Observing the observers

January 6, 2014 by Peter Dizikes
Observing the observers
Juanjuan Zhang

A kidney transplant is a lifesaving operation—and yet every year in the United States, about 10 percent of donated kidneys go unused, after being rejected by multiple potential recipients.

Why is this? According to Juanjuan Zhang, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the potential recipients who reject seemingly viable kidneys are engaging in "observational learning," the cognitive process of intuiting answers based on limited information—and sometimes drawing the wrong conclusions from those observations.

More specifically, when a first possible recipient rejects a , it can set off a series of decisions made by patients who think that if other people rejected the organ, there must be something wrong with it. But that is not necessarily the case: Potential kidney recipients know if a kidney has been rejected—but they cannot talk to other patients to find out the reasons for those decisions, which are made quickly (since kidneys have about a two-day period in which they can be transplanted).

Someone who declines a transplant "could have been ill, or there might have been a religious holiday," Zhang says. "There could be reasons that have nothing to do with the kidney's quality. But people only observe previous rejections."

Zhang studied this process and, in a widely read 2010 paper, asserted that our tendency to lean on observational learning was, in this case, detrimental. "As a result, even though [people] are making inferences in a rational way, they make mistakes, in aggregate," she says. "Kidneys are rejected overly often, even though they are medically useful."

Zhang is an associate professor of marketing—not the field, perhaps, where one would expect to find someone studying kidney donations. But, she believes, we see all the time—in real estate, for instance, when potential buyers pass up good properties, or in drafts in professional sports, where highly touted prospects can endure long waits before being picked. For a business executive or a policymaker, understanding such episodes of contagion is vital to understanding consumers.

"Each of us will have some private information, based on our worldview, our experience, and so on," Zhang says. "We have our own expertise. But we don't perfectly communicate our information with others. I study how information transmits between people."

'Colleagues … knew the paper inside and out'

Zhang was raised in China, where her parents were college professors. "I grew up on a college campus," she says. "My entire life I've been surrounded by professors and students."

Even so, she did not automatically lean toward academia as a vocation. "My parents gave me a lot of freedom of choice," she says. But while studying economics as an undergraduate at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Zhang became intrigued by the riddles of marketing.

"I became interested in marketing in a class I took called 'Marketing Management' at Tsinghua," Zhang says. "That's exactly the same class I'm teaching right now [at MIT]. Teaching the class carries a special meaning for me."

After graduating from Tsinghua in 2000, Zhang entered the PhD program at the University of California at Berkeley, where she received her degree in 2006. While there, she became aware of the kidney-rejection data; her doctoral thesis was devoted to the subject.

Zhang applied for multiple jobs while finishing her doctorate, but landed at MIT after a successful job talk where she presented her kidney research. While Zhang clearly made a good impression, she was equally impressed by her audience.

"My current colleagues, sitting in the audience with our doctoral students, knew the paper inside and out," Zhang says. "The scholarly quality of my colleagues was truly impressive."

Of the atmosphere at MIT, she says, "What had struck me on day one remains true—the intellectual attraction." Seven years after joining MIT, she was granted tenure earlier this year.

Think strategically, not just tactically

Zhang says she aims to get students to think about the subjects she teaches "more systematically and more deeply. They tend to think of marketing as a very tactical thing to do, but after taking the class, they should approach marketing more strategically."

That is, marketing is based around not just short-term promotions, but longer-term initiatives. To this end, Zhang has started studying the value of what she calls "de-marketing"—less emphasis on overtly selling products in the short run, and more emphasis on positioning a brand over the long term.

To take an example of this, Zhang suggests, suppose you are looking for a place to eat on Newbury Street, the popular shopping thoroughfare in Boston's Back Bay, and you see two equally crowded, similar-looking restaurants. The first restaurant has a worker out front, handing out flyers offering discounts for your meal. That might appeal to you—but alternately, it may turn you toward the second restaurant, which may appear superior precisely because it is not relying on a discount to draw customers.

"You may think, as a consumer, that the popularity of the first restaurant may be as a result of the promotion, while for the second restaurant, the popularity is more organic," Zhang says. Generating that sense of substantive quality may be a better aim for a restaurant—and for many kinds of businesses.

"If you are allocating a marketing budget, maybe you can spend less money in a conspicuous way, and more money in the background," Zhang says.

Zhang is currently engaged in research covering a wide range of topics, from real estate to microloans and food labels. She is also starting a new study of the kidney-donation process. But all these studies are linked by how "people transmit information in the marketplace" in indirect ways, as Zhang puts it.

"That's basically the theme of my research so far, how we learn from seeing," she says.

Explore further: HIV can infect transplanted kidneys in HIV-positive recipients with undetectable virus

More information: mitsloan.mit.edu/faculty/detai … php?in_spseqno=41264

Related Stories

HIV can infect transplanted kidneys in HIV-positive recipients with undetectable virus

December 5, 2013
HIV can infect transplanted kidneys in HIV-positive recipients even in the absence of detectable virus in the blood, according to a study appearing in an upcoming issue of the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology ...

Automated assessment of multiple datasets using artificial intelligence accurately diagnoses common cause of blindness

October 9, 2013
Pathological myopia is a condition characterized by severe, progressive nearsightedness caused by the protrusion of pigmented tissue from the back of the eye. The disease is one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide ...

Embryonic stem cell transplant restores memory, learning in mice

April 21, 2013
For the first time, human embryonic stem cells have been transformed into nerve cells that helped mice regain the ability to learn and remember. A study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is the first to show that human ...

Zinc's role in the brain: Research gives insight into 50-year-old mystery

October 5, 2011
Zinc plays a critical role in regulating how neurons communicate with one another, and could affect how memories form and how we learn. The new research, in the current issue of Neuron, was authored by Xiao-an Zhang, now ...

Recommended for you

Drug therapy from lethal bacteria could reduce kidney transplant rejection

August 3, 2017
An experimental treatment derived from a potentially deadly microorganism may provide lifesaving help for kidney transplant patients, according to an international study led by investigators at Cedars-Sinai.

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

Team eradicates hepatitis C in 10 patients following lifesaving transplants from infected donors

April 30, 2017
Ten patients at Penn Medicine have been cured of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) following lifesaving kidney transplants from deceased donors who were infected with the disease. The findings point to new strategies for increasing ...

'bench to bedside to bench': Scientists call for closer basic-clinical collaborations

March 24, 2017
In the era of genome sequencing, it's time to update the old "bench-to-bedside" shorthand for how basic research discoveries inform clinical practice, researchers from The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), National Human Genome Research ...

The ethics of tracking athletes' biometric data

January 18, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—Whether it is a FitBit or a heart rate monitor, biometric technologies have become household devices. Professional sports leagues use some of the most technologically advanced biodata tracking systems to ...

Financial ties between researchers and drug industry linked to positive trial results

January 18, 2017
Financial ties between researchers and companies that make the drugs they are studying are independently associated with positive trial results, suggesting bias in the evidence base, concludes a study published by The BMJ ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.