Where Decisionmaking Is Measured

A new interdisciplinary decision-science lab will host experiments from psychology, economics, and beyond.

A jumbo touchscreen allows the person running an experiment to control what appears on participants' screens.
The lab has cubicles for 36 participants; 12 of these cubes have physiological equipment.
Each cubicle has two monitors that allow study participants to see the other participants (on the right-hand screen) alongside information or a stimulus presented by the experiment leader. Participants can communicate with one another through their headphones.
The lab equipment tracks the activation of participants' autonomic nervous systems through measures including body temperature, heart rate, skin conductance, and blood pressure.

The split second in which a decision occurs gives rise to a thousand questions. Why did a person decide the way he did? Was the decision impulsive or deliberative? What was the person feeling when she made that decision? How much did the person's immediate surroundings influence the decision?

The moment of decision has proven an elusive object of study, partly because it happens so quickly. Although researchers can ask subjects after the fact what was going through their minds, those results are vulnerable to bias (for instance, a study subject saying what she thinks the researcher wants to hear). But a new lab at the Harvard Kennedy School enables researchers to zoom in on that critical moment. Using state-of-the-art technology, the Decision Science Laboratory tracks measures of arousal that enable researchers to get at participants' states of mind—in the seconds before, during, and after each decision, was a participant calm, angry, happy, or anxious?

Scientists have previously addressed these questions by asking participants to report their own emotions. For instance, in a recent experiment on how state of mind affects spending decisions, Jennifer Lerner, a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School who directs the new lab, found that participants who watched sad movies were willing to spend more (see "The Financial Cost of Feeling," in the November-December issue of Harvard Magazine). But Lerner didn't measure how subjects were feeling; she assumed that those who watched the sad movie clips felt sad.

With new knowledge about the physiological manifestations of emotion, and new equipment that makes it possible to track these biomarkers in real time (down to fractions of a second), experiments can now eliminate the middleman. Instead of making assumptions or asking subjects how they feel, experiments can simply measure it.

"Decisions and judgment have been at the heart of everything in history," Kennedy School dean David Ellwood said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new lab last week. "Now we can go beyond saying, 'That was a dumb decision' ...and actually look, in a systematic way, at the factors that lead people to make different kinds of decisions."

The lab—located at 124 Mount Auburn Street—puts study subjects under heavy surveillance: someone running a study can see all subjects simultaneously (as well as seeing interview rooms and the lab reception area) and can control what the subjects see on the screens in their individual cubicles (or "cubes"). Using a jumbo, 2-foot-by-3-foot touch-screen monitor, the experiment leader can also manipulate the lighting in each subject's cube and control subjects' computers.

Each subject's cube contains two monitors, so subjects can, for instance, see each other on one screen while the experiment leader displays information on the other. Headphones with microphones allow subjects to communicate. And 12 of the 36 cubes have equipment for taking physiological measurements, such as skin temperature; skin conductance; blood pressure; electromyography (used to measure facial muscular activation); impedance cardiography and heart-rate variability (measures of the pace and strength of the heartbeat, and how quickly it returns to a resting, relaxed state); and finger plethysmography (which measures blood flow at the periphery). The equipment lets experiment leaders give subjects a visual stimulus and measure their reaction; it enables experiments that ask how subjects' state of mind influences a decision; and it also enables experiments that combine both of these approaches.

The lab is Lerner's brainchild; Harvard hired two Ohio firms, Premier Network Solutions of Cincinnati and Mindware Technologies of Columbus, to design customized technology to bring about her vision of  what the lab would measure and the interactions it would enable.

She and her students have already begun using the space, which has a full-time staff of three; three graduate students and two postdoctoral fellows are also affiliated with the lab. Once it officially opens for business in January, it is expected to draw heavy use from the Kennedy School, the Business School, and the departments of psychology and economics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but it is open to all Harvard faculty members and their students. Its associate directors are Iris Bohnet, also a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School, and Goodman professor of economics David Laibson.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony last week, University provost Steven Hyman called the lab "a great experiment in interdisciplinary cooperation."

On lab tours after the ceremony, some visitors were already wondering what constraints the lab would place on methodology. For instance, some psychologists conduct "deception studies," in which the subject is told the purpose of the study is something different from the real purpose; economists frown on this tactic. Research associate Jessica Kustoff, one of the lab staffers, answered that the lab would do its best to take all comers and address any ethical concerns that arise.

Above all, Lerner concluded in her remarks, "it is truly a Harvard-wide lab for all to share."

You might also like

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

Animal (Code) Cracker

After listening to leviathans, an undergraduate comes to conservation.  

Breaking Bread

Alexander Heffner ’12 plumbs the state of democracy.

Most popular

Prepare for AI Hackers

Human systems of all kinds may soon be vulnerable to subversion by artificial intelligence.

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

The Missing Middle

How overheated political attention warps campus life

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowdell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

How Schizophrenia Resembles the Aging Brain

The search for schizophrenia’s biological basis reveals an unexpected link to cellular changes seen in aging brains.

Harvard Researchers on Speaking to Whales

Project CETI’s pioneering effort to unlock the language of sperm whales