• Hello!
    My name is Adrian.

    I am an assistant professor in the marketing department at the University of Texas at Austin. I study technology, cognition, and how we can be better to those around us--and ourselves.

  • Technology and Cognition

    The Internet has transformed the way we find and understand information. I explore what happens when our "old" cognitive systems interact with this "new" technology.

  • Financial Decision-Making

    Most of us aren't very good at making financial decisions, and financial education is often ineffective. I use both empirical research and large-scale field applications to investigate potential solutions to these problems.

  • Moral Decision-Making

    Moral beliefs and intuitions influence almost all aspects of our lives. My research examines how "flexible morality" can explain our beliefs, decisions, and treatment of others.


About me:

I use methods from cognitive and social psychology, as well as insights gleaned from behavioral economics, machine learning, empirical modeling, and whatever else I can get my hands on to investigate consumer behavior and decision-making. My work is primarily focused on: (1) how "new" technology affects the outputs of "old" cognitive systems, (2) consumer financial decision-making, and (3) flexible morality and mind-perception. In each of these areas, my goal is to understand human behavior "in the wild." I want to understand why people do the things they do, as they actually do them--and, perhaps, to help them do these things just a little bit better.

Research: publications


On a "need-to-know" basis: How the distribution of responsibility between couples shapes financial literacy and financial outcomes

w/ John G. Lynch, Jr.

Journal of Consumer Research (2018)
View Article Online
Many people suffer from low levels of financial literacy. Educational interventions intended to increase financial know-how are typically unsuccessful. Why? In this research, we argue that people generally develop expertise on a “need to know” basis; they pay attention to what they think they need to know, when they think they need to know it. We further argue that the distribution of responsibility between relationship partners shapes what each individual believes s/he needs to know. Thus, many people may be ignorant about money because they think they have it covered; not because they know about money, but because they believe they don’t need to know about money. In this research, we explore how relationships shape the development of individual financial expertise. We show that increases in relationship length predict increases in financial literacy for those with high levels of financial responsibility ("household CFOs"), but not for those with low levels of financial responsibility (non-CFOs). These diverging trajectories of financial literacy, in turn, predict differences between household CFOs and non-CFOs in the ability to independently navigate the financial domain.

Media usage diminishes memory for experiences

w/ Diana I. Tamir, Emma M. Templeton, and Jamil Zaki

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2018)
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People increasingly use social media to record and share their experiences, but it is unclear whether or how social media use changes those experiences. Here we present both naturalistic and controlled studies in which participants engage in an experience while using media to record or share their experiences with others, or not engaging with media. We collected objective measures of participants' experiences (scores on a surprise memory test) as well as subjective measures of participants' experiences (self-reports about their engagement and enjoyment). Across three studies, participants without media consistently remembered their experience more precisely than participants who used media. We did not find conclusive evidence that media use impacted subjective measures of experience. Together, these findings suggest that using media may prevent people from remembering the very events they are attempting to preserve.

Brain drain: The mere presence of one's own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity

w/ Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos

Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (2017)
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Our smartphones enable—and encourage—constant connection to information, entertainment, and each other. They put the world at our fingertips, and rarely leave our sides. Although these devices have immense potential to improve welfare, their persistent presence may come at a cognitive cost. In this research, we test the “brain drain” hypothesis that the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may occupy limited-capacity cognitive resources, thereby leaving fewer resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance. Results from two experiments indicate that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity. Moreover, these cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence. We conclude by discussing the practical implications of this smartphone-induced brain drain for consumer decision-making and consumer welfare.

Supernormal: How the Internet is changing our memories and our minds

Psychological Inquiry (2013)
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We are creatures of flesh and blood, living in a world of bits and bytes—a world shaped by the Internet. With the simple touch of a button or swipe of a finger, we can instantaneously access vast amounts of information (e.g., Ashton, 2009). A few more keystrokes, and we can interact with friends 10 time zones away (e.g., Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004). Just a few more, and we may complete the transition to a digital life, transferring our identities from our physical bodies to online avatars (e.g., Bessiere, Seay, & Kiesler, 2007). When old cognitive tendencies and new technologies meet—when the world of flesh and blood collides with the world of bits and bytes—the Internet may act as a “supernormal stimulus,” hijacking preexisting cognitive tendencies and creating novel outcomes. The Internet is not changing the way we think, but it may be changing the outcomes of these ways of thinking—particularly in the domains of memory and information search.

