Laura: It's really around how do you gain an edge in any situation that you're going to be in, especially when the odds are against you. How do you flip the perceptions and the attributions and the stereotypes, how do you flip those in your favor, so that you can actually get closer to those outcomes that you're looking to accomplish.
John: Welcome to Human Science, a podcast exploring the human element behind the science that shapes our everyday lives. We're powered by Labfront, the go-to tool trusted by researchers looking to automate their studies and transform real-world data into health insights.
I'm your host John Drummond and today we're talking about the intersection of adversity Intuition and success with Dr. Laura Huang, distinguished professor and faculty director of the Women's Entrepreneurship Center and Northeastern University and the brilliant author behind the book Edge. In our conversation, we'll explore what inspired Laura to enter research, how she developed her EDGE framework, her initiatives to empower the next generation, and the strategies you can use to turn adversity into your advantage.
So everyone, please welcome Laura.
Laura: Hi, thank you. Great to be here.
John: Yeah. Laura, you know, we were talking a little bit. before we started, this is our first show. Yeah. We don't really know exactly what it's going to look like. So for everyone watching, please bear with us.
Laura: And we didn't even plan our attire. I just happened to wear black, so I don't know if black is going to be a theme in, in your podcast, but it's, you know, now you're ready, ready to go.
John: Ready to go. Got to be Huberman now and wearing black sleeves every single show. Yeah.
So I was thinking though, maybe we could start with a little bit of kind of the backstory of who is Laura, why does Laura care about all of the research that Laura is doing today?
Background in Finance and Research on Decision-Making
Laura: Yeah, I mean, I think from the research point of view, that came very much later in my life. So I had been working for a number of years. I was an engineer by training, and worked first for about a decade before I even got into the research side.
I had all these student loans that I had to pay off, so did that first. So it was really much, much later that I decided to go back and get my Ph. D. and look into research. But once I did, I found that it was actually really useful that I had worked for so long before in consulting, in general management, in finance, because a lot of the things that I was seeing day-to-day were things that I was curious about that I wanted to later test.
I saw when I was at the bank working in finance that a lot of times decisions were being made that were seemingly very quantitative and analytical in nature. So, for example, we're trying to do a merger and acquisitions deal. Should we acquire Company A or should we acquire Company B?
And we had put together extensive algorithms and, metrics and numbers all around that. But, you know, what I found was that even though we had all of this extensive analysis done at the end of the day. A lot of times deals were being done based on intuition or gut feel and it's something that we all kind of do. We make the decisions that we want to make. And then we post hoc find the data to support what it is we wanted to do anyways. And so that was something that I studied when I became a researcher. You know, how do we quantify these decisions that we make?
How do we try to explain intuition and gut feel, how do we take those signals and perceptions and cues and understand them so that when outcomes may not go our way, that we're able to subtly influence them in a way that can give us that advantage? So those were the sort of things that I started studying early in my career, which led to the projects that I'm still doing now, and the ways in which my academic research, has informed the, the ways that I interact with companies and the outside world.
John: Beautiful summary there. First of all, I think that concept there of the subtleties of you have so much data, you have so much analysis, but you're still like, I didn't really get a good vibe from that guy. You know, it's just like, we're not doing the deal.
Laura: Right, right. And I mean, even just the ways that others perceive us to if we understand, those underlying perceptions that people have about us, that goes a lot further and helping us to interact with people in more effective ways.
Personal Experience and Research on Accents
Laura: So, for example, you know, one of the earliest research projects that I did, was on the role of people's accent or the ways that they communicate. And this was sort of inspired by, you know, growing up. I saw both my parents, my mother and my father were immigrants to the United States. I saw them getting turned down for promotion after promotion after promotion.
And I remember during one of those turned down promotions that the person who was promoted instead of him, that my father was actually doing that person's job, everyone in the organization sort of knew that he was more qualified to be doing that job. But for whatever reason, he did not get that job. And so I remember asking my father, "Why is it that you didn't get that promotion?" And he said, " I don't know. It's probably because of my accent or the way I communicate or something like that."
