Dr. Caitlin Handron, Senior Consultant and Behavioral Scientist at R&G Insights Lab, Discusses the Role of Cultural Psychology in Solving Complex Organizational Challenges
In this episode of There Has to Be a Better Way?, co-hosts Zach Coseglia and Hui Chen interview their colleague at R&G Insights Lab, Dr. Caitlin Handron, about cultural psychology, her field of study. She discusses how cultural factors influence human behavior and how integrating insights from the social sciences can help companies tackle organizational challenges—from compliance programs to diversity, equity and inclusion—in more effective ways.
Zach Coseglia: We are super excited for this episode because for the first time, Hui, it’s not just me and you talking—we have a guest.
Hui Chen: I am so excited about this.
Zach Coseglia: We are joined today by the one, the only, the incomparable Dr. Caitlin Handron. Caitlin, say hello to everybody.
Zach Coseglia: We are psyched to have you here for a variety of reasons. And let me start by just saying this—the Better Way podcast obviously is this journey to find better ways, and today, our better way is focused on the role of cultural psychology in helping us tackle organizational challenges in more effective ways. But before we even get into that, I just want to say, Hui and I are happy to have you here because we’ve found that being over-prepared on the first two episodes wasn’t a good look for us. So Caitlin, I just want to let you know at the outset, we have decided to not prepare for today—we’re hoping that it leads to a more free-flowing conversation.
Caitlin Handron: That’s fantastic. I similarly did not prepare, so here we are.
Zach Coseglia: You spent the better part of more than a decade becoming Dr. Caitlin Handron, so I think that you’re well prepared for the topic. So, Caitlin, who are you?
Caitlin Handron: What a question—let me see. To begin, the journey to becoming a doctor, Dr. Handron, I’d say that my academic career actually began in studying romance languages. I studied Spanish and Italian and had the opportunity to live abroad, and I think that’s really where my love of culture developed. I was very interested in learning not only the language, but how learning a new language can show you a whole new worldview. And I’d say from there, I transitioned into psychology and really began to explore how we think and interact with one another.
Zach Coseglia: Can I just say, this is where I would like to just affirmatively express my insecurity, because I am surrounded by these two people who speak, between the two of them, most of the world’s languages.
Hui Chen: I want to say Allora facciamo questa in Italiano! [Alright, let’s do this in Italian!]
Caitlin Handron: E adesso che paura! [How terrifying!]
Zach Coseglia: See? And I’m the guy whose last name is Coseglia, and I didn’t understand a thing either one of them said. So, we go from languages to psychology?
Caitlin Handron: Yes—and I would say, like most people young and interested in psychology, I thought the only option available to me was to become a clinical psychologist. I had received the feedback at the time that if I wanted to go to graduate school, it would be important for me to get some research experience. So, I looked through all of the labs at the University of Washington that were looking for research assistants, and I stumbled across the Stereotypes, Identity, and Belonging Lab. And little did I know that this was the field of social psychology that would absolutely change the trajectory of my career going forward. I discovered that there’s much more beyond clinical psychology, and through this experience at the lab, I developed a complete and absolute love for research.
Zach Coseglia: Can you tell us a little bit about the research that you did while you were at Washington?
Caitlin Handron: Yes, absolutely. So, there were two main areas of focus for the lab. One was looking at the intersection of race and American identity—and so how people, depending on their different racial groups, may be treated differently, and how that can reflect on their American identity. And then, we were also interested in looking at how stereotypes can keep women from entering STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). We were particularly interested in the field of computer science, which has some pretty gnarly stereotypes that can constrain who believes that they belong there and will fit in and be able to make friends and be successful.
Hui Chen: I want to see how that then led to your doctoral work and what your doctoral work involved.
Caitlin Handron: So I was interested in going to Stanford to continue exploring identity and belonging—that was what my undergraduate research had been about. And I’d say that’s really the trajectory—I was continuing along that path. But between my time as a lab manager at the University of Washington and arriving to become a graduate student at Stanford, I had one of those transformative life experiences that included reading Hazel Markus’s book on culture—it just blew my mind, and absolutely introduced me to a whole new way of thinking about the world, and psychology, in particular. When I got to Stanford, I had the great opportunity to work with Hazel, and so, I transitioned from thinking pretty traditionally along social psychological lines to thinking more broadly about culture and how our behavior is being shaped by culture in any given moment.
