions of Choice. Be it through casual encounter or careful examination, we constantly gather information about other people’s choices. We study their survey responses and browse their blogs, see their online statuses and latest “likes.” From all of these data points, we develop a vast and vivid understanding of who these others really are. Or at least we think we do. While observing discrete choices gives us some degree of information about other people, mistaken inferences and misattributions abound. We may extrapolate more than is warranted by the information we encounter, or make incorrect assumptions about the target individual’s preferences, emotions, or motives. In this stream of research, I explore these misperceptions of choice, specifically looking the ways in which the observation of others’ choices and decisions leads to actor-observer distortions and prediction errors.