And so later on, when I became a researcher, I wanted to study was it in fact that someone's accent or the way they communicate could lead to these sort of outcomes. And I found through dozens of studies with 40 different accents,that yes, in fact, someone's accent controlling for all other factors, controlling for experience, education, all, all sorts of things that If someone had a non standard accent, non standard American accent if you were in North America, non standard Asian accent if you were in certain regions of Asia, that you are less likely to get promoted, less likely to get a raise, less likely to get hired into a top management team position, less likely to get funding if you're an entrepreneur, all sorts of different things.
Laura: And so, I think that's how my research has really evolved, is first from experiences that I've had that I've wanted to test, and now, a bit later in my career, it's been not just identifying those disparities, but also finding solutions. So how do we level the playing field?
How do we inoculate against these sorts of things that may be based on perceptions and attributions?
John: What is the data required to really prove that this isn't just kind of a subtlety? This is actually now perceptions that are happening throughout the world.
Laura: I'm basically what's called a multi-method researcher so when researchers or when scholars do their work, they're everything from the purely qualitative, which is they're doing interviews, they're talking to people or they're ethnographers, they're out there and they're observing phenomena that might happen. Everything from that to, the very, very, very quantitative where you're taking huge archival datasets and you're looking and you're doing statistical analysis on that data and, everything in between, including, field studies, including, questionnaires, all sorts of things.
I'm a multi-method researcher, which means I do sort of a little bit of everything. So for example, if you're trying to answer a question like, what is gut feel? Right? you have to sort of be a multi-method researcher because of the nature of the question.
So when I was doing my dissertation on intuition and gut feel, I would do everything from interviewing investors to talk about and ask them how they made their investment decisions. So I would say things like, "Well, tell me about a time when you invested in someone, even though you had a negative feeling about them."
Or "Tell me about a time when you didn't invest in someone, even though you really found them trustworthy and committed." So you do a lot of probing. You, you ask them, "Okay, and then what happened? And then what happened? And tell me more. " And then what you do with that qualitative data is you know, you'll code the data. You'll take out certain quotations and you'll code it for various measures. You'll do lots of processing of that, that qualitative data. But in addition to that, I also do field studies, which is where I will then, observe things, but also collect data while I'm out there.
So for example, I've been to hundreds of pitch competitions where I will go to those pitch competitions and I'll record those pitches, and I'll know the outcome whether or not they got funding or not. And so from those pitches, I can now have other people say, "Okay, well, how trustworthy do you think this person is? How committed do you think this person is?" And correlates those perceptions with those outcome measures.
So you are out there, you're collecting data, you have variables that you're collecting information about, and you're able to do correlations, you're able to do regressions based on that kind of information.
And then I also do, more look at more archival data. So I will look at data that comes from TechCrunch or CrunchBase or, I will take, I'll follow companies, for example. So I have a set of 90 companies that I've followed since 2013. And you can collect all sorts of things around them. So I know every single iteration of websites that they've had.
I know their growth over time in terms of employees, how their revenue has changed over time, which of them have survived and which ones have not. So you can take like early, gut feelings about that entrepreneur from 2013 and be able to see how it might be related or correlated with outcomes that you're measuring all throughout the last 10 years or so.
So, so, you know, all sorts of different ways. And then what you do is you triangulate and you look to see if there's commonalities and be able to draw conclusions from them. So that's an example of the type of research that I do.
But there's also, lots of researchers that run the whole gamut of that.
John: It's, it's fascinating, really. I love the triangulation of it all. Yeah, yeah. And so thinking then, too, back to, this was early research for you, but was this setting out to write the book or did, as you gathered more data, you started kind of hypothesizing like, actually, there seems like there's something deeper here and I would love to flesh this out.
Flipping Perceptions: How Edge Came Together
Laura: Yeah, so I hadn't, in the earliest days, I didn't really intend to write a book about it. It was more just research projects based on questions that I was interested in answering. But then as I started doing this research and as I started evolving in terms of what I was studying, it really did come together in a way where I wanted the findings to be out there these practical findings that were very actionable that I wanted people to sort of have. So, for example, I mentioned earlier that research on accents where I found through dozens of studies that yes, people with non standard accents were less likely to get funding, less likely to get the job, so on, so on.
