The Complex Science of People: Behavioral Research at the Carlson School
Carlson School researchers are working year-round to find answers to a variety of mysteries about human nature. Thanks to four behavioral research labs, faculty and students can conduct behavioral research under the school's roof. Behavioral research is crucial for explaining humanity's most basic interactions, and most intricate behavioral tendencies. It helps investigators examine macro-level sociological and economic trends, as well as micro-level phenomena in the daily workplace or family. This type of research utilizes multiple research methods to study voluntary participants: data is collected using surveys, recordings, testing and observation, and more.
Dori Higgin-Houser was hired in 2007 to manage the Carlson School’s first behavioral lab, and oversees all the logistics, which includes helping investigators find resources and participants for research projects. She recruits participants from all across campus, and depending on the project’s needs, people of all ages and backgrounds. She says the labs are in constant use, which keeps her busy.
So what exactly happens in a behavioral lab?
“We have one lab with hidden video and audio capabilities, so groups can be recorded and observed during their interactions,” Higgin-Houser says. “There are a lot of studies done where the environment is manipulated.”
Because any type of human behavior can be studied, the topics of study are endless. Human resources, marketing and leadership are just a few general subjects studied in the Carlson School labs. And although this research requires an in-depth study of behavioral interaction, behavioral research can encompasses not only psychology, but economics and other social sciences as well.
Studying behavior in the workplace
Faculty and PhD students from the Department of Work and Organizations reserve these labs for a variety of in-depth research projects. Assistant Professor Betty Zhou, for example, is one of the many primary investigators who utilizes these resources in her studies.
“I think one of the beauties of doing lab behavior experiments is you can control the study environment,” she says.
But Zhou also says that behavioral research can take place anywhere, even in a classroom. The key is to have an environment where a scenario can be acted out.
When Zhou began graduate school, she studied industrial organizational psychology, examining behavior in the workplace. Eventually her focus became leadership in work groups, and the study of social hierarchies. Zhou gives an example of a study she performed on social responsibility in the workplace.
“We found that when companies engage in different levels of socially responsible behaviors, it will pay off by their employees working harder,” she says. “Likewise, the employers will also pay a price if they engage in less of these behaviors, as employees will put less effort into their jobs.”
In order to perform behavioral research, Zhou says it's crucial to understand natural human tendencies that can influence the experiment. The “practice effect” is one that principal investigators must be highly aware of.
“When you give the same participants the same task twice or three times, the results will be different from the first time they do it,” Zhou summarizes. “People generally do better when they do the same thing.”
Examining flexible work practices
Assistant Professor Colleen Manchester (with other colleagues) uses the behavioral labs to test the effects of flexible work practices, or FWPs, on careers. In one study, participants were asked to assume the role of a manager and evaluate a hypothetical full-time employee who used a flexible work schedule. One group of participants evaluated an employee who used this FWP for productivity reasons (e.g., to better serve clients), and another group evaluated an employee who used FWP for personal-life reasons (e.g., to meet family life obligations). Manchester and her co-authors found divergent effects of FWP use on career outcomes based on the attributions: FWP use resulted in career premiums when use used for productivity reasons, while FWP use resulted in career penalties when used for personal-life reasons.
"Because the research design held every other aspect of the hypothetical employee the same (including performance and total work hours), finding divergent results in the lab based on attribution for FWP use provides strong support for manager attributions playing an important role in understanding the consequences of FWP use by actual employees," says Manchester.
Behavorial labs attract new faculty and students
The availability of the behavioral research labs is a big draw for prospective faculty members and PhD students joining the Carlson School. With access to a 6,000-person subject pool and a dedicated lab manager, the Department of Work and Organizations definitely emphasizes the benefit the on-site laboratories when recruiting bright new scholars.
"The behavioral labs are not only a good resource for conducting research, but also a great tool for recruiting PhD students looking to complete their degree," says Professor Michelle Duffy, coordinator of the PhD program for the Department of Work and Organizations. "This level of accessibility really helps attract potential PhD candidates, as well as new faculty members, to the Carlson School."
One such PhD student is Gabe Licht, who will be graduating this spring. “I have used the Carlson School’s Behavioral Labs and the subject pool extensively as a PhD candidate,” he says. “I have worked as a research assistant running participants through the lab for projects led by professors, and also administered experiments as a principal investigator. The Carlson School labs have a lot of great resources."