Uma R. Karmarkar

Assistant Professor of Business Administration (Leave of Absence)

Uma R. Karmarkar is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration in the Marketing Unit and an affiliate of the Harvard Center for Brain Sciences. She holds a B.S. in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University, a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in Marketing from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Professor Karmarkar's research examines the neural and psychological factors that underlie consumer decision-making. Some of her recent research targets how factors such as timing, uncertainty and sleep influence perceptions of value. Her findings have been published in a number of academic journals across a range of disciplines, including the Journal of Consumer Research, Management Science, Neuron, and Learning and Memory. In addition, her work has been featured in media outlets including Newsweek, Scientific American, The Economist and The New York Times.

At HBS she teaches the first year MBA marketing course and FIELD.

Journal Articles

  1. The Impact of 'Display-Set' Options on Decision-Making

    Uma R. Karmarkar

    The way a choice set is constructed can have a significant influence on how individuals perceive and evaluate their options and make decisions between them. Here, I examine whether a “display set” of visible but unavailable options can exert these same types of influences on whether or not to choose a single (target) item. Across a series of experiments, purchase intent is increased when the display set and target are drawn from the same category but decreased when the display and target items are mismatched. This effect is shown to depend on perceived similarity, such that increasing display-target similarity increases purchase intent towards the target. Furthermore, contrary to the predictions made by previous neural and behavioral research on choice sets, the relative value and/or number of display-only items have no significant impact on these decisions. These findings reveal a novel choice behavior in commonly encountered settings such as online marketplaces.

    Keywords: consumer behavior; decision making; decision making process; heuristics; similarity; categorization; marketing insight; marketing; choice; choice architecture; choice sets; display; retail; Consumer Behavior; Decision Choices and Conditions; Decisions; Decision Making; Retail Industry; Consumer Products Industry;


    Karmarkar, Uma R. "The Impact of 'Display-Set' Options on Decision-Making." Journal of Behavioral Decision Making (in press). View Details
  2. Consumer Neuroscience: Advances in Understanding Consumer Psychology

    Uma R. Karmarkar and Carolyn Yoon

    While the study of consumer behavior has been enriched by improved abilities to generate new insights, many of the mechanisms underlying judgments and decision making remain difficult to investigate. In this review, we highlight some of the ways in which our understanding of consumer psychology has been, and can be, advanced through the use of neurophysiological methods. In particular, we outline some of the common neural circuitry that is involved in affective processing, subjective value, persuasion, and attention. We discuss how an understanding of these mechanisms can be used to better elucidate various elements of consumer psychology. We show how recent findings have produced a deeper understanding of decision making and suggest directions for future research.

    Keywords: consumer behavior; Consumer neuroscience; neuroscience; Neuroeconomics; consumer psychology; customer behavior; predictive analytics; neural prediction; neuroimaging; fMRI; eye-tracking; marketing; Consumer Behavior; Marketing;


    Karmarkar, Uma R., and Carolyn Yoon. "Consumer Neuroscience: Advances in Understanding Consumer Psychology." Current Opinion in Psychology 10 (August 2016): 160–165. View Details
  3. Should You Sleep on It? The Effects of Overnight Sleep on Subjective Preference-based Choice

    Uma R. Karmarkar, Baba Shiv and Rebecca M.C. Spencer

    Conventional wisdom and studies of unconscious processing suggest that sleeping on a choice may improve decision-making. Though sleep has been shown to benefit several cognitive tasks, including problem solving, its impact on everyday choices remains unclear. Here we explore the effects of "sleeping on it" on preference-based decisions among multiple options. In two studies, individuals viewed several attributes describing a set of items and were asked to select their preferred item after a 12-hour interval that either contained sleep or was spent fully awake. After an overnight period including sleep, individuals showed increases in positive perceptions of the choice set. This finding contrasts with previous research showing that sleep selectively enhances recall for negative information. In addition, this increase in positive recall did not translate into a greater desire to purchase their preferred item or into an overall benefit for choice satisfaction. Time-of-day controls were used to confirm that the observed effects could not be explained by circadian influences. Thus we show that people may feel more positive about the choice options, but not more confident about the choice after "sleeping on" a subjective decision. We discuss how the valence of recalled choice set information may be important in understanding the effects of sleep on multi-attribute decision making, and suggest several avenues for future research.

