In her twenties, Szu-chi Huang hobnobbed with Hollywood celebrities like Rachel Weisz and Charlize Theron as an advertising campaign manager at J. Walter Thompson agency in Taipei, Taiwan.
While working on a shampoo commercial for the British consumer goods company Unilever, Huang’s team hired an expert to teach actress Claire Forlani kung fu and sourced rich red fabric to turn the set into an ancient Asian palace. “It was a fun production,” Huang says. “My life was definitely exciting.”
Eventually, though, Huang began to feel antsy. She was designing campaigns based mostly on market research but also intuition. She wanted to know why some campaigns performed better than others, boosting a company’s sales, and what factors were responsible for driving consumers’ preferences and decisions.
“That was when I started to realize that creativity is great and I love it, but when it comes to creating business impact, I felt like I needed more training on the science.”
Huang quit her job and moved to the United States, where she earned a master’s degree in advertising from the University of Texas at Austin and a PhD in marketing from its McCombs School of Business. Now an associate professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Huang studies consumer motivation and behavior, particularly in social settings.
Her research ranges from looking at what prompts Weight Watchers participants to accomplish their goals to the motivation behind charitable donations. A common thread is what Huang calls “the perceived attainability of making an impact.” She’s drawn to work that can promote long-term health, happiness, and stability.
To maximize wellbeing, people need to feel like they’re advancing toward their individual or collective goals — whatever those may be, Huang says. “My research speaks to how we can best sustain motivation toward these valuable goals so we continue to feel that we’re moving forward and growing.”
A Creative Childhood
Huang grew up in Taiwan, the daughter of an art gallery manager and photographer father and music teacher mother. She was surrounded by art and played piano and flute.
At National Taiwan University, she studied business administration and law, figuring the degrees would teach her how to run a business and help her contribute to the island’s growth.
Most of her peers went into business or took exams to become judges or prosecutors. But Huang chose advertising. It was still business, but there was a creative element that appealed to her. Later, at McCombs, her doctoral study included courses that explored what drives people to eat healthy and exercise.
“I found myself becoming more and more passionate about behavioral science,” she says. Understanding motivation helps us to become better influencers, she adds. But it also illuminates ways in which we may be influenced by others, and how to protect ourselves from those forces.
Huang chose Stanford over several other job offers in 2013, in part because the Bay Area’s significant Asian population, food, and coastal setting reminded her of home. “Stanford business school’s mission also strikes the best balance between being innovative and creative, while being effective,” she says.
However, assimilation has been a challenge. “I’m sensitive to the moments that I stand out, speak imperfect English, or have a different point of view because of my cross-cultural background as a first-generation immigrant,” Huang says.
That sense of being an outsider extends to her career. In the corporate world, Huang found herself seeking more academic rigor, while in academia she often yearns for more real-world relevance. It’s challenging to find that balance, she says, to find her own voice.
Nourishing Good Food Choices
Essentially, Huang’s research explores how to help people become better — better eaters, better savers, better contributors — and how to sustain the behavior that enables their success.
“Her research is impressive for its multi-method approach of lab studies plus field experiments,” says Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at Stanford GSB. “It’s fundamentally changed the way the field views consumer goals and motivation. Szu-chi is what we call a triple threat — outstanding in research, teaching, and service.”
In a recent research project, Huang worked closely with UNICEF and the Panamanian government to help figure out how to encourage children to make healthier food choices. “Children there are vulnerable,” she says, “because they have even less access to nutrition education and healthy food options.”
Huang and her team interviewed teachers at four private elementary schools and came up with three goals children valued — being healthy, smart, and popular. Aiming to steer the kids away from sugary beverages like soda, they then designed a series of posters touting water consumption and placed them around the schools, including at a kiosk that sold bottled water.
The researchers found that promoting water as a means of boosting health increased water sales. “We were trying to make water more interesting, kind of like how some big sugary beverage brands have associated themselves with happiness or being cool. However, it turns out that ‘telling it as is’ was the most effective for promoting water,” Huang says.
Yet, while the preliminary results were encouraging, the children reverted to their old consumption habits after the posters were removed. Huang has follow-up projects planned with UNICEF to experiment with other ways to break through the noise and make behavioral changes stickier.
The Journey Is the Destination
One of Huang’s favorite studies, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, tests what behaviors could help people accomplish their goals.
Huang and Aaker, her coauthor, hypothesized that having a “journey mindset” rather than focusing on a desired outcome could help people retain lessons learned and continue improving. They conducted six experiments with more than 1,600 people across cultures, including college students, executives in Africa, dieters in a seven-day food diary program, and exercisers in a 14-day walking program.
With each study, they asked a subset of participants who had achieved their goals to reflect on their journey in a writing exercise. Those subjects were more likely to continue the behaviors that helped them reach their goal than those who framed their experience in terms of its outcome or made no reflection at all.
People who had recently attained a fitness goal, for example, were more likely to choose access to a free online home fitness program over a free comedy program if they’d thought and written about their journey during the experiment.
“If we just think about the destination, then there’s nothing to strive for, we’re done,” Huang says. “But if we look back, that reflection really allows us to learn from that experience. All the decisions I made during the journey become more meaningful and more valuable.”
In another paper on goals, Huang examined how social settings influence people pursuing the same achievement. Using cohorts from seven group activities, she measured variables such as the frequency of people’s head turns as they looked at fellow participants. Her findings were remarkably consistent: Whether they were playing a video game or engaged in a fitness walking program, the study subjects shunned information about how the people around them were faring. For example, people playing a Wii bowling game avoided looking at other participants’ scores or checking on their peers’ progress midway through the experiment.
“There are moments where we feel like other people’s progress becomes a threat,” she says. “We can’t really handle knowing.”
Yet, when she encouraged people to see updates on other group members’ progress, that social information was motivating and encouraged them to work harder. “It’s really interesting that we’re avoiding the information that can help us,” Huang says.
What’s Hardest, and What’s Next
Huang’s preferred research method, field experiments, satisfies her desire for real-world relevance, she says, but is also often her biggest challenge because “that doesn’t always equate to publication.”
Such experiments often require years of design, collaboration, negotiation, and setbacks, and may produce messy results. Her approach and findings don’t sit well with some in academia who prefer rigorous experiments done in the lab that result in “clean” data.
Nevertheless, Huang hopes her discoveries will help to drive significant change in the field. “I believe behavioral science is exactly what we need to make a difference in this world,” she says.
Going forward, Huang is interested in exploring how to use motivation science to spur people to make better financial decisions. She also wants to examine gender stereotypes and gender perception when it comes to competitiveness as well as the impact of digitally altered images of women’s bodies in ads.
Huang was one of a few Asian junior faculty members when she started at Stanford GSB. She’s eager to see the faculty continue to diversify. Knowledge building and problem-solving are fundamentally about creativity, she says, and “a diverse environment helps with creativity.”
Meanwhile, she’s continued to tap into her own creative impulse, becoming a certified yoga instructor and pursuing underwater photography. She notices the same spirit in her students. They have an unwavering curiosity about the world and a genuine desire to make it a better place, she notes.
“We’re all pursuing the same thing,” Huang says. “We want the world to be a better place, to be a fairer place, and to be a more sustainable place and we’re all trying to come up with solutions for it. That’s one thing that makes this place and this job so rewarding.”