Dr. Milkman studies how people make consequential decisions with an emphasis on understanding when and why choices deviate from optimality. Her focus is on understanding the forces that shape conflicts between “should” choices that will bring delayed rewards (e.g., saving and exercising) and “want” choices that will produce instant gratification (e.g., spending frivolously and eating unhealthily). Her research shows that prompting people to commit privately to a plan increases follow-through on important “should” behaviors, even in the absence of social pressure. These effects appear particularly potent when the risk of forgetfulness is high. Additionally, her research introduces a new device that can help people commit to indulging in wants only when simultaneously engaging in “shoulds”– a technique she calls temptation bundling.
Dr. Milkman also investigates how and why incidental uncertainty, present bias and fatigue all reduce engagement in “should” behaviors. Her research on “the fresh start effect” demonstrates that interest and engagement in “should” behaviors increases following temporal landmarks that segregate our continuous lifetimes into distinct mental accounting periods (e.g., birthdays, holidays and new weeks, months or years). By psychologically separating us from our past failures, temporal landmarks make us feel more capable and motivated to achieve our goals.
A secondary research stream involves exploring the evolution of creative content. One of her co-authored findings was deemed by The New York Times as “the most important social science discovery of the past century.” Dr. Milkman has additionally received attention for her work examining forces that may contribute to a lack of race and gender diversity in many organizations.
Dr. Milkman is an associate professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her doctorate in information, technology and management in 2009 from Harvard University’s joint program in computer science and business.