Deborah Small

Deborah Small
  • Laura and John J. Pomerantz Professor of Marketing
  • Professor of Psychology

Contact Information

  • office Address:

    760 Jon M. Huntsman Hall
    3730 Walnut Street
    University of Pennsylvania
    Philadelphia, PA 19104

Research Interests: charitable giving, consumer judgment and decision making, emotion, morality, public policy, risk perception

Links: CV, Google Scholar Page


Professor Deborah Small’s research interfaces psychology and economics, examining fundamental processes that underlie human decision making.

Professor Small’s research has been published in journals across Psychology and Marketing. She serves as an Associate Editor for Journal of Marketing Research and is a member of several editorial boards.

At Wharton, Professor Small was voted “Iron Prof” in 2014.  She teaches consumer behavior and Marketing for Social Impact.

She received her PhD in Psychology and Behavioral Decision Research from Carnegie Mellon University and her BS from the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a member of the graduate faculty of the Psychology Department at Penn.

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  • Sydney Scott, Paul Rozin, Deborah Small (Forthcoming), Consumers Prefer “Natural” More for Preventatives than for Curatives.

  • Jonathan Z. Berman, Amit Bhattacharjee, Deborah Small, Gal Zauberman (2020), Passing the buck to the wealthier: Reference-dependent standards of generosity, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

    Abstract: Who is expected to donate to charity, and how much should they give? Intuitively, the less financially constrained someone is the more they should give. How then do people evaluate who is constrained and who has money to spare? We argue that perceptions of spare money are reference-dependent with respect to one’s current self: those who earn more than oneself are perceived as having an abundance of spare money and thus as ethically obligated to donate. However, those higher earners themselves report having little to spare, and thus apply lower donation standards to themselves. Moreover, a meta-analysis of our file-drawer reveals an asymmetry: individuals overestimate the spare money of higher earners but estimate the scant spare money of lower earners more accurately. Across all incomes assessed, people “pass the buck” to wealthier others (or to their future wealthier selves), who in turn, “pass the buck” to even wealthier others.

  • Joshua Lewis and Deborah Small (Working), Ineffective Altruism: Giving Less When Donations Do More Good.

    Abstract: Despite well-meaning intentions, people rarely allocate their charitable donations in the most cost-effective way possible. The manner in which cost-effectiveness information is presented can be a contributing factor. In four studies (N = 2,725), when we inform participants of the cost of a unit of impact (e.g. the cost of a mosquito net), they perversely donate less when the cost is cheaper. This result arises because people want their donation to have a tangible impact, and when the cost of such an impact is lower, people can achieve it with a smaller donation. A remedy for this inefficiency is to express cost-effectiveness in terms of “units per dollar amount” (e.g. 5 nets provided per $10 donated) and leave the cost of providing one tangible item unstated, rendering it less salient as a target donation amount.  Across Studies 2 and 3, we demonstrate both the inefficiency and the effectiveness of the remedy for incentive-compatible donations decisions about providing meals, oral rehydration therapy, deworming medication, and measles vaccines.

  • Jonathan Z. Berman, Alixandra Barasch, Emma E. Levine, Deborah Small (2018), Impediments to Effective Altruism: The Role of Subjective Preferences in Charitable Giving, Psychological Science, 29, pp. 834-844.

    Abstract: Charity could do the most good if every dollar donated went to causes that produced the greatest welfare gains. In line with this proposition, the effective-altruism movement seeks to provide individuals with information regarding the effectiveness of charities in hopes that they will contribute to organizations that maximize the social return of their donation. In this research, we investigated the extent to which presenting effectiveness information leads people to choose more effective charities. We found that even when effectiveness information is made easily comparable across options, it has a limited impact on choice. Specifically, people frequently choose less effective charity options when those options represent more subjectively preferred causes. In contrast to making a personal donation decision, outcome metrics are used to a much greater extent when choosing financial investments and when allocating aid resources as an agent of an organization. Implications for effective altruism are discussed.

  • Emma E. Levine, Alixandra Barasch, David Rand, Jonathan Z. Berman, Deborah Small (2018), Signaling Emotion and Reason in Cooperation, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147, pp. 702-719.