    Keywords: decision making; choice; sleep; choice sets; confidence; consumer behavior; consumer psychology; consumer preferences; Decision Choices and Conditions; Consumer Behavior;


    Karmarkar, Uma R., Baba Shiv, and Rebecca M.C. Spencer. "Should You Sleep on It? The Effects of Overnight Sleep on Subjective Preference-based Choice." Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 30, no. 1 (January 2017): 70–79. View Details
  4. Asymmetric Effects of Favorable and Unfavorable Information on Decision-making Under Ambiguity

    Alexander Peysakhovich and Uma R. Karmarkar

    Most daily decisions involve uncertainty about outcome probabilities arising from incomplete knowledge, i.e., ambiguity. We explore how the addition of partial information affects these types of choices using theoretical and empirical methods. Our experiments in both gain and loss domains demonstrate that when such information supports a favorable outcome, it strongly increases valuation of an ambiguous financial prospect. However, when information supports an unfavorable outcome, it has significantly less impact. We find that two mechanisms drive this asymmetry. First, unfavorable information decreases estimates of a good outcome occurring but also reduces aversive uncertainty. These factors act in opposition, minimizing the effects of unfavorable information. Second, when information can be subjectively interpreted, unfavorable information is less likely to be integrated into evaluations. Our findings reveal mechanisms not captured by traditional models of decision making under uncertainty and highlight the importance of increasing the salience of unfavorable information in uncertain contexts to promote unbiased decision making.

    Keywords: ambiguity; decision making; outcomes; Information; Decision Choices and Conditions; Outcome or Result;


    Peysakhovich, Alexander, and Uma R. Karmarkar. "Asymmetric Effects of Favorable and Unfavorable Information on Decision-making Under Ambiguity." Management Science 62, no. 8 (August 2016). View Details
  5. BYOB: How Bringing Your Own Shopping Bags Leads to Treating Yourself, and the Environment

    Uma R. Karmarkar and Bryan Bollinger

    As concerns about pollution and climate change have become more central in public discourse, shopping with reusable grocery bags has been strongly promoted as environmentally and socially conscious. In parallel, firms have joined policy makers in using a variety of initiatives to reduce the use of plastic bags. However, little is known about how these initiatives might alter consumers' in-store behavior. Using scanner panel data from a single California location of a major grocery chain, and completely controlling for consumer heterogeneity, we demonstrate that bringing your own bags simultaneously increases purchases of environmentally friendly as well as indulgent (hedonic) items. We use experimental methods to further demonstrate causality and to consider the effects of potential moderators. These findings have implications for decisions related to product pricing, placement and assortment, store layout, and the choice of strategies to increase the use of reusable bags.

    Keywords: grocery shopping; reusable bags; licensing; priming; goals; hedonic; Marketing Strategy; Consumer Behavior; Environmental Sustainability; Retail Industry;


    Karmarkar, Uma R., and Bryan Bollinger. "BYOB: How Bringing Your Own Shopping Bags Leads to Treating Yourself, and the Environment." Journal of Marketing 79, no. 4 (July 2015): 1–15. View Details
  6. Cost Conscious? The Neural and Behavioral Impact of Price Primacy on Decision-Making

    Uma R. Karmarkar, Baba Shiv and Brian Knutson

    Price is a key factor in most purchases, but it can be presented at different stages of decision making prior to a purchase. We examine the sequence-dependent effects of price and product information on the decision-making process at both neural and behavioral levels. During functional magnetic resonance imaging, the price of a product was shown to participants either before or after the product itself was presented. Early exposure to price, or price primacy, altered the process of valuation, as seen via altered patterns of activity in medial prefrontal cortex immediately prior to purchase decisions. Specifically, whereas viewing products first resulted in evaluations strongly related to products' attractiveness or desirability, viewing prices first appeared to promote overall evaluations related to products' monetary worth. Consistent with this framework, we show that price primacy can increase purchase of bargain priced products when their worth is easily recognized. Together, these results suggest that price primacy highlights considerations of product worth and can thereby influence purchasing.

    Keywords: consumer behavior; price; fMRI; value; retail promotion; purchase decisions; Price; Value; Decision Choices and Conditions; Consumer Behavior; Product Marketing; Retail Industry;


    Karmarkar, Uma R., Baba Shiv, and Brian Knutson. "Cost Conscious? The Neural and Behavioral Impact of Price Primacy on Decision-Making." Journal of Marketing Research (JMR) 52, no. 4 (August 2015): 467–481. View Details
  7. Advancing Consumer Neuroscience

    Ale Smidts, Ming Hsu, Alan G. Sanfey, Maarten A. S. Boksem, Richard B. Ebstein, Scott A. Huettel, Joe W. Kable, Uma R. Karmarkar, Shinobu Kitayama, Brian Knutson, Israel Liberzon, Terry Lohrenz, Mirre Stallen and Carolyn Yoon

