Conversational peers and idea generation: Evidence from a field experiment

Working paper

(with Rembrand Koning)

Why do some people generate better ideas than others? We conducted a field experiment at a startup bootcamp to evaluate the impact of informal conversations on the quality of product ideas generated by participants. Specifically, we examine how the personality of an innovator (their openness to experience, capturing creativity) and the personalities of her randomly assigned conversational peers (their extraversion, measuring willingness to share information) affects the innovator’s ideas. We find that open innovators who spoke with extroverted peers generated significantly better ideas than others at the bootcamp. However, closed individuals produced mediocre ideas regardless of with whom they spoke, suggesting limited benefits of conversations for these people. More surprisingly, open individuals, who are believed to be inherently creative, produced worse ideas after they spoke with introverted peers, suggesting individual creativity’s dependence on external information. Our study demonstrates the importance of considering the traits of both innovators and their conversational peers in predicting who will generate the best ideas.

When peers don’t have an effect: the impact of prior connections

Working paper

(with Rembrand Koning)

When do peers affect performance? In this article, we propose that individuals or teams with many preexisting connections interact with fewer of their nearby peers and are thus less affected by them. We test this hypothesis using data from a field experiment conducted at a startup bootcamp in New Delhi, India. We find that teams whose members have existing relationships with others in the bootcamp interact less with neighboring teams, and thus their performance is unaffected by their peers. In contrast, peers affect the performance of teams without preexisting connections. Our findings highlight how preexisting connections, which are often a source of knowledge and influence, can limit new interactions and thus the power of social incentives and peer effects to improve performance.

Helpful thirds and the durability of collaborative ties

Working Paper

(with Sampsa Samila and Alexander Oettl)

We explore whether helpful behavior makes collaborative networks more resilient to decay. Using a novel research design, we study whether research collaborations among 11,000 pairs of research immunologists persists after the unexpected loss of a third collaborator. We find that dyads whose departed third collaborator was helpful—as indicated by acknowledgments in journal articles—continue to collaborate after the death of their third. In contrast, dyads who lost a non-helpful third experienced a 5-12%-point decline in their probability of repeat collaboration. The effect of third-party helpfulness was particularly strong when they were high status and when the treated dyad did not have a prior history of helpful behavior. Our results speak to the central role that helpfulness plays in shaping the collaborative relationships that underpin science and innovation.

When does advice impact startup performance?

Forthcoming in Strategic Management Journal

(with Aaron Chatterji, Solene Delecourt and Rembrand Koning)

Why do some entrepreneurs thrive while others fail? We explore whether the advice entrepreneurs receive about managing their employees influences their startup’s performance. We conducted a randomized field experiment in India with 100 high-growth technology firms whose founders received in-person advice from other entrepreneurs who varied in their managerial style. We find that entrepreneurs who received advice from peers with a formal approach to managing people—instituting regular meetings, setting goals consistently, and providing frequent feedback to employees—grew 28% larger and were 10 percentage points less likely to fail than those who got advice from peers with an informal approach to managing people, two years after our intervention. Entrepreneurs with MBAs or accelerator experience did not respond to this intervention, suggesting that formal training can limit the spread of peer advice.

Social Networks and Careers

Social_Networks_and_Careers“, Forthcoming in Social Networks at Work, D.J. Brass and S.P. Borgatti (eds.) S.I.O.P. Frontiers Book Series.

Social networks affect a range of career outcomes including job search, promotion and wage determination. Networks also affect major career transitions, including entry into entrepreneurship and exit into retirement. Across a range of studies, individuals are found to use their networks to deal with two perennial problems they face in labor markets and organizations: the scarcity of information and the absence of trust. I review the literature with an eye towards understanding which features of a person’s networks help them solve these problems at different career stages. I conclude by considering how the rising importance of information technology will affect the networks-career link moving forward.

Peers and network growth: Evidence from a natural experiment

Management Science61(10), 2536-2547.

(with Surendrakumar Bagde)

Much research suggests that social networks affect individual and organizational success. However, a strong assumption underlying this research is that network structure is not reducible to the individual attributes of social actors. In this article, we test this assumption by examining whether interacting with random peers causes exogenous growth of a person’s network. Using three years of network data for students at an Indian college, we evaluate the effect of peers on network growth. We find strong evidence that interacting with random, but well-connected, roommates causes significant growth of a focal student’s network. Further, we find that this growth also implies an increase in how close an actor moves to a network’s center and whether that actor is likely to serve as a network bridge. Fundamentally, our results demonstrate that exogenous factors beyond individual agency—i.e., random peers—can shape network structure. Our results also provide a useful model for causally identifying the determinants of network structure and dynamics.

The mechanics of social capital and academic performance in an Indian college

American Sociological Review78(6), 1009-1032.

(with Surendrakumar Bagde)

In this article we examine how social capital affects the creation of human capital. Specifically, we study how college students’ peers affect academic performance. Building on existing research, we consider the different types of peers in the academic context and the various mechanisms through which peers affect performance. We test our model using data from an engineering college in India. Our data include information about the performance of individual students as well as their randomly assigned roommates, chosen friends, and chosen study-partners. We find that students with able roommates perform better, and the magnitude of this roommate effect increases when the roommate’s skills match the student’s academic goals. We also find that students benefit equally from same- and different-caste roommates, suggesting that social similarity does not strengthen peer effects. Finally, although we do not find strong evidence for independent friendship or study-partner effects, our results suggest that roommates become study-partners, and in so doing, affect performance. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that peer effects are a consequential determinant of academic achievement.