    Abstract: We explore the signal value of emotion and reason in human cooperation. Across four experiments utilizing dyadic prisoner dilemma games, we establish three central results. First, individuals infer prosocial feelings and motivations from signals of emotion. As a result, individuals believe that a reliance on emotion signals that one will cooperate more so than a reliance on reason. Second, these beliefs are generally accurate–those who act based on emotion are more likely to cooperate than those who act based on reason. Third, individuals’ behavioral responses towards signals of emotion and reason depend on their own decision mode: those who rely on emotion tend to conditionally cooperate (that is, cooperate only when they believe that their partner has cooperated), whereas those who rely on reason tend to defect regardless of their partner’s signal. These findings shed light on how different decision processes, and lay theories about decision processes, facilitate and impede cooperation.

  • Jackie Silverman, Alixandra Barasch, Deborah Small (Working), Hot Streak! Consumer Predictions and Inferences about Sticking to Long-Term Goals.

    Abstract: When do people make optimistic forecasts about goal-directed behavior? In five studies, we examine how an individual’s recent pattern of behavior affects their predictions regarding the likelihood of sticking to their goal. Specifically, we show that even when the overall rate of behavior is identical, a recent streak of goal-consistent behavior increases the predicted likelihood that the individual will persist, compared to a variety of other patterns. This effect is due to a perceived higher level of commitment following a recent streak. In turn, people are less likely to recommend the use of a restrictive goal pursuit strategy, like a commitment device, after a streak because they believe that it is unnecessary. The effect is attenuated in the presence of other diagnostic cues of commitment (i.e., the individual has a high base rate of goal-consistent behavior) and for predictions regarding behaviors that do not require commitment to a goal. Together, these results demonstrate the significance of streaky behavior for judgment and prediction.

  • Jonathan Z. Berman and Deborah Small (2018), Discipline and desire: On the relative importance of willpower and purity in signaling virtue,.

    Abstract: Consumers often use moral language to discuss behavior with little moral relevance. For instance, ordering fruit salad instead of chocolate cake for dessert is considered “virtuous” even though most people do not consider it a moral choice. We examine decisions between virtue and vice options and show that people judge virtuous behavior differently across intertemporal (present self/future self) and moral (self/other) decisions. We argue that for intertemporal decisions, self-control primarily determines judgments of virtue: a person who resists temptation is seen as more virtuous than someone who does not feel tempted by a vice. However, for moral decisions, purity is primary: a person who resists temptation is seen as less virtuous than someone who does not feel tempted by a vice. We further show that thinking about past failures of purity increases intentions to act morally, whereas thinking about past self-control failures increases intentions to help the future self.

  • Shalena Srna, Alixandra Barasch, Deborah Small (Work In Progress), When Signaling Status Backfires.

  • Alixandra Barasch, Jonathan Z. Berman, Deborah Small (2016), When Payment Undermines the Pitch: On the Persuasiveness of Pure Motives in Fundraising, Psychological Science.

    Abstract: Studies on crowding out document that incentives sometimes backfire—decreasing motivation in prosocial tasks. In the present research, we demonstrated an additional channel through which incentives can be harmful. Incentivized advocates for a cause are perceived as less sincere than nonincentivized advocates and are ultimately less effective in persuading other people to donate. Further, the negative effects of incentives hold only when the incentives imply a selfish motive; advocates who are offered a matching incentive (i.e., who are told that the donations they successfully solicit will be matched), which is not incompatible with altruism, perform just as well as those who are not incentivized. Thus, incentives may affect prosocial outcomes in ways not previously investigated: by crowding out individuals’ sincerity of expression and thus their ability to gain support for a cause.

  • Jonathan Z. Berman, Emma E. Levine, Alixandra Barasch, Deborah Small (2015), The Braggart’s Dilemma: On the Social Rewards and Penalties of Advertising Prosocial Behavior, Journal of Marketing Research, 25, pp. 90-104.

    Abstract: People often brag about, or advertise, their good deeds to others. Seven studies investigate how bragging about prosocial behavior affects perceived generosity. The authors propose that bragging conveys information about an actor’s good deeds, leading to an attribution of generosity. However, bragging also signals a selfish motivation (a desire for credit) that undermines the attribution of generosity. Thus, bragging has a positive effect when prosocial behavior is unknown because it informs others that an actor has behaved generously. However, bragging does not help—and often hurts—when prosocial behavior is already known, because it signals a selfish motive. Additionally, the authors demonstrate that conspicuous cause marketing products have effects akin to bragging by signaling an impure motive for doing good deeds. Finally, the authors argue that bragging about prosocial behavior is unique because it undermines the precise information that the braggart is trying to convey (generosity). In contrast, bragging about personal achievements does not affect perceptions of the focal trait conveyed in the brag. These findings underscore the strategic considerations inherent in signaling altruism.