    In the first decade of consumer neuroscience, strong progress has been made in understanding how neuroscience can inform consumer decision making. Here, we sketch the development of this discipline and compare it to that of the adjacent field of neuroeconomics. We describe three new frontiers for ongoing progress at both theoretical and applied levels. First, the field will broaden its boundaries to include genetics and molecular neuroscience, each of which will provide important new insights into individual differences in decision making. Second, recent advances in computational methods will improve the accuracy and out-of-sample generalizability of predicting decisions from brain activity. Third, sophisticated meta-analyses will help consumer neuroscientists to synthesize the growing body of knowledge, providing evidence for consistency and specificity of brain activations and their reliability as measurements of consumer behavior.

    Keywords: Consumer neuroscience; Neuroeconomics; Social neuroscience; Genes; Machine learning; Meta-analysis; Consumer Behavior; Decision Making; Science;


    Smidts, Ale, Ming Hsu, Alan G. Sanfey, Maarten A. S. Boksem, Richard B. Ebstein, Scott A. Huettel, Joe W. Kable, Uma R. Karmarkar, Shinobu Kitayama, Brian Knutson, Israel Liberzon, Terry Lohrenz, Mirre Stallen, and Carolyn Yoon. "Advancing Consumer Neuroscience." Marketing Letters 25, no. 3 (September 2014): 257–267. View Details
  8. Believe Me, I Have No Idea What I Am Talking About: The Effects of Source Certainty on Consumer Involvement and Persuasion

    Uma R. Karmarkar and Zakary L. Tormala

    This research explores the effect of source certainty-that is, the level of certainty expressed by a message source-on persuasion. The authors propose an incongruity hypothesis, suggesting that source certainty effects depend on perceived source expertise. In three experiments, consumers receive persuasive messages from sources of varying expertise and certainty. Across studies, low expertise sources violate expectancies, stimulate involvement, and promote persuasion when they express certainty, whereas high expertise sources violate expectancies, stimulate involvement, and promote persuasion when they express uncertainty. Thus, nonexpert (expert) sources can gain interest and influence by expressing certainty (uncertainty).

    Keywords: Research; Experience and Expertise; Risk and Uncertainty; Consumer Behavior; Performance Expectations; Interests; Power and Influence;


    Karmarkar, Uma R., and Zakary L. Tormala. "Believe Me, I Have No Idea What I Am Talking About: The Effects of Source Certainty on Consumer Involvement and Persuasion." Journal of Consumer Research 36, no. 6 (April 2010): 1033–1049. View Details
  9. Evaluating Dedicated and Intrinsic Models of Temporal Encoding by Varying Context

    Rebecca M.C. Spencer, Uma Karmarkar and Richard B. Ivry


    Spencer, Rebecca M.C., Uma Karmarkar, and Richard B. Ivry. "Evaluating Dedicated and Intrinsic Models of Temporal Encoding by Varying Context." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series A, Physical Sciences and Engineering 364 (2009): 1853–1863. View Details

Book Chapters

  1. Consumer Neuroscience: Revealing Meaningful Relationships Between Brain and Consumer Behavior

    Hilke Plassmann and Uma R. Karmarkar

    The goal of this chapter is to give an overview of the nascent field of consumer neuroscience and discuss when and how it is useful to integrate the "black box" of the consumer's brain into consumer psychology. To reach this goal, we first briefly outline several methods that are part of the consumer neuroscience toolkit and how they are currently used. We then provide an overview of the research that has laid the foundation of consumer neuroscience, showcasing studies that highlight the concrete promises of applying neuroscience to consumer psychology. Building from this, we focus on using brain data to predict consumer behavior, a topic that has recently generated a lot of excitement from academics and practitioners alike. Last, we take a look at newer developments we think will have an important future impact on our understanding of consumer psychology.

    Keywords: Consumer Behavior; Cognition and Thinking;


    Plassmann, Hilke, and Uma R. Karmarkar. "Consumer Neuroscience: Revealing Meaningful Relationships Between Brain and Consumer Behavior." Chap. 6 in The Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Psychology, edited by Michael I. Norton, Derek D. Rucker, and Cait Lamberton, 152–179. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. View Details
  2. Appetite, Consumption, and Choice in the Human Brain

    Brian Knutson and Uma R. Karmarkar

    Although linked, researchers have long distinguished appetitive from consummatory phases of reward processing. Recent improvements in the spatial and temporal resolution of neuroimaging techniques have allowed researchers to separately visualize different stages of reward processing in humans. These techniques have revealed that evolutionarily conserved circuits related to affect generate distinguishable appetitive and consummatory signals, and that these signals can be used to predict choice and subsequent consumption. Review of the literature surprisingly suggests that appetitive rather than consummatory activity may best predict future choice and consumption. These findings imply that distinguishing appetite from consumption may improve predictions of future choice and illuminate neural components that support the process of decision making.


