A New Way to Know What Users Really Want Online

A New Way to Know What Users Really Want Online

Two Columbia faculty have developed a new model for understanding how people respond to search results, one that could help search engines and advertisers offer users more finely targeted content. Olivier Toubia, the Glaubinger Professor of Business and chair of the Marketing Division, and Shawndra Hill, principal scientist at Facebook and senior lecturer in the Marketing Division, along with Jia Liu, PhD '17, of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Business School, analyzed the search tendencies of Bing users during the 2016 Super Bowl in order to design what they call a flexible content-based search model.

In their paper, “Content-Based Model of Web Search Behavior: An Application to TV Show Search,” the researchers detail how people search for information throughout the course of a TV event. The study explores query-usage dynamics, looking at the distribution of certain search words before, during, and after the Super Bowl.

Some queries were used much more frequently, “suggesting different overall levels of consumer interest across Super Bowl topics,” they write. Some queries, such as “Super Bowl” and “Carolina Panthers” were searched for consistently over time; and others, such as “kickoff time” and “prediction” exhibited usage dynamics, meaning they cropped up more or less frequently before, during, and after the event.

The study found that even when queries remained constant and a user entered a generic search term, like “Super Bowl,” the links they clicked on changed depending on whether they were searching before, during, or after the event.

“Not only were people searching differently for these topics, but they were also clicking differently,” says Hill. “They were searching for the term ‘Super Bowl,’ but before the TV show aired, they were clicking on things like what time the event was on, versus after, when they clicked on things like who the MVP was.”

The researchers used the click dynamics and topic modeling to better predict how and when users would click on certain search results.

Toubia, Hill, and Liu are aiming to fill the gap in this important information by developing a model that identifies and quantifies users’ content preferences across search contexts and can predict click-through rates on the search engine results page. “What we wanted to understand is those dynamics and also, whether we could jointly model the search behavior and the click action in a way that would help us to be better at predicting what people want to see and what they, as a result, want to click on,” says Hill.

—Sara Cravatts

Do Wealthy People Deserve to Be Rich?

Do Wealthy People Deserve to Be Rich?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, currently worth more than $145 billion, is the world’s richest person. But do people generally think Bezos and other billionaires deserve to be that wealthy?

That depends on how they spend their money, according to new research by management assistant professor Shai Davidai. In an article co-authored with Juliana Black of the New School for Social Research and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Davidai finds that how the rich spend their money creates a perception in people’s minds about whether they deserve their fortunes—no matter how they became wealthy.

In nine studies and two supplementary analyses, Davidai and Black find that when rich people give generously to charities instead of buying luxuries, others tend to attribute their economic success to hard work and competence.

“I think charity is one strong way the wealthy are able to signal how they made their money, regardless of whether it’s true or not,” Davidai says. “People perceive charity and frugality and infer that a successful person must have worked hard,” Davidai says.

Davidai says the perception of the wealthy as hardworking, charitable, and virtuous also makes it difficult to address economic inequalities; when wealth is perceived as deserved, especially through public acts of charity, it helps perpetuate the system.

“If people think the very rich are undeserving, they might strive to change the system,” he says.

—Stephen Chupaska

On Social Media, Posting Authentically Leads to Greater Well-Being

On Social Media, Posting Authentically Leads to Greater Well-Being

We’ve all seen the polished and curated social media posts of those who appear to have it all together, and many of us are tempted to share similar content. But, if you’re only presenting an overly glossy version of your life, you may be doing yourself a disservice. Research by doctoral candidate Erica Bailey; Sheena Iyengar, the S. T. Lee Professor of Business; Sandra Matz, the David W. Zalaznick Associate Professor of Business; and Kellogg fellow Wu Youyou shows that authentic self-expression on social media can benefit one’s well-being and mood.

The researchers conducted two studies to reach this conclusion. They first compared 10,560 Facebook users’ self-reported “big five” personality traits—openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—to what researchers predicted their personalities would be based on their Facebook profiles. Those with social media profiles more closely aligned with their self-reported personality traits also reported higher levels of life satisfaction.

In the second study, the researchers recruited 90 Columbia University students and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. The first group was asked to post authentically on social media for seven days, followed by seven days of posting in a self-idealized way. The second group completed the prompts in the opposite order. In both groups, participants completed surveys on their emotional state at the end of each week. They found that when participants switched from posting authentically to sharing the more curated versions of their lives, they reported lower levels of well-being.

