This story is an excerpt from the Fall 2013 issue of the College of Liberal Arts’s alumni magazine, Compass. To download the entire issue and browse the archive, visit the Compass page.
By Dan Wisniewski
Picture Jim, your typical Temple freshman. Like all students, Jim wants straight A’s, and he’s promised himself he’ll study every night after classes to get there.
That works – for a while. But one night Jim gets a call from his friends. They’re going out to dinner and then a movie. Does he want to come?
If you guessed that Jim might go out – like countless other students might in his situation – you wouldn’t be wrong. You also might consider that a bad decision on his part. But psychology professor Donald Hantula doesn’t see it that way.
“That decision isn’t irrational or stupid,” said Hantula. “It’s normal and it happens all the time. We need to understand it rather than explain it away.”
That’s exactly what Hantula has been trying to do for the last 20 years. Once a week in Temple’s Weiss Hall, volunteer undergraduate and graduate students gather in Hantula’s Decision Making Laboratory to conduct research in pursuit of answers to some of psychology’s stickiest questions: Why do we make the decisions we make? And how do we explain seemingly irrational behavior that occurs over and over again?
It’s no easy task. Hantula and his students are trying to reverse years of economic and psychological theory – as well as basic human thought.
“The way the world looks at decision making is that people’s choices should be consistent and that their preferences shouldn’t change,” Hantula said. “And when seemingly irrational choices are made, they’re dismissed as being stupid. But that makes humans look incredibly foolish – and as a long-time member of the species, I’ve always found that a little objectionable.”
How do we make decisions?
How do people decide what to buy? Who to vote for? What to eat?
One popular theory states that we make decisions that are consistent, future-oriented and that maximize utility – in other words, we do things that help us the most and hurt us the least.
The model – termed rational choice theory – won economist Gary Becker a Nobel Prize in 1992. But Donald Hantula isn’t totally convinced it does the best job explaining day-to-day human decision making.
“Rational choice theory may be a good theory of how we should make decisions,” said Hantula. “But in terms of a theory on how we actually make decisions, it fails terribly.”
Hantula, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and who’s dipped his toes into the fields of psychology, religion, human resources, and management and information systems, sees great value in looking at human decision making through the lens of evolutionary psychology.
Of particular interest: foraging theory, which states that unconscious motives drive us just as they drive animals and that people’s life decisions can be explained by the search for more and better resources.
“Foraging theory predicts a lot of the allegedly irrational behaviors you’ll find,” said Hantula. “After all, we’ve survived a few millennia, so we must be doing something right.”
The support for that comes in part from his work in the Decision Making Laboratory. With its computers and large round conference table, the two rooms that house the lab in Weiss Hall might not look like a classic laboratory. But it’s here that some of the most exciting research at Temple takes place.
Here’s how it works: Once a week, volunteer graduate and undergraduate students meet as a group with Hantula to talk about study and research ideas. The members of the lab discuss theories, throw around research ideas and lay out pitfalls in potential study techniques. Undergraduate students volunteer to collect data for graduate students who are working on their dissertations. The students also participate in and contribute to studies Hantula is working on as well.
Some of those studies have produced astounding results.
In one, Hantula hypothesized that, like in nature, men would seek out mates who were good-looking (indicating reproductive ability) and women would seek out rich men (indicating resources to care for children).
By interviewing alumni who had participated in a marriage game that some Temple students completed in the 1980s, current students found that men who chose “very good looking” as the person they’d most want to marry in the 1980s marriage game ended up with the most expensive homes in adulthood. So did the women who chose the richest partner as their ideal mate.
The results, Hantula concluded, lent support to Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection – that each sex asks and offers different characteristics in order to secure a mate.
Other studies examined the theory of the escalation of commitment – asking why people throw good money after bad. When people reach any level of success, Hantula and his students found, it’s because of certain actions that were reinforced. When things start to go bad, those people are more likely to keep doing the things that brought them success in the past rather than change their tactics.
Ongoing studies are just as interesting. One graduate student is currently conducting research into the usage – or lack thereof – of the crosswalks on Temple’s campus. Are people crossing at the light or outside the light? And what can be done to get people to use the crosswalks properly to avoid accidents?
The list of past and ongoing studies – how to break the habit of social media use, why and when people choose to date someone online and more – shows both the breadth of the topics and how the results are relevant to everyday life.
“What drew me to the Decision Making Laboratory was the real-world applicability of the work,” said student Glory Epelle.
It’s all coordinated by the director Hantula, who gives his students a wide berth.
“My perspective has always been that you find good people, give them the resources they need and get out of their way,” he said. “Our graduate and undergraduate students are perfectly capable.”
For the participating students, the laboratory serves as an important learning experience.
“It’s a very relaxed environment, and Don has an endless well of knowledge,” said psychology major Rend Alsaadi, ’13. “He really helps his students move on to the next level.”
Hands-on research opportunities
What does the future hold for the Decision Making Laboratory?
“I hope to keep looking at decisions that people make that appear to be wrong and finding more rational reasons for them,” said Hantula.
For the students who’ve worked their way through many data sets to gain research experience, participating in the Decision Making Laboratory has been particularly valuable.
“There’s a lot of stuff you can’t read in a textbook, and I’ve gotten a real feel for what it’s like to do research,” said Alsaadi. “You see for yourself all the problems you can run into. I’ve learned to be flexible.”
Even students who’ve decided not to pursue a career in psychology have learned a lot.
“The Decision Making Lab really helped me see the benefit of looking at things from different points of view,” said Epelle, who’s currently pursuing her law degree from Temple. “If you’re looking at a court decision, you need to be able to see all the ways the case could have turned another way. I got a lot of experience in that type of analysis in the lab.”
For Hantula, the Decision Making Laboratory serves as a great primer for life after college.
“In getting involved in doing research and the nitty-gritty of how all this stuff is done, students are learning the very real skills they’ll need to go on to graduate school,” said Hantula. “If they don’t go on to grad school, then they’re learning about manning projects and people. That’s why I hope students would come to a research university like Temple, to have those opportunities.”