    Knutson, Brian, and Uma R. Karmarkar. "Appetite, Consumption, and Choice in the Human Brain." Chap. 9 in The Interdisciplinary Science of Consumption, edited by Stephanie D. Preston, Morten L. Kringelbach, and Brian Knutson, 163–184. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014. View Details
  3. Customer Experience and Service Design

    Uday Karmarkar and Uma R. Karmarkar

    While services already dominate economic activity in all major economies in the world, there has been curiously little investigation into many aspects of service management. For example, while product design and development have received a great deal of attention, the subject of service design has not been very visible in the research literature. There are many individual designers and design firms famous for their contributions to product design, but the same cannot be said for services. Undoubtedly many examples of outstanding service design exist, and we will mention some later in this work. But recognition of service design as a discipline, as a management function, or a job description still seems to be rare.

    Keywords: Design; Service Operations; Service Industry;


    Karmarkar, Uday, and Uma R. Karmarkar. "Customer Experience and Service Design." Chap. 7 in Managing Consumer Services: Factory or Theater? edited by Enzo Baglieri and Uday Karmarkar, 109–130. Springer, 2014. View Details

Cases and Teaching Materials

  1. Catalina in the Digital Age

    Uma R. Karmarkar and Robert J. Dolan

    "Catalina in the Digital Age" considers how a company with a dominant market position should evolve its established product lines given the rise of novel digital technologies. Since its founding in 1983, Catalina had enjoyed a distinct position in the world of consumer promotions. Serving both retailers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) firms, the company's core business was distributing "cents off" coupons to shoppers via proprietary printers at checkout registers. This position allowed them to offer coupons that were "personalized" to the purchases that had just been made in the current transaction. The advent of shopper loyalty cards in the 1990s allowed them to expand that targeting to take shopper's history of purchase into account as well. In many ways, they were a successful "big data" firm well before the term became an industry buzzword.

    Keywords: coupons; Technology; Customer Relationship Management; Consumer Behavior; Product Marketing; Retail Industry;


    Karmarkar, Uma R., and Robert J. Dolan. "Catalina in the Digital Age." Harvard Business School Teaching Note 516-086, March 2016. View Details
  2. Note on Neuromarketing

    Uma R. Karmarkar

    This note provides some general perspective on the neuromarketing field, with a discussion of both current practices and future directions.

    Keywords: Forecasting and Prediction; Information; Marketing; Marketing Communications; Perspective; Technology;


    Karmarkar, Uma R. "Note on Neuromarketing." Harvard Business School Background Note 512-031, September 2011. (Revised December 2011.) View Details

Working Papers

  1. The 4 Minds of the Customer: A Framework for Understanding and Applying the Science of Decision Making

    Ryan Hamilton and Uma R. Karmarkar

    Scientists have spent decades creating powerful and detailed descriptions of how people make decisions. Unfortunately, many of these theories make contradictory predictions and are difficult to understand and implement. We introduce the 4 Minds framework as a practical tool for understanding and applying the science of decision-making in the marketplace. We synthesize previous research on decision-making into four broad approaches customers can take to making choices. These four decision-making “Minds”—Ideal Point Mind, Market Comparison Mind, Local Comparison Mind, and Image Mind—lead to very different outcomes and behaviors. We have developed the 4 Minds framework to serve as a diagnostic tool to help identify which clusters of decision-making research are most likely to apply in any given situation. By learning how these decision-making Minds differ, and the factors and environments that precipitate each one, marketers can better anticipate and serve their intended customers.

    Keywords: consumer behavior; consumer choice; Market research; segmentation; Decision Choices and Conditions; decision making process; decision; marketing; marketing research; Consumer Behavior; Decision Choices and Conditions; Marketing; Decision Making; Segmentation; Research;


    Hamilton, Ryan, and Uma R. Karmarkar. "The 4 Minds of the Customer: A Framework for Understanding and Applying the Science of Decision Making." Marketing Science Institute Report, No. 17-109, May 2017. View Details