But what I then did, you know, years later, was that I wanted to try and understand, well, was it really about their ability to communicate? Because my father sort of thought it was about his ability to communicate. Then the question became, well, is it that people who have accents are not able to communicate something that they should be able to?
Or is it that it's purely based on erroneous perceptions? So then I would run studies, for example, where I would take four entrepreneurs with an accent and four entrepreneurs without an accent, and I would have them pitch to a panel of investors, and I would randomize the order in which these entrepreneurs were pitching to these investors.
What I would do is that I wouldn't tell the investors, I wouldn't ask the investors who would you invest in? Because I already knew from all of my prior studies that they were more likely to invest in those who did not have accents. That they were more likely to be biased against those who did have accents. Instead, this time what I would do is I would just say, write down three things that you learned from each of these entrepreneurs, or three things that you recalled, and I would have them do this at the very end, right?
What I found was that these investors were just as likely to have learned things or remembered things or recalled things from those who had accents as those who didn't have accents. In fact, sometimes they learned more and remembered more from those who had accents. And so I was able to piece together that, you know, it wasn't actually about their communication skills at all.
But what I found was that those who had accents were more likely to get rated lower on things like how mentorable is this person? How interpersonally influential is this person? How creative is this person? So it just so happened that all of those people with accents were getting rated lower on these underlying things that actually had nothing to do with accents.
So, once I realized that there was these underlying perceptions or biases that were being attributed to those who had accents, well then I was like, okay, well then the next question is, well, what do we do about this? So then I started doing research where I would, take those people, those individuals with accents, and I would say to them, the next time they went into pitch, I would say, the perception they have about you, person A, is that you're not as creative and out of the box thinking. The perception they have about you, person B, is that you're not as interpersonally influential. And then I would send them in, they would do their pitches, and what I heard them saying was pretty astounding. I would hear them saying things like, "Let me tell you about a time when I fought for resources for my team."
Or, "Let me tell you about a time when I needed to close this deal, and I did it in a really innovative way." Or, "Let me tell you about a time when I took advice from someone and I really executed it in a way that got me to this outcome." So they were telling examples, real authentic examples.
What I found was that not only were they more likely to get the funding, but they were something like 70 to 75% more likely to get rated higher in terms of how strong of a communicator is this person.
They never talked about their accent. They never talked about their communication skills, but just by virtue of addressing those underlying perceptions, they were able to flip those investor attributions of how strong of a communicator they were, of how strong of an accent they had.
And so, when I started doing studies around not just accent, but around lots of other different perceptions that people have about others, you know, based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education.I found that everyone has something. When this sort of came together, that's when the book started coming together the book is called Edge, Turning Adversity into an Advantage.
But it's really around how do you gain an edge in any situation that you're going to be in, especially when the odds are against you. How do you flip the perceptions and the attributions and the stereotypes, how do you flip those in your favor, so that you can actually get closer to those outcomes that you're looking to accomplish.
John: And, the flipping on the head there too of, it's almost a concept of coaching, right? It's like you give them a little insight into what the criteria really is, and then you can create this authentic story around ways that they can get better viewed. Yeah. And thinking of, of that.
Obviously, without charging us a consulting fee, do you mind maybe sharing some questions that our audience can take away? Things that they can maybe think about, or just ways that they can begin to kind of shift their perception?
Tips to Shift Perception
Laura: Yeah, yeah, of course. So, for example, one of the things that I studied in my research was, you know, in addition to those static perceptions that we talked about before, like you meet someone, they have an accent, here's the perceptions that we bestow upon them. Most of the time when we interact with people, it's through interactions, right?
I might ask a question of you and you'll respond in turn, or you'll ask a question of me and I'll respond in turn. And what I found is that, through these questions and answers, there's actually two buckets of questions, two large categories of questions that any question you get asked would fit into.
One is called promotion-oriented questions, and one is called prevention-oriented questions. And largely what that means is promotion-oriented questions are those that are expansive in nature.
