Alison Wood Brooks

Assistant Professor of Business Administration, Hellman Faculty Fellow

Alison Wood Brooks is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration and Hellman Faculty Fellow in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School. She teaches FIELD Foundations in the MBA required curriculum (RC), Negotiation in the MBA elective curriculum (EC), Micro Topics in Organizational Behavior in the PhD curriculum, and is affiliated with the Behavioral Insights Group at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.

In her research, Professor Brooks studies the psychology of conversation--why we say things we shouldn't and don't say things we should--and how emotions influence how we think and interact with others, particularly in the workplace. Much of her work examines the behavioral consequences of anxiety, and how individuals can regulate their anxious feelings. Her research has been published in leading academic journals, including the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Psychological Science, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and has been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Economic Times, Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, and Scientific American.

Professor Brooks holds a Ph.D. in Decision Processes from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor's degree in Psychology and Finance from Princeton University.

  1. Overview

    by Alison Wood Brooks

    Professor Brooks studies the psychology of conversation and emotion—topics at the intersection of how people think, feel, and interact. From pitching ideas to seeking advice, from asking questions to giving compliments, from talking about (or hiding) our feelings and our personal struggles, she identifies and elucidates the underlying psychology of the factors that make such strategies work (and, more often than we’d like, fail). Her research focuses in particular on the pivotal role that emotional experience and expression play in making interactions go smoothly or poorly, and the external factors that influence interactions, such as the gender of the actors. With the goal of empowering individuals and their organizations to thrive, she studies these topics using experimental methods across diverse populations (e.g., behavioral laboratory participants, online panels of working adults, and field samples inside and outside organizations).

    Keywords: Anxiety; Emotion; Emotion Regulation; Reappraisal; negotiation; trust; Performance;

  2. The Psychology of Conversation

    by Alison Wood Brooks

    Conversation is a profound part of the human experience. To share our ideas, thoughts, and feelings with each other, we converse face to face and remotely—via phone, email, text message, online comment boards, and in contracts. Conversations form the bedrock of our relationships and, often, function as the vehicle of productivity at work.

    Unfortunately, most people make conversational mistakes. This is especially true in the workplace, where norms and rules of appropriateness and professionalism matter, and issues surrounding voice and backlash abound. We say things we shouldn’t (errors of commission) and don’t say things we should (errors of omission). For example, Professor Brooks has identified some tactics people should use more often than they do: seeking advice, issuing apologies, revealing personal failures, and asking questions. On the other hand, she has identified some tactics people use often but shouldn't, such as making inappropriate jokes in the workplace and giving backhanded compliments. 

  3. Emotional Experience, Expression, and Regulation

    by Alison Wood Brooks

    Once considered irrational, emotions often exert a more profound influence on decision-making and workplace outcomes than logic or reason. Professor Brooks is fascinated by emotional experience, emotional expression, and how individuals can regulate their emotions effectively. Much of her research in this domain has focused on anxiety, one of the most pervasive emotions people experience in the workplace (and outside of work). Unlike research in clinical psychology, which has focused on treatments and medications that might help individuals with disordered or abnormal anxiety, her research focuses on the type of anxious feelings most people experience every day—the anxiety we feel before leading a meeting, giving a public speech, or completing difficult tasks. She has identified important behavioral consequences of feeling anxious: it limits our ability to take others’ perspectives, causes us to seek out and rely heavily on advice (even when the advice is obviously bad), and causes individuals to reply quickly, make steep concessions, exit prematurely, and earn less profit in negotiations.

    Fortunately, anxiety can be managed. Professor Brooks has identified several novel methods for mitigating the deleterious effects of anxiety. In her dissertation work, she found that most people think they should calm down when they feel anxious. Instead, staying in a high-arousal state and reframing anxiety as excitement is much more effective for performing well on high-pressure performance tasks. Next, she finds that pre-performance rituals—once believed to be highly irrational—can actually reduce performance anxiety and improve subsequent performance. Finally, she finds that after an expression of distress (e.g., crying at work), people have tremendous control over how people perceive them. For example, saying “I’m passionate about this” rather than “I’m emotional about this” increases others’ perceptions of one’s competence and self-control. This work contributes to the emerging field of interpersonal emotion regulation—how we can exert control over others’ emotions and their perceptions of our emotions.

    Professor Brooks's interest in anxiety has expanded to include other emotions as well. For example, she has used large datasets from Facebook to show that higher amounts and higher diversity of emotional expression online increase happiness and life satisfaction at both the individual and national levels. Then, by studying time capsules, she finds that there is a unique, unanticipated joy associated with rediscovering mundane details from your past. And, finally, she finds that revealing personal failures (in addition to successes) reduces malicious envy felt by observers and increases benign envy, inspiring others to work hard to achieve the same success.