Old Desires, New Media

w/ Diana I. Tamir

in The Psychology of Desire (Guilford Press, 2015)
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"New media”—including televisions, computers, and smartphones—seem to offer simple solutions to complex social needs. With the change of a channel, we can connect with our “neighbor” Mr. Rogers or our “friends” on Friends; with the tap of a button, we can relive social events through Facebook photos or communicate with relationship partners on the other side of the earth. At times, these solutions may be real. At other times, however, our social minds may motivate behaviors that provide only the illusion of adaptive functioning. In this chapter, we provide an overview of how our widespread use of social media is encouraged by our social minds, and what it might mean for social outcomes. We explore the bases of our need for social connection, the brain’s reward system that motivates us to seek out social stimuli, and the mentalizing system that allows us to succeed in our social endeavors. We then turn to an analysis of how these components of our social minds contribute to our desire to find and create social connection through our screens. Finally, we offer some perspective on what this all might mean—whether our social minds are ruining or enhancing our relationships, both online and off.

Mind-Blanking: When the mind goes away

w/ Daniel M. Wegner

Frontiers in Psychology (2013)
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Many times, people’s minds seem to go “somewhere else”—attention becomes disconnected from perception, and people’s minds wander to times and places removed from the current environment (e.g., Schooler et al., 2004). At other times, however, people’s minds may seem to go nowhere at all—they simply disappear. This mental state—mind-blanking—may represent an extreme decoupling of perception and attention, one in which attention fails to bring any stimuli into conscious awareness. In the present research, we outline the properties of mind-blanking, differentiating this mental state from other mental states in terms of phenomenological experience, behavioral outcomes, and underlying cognitive processes. Seven experiments suggest that when the mind seems to disappear, there are times when we have simply failed to monitor its whereabouts—and there are times when it is actually gone.

the harm-made mind: victimization augments perceptions of the mind of vegetative patients, robots, and the dead

w/ Andrew Olsen and Daniel M. Wegner

Psychological Science (2013)
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People often think that something must have a mind to be part of a moral interaction. However, the present research suggests that minds do not create morality, but that morality creates minds. In four experiments, we find that observing intentional harm to an otherwise unconscious entity—a vegetative patient, a robot, or a corpse—leads to augmented attribution of mind to that entity. A fifth experiment reconciles these results with extant research on dehumanization by showing that victimizing conscious entities leads to reduced mind attribution, suggesting that the effects of victimization vary according to the victim’s preexisting mental status. People seem to make an intuitive cognitive error when unconscious entities are placed in harm’s way. They assume that if a moral harm occurs, then there must be someone there to experience that harm—a harm-made mind. These findings have implications for political policies concerning right-to-life issues.

Paying it Forward: generalized reciprocity and the limits of generosity

w/ Kurt Gray and Michael I. Norton

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (2014)
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When people are the victims of greed or recipients of generosity, their first impulse is often to pay back that behavior in kind. What happens when people cannot reciprocate, but instead have the chance to be cruel or kind to someone entirely different—to pay it forward? In 5 experiments, participants received greedy, equal, or generous divisions of money or labor from an anonymous person and then divided additional resources with a new anonymous person. While equal treatment was paid forward in kind, greed was paid forward more than generosity. This asymmetry was driven by negative affect, such that a positive affect intervention disrupted the tendency to pay greed forward.

give what you get: capuchin monkey (cebus apella) and four-year-old children pay forward positive and negative outcomes to conspecifics

w/ Kristi Leimgruber, Jane Widness, Michael I. Norton, Kristina Olson, Kurt Gray, and Laurie Santos

