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 studies how individuals make decisions that affect their own and others’ welfare and what their choices signal to themselves and others about their moral character. While much of her work is in the area of prosocial behavior, she has also studied emotion and decision making, gender differences in negotiation, couples’ financial decision making, and beliefs about control in choice. She is currently an Associate Editor for Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

At Wharton, Professor Small was voted “Iron Prof” in 2014.  She teaches Marketing for Social Impact and PhD courses. She is a proud advisor of many excellent current and former PhD students.

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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  • Shalena Srna, Alixandra Barasch, Deborah Small (Forthcoming), The Value of Modesty: How Signals of Status Undermine Cooperation.

    Description: forthcoming, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

  • Joowon Klusowski, Deborah Small, Joseph Simmons (2021), Does Choice Cause an Illusion of Control?, Psychological Science, 32 (February), pp. 159-172.

    Abstract: Previous research suggests that choice causes an illusion of control—that it makes people feel more likely to achieve preferable outcomes, even when they are selecting among options that are functionally identical (e.g., lottery tickets with an identical chance of winning). This research has been widely accepted as evidence that choice can have significant welfare effects, even when it confers no actual control. In this article, we report the results of 17 experiments that examined whether choice truly causes an illusion of control (N = 10,825 online and laboratory participants). We found that choice rarely makes people feel more likely to achieve preferable outcomes—unless it makes the preferable outcomes actually more likely—and when it does, it is not because choice causes an illusion but because choice reflects some participants’ preexisting (illusory) beliefs that the functionally identical options are not identical. Overall, choice does not seem to cause an illusion of control.

  • Carey Morewedge, Ashwani Monga, Robert Palmatier, Suzanne B. Shu, Deborah Small (2020), Evolution of Consumption: A Psychological Ownership Framework, Journal of Marketing, 85, pp. 196-218.

  • Ike Silver, George Newman, Deborah Small (2020), Inauthenticity Aversion: Moral reactance toward tainted actors, actions, and objects, Consumer Psychology Review, 4, pp. 70-82.

  • Sydney Scott, Paul Rozin, Deborah Small (2020), Consumers Prefer “Natural” More for Preventatives than for Curatives, Journal of Consumer Research, 47, pp. 454-471.

  • 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.


Past Courses

  • MKTG2110 - Consumer Behavior

    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.

  • MKTG2660 - Mktg For Social Impact

    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.

  • MKTG3990 - Independent Study

  • MKTG7330 - Mktg For Social Impact

    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.

  • MKTG8990 - Independent Study

    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.

  • MKTG9500 - Jdgmnt & Dec Making Cb A

    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.

  • MKTG9510 - Judmnt & Dec Making Cb B

    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.

  • MKTG9950 - Dissertation

  • MKTG9990 - Independent Study

    Requires written permission of instructor and the department graduate adviser.

  • PSYC6999 - Indiv Res for 1st Yr Grd

    Individual Research for First-Year Graduate Students

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 at Wharton

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Latest Research

Shalena Srna, Alixandra Barasch, Deborah Small (Forthcoming), The Value of Modesty: How Signals of Status Undermine Cooperation.
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In the News

What’s Mine Is Ours: How Consumption Is Changing

Firms benefit when consumers feel they “own” a product. But in the sharing economy, goods and services are becoming more experiential and impermanent. New research co-authored by Wharton’s Deborah Small explains this shift and offers marketing strategies to help preserve that feeling of “mine.” Read More

Knowledge at Wharton - 3/2/2021
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Wharton Magazine

5 Surprising, Cutting-Edge Wharton Collaborations

Global food-crisis solutions, sports leadership, behavior modeling, disrupting education—through new cross-disciplinary partnerships, Wharton is making an impact in some unexpected spaces.

Wharton Magazine - 10/16/2018

Wharton Stories

Two men sit in front of a class. A blue Social Impact Initiative banner is in the background.Responsible Business Lessons from Patagonia

“The most important right we have is the right to be responsible,” said Patagonia’s Director of Philosophy Vincent Stanley, quoting environmentalist Gerald Amos. In a fireside chat with Bobby Turner, W’84, CEO of Turner Impact Capital and host of the Turner Social Impact Executive Speaker Series, Stanley stressed the importance…

Wharton Stories - 02/12/2020
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