Unraveling the Mysteries of Human Behavior

Issue Date: 
November 16, 2015

If you find marketing expert Cait Lamberton in her office poring over romance advice columns, it’s not because she’s getting ready for a Friday night date. If you catch her surfing online shopping sites for half the afternoon, it’s not because she’s a shopaholic. And if you see her reading wonky articles explaining the dynamics of political arguments or taxpayer resentment, it’s not because she’s thinking about running for Congress. Instead, she’s actually engaged in serious scholarship.

Cait LambertonLamberton is a marketing professor in Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business. Mining the everyday life of consumers to learn the secrets of their behavior is how she spends many of her workdays. She studies how couples make financial decisions jointly when one person has high self-control and the other has low self-control. She researches how envy motivates people with high self-esteem to succeed and causes those with low self-esteem to retreat in self-doubt. She examines why two people who are similar politically often clash more often than people who are farther apart on the ideological spectrum.

In fact, Lamberton works in a field of study that’s as rich and varied as humanity itself. But this isn’t quite how she envisioned her future.

As a kid, Lamberton wanted to grow up and be a writer or an attorney. In her hometown of Wellsville, N.Y., outside Buffalo, her mother, Patricia, was a seventh grade English teacher. She not only shared her love of words with her daughter, she shared her sense of mystery about the world and her curiosity about people. Plastered on the wall of their home were the words of Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

Lamberton’s mother died when she was 17, a tragedy that taught her to seize every day. She carried on the family tradition of going to Wheaton College near Chicago, where she studied literature. “I wrote bad poetry,” she says with a laugh. Just to be able to afford to stay in the private college, she had to work three jobs and take on extra credits to graduate in three years. She amassed a loan debt she is still paying off.

   Her financial worries in college weighed on her and she realized they were shaping all of her decisions, limiting her choices, and keeping her out of extracurricular activities. That period of introspection was a turning point that sent her down the road to marketing. “I realized that understanding how you make decisions is a very powerful tool. Many of us, I think, go through life, and decisions just happen to us more than we make them.”

Instead of racking up more debt getting a PhD in literature, Lamberton decided to work while pursuing a master’s degree in business administration part time at the University of South Carolina. She got a job as a receptionist, and that didn’t work out well. “I hung up on people all the time,” she says. “I would lose files. I was terrible, terrible.”

Realizing she was better at writing than operating a fax machine, she took a marketing job at a company that made truck mirrors. Yes, truck mirrors. “I’ve had a strange path,” she says. One of her duties was to interview truckers—a man-on-the-street skill she picked up that would come in handy later.

One of Lamberton’s professors at South Carolina encouraged her to pursue a PhD in business—the job market was good because enrollments at business schools were up. 

To her delight, she found many parallels between literature and consumer psychology. “Literature reflects the psychological wonderings of some incredibly articulate and insightful people. With each portrait they give us, they expect us to think about what people are doing and why they do it. For love? For power? For money? For status? Though we do it in more prosaic contexts, we do the same thing in our field. We ask, to borrow a phrase from The Once and Future King, ‘why the world wags, and what wags it.’” 

When she graduated in 2008 with a PhD in business administration, she got job offers from Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, and other schools. But Pitt’s Katz School offered more freedom to study the wide range of topics she loved. Typically, universities encourage rookie faculty members to specialize in one area, says Lamberton. But Pitt, she says, gave her opportunities to explore whatever scholarship most excited her. “I couldn’t ask for anything better in a job.”

She also could see her younger self in Pitt students, many of whom have to juggle academics and jobs like she did. “A lot of Pitt undergraduates wear a lot of hats,” she says. “They work a lot of hours. They feel torn about studying what they want and following a more pragmatic path. I understand that pull and tension.”

Lamberton’s title is associate professor of business administration, marketing, and business economics. Her specialty is marketing, specifically consumer psychology. “Being in marketing is fun because the decisions you make as an individual are often concrete,” she says. “What did you buy today? What did you eat today? How are you going to spend your time this weekend? All things that matter.”

Lamberton describes what she does in class as shining “a light on the processes that are happening when we’re not paying attention. There’s always something that drives a person’s decision. That’s part of what makes it fun to teach, because you see the light bulbs come on for students. At 18, I hadn’t thought about how my brain worked at all. But it’s the primary piece of equipment we have our entire lives and no one gives us an instruction manual.”

She particularly enjoys delving into psychological conundrums that raise interesting questions. For instance, Lamberton’s relationship advice to a friend became fodder for her marketing research. Her friend would call her to complain about a boyfriend. “Break up with him,” advised Lamberton, thinking it was the most obvious and sensible thing to do. The friend would totally agree that she had to leave the toxic relationship. But then a week later, she would text Lamberton a photo of herself and her boyfriend smiling together at a restaurant, or let slip that the couple had just bought a pair of cruise tickets, or that they had just adopted an adorable new cat. Each time, Lamberton would think: What? Whatever happened to the decision to dump this guy?  