PLOS One (2014)
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The breadth of human generosity is unparalleled in the natural world, and much research has explored the mechanisms underlying and motivating human prosocial behavior. Recent work has focused on the spread of prosocial behavior within groups through paying-it-forward, a case of human prosociality in which a recipient of generosity pays a good deed forward to a third individual, rather than back to the original source of generosity. While research shows that human adults do indeed pay forward generosity, little is known about the origins of this behavior. Here, we show that both capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) and 4-year-old children pay forward positive and negative outcomes in an identical testing paradigm. These results suggest that a cognitively simple mechanism present early in phylogeny and ontogeny leads to paying forward positive, as well as negative, outcomes.

the myth of harmless wrongs in moral cognition: automatic dyadic completion from sin to suffering

w/ Kurt Gray and Chelsea Schein

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (2014)
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When something is wrong, someone is harmed. This hypothesis derives from the theory of dyadic morality, which suggests a moral cognitive template of wrongdoing agent and suffering patient (i.e., victim). This dyadic template means that victimless wrongs (e.g., masturbation) are psychologically incomplete, compelling the mind to perceive victims even when they are objectively absent. Five studies reveal that dyadic completion occurs automatically and implicitly: Ostensibly harmless wrongs are perceived to have victims (Study 1), activate concepts of harm (Studies 2 and 3), and increase perceptions of suffering (Studies 4 and 5). These results suggest that perceiving harm in immorality is intuitive and does not require effortful rationalization. This interpretation argues against both standard interpretations of moral dumbfounding and domain-specific theories of morality that assume the psychological existence of harmless wrongs. Dyadic completion also suggests that moral dilemmas in which wrongness (deontology) and harm (utilitarianism) conflict are unrepresentative of typical moral cognition.

Research: working papers


Overcoming Temptation: Incentive Design for Intertemporal Choice

w/ Michael C. Mozer, Shruthi Sukumar, Camden Elliott-Williams, and Shabnam Hakimi

View working paper online
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Individuals are often faced with temptations that can lead them astray from long-term goals. We’re interested in developing interventions that steer individuals toward making good initial decisions and then maintaining those decisions over time. In the realm of financial decision making, a particularly interesting approach is the prize-linked savings account: individuals are incentivized to make deposits by tying deposits to a periodic lottery that awards bonuses to the savers. Although these lotteries have been effective in motivating savers across the globe, they are a one-size-fits-all solution. We investigate whether customized bonuses can be more effective. We formalize a delayed-gratification task as a Markov decision problem and characterize individuals as rational agents subject to temporal discounting, costs associated with effort, and moment-to-moment fluctuations in willpower. Our theory is able to explain key behavioral findings in intertemporal choice. We created an online delayed-gratification game in which the player scores points by choosing a queue to wait in and patiently advancing to the front. Data collected from the game is fit to the model, and the instantiated model is then used to optimize predicted player performance over a space of incentives. We demonstrate that customized incentive structures can improve goal-directed decision making.

Internet Search and Idea Appropriation: People mistake the internet's knowledge for their own

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The Internet is a consistent presence in people’s daily lives. As people upload, download, and offload information to and from the 'cloud,' the line between internal memory and external memory—that is, information stored online—may become increasingly blurry. Building on the theory of transactive memory, the current research uses 2 pilot studies and 6 experiments to explore the possibility that using the Internet to access information may cause people to become one with the cloud—to lose sight of where their own minds end and the mind of the internet begins, and to lose track of which memories are stored internally and which are stored online. These experiments explore three key factors that may lead to blurred boundaries between internally- and externally-stored knowledge: accessing the internet through a familiar access point or transactive memory partner (i.e., Google), having the “feeling of knowing” that often accompanies internet search, and experiencing the “knew it all along” effect when this feeling of knowing is falsely confirmed.

