Bridging the Academia-Industry Divide

October 2nd, 2013

I enjoy speaking with industry folks about the behavioral sciences, but it's often frustrating — and it's not their fault.
While I sit and listen to well-educated and thoughtful individuals extol the benefits of using framing effects to boost organ donation rates or anchoring to secure a better price in a negotiation, I often think about some of the fascinating research from the past decade that they haven't even heard about. I think about the number of times I read a relatively unknown journal article and thought "just wait until Amazon learns about this..." or the see a social problem that could in some way benefit from research locked away in academic databases.


The laws of human behavior are being rewritten in a handful of PhD classrooms around the world. Academics are making discoveries about decision making, social behavior, and motivation that can meaningfully improve lives. But it will most likely take a decade, and probably two, before the average interested individual will even hear about them.

Why do findings about core human behavior often take so long to filter into industry? Here we can borrow from neoclassical economics: to understand the behavior, follow the incentive structure.

Professors are incentivized for the lifelong privilege of tenure by publishing original research — and not by repackaging decades-old research into pop psychology business books. For supplemental income, it's much safer and easier to do one-off consulting projects. Plus, since many of the behavioral sciences involve open-ended theories (i.e., no proofs as in economics), authoring a book with practical implications is exceedingly difficult. You can't fault academics for not translating their research for a broader audience when the incentive structure does not encourage it.


Example: The Jam Study

Consider the "jam study", which demonstrated that more choices leads to fewer purchases, by Sheena Iyengar at Columbia and Mark Lepper at Stanford. Iyengar conducted the study in the mid-1990s while still a graduate student, and due to the slow pace of academic research and peer review, her findings were not published until 2000. However, the jam study has only recently entered the industry consciousness. Even the New York Times editorialized in 2010: "There is a famous jam study (famous, at least, among those who research choice)..." One might point out that now, over a decade and a half later, even psuedo-news sources cover the jam study, but the fifteen year lag between academia and industry still remains a moat too wide for many of us to bridge.


How do we tighten the cycle between academic discovery and industry discussion? Unfortunately, I don't have a great answer just yet. However, the recent and sustained popularity of Dan Ariely might be evidence that private academics can bridge the public consciousness gap. While public thought leaders must write about interesting topics in order to sell copies, necessarily leaving behind countless avenues of interesting research, Dan Ariely's fame is outliving the launch of each of his books. This trend is some promise that figures like Dan will serve as a vehicle for transmitting research into reality.