Carnegie Mellon University

Julie Downs

Julie Downs

Associate Dean, Research
Ph.D. in Social Psychology


Ph.D.: Princeton University


When communicating with others, we have limited ability to appreciate their perspectives and knowledge, a phenomenon that extends even to our own beliefs prior to having learned what we now know. This limitation may explain in part why experts so often neglect public input when developing communications. As a result, the public often doesn’t get the messaging it needs to support sound decisions. Through my research, I have set out to bridge this gap, identifying ways of improving perspective taking to translate subject-matter expertise into accessible guidance, so that people might use what otherwise seems to be unusable information. 

In some cases, people lack the ability to apply or integrate information that they otherwise would find useful for their decisions. In other cases, the experts have misjudged what people actually need or want to know to help guide them to a more satisfactory decision. I pursue this goal by making technical information more usable (e.g., calorie information for improving food choices), by shifting communications to decision-relevant concepts (e.g., adolescent sexual behavior, which is driven more by social influences than by perceived risk), by improving user interfaces to help the public understand what the experts need from them (e.g., risky online behaviors and self-report data collection), and by contextualization of risk (e.g., shifting from decontextualized assessment of a person’s overall risk level to a behavior-congruent identification of strategies for risk reduction).

These areas of research highlight domains in which communication can be improved by assessing what people need to know and what they value as a prerequisite for intervening to improve decision making. This approach requires meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration to establish domain-specific content that needs to be made accessible, and to this end I work closely with experts in numerous fields including public health, medicine, computer science, robotics, and engineering. In addition to informing strategies for improving decision-relevant policy, my research seeks to affect public welfare directly by building and evaluating tools that help individuals make better decisions.

Selected Publications

  • Bauermeister, J. A., Downs, J. S., & Krakower, D. S. (2020). PrEP product acceptability and dual process decision making among men who have sex with men. Current HIV/AIDS Reports, 17(3), 161-170.
  • Broomell, S. B., Chapman, G. B., & Downs, J. S. (2020). Psychological predictors of prevention behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Behavioral Science & Policy, 6(2), 43-50.
  • Downs, J. S., Ashcraft, A. M., Berlan, E. D., Bruine de Bruin, W., Eichner, J. Fischhoff, B., Leary, J. A., McCall, R. B., Miller, E., Salaway, J., Smith-Jones, J., & Sucato, G. (2018). Video intervention to increase perceived self-efficacy for condom use in a randomized controlled trial of female adolescents. Journal of Pediatric & Adolescent Gynecology, 31(3), 291-298.
  • Downs, J. S., Ashcraft, A. M., & Murray, P. J. (2016). Video for adolescent pregnancy prevention: Promised, challenges, and future directions. American Journal of Public Health, 106, S29-31.
  • Downs, J. S., Wisdom, J., & Loewenstein, G. (2015). Helping Consumers Use Nutrition Information: Effects of Format and Presentation. American Journal of Health Economics, 1(3), 326-344.
  • Downs, J. S. (2014). Prescriptive scientific narratives for communicating usable science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(Supplement 4), 13627-13633.
  • Downs, J. S. (2013). Does "healthy" fast food exist? The gap between perceptions and behavior. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53, 429-554.
  • Downs, J. S., Wisdom, J., Wansink, B., & Loewenstein, G. (2013). Supplementing Menu Labeling With Calorie Recommendations to Test for Facilitation Effects. American Journal of Public Health. 103(9), 1604-1609.
  • Harle, C. A., Downs, J. S., & Padman, R. (2012). Effectiveness of personalized and interactive health risk calculators: A randomized trial. Medical Decision Making, 32, 594-605.
  • Downs, J. S., Loewenstein, G., & Wisdom, J. (2009). The psychology of food consumption: Strategies for promoting healthier food choices. American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings, 99(2), 159-164.
  • Downs, J. S., Bruine de Bruin, W. & Fischhoff, B. (2008). Parents' vaccination comprehension and decisions. Vaccine, 26, 1595-1607.
  • Downs, J. S., Holbrook, M. B. & Cranor, L. F. (2007). Behavioral response to phishing risk. ACM International Conference Proceeding Series, 269, 37-44
  • Downs, J. S., Murray, P. J., Bruine de Bruin, W., Penrose, J., Palmgren, C., & Fischhoff, B., (2004). Interactive Video behavioral intervention to reduce adolescent females' STD risk: A randomized controlled trial. Social Science & Medicine, 59, 1561-72.

Julie Downs, Ph.D. is also faculty for Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business Executive Education's Behavioral Economics and the Science of Decision-Making: Decision Science for Improved Outcomes program.