16 Jul 2021

Behind the Research: Julian Zlatev Q+A


by Shona Simkin

Julian Zlatev, an assistant professor of business administration in the Negotiation, Organizations and Markets Unit, conducts research and teaches the second-year Negotiation course. We sat down with Julian to ask him more about his background, research, and how he spends his free time.

How did you become interested in your area of study?

I majored in psychology as an undergraduate, and didn't realize that what I was interested in could be done at a business school. I was pleasantly surprised when I ended up being a research assistant at a business school and noticed I could continue to study the things that interested me within the confines of understanding the implications for organizations. That took me on the path to grad school and then here.

What is the focus of your research?

I have a few different areas of interest. The one I worked on in grad school looks at the motivations behind why people engage in certain prosocial behaviors like donating to charity or volunteering for a nonprofit. I've done quite a bit of work in that domain, in particular looking at situations where there might be dual motivations involved—there may be a motivation to help others or society that drives people to engage in these behaviors, but there may also be a motivation to get something, some sort of self-benefit. For example, when NPR runs their fundraising drives you can get a tote bag for a certain donation amount. People want to be a good person by donating money, but at the same time may be doing something, like receiving a free tote bag, that undermines that warm glow. I’m interested in how people navigate those trade-offs and decide to either engage in these behaviors or not—as well as what you can do to increase people's motivation to engage in these behaviors and increase things like charitable giving and volunteering.

How do you go about that research?

My workday is a lot of Zoom meetings with collaborators and coauthors. The work I do is very collaborative, and requires a lot of updates from everyone involved. I mainly work in the experimental domain—I run a lot of experiments and conduct my own data collection rather than collecting archival data. I do a little bit of archival research but it's primarily data collection on my own and with coauthors. A lot of the work involves thinking through what a good survey or study design would look like, putting that into a survey platform like Qualtrics and running it with human subject participants, analyzing the data, then writing up the study for publication.

Does that relate to your teaching subject of negotiation?

While I have done some work on negotiation, this particular topic is less tied in specifically. But it has a similar tension to one I talk about in my class: one goal in negotiations might be trying to gain as much as you can from the negotiation which often involves claiming value from the other party, while another goal might involve looking at ways to engage in tradeoffs with the other party and grow the overall size of the pie. We call it the negotiator's dilemma—how you navigate this trade-off between increasing the pie and trying to get as much of that larger pie as you can. There are similarities between how people navigate this trade-off in negotiations and how they navigate self-beneficial and other-beneficial motives in something like charitable giving.

What are you working on currently?

I’ve recently become more interested in how people signal to others that they are trustworthy and worthy of collaboration or engagement. Particularly the types of things that actually are helpful at signaling trustworthiness, but also the things that people may erroneously believe show others that they can be trusted. Right now I have a dataset around physicians who have posted "about me" bios on a website where potential patients go to find a physician. A collaborator and I are using text analysis to understand how these physicians write these bios and what potential patients pick up on. We’re then connecting the bios to independent ratings from the physicians’ current patients to see how accurate these first impressions actually are. You can see that there are doctors who are actually very good, and get very good ratings, but are maybe writing their bios in a way that isn't conveying their best strengths to potential patients. This is very much ongoing, early stage work, but I’m very excited about looking more into how these dynamics play out.

How do you analyze that data?

We're using natural language processing and a bit of machine learning to try to get at both the content and the structure of the text. It's interesting to look at the word choices that people make as well as the topics they're deciding to talk about—you can even get down to the basic grammatical and linguistic structure of the text to see if that has an effect as well. We’re looking at all angles.

Has the pandemic changed how you go about your research?

I was doing a lot of these studies online even before the pandemic. There are platforms that allow for easy data collection from a broader group of participants, so that we can get data beyond undergrads, which is a big concern for a lot of researchers. However, before the pandemic started I was in talks with a few different organizations about running field studies, but once things shut down, many became a little bit risk averse and had various logistical problems. So I had some difficulty finding settings for some of the field studies I've been interested in, but on the other end, the online stuff hasn't changed too much.

What do you like to do when you’re not teaching or working on your research studies?

My pandemic hobby was something I've been wanting to do for a long time—learning how to play the piano. I was taking daily lessons at the start of the pandemic. And more recently I've been getting back into running, which is something that I did in grad school quite a bit but then trailed off for a while. Pre-pandemic I really enjoyed traveling—going to conferences around the world and visiting new places. Once the travel restrictions lift, I'm looking forward to getting back to that.

Read more about Julian Zlatev in Working Knowledge. For updates on HBS faculty research, sign up for Working Knowledge’s weekly e-mail newsletter.

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