Some people would have gotten annoyed at someone who regularly sought, then ignored, their advice. Others would have shrugged it off and moved on. But Lamberton got curious about her friend’s decision to stay with the “toxic” boyfriend, as she often does whenever she encounters seemingly irrational or contradictory behavior.

“People are funny about asking for input,” explains Lamberton. “Sometimes they ask for advice just so they can reject it. Sometimes what their brain tells them is rational is the last thing they’ll actually do. Sometimes being similar to someone makes you able to persuade them, but sometimes it doesn’t. There were a lot of research questions there.”

And that helps to explain Lamberton’s success in decoding consumer behavior, whether interpersonal or societal. Her work examines issues such as decision-making, online social presence, envy, cooperation vs. competition, and much more.

At age 39, she has amassed an eclectic and influential body of scholarship that has made her something of a star at the Katz School of Business. Her innovative work is supported by a fellowship: Lamberton is a Ben R. Fryear Faculty Fellow at the Katz School. In 2013 she was among 30 academics worldwide to be recognized by the Marketing Science Institute as a Young Scholar, an honor reserved for the most promising new scholars in marketing and related fields. She also received the Association for Consumer Research’s Early Career Award for distinguished scholarly contributions. In 2015, she and two other Katz faculty—J. Jeffrey Inman and Andrew T. Stephen—were ranked among the top 20 marketing professors worldwide for research productivity, according to the American Marketing Association’s annual review of top marketing publications.

Inman, who is associate dean for research and faculty at the Katz School, says Lamberton “is really a gem for our school. We are lucky to have her. She’s a great combination of poise, intellect, and scholarly curiosity.” 

In fact, Inman says, she is so well regarded in her field that other universities are always trying to lure her away. But Lamberton loves the collegiality and freedom she has at the Katz School. “Life has its ups and downs,” she says. “But the amount of support that I have experienced here, both from my colleagues and from the dean’s office, has been really remarkable. I have great mentors here.”

Lamberton is a standout in both teaching and research, Inman says. She was awarded the prize for the best teaching in the marketing major in multiple academic years and has been named Teacher of the Year for the business school. Lamberton was also ranked  #3 in the world on a Fortune list of the “Top 10 Business School Professors under 40.”

In class, she employs some of the principles of consumer psychology to motivate her students. She gives them choices. Do they want a textbook or not? Do they want to work on group projects, or would they prefer to do their work individually? What topics would they like to study? Offering choices and options to students works well, says Michael Fruhwald, a former student who graduated with an MBA in April. “We were motivated in the class from the get-go because we were doing things we were excited about. She never seemed to be reading from a script. Things were always current and relevant. She’s very dynamic.”

Lamberton also mentors graduate students to do outstanding work. Hristina Nikolova, who obtained her doctoral degree in marketing from Pitt, calls Lamberton “the perfect advisor. She was natural. Words cannot express my gratitude.”

As part of her dissertation, Nikolova studied how couples make joint self-control decisions together, a risky endeavor that examined personal psychologies and that required a lot of time and resources. Lamberton, the coauthor of the paper, helped her identify couples and also helped to shape the research into publishable work. The study showed that if one person in a couple has high self-control and the other has low self-control, the couple is likely to exhibit low self-control with shared tasks such as budgeting or working out. The research shed new light on how pairs of people make joint self-control decisions, particularly as influenced by instant gratification versus long-term benefit.

Nikolova’s dissertation won many academic awards and was published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The findings were discussed in articles in media outlets such as Time, Forbes, New York Magazine, and ABC News. Lamberton’s help didn’t stop there, says Nikolova. Her mentor helped her land a job as assistant professor at Boston College by improving her presentation skills, an asset in her job search.

For her part, Lamberton says she loves working with doctoral students because of their energy and creativity in developing ideas for all kinds of new directions in researching human behavior. Now, she is working with a graduate student on aspects of food consumption, a whole new area of inquiry that she finds fascinating.

Lamberton also mines her everyday life for ideas. She began researching civic decision-making because of a beautiful summer day that she and her husband, Charles, spent in a downtown park in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District. She saw a diverse group of people smiling in the sunshine, kids running around, musicians playing in the open air. Her research wheels began turning. Wouldn’t people be less resistant to pay taxes if they knew their money was going to a park like this? 

“What I found is if you gave people the opportunity to express their preferences about where their tax dollars would go, many more would agree to pay their taxes, right? So you just give them a list of categories and say, ‘Okay, what if you got to allocate 10 percent of your tax dollars, what would you choose?’ Then suddenly tax paying goes from being a burden to being an opportunity.”

Lamberton, who juggles 10 to 12 diverse research projects at a time, relishes the variety in her work. She may not have become a novelist, but she certainly is immersed in the chaos of human psychology and behavior.

“What I love about this job is getting up every day and deciding what aspect of human behavior I am going to study. Every day is different. It would be very hard to think of anything else I would want to do this many hours a week, except maybe read books and eat chocolate.”

This story first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Pitt Magazine.