Carnegie Mellon University

Julie Downs

Julie Downs

Associate Professor, Department of Social and Decision Sciences



I am interested in how social influences affect decision making, and how people can make better decisions by understanding the nature of these influences. Many people expect to contend with direct forms of influence, such as peer pressure, but far more ubiquitous and powerful are indirect influences. These include normative group influences (doing what is expected of you according to your group status or group norms), expectancy effects (behaving in accordance with what you expect, such as with alcohol use), and lack of awareness of decision opportunities.

One goal of this type of research is to implement interventions aimed at helping people make better decisions in the face of often unseen social influences. Using a structured, systematic approach to determining what content is critically important for communication, I have developed and evaluated numerous interventions, some of which are currently being distributed for wide scale use including an interactive video aimed at reducing the risk of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy, Seventeen Days, and an interactive video with an accompanying book focusing on Diabetes and Reproductive Health for Girls.

On another health topic, I am interested in how people use information and cues in the environment to make decisions about food and nutrition. As mounting research suggests that calorie labels on foods and menus have little impact on consumption, my colleagues and I are exploring alternative strategies for helping people to identify more nutritious options and make healthier decisions about what they eat, including both individual and systemic strategies to combat subtle cues that may lead people to eat too much. Identifying and understanding those cues is critical to knowing what kinds of interventions or policies are likely to change behavior.

In other work, I am exploring how technology can accentuate daily risks, and how it can be used to facilitate decision making, especially in realms where available information is too complex to be used intuitively. As people’s online lives become richer and more complex, there is a natural tendency to translate norms from in-person behavior onto online interactions, potentially without sufficient understanding of important differences between real-world and online contexts. In domains such as trust (e.g., susceptibility to phishing scams), privacy (e.g., sharing of information in social media) and information overload (e.g., whether computer warnings are heeded or seen as bothersome), people sometimes experience negative outcomes without realizing that they were putting themselves at risk. This research is informing education strategies for computer users but especially for programmers, to develop tools that can help people better navigate their online environments by using intuitive cues that are consistent with real-world decisions.