Abbreviated Language, Abbreviated Thought: Texting Impairs Complex Verbal Abilities and Increases Susceptibility to Peripheral Persuasion

w/ Kurt Gray

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People increasingly communicate via text and Twitter, and much of this communication is dedicated to brands—recent research indicates that 19% of the over 500 million tweets sent per day mention a specific brand (e.g., Jansen, et al., 2009). These forms of communication are unique because they impose character-length constraints on messages; Twitter, for example, limits messages to 140 characters, including spaces, punctuation, hashtags, and all other message content. In this project, we use both large-scale correlational and experimental paradigms to investigate the effect of these abbreviated forms of communication on processing both simple and complex arguments. In both self-selected and randomly assigned conditions, and even when controlling for potentially confounding variables such as age, gender, and education, we find that communicating via Twitter or text impairs users’ ability to analyze complex arguments and make inferences based on nuanced information (relative to communicating via comparatively lengthy emails or blog posts, or simply opting out of communication altogether). We are currently using the elaboration likelihood model as a framework for testing the implications of this “abbreviated communication, abbreviated thought” phenomenon for the effectiveness of different persuasive messages.

paying forward prosocial behavior: people are selfish, but only in secret

w/ Kristi Leimgruber, Michael I. Norton, Kristina Olson, Kurt Gray, and Laurie Santos

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Building on prior work indicating that people asymmetrically pay forward negative outcomes in both financial and labor domains (Gray, Ward, & Norton, 2014), this paper explores the effects of two often-competing incentives—material gain and social reputation—on prosocial behavior in real-world social networks. We find that people do asymmetrically pay forward negative (or antisocial) outcomes, but only when their behavior is anonymous and their gains are directly tied to others’ losses. However, even minimally social environments (e.g., observing the recipient of their behavior from opposite sides of a courtyard) or conditions in which partners’ gains and losses are independent lead people to forsake greed for generosity. We suggest that people are greedy but not spiteful, and that concerns related to social reputation trump material gains.

Ironic effects in the mental control of mind-blanking

w/ Daniel M. Wegner

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Mental control is central to human experience and decision-making—the ability to replace thoughts related to short-term desires with others focused on long-term goals may improve both short- and long-term financial outcomes, and the ability to resist fantasies about an attractive coworker may save one’s marriage. However, people’s attempts at controlling their mental states are often ineffective (e.g., Wegner, 1994). In this paper, we turn from attempts to control specific mental contents to more general cases where people may want to clear their minds altogether (like when stuck in a rut of unproductive ruminations) or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, to think of anything at all (like when experiencing a “deer in headlights” moment in front of a hostile crowd). In four experiments, we provide evidence that attempts to both clear and fill the mind are not simply unproductive, but counterproductive; when trying to attain or avoid a blank mind, people tend to create the very mental states they want to avoid.

Popular Press


Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking

w/ Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos

Harvard Business Review (March 2018)
View Article Online
Despite wanting to be in the moment, we often find ourselves captivated by our smartphones. We take pictures in the middle of family meals, send text messages during date night, and update our social media profiles while watching movies. At the same time, we are often interrupted passively by notifications of emails or phone calls. Clearly, interacting with our smartphones affects our ability to fully devote our minds to the experience at hand. But can our smartphones affect us even when we aren’t interacting with them—when they are simply nearby?

How Google is Changing Your Brain

w/ Daniel M. Wegner

Scientific American (December 2013)
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For millennia humans have relied on one another to recall the minutiae of our daily goings-on. Now we rely on the "Cloud”—and it is changing how we perceive and remember the world around us. In this invited feature article, Dan Wegner and I review some of our research on how—in the words of our editors—"the Internet has become the external hard drive for our memories."

Scientific american: Mind matters

The Neuroscience of Everybody's Favorite Topic (July 2013)
Why do people spend so much time talking about themselves?
Read Article Online

What Boston Showed about Human Nature (April 2013)
In the seconds after the explosions came an answer to an ancient question: Are we by nature good, or bad?
Read Article Online

Winter Wakes Up Your Mind—and Warm Weather Makes it Harder to Think Straight (February 2013)
How temperature shapes difficult decisions
Read Article Online

Scientists Probe Human Nature—and Discover We Are Good, After All (November 2012)
Recent studies find our first impulses are selfless
Read Article Online

Men and Women Can't Be "Just Friends" (October 2012)
Researchers asked women and men "friends" what they really think—and got very different answers
     -->Most-read Scientific American article of 2012
     -->Selected press coverage: The Colbert Report
Read Article Online