Hui Chen: I want to jump to how you define “cultural psychology,” because what’s particularly interesting to me is you started your journey looking at how people outside of the compliance world think about culture—they think about national identities, the Italian culture, Spanish culture, or the American culture. And people, as you probably have found once you started working with the folks at the Lab, are often talking about “organizational culture.” So, culture obviously exists at different levels. I would love to hear your take on how you would define that.
Caitlin Handron: It’s such an important question. I think we often talk about culture without slowing down to actually consider what we mean. And I’d say that what really shaped my perspective on culture is just thinking about the ways that even to the core of how we understand ourselves, and how we understand ourselves in relationship to other people, this can be shaped by our broader cultural context. In the field of cultural psychology, we often use a tool called the “culture cycle” to make sense of culture, to really simplify it and use it in a systematic way to organize our thoughts around culture, since it can be a rather murky subject. So, the culture cycle breaks culture down into what are known as the four I’s: ideas, institutions, interactions, and individuals.
- The ideas are the broad, pervasive values of a culture. I can talk about it in terms of an organization now. So, what does the organization stand for? What’s its mission statement? What are its stated and communicated values? Also, what’s its reputation? How has it behaved in the past? How has it handled misconduct?
- Then, we can think about how those values and ideas become institutionalized through policies and procedures. So, what are the formal ways in which those values show up? For instance, how are people incentivized, and what are the trainings and the onboarding processes like?
- Next, we can consider interactions—this is how people are actually behaving. So, how are your peers engaging with one another? What is the leadership doing? Are people actually walking the talk?
- And then finally, we think about individuals—this is where we take the perspective of what is the psychological processing of the individual. What is their behavior? How are they feeling? Are they feeling included? Do they feel a sense of safety or not?
I think what’s so important about using this framework is that we have the opportunity to think about all the ways in which these different levels of culture are constantly interacting with one another, and they’re mutually constituting. So, they’re making each other up—people are both shaping and being shaped by culture. And of course, we can think about this at the broad, national level, or for anyone who has traveled abroad, or experienced a culture clash—those moments can be really salient, yet we also know that these different cultures are emerging even within organizations, even within subgroups within organizations. And so, by using this framework, by thinking through a cultural lens, we can begin to get a more complex and nuanced understanding of human behavior, because we are paying attention to these broader factors that we know are shaping human experiences.
Zach Coseglia: Before we dive even deeper into cultural psychology and talk about some of the ways in which you’re applying your deep, deep knowledge in practice, I want to talk a little bit more about behavioral science. So, you’re a cultural psychologist—you started off on a slightly different path. How do we define “behavioral science” more holistically?
Caitlin Handron: I’d say “behavioral science” is an umbrella term that captures a lot of different fields—it draws insights from fields such as cultural psychology, but also anthropology, economics, and cognitive science, so, it really has its roots in a whole number of different fields. I’d say what has become very popularized and what it’s maybe best known for is behavioral economics and nudges. So, what has actually made it to the mainstream isn’t, perhaps, as comprehensive as the field itself is, but I’d say what really sets the behavioral sciences apart is the scientific method and the ability to develop hypotheses, collect data, reflect on that data, and really pull out those insights.
Zach Coseglia: For those of our listeners who maybe are more familiar with some of the more behavioral economic applications of behavioral science, talk to us a little bit about how the point of view is different. How is the point of view on nudge theory and behavioral economics different from cultural psychology?
Caitlin Handron: One reason even for the existence of cultural psychology was a recognition in the field that a lot of the research that was being done was being done on WEIRD samples—and by “WEIRD,” that’s an acronym that stands for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.” So, we had a wealth of information on a very narrow set of the human population, and so, cultural psychology emerged more or less out of necessity to say that there are ways of seeing the world, and behaving, and engaging that are very different than this Western WEIRD model that exists. I’d say what cultural psychology does in this space, and especially, I hope, with behavioral science, is to push us to challenge some of the assumptions that, just because we found it in one context, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to generalize or that it will be the same for other populations. And so, I also believe that cultural psychology sometimes challenges us to take a more, as I mentioned, complex and nuanced way of looking at things. So often in the behavioral sciences there can be this drive to try to simplify and reduce everything down to as few variables as possible, and, I think, we in cultural psychology deal with the messiness of there being multiple things at play in a given moment and trying to think through, “How do you actually preserve that complexity without necessarily driving to reduce it to just its core elements?”
