• 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 "big data," empirical modeling, behavioral economics, machine learning, and whatever else I can get my hands on to investigate consumer behavior and decision-making. My work is primarily focused on: (1) consumer financial decision-making, (2) how "new" technology affects the outputs of "old" cognitive systems, 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.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention my eternal gratitude to all of the wonderful people who have taught, inspired, and worked alongside me during my still-short career--especially my doctoral and post-doctoral advisors, Dan Wegner and John G. Lynch, Jr. I can only hope to approximate their curiosity, intellectual rigor, and passion for using big ideas to make big differences.

Research: featured working papers


On a "need-to-know" basis: divergent trajectories of financial expertise in couples and effects on independent search and decision making

w/ John G. Lynch, Jr.

Working paper available at SSRN
Email for more information
Many consumers suffer from low levels of financial literacy, and attempts to increase this dimension of consumer expertise via educational interventions are typically unsuccessful. We propose that many of these apparent deficits in literacy and learning may be caused by a cognitively efficient distribution of responsibility for knowledge and decision-making in different domains between relationship partners. New relationship partners adopt specialized domains of responsibility quickly and intuitively in a process guided more by circumstantial factors than by matching tasks with aptitudes (study 1). Cross-sectional data from consumers in long-term relationships provide evidence that distributions of responsibility for financial decision-making between partners may give rise to differences in financial literacy, such that the financial specialist develops expertise in this area while the non-specialist does not (study 3). This ever-growing gap in financial literacy is generally unrecognized by consumers (studies 2, 4), despite being linked to corresponding differences in both financial decision-making (studies 5, 6) and financial information search (study 6). Consumers seem to develop expertise on a “need to know” basis. We argue that offloading responsibility to a relationship partner may eliminate this need in the present, while simultaneously creating barriers to developing expertise if and when it is needed in the future.

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.

Research: publications


Supernormal: how the internet is changing our memories and our minds

Psychological Inquiry (2013)
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Check out the infographic! (and the blog post)
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, trans- ferring our identities from our physical bodies to online avatars (e.g., Bessie`re, 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)
Email for more information
"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 & 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 & 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, & 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


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 elaborations 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, & 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.

Consequences of Use of Broad or Narrow Categories on Budgeting and Planning

w/ An Tran and John G. Lynch, Jr.

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In this paper, we examine the effects of budget category size on planning, spending, and responses to both approaching and exceeding budgetary limits. We find that consumers using narrow budgets (e.g., separate budgets for clothing, food, and entertainment) plan to spend less than those using broader budgets (e.g., a single budget for monthly expenses), but actually spend more—exceeding not only their self-imposed budgetary constraints, but also the amount spent by consumers using broader budgets. Additional evidence suggests that (1) narrow budgets may encourage overspending by allowing consumers to employ selectively flexible mental accounting, drawing from non-focal budgets with available funds but ignoring overspending in other non-focal budgets, and (2) narrow budgets may increase the incidence of “what the hell” spending both by offering more chances to fail (more budgets) and by increasing the likelihood of failure within each narrow budget (planning fallacy).

Popular Press


How Google is Changing Your Brain

w/ Daniel M. Wegner

Scientific American (December 2013)
View Article Online
Email for PDF of full article
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

Teaching: Performance

Teacher Ratings:


Selected Student Comments:

“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)

Teaching: Experience

Marketing &
Consumer Behavior

Statistics &
Experimental Methods

Psychology &

Marketing & Consumer Behavior

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


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

And that's the end. Seriously, stop reading this and go do something productive.