Past Courses


    This course is concerned with how and why people behave as consumers. Its goals are to: (1) provide conceptual understanding of consumer behavior, (2) provide experience in the application of buyer behavior concepts to marketing management decisions and social policy decision-making; and (3) to develop analytical capability in using behavioral research.


    Private and public sector firms increasingly use marketing strategies to engage their customers and stakeholders around social impact. To do so, managers need to understand how best to engage and influence customers to behave in ways that have positive social effects. This course focuses on the strategies for changing the behavior of a target segment of consumers on key issues in the public interest (e.g., health behaviors, energy efficiency, poverty reduction, fundraising for social causes). How managers partner with organizations (e.g., non-profits, government) to achieve social impact will also be explored.



    Private and public sector firms increasingly use marketing strategies to engage their customers and stakeholders around social impact. To do so, managers need to understand how best to engage and influence customers to behave in ways that have positive social effects. This course focuses on the strategies for changing the behavior of a target segment of consumers on key issues in the public interest (e.g., health behaviors, energy efficiency, poverty reduction, fund-raising for social causes). How managers partner with organizations (e.g., non-profits, government) to achieve social impact will also be explored.


    A student contemplating an independent study project must first find a faculty member who agrees to supervise and approve the student's written proposal as an independent study (MKTG 899). If a student wishes the proposed work to be used to meet the ASP requirement, he/she should then submit the approved proposal to the MBA adviser who will determine if it is an appropriate substitute. Such substitutions will only be approved prior to the beginning of the semester.


    The purpose of this course is to provide a solid foundation for critical thinking and research on the judgment, decision-making and choice aspects of consumer behavior. There is a focus on how people process information when making judgments and choices and how the processes of judgment and choice might be improved. Topics of discussion include rationality, judgment under uncertainty, judgment heuristics and biases, risk taking, dealing with conflicting values, framing effects, prospect theory, inter-temporal choice, preference formation, and the psychology of utility. The focus will be on the individual decision-maker, although the topics will also have some applicability to group and organizational decision-making and behavioral research methodologies.


    The purpose of this course is to build off MKTG 950, "Judgment and Decision Making Perspectives on Consumer Behavior - Part A" with a more specialized focus that will vary from year to year. This course is intended for those interested in deepening their study of Judgment and Decision Making beyond the basics.



    Requires written permission of instructor and the department graduate adviser.


    Student arranges with a faculty member to pursue a research project on a suitable topic. For more information about research and setting up independent studies, visit:


Awards and Honors

  • Fellow, American Psychological Society, 2018
  • Marketing Science Scholar, 2018
  • Wharton Iron Prof, 2014
  • Marketing Science Institute Young Scholar, 2009
  • Fellow, Wharton Risk and Decision Processes Center, 2007
  • Social Issues Dissertation Award Finalist, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, 2005
  • Carnegie Mellon Graduate Student Travel Award, 2003
  • APA Science Directorate Dissertation Award, $1000, 2003
  • Russell Sage Foundation, small research grant for “Identifiability”, $3500, 2003
  • Travel grant, Budapest Summer Seminar in Behavioral Economics, 2003
  • Carnegie Mellon Graduate Student Travel Award, 2002
  • Travel grant, 2001 Description

    European Summer Science Days Summer School in the Social and Psychological Foundations of Economic Life

  • NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Honorable Mention, 2001
  • Honorable Mention in Student Poster Award, 2001 Description

    Annual Meeting for the Society of Judgment and Decision Making, “Helping the Victim or Helping A Victim: Altruism and Identifiability”

  • Travel grant, 1997 Description

    American Psychological Association Summer Science Institute

In the News

Knowledge @ Wharton


Latest Research

Sydney Scott, Paul Rozin, Deborah Small (Forthcoming), Consumers Prefer “Natural” More for Preventatives than for Curatives.
All Research

In the News

Hearts, Minds and Money: Maximizing Charitable Giving

Donors tend to act more on emotion than rationality when choosing organizations to support. New Wharton research looks at why that’s so, and what can be done about it.

Knowledge @ Wharton - 2018/06/1
All News

Awards and Honors

Fellow, American Psychological Society 2018
All Awards