Zach Coseglia: Just to level set for everyone, Caitlin was the first R&G Insights Lab hire. So, to set the stage, you applied for a job at a law firm, at a fledgling behavioral science and data analytics consultancy within the law firm that had only just really launched about six months prior. Tell us about that—why’d you do that?
Caitlin Handron: Why did I do that? No, it was actually the best move I’ve ever made. As I was applying for jobs, I had no background in law—this was brand new for me, and yet, I felt that psychology would still be relevant. I believe that to my core, that no matter where I go, in whichever context I find myself, especially cultural psychology and the richness that that perspective brings, it will be relevant. And so, what really stood out to me in the Lab, of course, was you Zach and your enthusiasm, and just the vision that you had for what this Lab could be and the impact it could have—I was so captivated by that. I think that as we look to the future and where things are going, both in terms of technology, but also globalization (our interaction with one another), I’d say that we increasingly need to have an interdisciplinary perspective, and have people working across lines, and being willing to enter spaces where they’re not necessarily experts or even vaguely familiar, and be willing to really forge those bridges, make connections, and make sure those insights that are developing and growing in different silos make it out into the world.
Hui Chen: I cannot tell you how excited I was when I saw the posting about Caitlin joining the Lab. And I am curious to hear, Caitlin, your thoughts as you started in this world of doing ethics and compliance: What’s your impression about how your expertise applies in this space, and how ready or not people are to appreciate this expertise and make use of it?
Caitlin Handron: I’d say that so far, there has been a lot of receptivity, which has just been so nice. It feels like the stage has more or less been set—the conversation’s already being had about culture, and it feels like I just got to enter in and start having some of my favorite conversations with folks. And it’s really nice to not necessarily have to start the conversation by selling why culture matters. There are some folks who, of course, don’t necessarily understand that perspective, but I’d say more often what I’ve encountered is curiosity and a genuine interest in, “How do you actually do this work?” And there are a lot of questions out there, I think beginning even with the question of, “How do you define ‘culture?’ What are we even talking about?” It’s just felt like a great fit, and I have really had a wonderful time so far getting to share everything I’ve learned, and share everything I’m excited about.
Zach Coseglia: So, what I’m interested in is, there’s a lot of talk about culture in the context of compliance. I want to talk about compliance first, and then we can talk about some other areas of organizational focus where culture is important, but in the context of compliance, the discussion tends to focus a lot on the culture of ethics and integrity within an organization. We don’t talk as much about the ways in which broader societal culture may impact the way that our compliance programs hit with people, but we know that people in one part of the world are different from people in another part of the world, and that those societal realities impact our organizational context. So, Caitlin, based on all of your work, I’m interested to hear if you think that there’s a role for that. And Hui, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too, having worked all over the world.
Caitlin Handron: I think it’s so important—and Hui and I have had this conversation, too. Even just the question of, “What does ‘ethics’ mean? What do we mean when we’re talking about ethics?” It can be so subjective, and it can vary across these contexts. And I think in the West, in Europe and in the U.S., in particular, we are somewhat culturally conditioned to not pay attention to culture. We have very strong individualizing narratives that tell us that we should pay attention to the individual and what they’re doing, and how they’re thinking and behaving. We really downplay how we’re being influenced by these broader contexts.
Hui Chen: It’s a great question that triggers a lot of different angles to look at this. I was also thinking a lot of times, people, for example, assume that the United States has one culture—well, try to put someone from Massachusetts and Alabama together. I have lived in different parts of the United States as well as outside of the U.S., in Europe and in Asia—they’re all different. I think unfortunately, we live in a very polarized time right now, and part of the reason that it’s polarized is precisely because people have different definitions of what is “ethical.” “What is the right thing to do in different circumstances?” So, I think when you’re talking about these different layers of context, the different layers of the four I’s, then you really have no choice but to appreciate how complex this is—it really isn’t something that you can boil down to, “If we just incentivize this, we’ll get that.”
Zach Coseglia: I look at it from my own perspective, and Hui, you know this part of my story, it is about being sent to live in Beijing and run a compliance investigations program on the ground over there, and also play a pretty meaningful role in building the proactive compliance program. And so, when I think about how culture first became an important force in my own work, it wasn’t in the context of, “Do we have a strong culture of integrity? Do we have a strong culture of compliance?” It was more, “Here we are in a completely different part of the world, trying to build a program that is at its core inspired by and driven by a very Western point of view.” That leads to clashes, and that leads to tension, and I think that not acknowledging that and not addressing it is a misstep—I think it’s a gap. What do we do to embrace the complexity, while at the same time drive meaningful change?
