Assistant Professor of Marketing, Stern School of Business & Psychology Department, New York University
Author of Drunk Tank Pink
Dr. Adam Alter is an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business and psychology department. His research focuses on the intersection of behavioral economics, marketing, and the psychology of judgment and decision-making. His work has been published widely in academia—including in The Journal of Experimental Psychology and at the National Academy of Sciences—and has been featured in the mainstream media, on PBS and BBC, and in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist. Alter has also written for Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and the Huffington Post, among other publications.
Q> Please discuss the interesting findings from your research
Dr. Alter > In much of my research, I study how cognitive fluency influences our judgments and decisions. Cognitive fluency is the sense of ease or difficulty that people experience when they process information, and every piece of information we process falls along a continuum from fluent (easy to process) to disfluent (hard to process). For example, some names are easy to pronounce and others are hard to pronounce; some fonts are easy to read and others are hard to read; some pieces of information are easy to remember, and others are hard to remember. As a general rule, people prefer stimuli that they’re able to process easily or fluently—they perceive familiar or fluent currency as more valuable than unfamiliar or disfluent currency; and they’re more likely to invest in financial stocks with fluent names. In both cases, fluency confers a sense of value on the currency or stock, and disfluency weakens its apparent value. Sometimes, though, we’ve shown that disfluency—cognitive difficulty—is useful. When people experience disfluency, they process subsequent information more deeply, and they’re less willing to share revealing personal information with other people. In these cases, disfluency functions as an alarm that causes them to think twice before they respond.
Q> What do you think are important issues in Judgment and Decision Making?
Dr. Alter > One of the enduring issues is whether researchers should focus on identifying flashy effects (WHAT people are deciding), or whether they should instead focus their attention on questions of process (WHY people are making those decisions). “What” questions often bring about catchy answers that please popular media, but if we can’t understand why people are making the decisions they’re making, it’s very difficult to apply our ideas to new situations and to derive practical benefits beyond the study’s immediate context.
Q> What would be your message to invite the younger minds to decision sciences?
Dr. Alter > I still have a huge amount to learn myself, so I feel a bit uncomfortable making suggestions to “younger minds.” I was lucky to stumble on a phenomenon—cognitive fluency—that just happened to garner lots of attention in the four or five years after I started graduate school. What I particularly liked about fluency (and still do) was that it allowed us to answer some big, important theoretical questions, while also answering some practically important questions. If possible, I think it’s important to build your early career on a topic that achieves both ends, because people within the field of JDM appreciate rigorous, theoretically-motivated research, and people beyond the field (and grant agencies) appreciate research that has ready applications.
(As Interviewed by Sumitava Mukherjee in June 2013]