“It’s hard not to engage with social media these days, especially during COVID-19 when we’re separated from our friends and loved ones. For us, it was important to look at how people engage with these tools, and what that means for their well-being. For users, the healthiest decision someone can make for their well-being while on social media is to stay true to themselves and share their life as it is and not as they wish it to be,” says Bailey.

—Sara Cravatts

Slow Government Response to COVID Left Businesses to Lead the Way in Lockdowns
The Pandemic Effect

Slow Government Response to COVID Left Businesses to Lead the Way in Lockdowns

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread overseas from early hotspots in China and Italy, US health officials raced to respond to the developing crisis.

But according to research by accounting professor Lisa Yao Liu, US firms with business interests in those countries had a head start.

In a new working paper, Liu and co-author Shirley Lu of the University of Chicago, find that US firms quickly collected, verified, and used information about the virus gathered through their business networks in China and Italy and implemented their responses faster than local governments in the US did.

“At the beginning there was lots of misinformation,” Liu says. “But the firms we studied knew what was going on, such as how fast the virus could spread, and how to implement safety measures. The information was transmitted more effectively within the firm organization.”

The authors find that areas with more firms that have information exposure through business networks with China and Italy had higher ratios of employees working from home well before officials recommended health strictures in their particular locales. They also show there was a lower growth rate of COVID-19 infection in areas with more employees working from home.

What drove companies to be good corporate citizens in this situation? Was it for the public good or the bottom line?

Actually, according to Liu, the impetus doesn’t matter—since the end result was a better social outcome.

“In the end, we wanted to show that these actions led to better social outcomes and behavior regardless of the motivation,” she says.

—Stephen Chupaska

Getting Lockdowns Right
The Pandemic Effect

Getting Lockdowns Right

Lockdowns in the age of COVID-19 have been politically and economically fraught—but necessary. Certainly, few people would argue that closing non-essential businesses and limiting large gatherings help curb the spread of the disease. But at what cost?

In new research, Chazen Senior Scholar Amit Khandelwal, the Jerome A. Chazen Professor of Global Business, and his co-authors examine data from two disparate fields—epidemiology and economics—to argue that blanket shutdowns of entire cities or industries impose far more financial damage than may be necessary. Their analysis shows that, for a given viral spread, more finely targeted shutdowns can minimize the loss of income to cities and people.

The researchers examined data from April 30, 2020, for three cities: Seoul and Daegu, South Korea, and New York City. These cities have large commuting populations, with numbers swelling within city borders during the day on weekdays and declining during evenings and weekends. Their analysis shows that enacting spatially targeted lockdowns by shutting down locations central to commuting networks—a business district within a city, for instance—rather than closing down an entire city or state, causes considerably less damage. Had Daegu, Seoul, and New York City done this, says Khandelwal, they could have decreased the economic costs of the lockdowns by 15, 28, and 50 percent respectively.

“The message here is that an epidemiologist would say you need to control the disease. An economist would agree, but point out that there’s a cost,” says Khandelwal. “Our research provides clues on how governments should manage those two ideas.”

—Betsy Wiesendanger

COVID-19 May Leave Deep Economic Scars
The Pandemic Effect

COVID-19 May Leave Deep Economic Scars

The extreme fear caused by the pandemic could have a lasting effect on the economy, long after the health crisis itself is resolved.

According to a new study by Laura Veldkamp, the Leon G. Cooperman Professor of Finance & Economics, the economy’s ability to rebound from the damage caused by the COVID-19 global health crisis relies largely on the extent to which people fear that similar events will occur in the future.

In the study, “Scarring Body and Mind: The Long-Term Belief-Scarring Effects of COVID-19” published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, Veldkamp and her co-authors argue that negative events for which there is little historical precedent—so-called “tail events”—cause greater fear, or belief scarring. The more intense the belief scarring, the less likely people are to take risks, and tamping down risk-taking ultimately strangles economic growth.

Since there is no recent precedent for anything similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors predict that it will cause considerable belief scarring, thus impacting the economy for many years to come.

“The total cost of the COVID-19 pandemic is unknown and the worst could very well still be on the horizon,” says Veldkamp. “It is not the size of the initial impact of the recession that matters, but the persistence of its scars that determines whether our recovery will progress or fall into a stalemate.”