They're about the vision. They're about how big you could take something. They're about the opportunity. And prevention-focused questions, on the other hand, are more about the limitations. They're about the risks, the constraints, the obstacles around something. And so any question that's out there, even regardless of whether it's positive or negative in nature is either promotion-focused or prevention-focused.
But what I found was that based on who you are and what you look like or your gender, race, ethnicity, education, your communication style. You're more likely in life to either get asked prevention-focused questions or promotion-focused questions. And so there's a couple of things that happen.
So when you get asked a promotion-focused question, you're more likely in turn to respond with a promotion oriented answer, and vice versa. But those who are getting asked promotion-focused questions are more likely to get the job, the raise, the promotion, the funding, and so on and so forth. And absolutely, in any sort of instance, we see that this is happening.
So, one really quick example is that in one of my papers, I show that women are more likely to get asked prevention-focused questions. And women also are only getting 2% of all of the venture capital financing that is out there. So, women are more likely to get asked questions like, "How many daily and monthly users do you have?", "Where's your break even point?", "Did you Turing Test this?" Whereas male entrepreneurs are more likely to get asked questions like, you know, "Where else do you think you could take this technology in the future?", "What other use cases can you envision for this product or service?", "What other customer segments do you think you could expand this to in the future?"
And so at the end of the day, because those who are getting asked promotion-oriented questions are talking about growth and expansion, and those who are getting asked prevention questions are talking about, you know, the details and the number of users and the constraints and the obstacles, the investors are much more likely to invest in those who are getting asked those promotion-oriented questions, right?
What do we do about that? Well, what I found is that when you recognize that you're getting asked a prevention-focused question, you do want to answer it, but you want to do so quickly, and then flip it to a promotion oriented response. So let's say someone says something like, "Well, boy, there are a lot of competitors in this industry. How are you ever going to compete?" That's a very prevention-oriented question. It's about the risks, the constraints, the obstacles. You do want to answer the question. You want to say, "Yes, there are a lot of competitors in this industry, but what our product or service is able to do is all of these things that will allow us to go after new customer segments and expand to different regions et cetera, et cetera." So you take that prevention-oriented question, you answer it quickly, and then you flip it to a promotion-oriented response.
And I find that when you do that, not only are you able to get more funding, but you get more funding than those who were only ask the promotion-oriented questions. You gain an edge over those who are only asked the promotion oriented questions. And so this is an example of how we can take something that's very implicit.
Acknowledge that, start to recognize that, and be able to impact how those outcomes are decided just based on subtly switching, how we respond regardless of the types of questions that we're getting asked.
So you can take something very simple, but the research really helps to inform how we take this simple concept, just the regulatory focus of a question, and be able to practically do lots of things with that to, to give us action items. And so that's that translation piece that I really wanted to take my research articles, which, you know, quite frankly, not that many people read because they're like 30 pages of statistics.
And then translating that to a book that you can actually say, here are the things that are very actionable. Here are the two or three things that you can do today, to change how you approach a situation and increase your chances of being more successful.
John: Thinking about all of this adversity into advantages as this kind of subtitle of your book Edge there. Do you remember maybe pre- you as an author, pre-management consultant, pre-researcher, was there moments of adversity where you were able to actually flip it into an advantage?
Laura: In the book, I give tons of personal examples. You know, there was this, story of how I was interviewing this one investor and could tell very quickly that he was sort of writing me off. Because you know, I often get written off when I'm interviewing, the CEOs of companies that, you know, Raytheon and Boeing and Lockheed and all of these different companies. And, you know, I, I stroll in there, this young Asian female who's trying to to collect all of this data.
And I remember I was just getting written off and, very impatiently, you know, he was trying to, like, see me, see me out the door. And then I realized, I recognized that he had a baseball, an autographed baseball on his shelf. And I grew up this lifelong Yankees fan, grew up near New York, in New Jersey and had, all these just weird statistics memorized. Like, I grew up in the whole Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettit, that whole era, and so knew all these sort of things. And so I looked at his baseball, and I was like, "Is that autograph from Andy Pettit?"