Caitlin Handron: I’d say the first step is to listen. And it’s important that in each of these different layers of culture and complexity to understand just where you are in the context, and to be asking the questions of, “How do things work around here? How are people feeling? How are they reacting to different situations?” I think, for instance, at the broad cultural level there is a wealth of information that you can gather about how things are done in a particular cultural context, but you can also ask and pay attention and find these things out. And then, in terms of how things are operating within the system as well as how it is interacting with those broader forces, I think again the answer is to ask questions, collect data, and to really try to paint a picture of how things are operating through the data to tell a story about what’s going on.
Hui Chen: I want to mention a conversation that Caitlin and I recently had with a potential client who was talking about some cultural concerns, and that was manifesting itself in all kinds of different ways in the organization. It reminded me of a story that I had heard about some ER doctors who noticed that they were getting these same kids with asthma attacks coming back week after week. And they started looking into it, and it turns out that these kids live in a building that’s infested with mold. So, you go in, you clean the building, and they stop having asthma attacks. By the way, after I told that story in our spontaneous conversation with the potential client, I actually went to look it up. So, there is actually an article in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology on this that went beyond the building—they were correlating ER visits with mold and pollen as recorded in the environment of a particular part of the state of Delaware. So, now you’re looking at two levels—the house they live in and the city they live in. I feel like a lot of times when we look at organizational misconduct, we’re treating it like the ER doctor. Every time you have an asthma attack, we come in, we give you an inhaler, you go home—we never go and fix that environment. I remember asking you, Caitlin, in that call, “So what do we do to inspect the building?” And your answer was, “It looks like we need to do that listening—that cultural assessment exercise is that building inspection, basically.”
Zach Coseglia: But what I like about it is, Caitlin, you say in a very simple way that, “I would start by listening.” I think that what you’ve described is very much a diagnosis—that’s where it starts. And that’s been in some ways, part of my frustration with this organizational culture compliance world that we operate in, is that there’s really not enough meaningful, intentional effort to diagnose the culture. I think there are a lot of assumptions made about culture—I think people rely on what they see, but what you’re really describing is something more intentional, really focusing on assessing the culture. And so to that point, I want to ask you a question, which is: What does that assessment look like? I think a lot of folks maybe have in their mind, “You’re going to tell me you’re going to run a survey.” So, what are you going to do, and why is a traditional survey not actually what you’re talking about delivering?
Caitlin Handron: I can begin by saying that our framework and our approach is very much rooted in the four I’s of the culture cycle, and it’s then an acknowledgment that, when we’re thinking about culture, we need to be thinking about it at multiple levels. So, when I say, “listen,” it’s listening not just to the people and to the leadership and what they ideally believe things should be, but it’s also “listening to the patterns of the organization,” and how decisions are made within the organization in terms of the policies and the procedures or in terms of the actions that the organization has taken. And so, there are really a lot of different layers where we’re analyzing and collecting data. So, to answer the question or to respond to the point about traditional survey methods, I think often the approach that is taken is to put together a long survey of questions asked on Likert scales, ranging from one to seven or from one to 10, strongly disagree to strongly agree, and to ask those questions to really gather as much data about the organization as possible from as many employees as possible. And I’d say what the shortcomings of this method are—there are a number—one being that the person asking the question really constrains what is possible in terms of the data collection. It’s really constrained to the types of questions that you’re asking. And then, we also know that people responding to these surveys can often be doing it rather mindlessly. The questions aren’t always as cognitively engaging as we would hope, and there’s also now this experience of survey fatigue.
At this point, people have taken a lot of surveys and are not only getting kind of sick of it, but they’re also beginning to question, “What’s the point? Where is all this data going? What change is actually being enacted with it?” And so when we collect data, we really attempt to merge both the qualitative and the quantitative. We like to ask a lot of open-ended questions to really allow the respondent to bring to the table what is most interesting and salient to them. And so rather than constraining it all through Likert scale questions, we ask open-ended questions like, “If you were to share with a close friend what it’s like to work in this organization, what story would you tell?” And then, we have respondents code and interpret those stories themselves, so that it’s not us as researchers interpreting the stories ourselves—it’s actually giving them the opportunity to tell us what it means to them and what it’s like working at this organization. That’s how we do data collection at scale, but as I mentioned, leaning on the four I’s, there is a lot of data that we would want to collect, whether it’s the information that’s provided on Glassdoor, to the information provided on the website, to information about the policies and procedures—there’s a whole wealth of information and data that we can be paying attention to.