—Sara Cravatts

Will the Pandemic Make Robots Routine?
The Pandemic Effect

Will the Pandemic Make Robots Routine?

The COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate the widespread use of service robots as people seek ways to complete tasks without spreading the virus, according to Professor Bernd Schmitt, an expert on consumers’ perceptions of robots.

Schmitt, the Robert D. Calkins Professor of International Business and Faculty Director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership, predicts that the pandemic will mark a turning point in the widespread adoption of service robots in such areas as healthcare, food delivery, and hospitality.

Already, the pandemic has seen robots deployed in hospital settings to complete simple tasks like delivering supplies to rooms, or gathering basic patient data like heart rate and oxygen saturation. In California, self-driving vehicles were used to ferry supplies around a stadium serving as a coronavirus treatment facility.

Yet, Schmitt warns, if companies are going to rely on service robots, it’s crucial that they pay attention to the uncanny valley, or the level of anthropomorphism in a robot at which a human viewer feels uneasy about the resemblance. “A less anthropomorphic robot is seen as a benevolent helper, while on the other end of the scale, a perfectly humanoid robot is perceived as creepy,” Schmitt explains. Because perceived warmth is important to consumer acceptance of robots, Schmitt recommends that if organizations choose to use robots as frontline workers—such as for food delivery or as concierges at hotels—they should consider a less anthropomorphized appearance for their robots. “But this pandemic has changed everything,” Schmitt adds. “We may see consumers trusting robots a lot more quickly, regardless of the physical appearance of the robot, now that robots could be seen as literal lifesavers.”

—Evangeline Lew

Reducing COVID-19 Stigma at Work
The Pandemic Effect

Reducing COVID-19 Stigma at Work

Preventing COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace depends, in part, on employees reporting honestly when they may have been exposed to the virus. Yet workers may be hesitant, for fear of being stigmatized by their coworkers.

One possible solution, says Laura Boudreau, assistant professor in the Economics Division, is for employers to apply lessons from social science research on indirect survey methods. In a Harvard Business Review article, she and co-author Sylvain Chassang of Princeton University explain that survey methods that garble—or add random noise—to survey responses can be paired with policies that reduce workplace density. They refer to this approach as “random rotation policies.”

“Let’s assume there’s a survey where you ask, Have you been exposed to COVID? If you say yes, your response is recorded as a yes. If you say no, then sometimes, your response is randomly flipped to a yes,” explains Boudreau. “What this approach does is make sure that whoever is conducting the survey does not know whether your answer is yes because you were randomly flipped to say yes, or because you actually have been exposed.”

Based on the survey responses, the employer would rotate about 5–10 percent of the entire group out of the office; this group would include all employees who reported exposure as well as a random selection of employees who did not.

The key, Boudreau says, is plausible deniability: an employee who is sent home can plausibly argue that they were randomly selected and have not been exposed to the virus.

—Stephen Chupaska

Understanding China’s Lead in the Global Marketplace

Understanding China’s Lead in the Global Marketplace

Whenever China sets its sights on growth in a particular industry, the corresponding sector in the US suffers, with production and employment falling significantly. A new working paper co-authored by finance professor Wei Jiang seeks to quantify the impact, finding that for every 100 factories opened in China, the US closed an average of 12.5 factories in the same industry within the next two years.

Drawing on data gathered from 1.1 million Chinese companies and more than 1.6 million US firms between 1998 and 2013, along with job posting data from 2007 through 2018, the paper is the first to use data from companies themselves to examine the complex interdependence between Chinese and American manufacturing. “The research reveals an astounding rebalancing of the economic prowess of the two countries,” says Jiang, the Arthur F. Burns Professor of Free and Competitive Enterprise and a Chazen Senior Scholar, who wrote the paper with Xiao Cen, PhD ’20, of Texas A&M, and Vyacheslav Fos of Boston College.

The study also examines the effect of China’s five-year economic plans on the US. It finds that whenever a particular industry was targeted in one of China’s five-year plans, companies in the corresponding industry in the US saw their firm valuation fall by 18.2 percent within a year. Job postings in that industry decreased by 11.5 percent.

“US firms are displaced by China’s manufacturing growth, not just in sunset industries from which the US was prepared to retreat, but also in industries that both countries are eager to lead, such as artificial intelligence and alternative energy,” says Jiang.

—Evan Nowell