When Hengchen Dai was in elementary school, her teacher asked her what her career goals were. At 8 years old, she listed three ambitions: scientist, teacher and diplomat. Now she combines all three — as a scholar of judgment and decision making whose research has implications for companies that use data analytics to increase employee and customer engagement, and as a teacher at a business school with an extremely diverse international student population.
Dai joined the Management and Organizations faculty at UCLA Anderson School of Management in 2017. She is also a faculty member in Anderson’s Behavioral Decision Making area. Prior to Anderson, she served on the faculty of Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.
Dai’s work is at home in the thriving tech and business environment of Los Angeles, where companies rely more and more on big data and the kind of custom analytics that drive her research. She seeks out opportunities to work with corporations, educational institutions, health care systems and online platforms to conduct field studies that get to the heart of what motivates people. She was named a 2021 Association for Psychological Science Rising Star and earned UCLA Anderson’s Eric and E Juline Faculty Excellence in Research Award, along with research awards for individual papers.
Dai applies three perspectives to her work. From an intrapersonal perspective, she seeks to advance understanding of when people are more or less likely to behave in line with their long-term best interests both inside and outside the workplace. She particularly focuses on how and why various kinds of “fresh starts” affect self-control and motivation. For example, she has examined how temporal landmarks (such as birthdays, the start of a week or season or academic term) change motivation to pursue goals.
From an interpersonal perspective, Dai examines how others’ behaviors and judgments shape people’s motivation. For example, she has studied how others’ performance expectations and goals become salient reference points that shape individuals’ consequential decisions.
From a policy perspective, Dai applies insights from behavioral economics and psychology to design interventions that can steer people toward farsighted decision making. Recently, she conducted two large-scale field experiments with UCLA Health to test the effectiveness of text-based nudges in improving COVID-19 vaccine uptake. She found that text reminders designed to make vaccination salient and easy to schedule boosted vaccination rates, and that making patients feel endowed with the vaccine heightens this effect.
Dai is also interested in uncovering when and why carefully designed interventions may produce unintended consequences. She has shown that while electronic monitoring can increase compliance with proper hand hygiene, hand hygiene compliance decreases to below the level prior to the implementation of monitoring once electronic monitoring is removed. Her field experiment with UCLA Health reveals that providing physicians with social comparison information may not improve their performance but could reduce their job satisfaction and increase burnout by making them feel less supported by leaders. Her recent research also suggests that wage transparency, a policy that is commonly taken as a cure for wage inequality, could amplify wage inequality by prompting workers who are already highly paid to ask for more in some situations.
Dai has published extensively in peer-reviewed management, marketing, psychology and medical journals. She teaches in UCLA Anderson’s fully employed MBA program and full-time MBA program, and was named one of Poets & Quants’ World’s Best 40 Under 40 MBA Professors. She says, “I want students to see immediate value in the studies I share in class. I want to help them connect their own experiences with theories so they can apply research findings in their own work as soon as they leave the classroom.”
Ph.D. Operations and Information Management, 2015, University of Pennsylvania
B.S. Psychology, 2010, Peking University
B.A. Economics, 2010, Peking University