And he's like, kind of looked at me strange, and was surprised that I even knew who Andy Pettit was, let alone recognized the signature. And so realized that that was sort of a way in, that he saw me as this, young Asian female. And so I started talking a lot more quantitatively right around the statistics of the baseball and this batting average and this number of RBI is and all sorts of things and form this connection with him.
And all of a sudden I realized, oh, it makes sense, right? Asian engineer knows a lot about statistics. Then he saw the value in me, and we were able to have a much more enriching conversation.
This overall framework that I was trying to present in the book where edge it's about how to gain an edge, right? So it's about getting an edge when you're getting written off by this investor who sees you as just some dumb floozy who doesn't know anything about the investment world and the way you do that is through this framework that I developed over the course of the research that I had been conducting where the EDGE stand for the components of edge, right?
So edge is about understanding how you Enrich Delight Guide and make your Effort go further, right? So the EDGE - Enrich Delight Guide and Effort and so when I speak about that example you can work really, really hard. You can put a lot of effort in, but unless that counterpart sees how you enrich and provide value, that meeting's not going to go anywhere.
And so it wasn't until I was able to form that connection Delight by impressing him with oh, I know whose signature that is. He's also a Yankees fan. I'm a Yankees fan. So that delight piece cracked the door open for me to then be able to enrich and show the value that I could provide. Not only to that baseball conversation, but also to what he was working on with his investments and so on and so forth.
John: I love it. I grew up a Yankees fan as well. My dad is in Connecticut, but they were all Yankees, right? It's nice to hear. And you think about that, too. And I mean, we're just talking about the subtleties of that, right? But that is the delight aspect of and it's genuine, though.
Yeah. So maybe if you could, if I could add a little asterisk of like try to make it genuine like you probably care about baseball and yes really cool that you could.
Laura: I think that's so important that authenticity piece of it because a lot of times it almost starts to sound like it's being strategic that you're trying to manage impressions and we've all had that example of like we see someone kissing up to the boss and we're like that just feels gross like I don't want to be that person. I don't want to be like managing impressions and trying to be strategic, but this is actually the opposite of that.
The whole premise of gaining that edge is that it is authentic. It's about the authentic ways in which you delight. It's the authentic ways that you bring value and contribute that. It's about how to guide based on those impressions that they have about you versus who you really are. Those underlying impressions that might be leading them astray to who you really are and the value you provide.
When I spoke about those questions, the promotion and prevention-focused questions, you're giving the real basis for why you are able to expand or grow it's just that you're also able to address those obstacles in a real way as well. And so the reason why those who were asked prevention-focused questions and flipped it to a promotion-oriented response gained more funding than those who were only asked promotion-focused questions. Why they gained an edge was because not only did they address those questions, those risks, the question marks that the investors had, they were able to, in a very benign and safe way, address both the risks as well as the opportunities. Whereas the ones who only spoke about the promotion-orientation talked about how expansive and how much they could grow, but there was still these sort of question marks that were in the investors heads.
John: You know, Laura, if you are able to just talk freely about this book, has there been any ways that maybe you've evolved with your definitions or, or changed your thinking or, or if you could play like a, a remix to it, would there be anything that you, you share now?
Hard Work Plus
Laura: Part of what I realized the more that I talked about this book is this notion of hard work alone is not enough and what I mean by that is we're all sort of taught that hard work is the secret to success and it is, I would never say that hard work is not critical, but hard work alone is not enough and that's why that last E is effort and hard work it comes last because when we know how we enrich and delight and guide that's when that effort and hard work actually worked harder for you.
So I think the remix would be, you know, instead of Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage, maybe it's Edge: When Hard Work Alone is Not Enough. You know, I mean, I, I definitely think that piece around flipping that adversity in your favor is important, but I also think that the importance of being able to understand that hard work is critical, but there's ways to give yourself that hard work plus, to give yourself that tailwind so that your hard work does work harder for you Is also super important. But you know I think a lot of those ideas and that that piece of it is going into the second book which is much more focused on I would say some of it's a combination of the fundamental ideas that I started with but also a lot of the future research that I had been doing after this book came out.
