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Research at the crossroads

July 26, 2011

Vlad Griskevicius.

Vlad Griskevicius

Vlad Griskevicius’s work integrates psychology, evolutionary biology, and business science

By Rick Moore

Leave it to the Australian bowerbird to capture Vlad Griskevicius’s fancy and help guide the flight of his career.

Some years ago, Griskevicius came across a video of male bowerbirds building their spectacular abodes, which are large and ostentatious, often decorated with colorful leaves, flowers, and fruit—and arranged just so. The only function of these bowers is to attract mates; once this is accomplished, the “nests” are abandoned.

That got him thinking. “How is that like driving an expensive car or having a really expensive mansion?” says Griskevicius, a McKnight Land-Grant Professor in marketing at the Carlson School of Management. “To what extent do those things function for humans in a similar way as these [structures] might for bowerbirds?

“And so it set me off on a path I’ve been on for years now.”

That path—as well as Griskevicius’s research portfolio—takes him to the intersection of psychology, evolutionary biology, and business science. If those disciplines sound like they don’t typically overlap, well, they don’t. But for Griskevicius, the connections he’s made have led to some compelling discoveries, from the evolutionary underpinnings of aggressive behavior to a rather simple method of getting people to conserve energy.

Ancestral roots and modern consumer behavior

Griskevicius divides his research into four areas: motivation and emotion, sustainability and conservation, hormones and competition, and childhood influences. Each has yielded some fascinating findings.

In the realm of hormones and competition, Griskevicius and colleague Kristina Durante found that fluctuations associated with the female ovulatory cycle influence consumer behavior. In one study comparing online shopping habits, women who were ovulating shifted their choices more toward products that were provocative and more revealing.

He found that a scarcity of women in an environment leads men to discount the future and seek immediate rewards. He also found that a scarcity of men in an environment leads women to prioritize careers and delay starting a family.

Another study showed that mating goals—in the form of status seeking—may underlie aggressive behavior. (Read about this research in “Can’t fight it”)

His most recent research examines how people’s responses to economic turbulence vary according to their early-life socioeconomic status. Those reared with abundant resources respond to economic uncertainty by delaying gratification and becoming risk aversive. Conversely, those who grew up poor are more likely to make risky financial choices in search of a quick windfall.

Reconciling the messages

Griskevicius is originally from Lithuania, and his family moved to California when he was 10. He lived in the Los Angeles area and gained degrees in psychology and economics at UC-Santa Cruz, which he describes as both an Eden and “the most hippied-out” of all the universities in the Cal system.

He then went on to get his Ph.D. in social psychology at Arizona State University. But his time at UC-Santa Cruz provided another moment of revelation.

After studying economics for a couple of years, he took a psychology class, which “told me that pretty much everything I learned in economics was wrong,” he says. “Economics presumes people make decisions one way. Psychology says they do it completely differently. I was just terribly confused.”

It led Griskevicius to stay in school longer to try to reconcile the differing viewpoints.

“What it really did is ignite a passion to figure out why do people do the things that they do. And to this day, that’s what gets me up every morning.”

(Listen to Griskevicius talk about creativity and what inspires his research ideas in the following audio clip.)

A smiley face for energy conservation

Griskevicius acknowledges that not all research has mass appeal. But “once in a while, things that happen in this building or on campus are taken by someone outside in the real world and applied, and they just take off,” he says.

Such was the case with his research on energy conservation. After a variety of experiments, Griskevicius (along with colleagues Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldstein, and Wes Schultz) came up with an idea based on social norms—pointing out to people how much energy their neighbors were using.

That’s manifest now in utility bills that itemize how much energy you’ve used over the past month and how much all your neighbors are using. “And if you are using less than your neighbors you get a smiley face,” Griskevicius says. “This is deep psychology at work.”

Deep psychology aside, the ramifications are impressive. A company named OPOWER started up with a business plan based on the research. By the end of 2010, the amount of energy saved by OPOWER was the equivalent of removing 150,000 homes from the electricity grid. At a press conference President Barack Obama heralded the model was a way of the future. And the research is now a case study for the Harvard Business School.

That’s pretty heady stuff—the baseball equivalent of a grand slam in the research world.

Griskevicius remembers typing the smiley face in the Word document of his research paper—a somewhat unconventional emoticon in the world of academia. Then the BBC news came here one day and showed him a local electricity bill with a smiley face, asking him to explain something or another.

Says Griskevicius: “I’m looking at it [and thinking], ‘This is my smiley face. I remember doing this.’”

That’s worth another smile.

Tags: Carlson School of Management

audioCreativity and research inspiration

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Vlad Griskevicius bio and research