Coffee on the Third Floor with Adjunct Associate Professor Heather Caruso

Araba Nti, Class of 2017

Araba Nti, Class of 2017

Perhaps when rushing to class or trying to find the locker rooms, you might have passed a mysterious room on the Classroom Level of Harper Center. In C74 lies the Hyde Park location of the Center for Decision Research, Chicago Booth’s behavioral science research lab. Heather Caruso, Adjunct Associate Professor of Behavioral Science is a name most commonly associated with the Center. Along with her research and teaching activities at Booth, Caruso has played a key role in managing the Center and keeping it at the forefront of behavioral science through her responsibilities as the Executive Director.

Where did her interest in behavioral science start? Caruso takes it almost as far back as her experience in the womb, growing up in the multicultural city of Santa Barbara to a Vietnamese-American mother and Nigerian-American father: “I grew up immediately immersed in cross-boundary communication. It was inevitable—my parents didn’t speak the same native language. They didn’t have the same default cultural assumptions. Neither of them had the same default cultural assumptions as the kids they were raising. From day one, my life had to be a deliberate and explicit attempt to understand others and to be understood. I couldn’t rely on everyone just understanding each other’s perspectives by default, because everywhere I looked, we didn’t.”

Adjunct Associate Professor Heather Caruso

Adjunct Associate Professor Heather Caruso

Keeping those experiences in her back pocket, Caruso studied social psychology at Stanford, while simultaneously working in what “happened to be” a multinational company, Bargain America. There, she began to observe in a workplace setting the themes from her youth—those of communication challenges in the face of diversity. Coming to Bargain America as an engineer, Caruso left as a behavioral scientist in the making, more fascinated with the workplace dynamics than the engineering work she had come to do. After subsequently completing her PhD at Harvard, Caruso found Booth to be a natural fit for her research interests: “Coming here, it was clear that my interest in collaboration and cross-boundary dynamics would be applicable in a number of ways. Initially, it was to contribute to a large-scale research agenda that was just getting off the ground here at the Center for Decision Research, where scholars with different specific interests in the behavioral science space would come together.”

While Caruso prefers not to call out trends per se in behavioral science, she points out that in the modern era, the field is creating opportunities for rigorous research to speak to more powerful and relevant societal questions through innovative and enterprising data collection. Centered around the idea of interpersonal congruence—the ability of members of a group to understand one another as each individual understands him- or herself—Caruso’s work shows how effectively utilizing the diverse contributions of group members can improve problem solving capabilities by reducing counterproductive and distracting intragroup conflict.

Eschewing social psych fun facts or pithy sayings, Caruso prefers to highlight the value of behavioral science to Booth students through broader concepts, like choice architecture: “It offers Booth students a framework for understanding how our findings in behavioral science can be utilized to improve well-being in society. It’s a framework for understanding how social situations shape our behavior and our experience, starting with the insight that every choice we make in the world unfolds in a context, and that context can be influential. We are introduced to a choice in a particular way, with some information more salient, some information easier to get a hold of, some choices easier for us to act on, others not.”

If the term “choice architecture” sounds familiar, it may be because it is the topic of “Responsible Leadership through Choice Architecture” the course Caruso is currently co-teaching with Richard Thaler. As a hands-on laboratory class for students to build and practice the skill of choice architecture, student teams are matched with organizations to help tackle an organizational challenge. Projects range from those where students help companies look inwardly—at, for example, how to better align their employee behavior with organizational goals—to more typical consulting projects, where students help companies improve the choice situations their customers face so as to better meet their customer needs.

If you didn’t have a chance to catch the course, you can bid this week for Caruso’s winter quarter course “Power and Influence in Organizations.”  Caruso sums up the course content and objectives as the following: “The course is about becoming aware of what it means to be in a position of power: how other people can use power to influence us or the people around us; how we can develop and use our own power with wisdom and intention.” And if you don’t have a chance to catch that course either, Caruso offers you this must-have behavioral science insight: “The main thing to be aware of is that all life experiences are architected. Everything unfolds in a context. Because that’s true, anyone who has a hand in setting those contexts up has a responsibility of setting those contexts up wisely and in a way that best serves the inhabitants of those contexts. All of us—especially leaders and managers—will end up with this responsibility in one way or another, architecting situations for ourselves, for others in our organizations, and for friends and family.”

Araba is a second-year MBA student who loves her coffees only on the third floor!