Why do people shoplift? How do cultural differences affect consumer behaviour? Why do consumers spend money on things they don't need?
The answers are valuable for business, yet Canadian business schools haven't made it a priority to explore the "whys" and "hows" of consumer and office behaviour when they groom future leaders of commerce.
The University of Regina's new Laboratory for Behavioural Business Research will begin to scratch at the consumer psyche. It opens this month. The lab joins similar centres at other Canadian business schools – including those at Queen's University, University of Western Ontario, University of Toronto and Dalhousie University – in conducting research such as how consumers search for products online or how brokers think and behave.
In Regina, an organizational behaviour professor in the faculty of business administration says that having a lab is doubly good.
"One of the problems with business schools is that they don't have a tradition of research. Students miss the whole process of where knowledge comes from," Adrian Pitariu says. "We want them to be more knowledgeable consumers of research, to learn the value of research. They will learn how to differentiate between good and bad research."
Beyond exposing students to reams of studies, the facility also aims to produce skilled researchers. Being curious and asking many relevant questions are vital. "In the lab, as researchers, we'll get to be three-year-olds again," says Dr. Pitariu.
The intent is that questions will be tested in the lab. After getting answers and results, students will then go into the field to determine if lab results are replicated. Previous business school experiments at Regina were conducted on a limited basis in the university's computer lab or at rented premises.
Located at the business faculty within the undergraduate Paul J. Hill School of Business and the Kenneth Levene Graduate School of Business, the new 1,100-square-foot lab was designed to be flexible so that different environments, such as a casino or retail shop, can be replicated. The lab includes a primary research space, smaller investigation area, office and waiting room. Two-way mirrors won't be used but the lab has been wired for cameras and sound.
Mobile eye-tracking equipment, sweat-testing sensors that are hooked to fingers and heart-rate monitors have all been installed. Such equipment is common in research labs. "It's going to change the research we do, take it up a level. We'll have more ways and new ways to look at a problem," says Lisa Watson, a marketing professor in the faculty. "We're putting together solid infrastructure for students."
For his part, Dr. Pitariu is eager to continue research on team processes and building trust in a business setting. "Being a team player is unavoidable in any business. The Spartans, 3,000 years ago, had to work as a team. It's all about co-ordination and trusting the man behind them."
He's already planned a complex simulation for the new lab, experimentation he calls "dynamic decision-making for distributed teams." Groups of three of more people will be monitored to see how they co-ordinate activity and co-operate.
Aware that team leadership theories are a cyclical topic, subject to trends, his experiments will target how conflict is managed in situations with different opinions. "How do we manage this?" he asks.
Sandeep Mishra teaches in the university's business faculty and supervises graduate students in the psychology department. With dual specialties, his research focus will be on how individual differences affect judgment and decision-making.
Experiments will be built upon his specific interests in risky behaviour, antisocial conduct, inequality and deprivation. "Why can't people rise in socioeconomic status? How do feelings of relative deprivation affect outcomes?" he asks. Problem gambling, crime and conspicuous consumption will be targeted.
A pool of voluntary research subjects is crucial for any lab, and Regina has lots on hand. Dr. Watson says business students can earn extra marks if they volunteer as research subjects. It's hoped that at least 300 of the roughly 1,200 undergrads will take part. As well, members of the community will be paid small amounts for participating in studies.
The ideal sample size for an experiment is 16, which allows for four groups of four in studies that run about two to three weeks.
The lab is expected to be busy. When the business faculty isn't looking into how people respond to ads about obesity or how consumers interact with salespeople, the facility will be used by other faculties, Dr. Watson says.