Feature Stories


Best Behavior

Although we are living in the age of FinTech and artificial intelligence, understanding human psychology and consumer motivation is still the key to business success. Those who make software and circuitry need to make use of these insights, so such knowledge is likely to become even more important in the future.

HKUST’s new Behavioral Sciences Research Lab, which opened in 2016, is a dedicated facility where researchers can carry out experiments on human behavior. “There are many departments that perform research here [in the Behavioral Sciences Research Lab],” explains the new lab’s founding director Rashmi Adaval,  a professor in the Department of Marketing. “The departments that are using the lab right now are marketing, management, economics, and information systems,” she says.

“In marketing, we look more at consumption-related issues for consumers, whereas faculty in management look at more organizational issues, such as equality in the workplace, fairness, stereotyping, and supervisor-employer relationships. The Department of Information Systems’ work in the lab focusses largely on the online shopping environment,” Adaval says.

Adaval says her work with consumers is rooted in psychological research. “You are trying to understand how people see things, what they pay attention to, how are they influenced, all these types of things,” she explains. “You can only do these things in a lab setting, where you can control all the other conditions. That way, you can be sure the effects that arise are due to the factors you’ve manipulated.”

The professor cites the effect of temperature on spending patterns as an example. “It’s hard to do this outside, because along with the heat, there are all sorts of things that have an effect,” she says. In a lab setting, subjects can be isolated from extraneous phenomena, like traffic noise, that could interfere with the results.

The equipment in the lab includes a few eye-tracking machines, which can record, for example, the parts of a website which attract the most attention from subjects. There is also a face-reading device, which can track emotional expressions and register whether subjects are feeling happy, angry or sad, and a mirror which allows researchers to observe the behavior of subjects. Software includes applications that measure reaction times to stimuli with millisecond accuracy enabling researchers to predict what information was most accessible in memory when decisions were made. Other software also allows researchers to present a stimulus, such as an ad or prices subliminally to see if consumer responses are affected by these brief exposures.  

This year, research into food and eating behavior has been conducted in the lab. This includes research into the food choices children make, Adaval says. “We’ve also had a couple of faculty members working on obesity. They’ve been looking at why it is increasing, and why people are not able to stop eating,” she adds.

The relationship between scarcity and consumer behavior is another developing field of study. “We’ve started to look at people who are surviving on, say, US$2 a day. We look at the ways in which they react to the cues about a life of plenty advertisers present them with, when they are barely managing to survive,” says Adaval. The professor explains that, even in relatively affluent Hong Kong, a psychological sense of scarcity can be replicated in the lab.

Hong Kong’s location and history offer unique research opportunities, as consumers in the city have been exposed to the cultures of both Britain and China. “If you give them things in Chinese, they tend to read and think differently than when you give them things in English. This affects how they make judgments and decisions,” Adaval says.

The new facility builds on the legacy of Seshan Ramaswami, an assistant professor at HKUST’s marketing department in the 1990s. Ramaswami, an associate professor at the Singapore Management University since 2000, designed the original Behavioral Lab at HKUST in the 1990s, back in the early days of the Business School. Ramaswami realized that such a facility would be essential if the business school was to build a reputation as a research powerhouse.

“When I first came here nearly 20 years ago, I was stunned,” admits Adaval. “At that time, none of the big universities, including the University of Berkeley and places like that, had such a lab.”

Ramaswami’s strategy paid off, as the facility made HKUST a magnet for top researchers. Lab-based behavioral research propelled several departments into the world’s top 10, based on cumulative research.

The marketing department’s approach is based on the idea that marketing should be about consumer wellfare. The Behavioral Sciences Research Lab conducts fundamental research on the cognitive, emotional and social factors that affect human behavior.

“Most of our research is funded by the Hong Kong government through grants, and the knowledge we build up in the lab can later lead to policy changes, such as clearer labelling practices,” says Adaval.

Facilities at a Glance

Major Hardware

  • Tobii Eye-Tracker Machine—a device to measure eye positions and movements to track which part of a website attract most readers’ attention
  • Noldus Face-reader – a device to analyze facial expression and learn how people respond to for example a commercial’s new design
  • TV sets for the purpose of broadcasting videos and movies
  • Central PA system and recording system
Major software

  • Qualtrics—a sophisticated online survey platform that allows users to create and administer questionnaires both online and in lab.
  • MediaLab—a software for the creation of multimedia psychological experiments and questionnaires.
  • DirectRT—a software for the creation of experiments requiring high precision stimulus presentation and measurement of reaction times.
  • E-Prime—a comprehensive software for designing interactive behavioral research, measuring reaction times of subjects.