If Kurt Carlson, Georgetown McDonough School of Business assistant professor of marketing, asks why you just made a certain choice, be careful how you answer. He knows more about your decision than you do.

Carlson, who joined the McDonough School of Business faculty in 2009 after working as an assistant professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business for eight years, lists his fields of interest as “emerging preferences, consumer choice processes, biased predecisional processing, decision objectives, measuring goals, consumer predictions of future behavior, and biases in judgments and decision making.”

In other words, he studies how we decide to do what we do — or, as he would put it, “I look for systematic patterns in the way people process new information, especially unusual and interesting patterns and deviations.”

He and fellow researcher Suzanne Shu published a paper, “The Rule of Three: How the Third Event Signals the Emergence of a Streak,” in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. The title may sound daunting to those outside the field of marketing, but Carlson has an analogy for those more familiar with basketball than behavioral research.

“When basketball players hit three shots in a row, their objective belief is that they’re on a streak,” Carlson says. Most people would believe the players should continue shooting. However, Carlson continues, “At that point, they have hit ‘maximum streakiness.’ Even if they hit shots number four and five, they are no hotter than when they hit number three. In fact, statistically, chances of making the fourth shot are below the chances of making any shot.” What the defense should then do, says Carlson, is leave those players alone and concentrate on the players who missed three in a row.

Asked if smarter coaches are aware of this situation, Carlson says, “No, even the smart coaches buy into the idea of a hot hand.”

Whether talking about basketball shots or stocks that rise (or fall) for three days in a row, the Rule of Three applies. It also applies in the use of multiple adjectives. When someone uses more than three positive descriptors for a person, product, or idea, at number four listeners start to disbelieve the pitch.

A focus on words also drives another current research project Carlson terms the Last Name Effect. “Why,” he asks, “do people stand in line for so long at Georgetown Cupcake?” And why do some standees complain while others are unbothered? His answer: It depends where your last name falls in the alphabet.

“People whose last names appear early in the alphabet think standing in line is silly because they were privileged to be at the front of lines as children. Those with last names toward the end of the alphabet — who were forced to the end of lines as children — act more quickly to secure a good spot in a line and are content to wait in line to preserve their spot.”

Carlson and his researchers asked a group of “midalphabet” people if they would choose early- or late-alphabet names if they were going into the Witness Protection program. “They chose early,” he says. The same group answered yes when asked if they thought women who marry men with earlyalphabet names would be better off.

Historically, Carlson, who earned his doctorate from Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management in 2001, has avoided outside consulting in favor of pure research. Nonetheless, his work is relevant for both marketers and consumers. “Consumers who understand how they make decisions can make better decisions, and businesses who understand consumers can use this knowledge to set effective strategies,” he says.

— John Greenya

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