Second Book and Gut Feel
Laura: So the second book is purely based on gut feel. It's around how do we hone and harness our gut feel? How do we take the experiences that we've had, the background, the cultures, even the trauma, all of the negative things that we've experienced, how do we harness that in a way that allows us to recognize our gut feel, allow us to take action on that gut feel, in a way that will make all of that hard work that we've put in, I think, you know, allow us to just take it in a different direction in a more valuable more effective effective direction. So that's the book that is sort of the sequel but also the remix.
John: It's super cool. And if we can't talk about it too much let me know, but a question that comes to my mind thinking about my own gut and intuition. I struggle to sometimes understand what is my gut reaction versus maybe what is a limiting belief that I have on myself. Have you seen anything yet in the research that indicates what is a gut and maybe what's a limiting belief?
Gut Reaction vs Limiting Belief
Laura: Yeah, so, part of what I am currently still in the process of writing is our gut feel comes to us as certain sensations. And so how do we recognize those sensations as, this is, this is my experience trying to tell me something. There's something about, what I'm experiencing now in the outside world and it's telling me something about my priors.
It's telling me about something I already know. And so, when we recognize that, we're able to do exactly what you're saying. Is this actually a limiting belief? Is this actually, or is maybe this is a bias that I'm trying, that I need to collect more data about? Or maybe this is, a situation that reminds me of something else. So it's really about recognizing that. And so what I'm hoping to do is really provide this comprehensive way that we can say, okay, here's how it presents itself to me. And then here's what I, I can do with it. And it's a very personal thing because it's going to present itself differently to different people.
John: So thinking about all this, as you are working so hard now on the second book, trying to write daily, but what are the future implications of all of this, whether it's Edge or the second book with Gut Feeling? Have you noticed this in academia or with organizations and companies? What are you seeing can people really use? How can they use their adversity?
Making Edge Actionable
Laura: Yeah. I mean, I think the piece of it is really like, how do we continue to make this actionable and how do we continue to get this, this out there more than just, cause the research is being done, but we don't always translate the research in a way that makes it, you know, makes it applicable.
And so. I think that's the, that's the reason why, you know, I've taken on this faculty directorship, you know, with a bunch of the Women's Empowerment, Women's Entrepreneurship Initiative. What I realized is, you know, a lot of times, the people who need these messages are not the ones who are actually getting it. In my work, I want to continue going to different populations, different underserved populations.
Laura: Um, a couple of years ago I started a non profit called Project Emplify. So kind of combining the empower and amplify to make it amplify. And it's really meant for K through 12 children who wouldn't have an opportunity to get these messages. They wouldn't have an opportunity to understand empowerment or to understand financial literacy or to understand the entrepreneurial mindset. And so we donate books. I do boot camps. There's a capstone project that they can work on. And all of this sort of goes towards what you're asking about is how can we continue to do this both earlier in different populations as well as in organizations?
That's my consulting work, that's helping organizations to continue thinking about this more effectively, in the, for the K through 12, the earlier populations and the underprivileged populations, that's with my nonprofits, and then with university students, and aspirational employees, that's with these centers, with, with the entrepreneurship centers and with the various leadership types of initiatives. So yeah, I'm hoping that this continues to, to get out there. Thanks so much for great questions around this that really dug into what, what this research is and where it could go.
John: Yeah. And it's, it's really wonderful just to feel your passion for all of this is, you know, this is something that you found your why, you know, for the cliche Simon Sinek right there. And I wish you continued success. Thank you. Yeah, and Laura, do you mind sharing where people can maybe pick up the book? Where can they learn more about your research?
Laura: Yeah, sure, sure. The, the first book, Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage, is available pretty much anywhere. I'm very findable on social media, I'm on Instagram, Twitter, my website is ProfLauraHuang, my Instagram handle is the same, Twitter, YouTube, and then the non-profit is projectemplify.org.
John: Love it. Yeah, the amplify and empower and you're doing all that thing. Well, Laura , thank you for being our first guest on the Human Science podcast and bringing the true human to the science.