What Internet Habits Say about Mental Health (August 2012)
Researchers find clues to depression in what people do online
(with Piercarlo Valdesolo)
Read Article Online


Marketing &
Consumer Behavior

Statistics &
Experimental Methods

Psychology &

Marketing & Consumer Behavior

Consumer Behavior in a Digital World (MBA, MSM, and BBA levels)
Professor and Course Creator, University of Texas at Austin (2015-present)
Average instructor evaluation, MBA: 4.62/5
Average instructor evaluation, MSM: 4.86/5
Average instructor evaluation, BBA: 4.91/5
*Named to the BBA Faculty Honor Roll

Marketing Research (undergraduate)
Guest Lecture: "Marketing Research with Social Media"
University of Colorado, Boulder (2014, 2015)

Buyer Behavior (undergraduate)
Guest Lecture: "Internal Memory, External Memory, and Consumer Choice"
University of Colorado, Boulder (2014)

Market Intelligence (MBA)
Post-doctoral Assistant
University of Colorado, Boulder (2014)

Statistics & Experimental Methods

Multivariate Analysis in Psychology (Graduate-level statistics)
Head Teaching Fellow, Harvard University (2012)
Teacher evaluation: 4.63/5
*Received the Derek Bok Award for Distinction in Teaching

Identity, Attention, and Decision-Making (Undergraduate seminar)
Instructor and Course Creator, Harvard University (2011)
Instructor evaluation: 4.67/5
*Received the George W. Goethals Award for Excellence in Teaching

Senior Thesis Advisor (Undergraduate research seminar)
Instructor, Harvard University (2011-12)
Teacher evaluation: 5/5

Statistical and Experimental Methods (Undergraduate-level statistics)
Head Teaching Assistant, Furman University (2006-08)

Psychology & Decision-Making

Psychological Science
Teaching Fellow, Harvard University (2011)
Teacher evaluation: 4.81/5
*Received the Derek Bok Award for Distinction in Teaching

Social Psychology
Teaching Fellow, Harvard University (2010-11)
Average teacher evaluation (two years): 4.53/5
*Received the Derek Bok Award for Distinction in Teaching

Psychology of Morality
Head Teaching Fellow, Harvard University (2010)
Teacher evaluation: 4.64/5
*Received the Derek Bok Award for Distinction in Teaching

Selected Student Comments:

“Honestly, the best course I have taken at McCombs. I have recommended it to every marketing student I know. I looked forward to every class and genuinely enjoyed what we learned. Each lecture was a great mix of informative and entertaining, and even the slides were all visually appealing!”    (Course: Consumer Behavior in a Digital World, BBA)

“This was a great course--probably my favorite I have taken at McCombs. Very relevant to marketing, but provides a great break from the standard case-based class. Professor Ward is very knowledgeable and makes the class fun. A+”    (Course: Consumer Behavior in a Digital World, MBA)

“Adrian is a phenomenal teacher. He is EXTREMELY engaging and had a very fair, balanced approach to the course. It was a pleasure to bounce ideas around with him every week. He really hit all the marks of a great teacher and then some.”    (Course: Identity, Attention, and Decision-Making)

“Adrian, like no other teacher I’ve ever had, arrived to class with a passion for the subject that inspired an equal passion within the rest of us. He’s smart, thoughtful, respectful, encouraging, funny, helpful and every other characteristic you hope your teacher has. Both as a person and as a teacher, he is truly exceptional.”    (Course: Psychological Science)

“Adrian was the best teacher I’ve had at Harvard so far. His personality made him extremely approachable from day one. Even though he is easy going, he still generates excitement for the material and made our section an open area for discussion and encouraged participation. He was great at returning assignments quickly, and was always helpful in giving feedback.”    (Course: Social Psychology)

“Adrian is the best teaching fellow I have ever had. He has spent so much time and energy on this class that it is truly admirable. He always does his best to make time with office hours, really helpful and extensive homework feedback, and help during lab. And he always has an extremely positive attitude. HE’S AMAZING!!!”    (Course: Multivariate Analysis)


You can download my CV here, or view it below.

And that's the end. Seriously, stop reading this. Go do something.