Where Research Begins

BRITE Lab provides a resource for gathering data that drives knowledge in the classroom and beyond

WSB Associate Professor Justin Sydnor
WSB Associate Professor Justin Sydnor is director of the BRITE Lab, where faculty gather research that provides them with insights that benefit the classroom and industry.

Very quietly, in what looks to be a basic computer lab full of students, a different type of studying happens on a frequent basis. It’s not term papers nor assignments students work on; instead, they’re choosing a house to buy, picking a health care plan, or setting a fair retail price on a product.

The students don’t walk away with a new house or insurance plan, though. Their choices contribute to research experiments that help Wisconsin School of Business professors gain insights into an individual’s decision-making process. More than 100 such experiments have been held at the Behavioral Research Insights Through Experiments (BRITE) Lab on the UW–Madison campus since 2012. At the state-of-the-art BRITE Lab, faculty and PhD students in business, consumer science, and other social sciences gather data that become the foundation of their research.

“The BRITE Lab is an important resource for the Wisconsin School of Business because it helps faculty from a range of different disciplines do cutting-edge research,” says Associate Professor Justin Sydnor, director of the BRITE Lab and the Leslie P. Schultz Professor in Risk Management. “All leading business schools have faculty who conduct behavioral business experiments to better understand consumer and managerial decision-making. The BRITE Lab is our resource for making that happen.”

A collaboration between WSB and the School of Human Ecology (SoHE), the BRITE Lab’s shared resources include a computer lab, a small grant program to help fund experiments, a faculty director and assistant faculty director, and a PhD student to manage the lab. It also provides a database of more than 3,000 students who have signed up to be part of the subject pool.

“Without the BRITE Lab, I’d have to recruit subjects, train them, prepare them,” says Paola Mallucci, assistant professor of marketing at WSB, who has run several experiments in the lab. “The programs we need are very specific, too. I know I can just show up and run the experiment, and someone else has taken care of the IT work.”

Much of Mallucci’s research deals with themes of social pressure and fairness, and how they can affect decisions such as product pricing. Subjects in her experiments might answer questions about what they would do or pay in certain situations, or might play games that simulate business situations in which they take on a role of a manufacturer or retailer.

Former Albert O. Nicholas Dean François Ortalo-Magné and Soyeon Shim, dean of the School of Human Ecology, were instrumental in the lab’s founding. They wanted to increase research support and recognized faculty need for a resource for experimental studies. In these kinds of studies, researchers generate new data by asking subjects to make decisions. It’s a research method commonly used in marketing, accounting, operations, management, and risk management. It’s also common in consumer science, so a partnership with SoHE made perfect sense. Philanthropy, including Wisconsin Naming Gift funds, played a role in the lab’s founding and continues to support it.

Soyeon Shim, Dean, School of Human Ecology
The BRITE Lab is a magnet for collaborative research on this campus. “[It] is critical as a way to recruit cutting-edge researchers and graduate students.

Soyeon Shim,
Dean, School of Human Ecology

The lab is in SoHE’s home, Nancy Nicholas Hall. It has three rooms—the computer lab that seats 21, an administrative space, and another room that can be adapted to a researcher’s needs. This flexible room once transformed into a small convenience store as a researcher studied choices “shoppers” made.

“The BRITE Lab is a magnet for collaborative research on this campus, pulling together consumer sciences, business, economics, and other disciplines to better understand human behavior and decision-making,” says Shim. “The lab is critical as a way to recruit cutting-edge researchers and graduate students.”

BRITE Lab research must follow two key parameters. First, all research must be incentivized. Subjects are paid an average of $15 per hour, though it can be more depending on choices they make in the experiment. For example, subjects might be given theoretical money that they share or negotiate with depending on the study, and what they are left with is translated into real dollars at the end of the study. That incentivized pay helps researchers better gauge behavior. Second, researchers must be completely transparent with their subjects.

“People know they are told the truth, and should believe everything they are told,” Mallucci says. “That’s invaluable.”

Sydnor says because of the BRITE Lab, WSB has been able to distinguish itself from peer institutions in several areas, including experimental accounting research, behavioral operations research, and behavioral insurance research.

The process of working with research subjects, analyzing data, then writing and editing an article for acceptance into an academic journal can be slow, making the impact of the BRITE Lab increasingly clearer. Twenty papers that used BRITE Lab research or resources have been accepted for publication, 14 from WSB faculty.

“That new knowledge is brought into the classroom by our faculty but also into classrooms around the world,” says Sydnor, whose research on choosing health insurance plans was helped by a BRITE Lab grant. “Many of the studies have practical implications for industry. All of this activity enhances our reputation as one of the world’s leading business schools. That’s exciting to see.”

BRITE Lab By the Numbers

Average hours per month of use during peak months of the academic year
Studies run since 2012

28 Faculty members who have run studies, including 17 WSB faculty

3,135 UW–Madison students registered in the database

17,000 Times students have participated in research sessions since 2012

Catch up on fellow Wisconsin School of Business alumni. View Now »

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Tim Hotchandani (BBA ’04)

was recently named one of the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Forward under 40. Hotchandani counsels companies through Rothschild & Co., one of the world’s largest financial advisory firms. His Wall Street career has also included roles at Deutsche Bank, Lehman Brothers, and Thomas Weisel Partners. Hotchandani stays involved with the School by mentoring students in the Investment Banking Club, an organization he co-founded during his time at WSB.More Class Notes »

Mark Burns (BBA ’09)

joined fellow UW–Madison alums at The Onion after graduation and later became a producer at The Second City comedy theater. The unique combination of these three institutions has sculpted his strange, dynamic skill set. He has now started his own company, Punch Up Creative, which uses its comedic expertise to help corporate clients tell their stories in a more entertaining fashion.More Class Notes »

Catherine Quinlan (BBA ’13)

was named a 2018 Rising Young Professional by the Minneapolis business publication Finance and Commerce. Nominated by her peers, Quinlan, a commercial banker at BMO Harris Bank, was among a small group of Twin Cities professionals chosen to receive the award that recognizes the honorees’ professional achievements and their community involvement and contributions. More Class Notes »