Zach Coseglia: To take us home, the Better Way podcast is all about us finding better ways—it is about the journey to identifying and operationalizing better ways. So, one of those better ways that we’ve talked about today is cultural psychology as a tool in the toolkit. What are your key takeaways? What do you want to leave us with about how cultural psychology can have an impact, or what we can learn from cultural psychology to have an impact?
Caitlin Handron: Increasingly, we just can’t deny the deep interconnectedness between our brains, our bodies, and the environments in which we’re immersed, and so I think that we need to be paying a lot more attention to culture. That’s something that all of us have the opportunity to do—to take the step back and reflect not just on our organizational culture, but also our national culture, or whichever cultures we’re immersed in, and begin to pay attention to what those forces are that are shaping us, what we decide is good, right, and moral, and really take the time to become familiar with some of those broader influences so that we can ultimately have more agency. So, I think the more that we’re able to recognize the forces that are shaping our behavior, the better able we are to change and modify some of those forces for the better.
Zach Coseglia: I think the time has come for you to be the first person, other than Hui and me, to take our standard questionnaire, inspired by Proust, Bernard Pivot, James Lipton, and Vanity Fair—I’m trying to cite and credit as many people as possible for fear of being accused of appropriation. So, the first few questions, you have choices—you can answer one over the other. And then, there are some that are just standard. Are you ready, Dr. Caitlin Handron?
Caitlin Handron: I’m so excited—so ready.
Zach Coseglia: All right. So, your first two questions, the options are: If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? You can answer that, or you can say, “Is there a quality about yourself you are currently working to improve, and if so, what?”
Caitlin Handron: Going back to some of the points made earlier, I would love to know new languages. I just feel that language is such a beautiful way to get to know a new culture and a worldview. And something that’s been on my mind lately is the language of the people whose ancestral land I’m on—the Ohlone people in the Bay Area. I am just so curious about the stories and just all the history, and how much of that is embedded in the language, and so that’s something that’s been on my mind lately.
Zach Coseglia: Amazing—I love that. As someone who has tried to learn another language and failed miserably, I both admire both of you, and I think that’s a great answer. All right, so your second set of questions to choose from are: Who was your favorite mentor? You don’t have to say me—it’s fine, it’s okay. Or, who do you wish you could be mentored by?
Caitlin Handron: I have been so blessed. I’d say that three people came immediately to mind, and it’s impossible to pick, so I’m sorry—I’m just going to linger here for a moment. Sapna Cheryan at the University of Washington, I’d say was really my first mentor, and absolutely sent me on this path and really taught me a love of research and a love of rigor. She is very dedicated to doing things well and doing things right, and it’s just so inspiring, and I really have deep admiration for her and her work. And then, I would say Hazel Markus, my next advisor, who just completely expanded my worldview and exposed me to so much. She really has been so foundational in terms of how I think about the world and my research now. And then, Zach, of course I’m going to keep you in there. So, I would say, so much of just believing in myself, just really going out there and understanding that anything is possible and we can do it, and we can do it as a team, I just feel like I’ve taken so much encouragement from you in terms of not being afraid and being willing to go out there and just go for it.
Zach Coseglia: That’s really nice. That’s great—thank you. And on Hazel Markus, to be able to have the opportunity to meet one of your idols, and for her to inspire you in the way she did, and then for you to get the chance to work with her, that must have been pretty special.
Caitlin Handron: Absolutely.
Zach Coseglia: What is the best place where you have worked? Or, what is the best job, paid or unpaid, that you have ever had?
Caitlin Handron: I have been so fortunate because at each step along the way, I’ve felt like I’m in the best place I could ever be. And so I felt that way when I was at the University of Washington working for Sapna, and then I felt that way as a graduate researcher, I felt that way at SPARQ, and now I absolutely feel that way at the Lab. It feels like all of my life has led me to this moment—all the skills that I’ve been training and learning have given me what I need and want in order to succeed and thrive in this space. And so I especially want to shout out just our team, too. I think it’s such a fantastic team, and I wake up every day excited to get to work with everyone at the Lab. So, the Lab, absolutely.
Zach Coseglia: So, the next few are more rapid fire: What is your favorite thing to do?
Caitlin Handron: I love to do art. I do a lot of journaling. I do a lot of drawing. I recently have been doing a lot of watercolor—I’ve been doing octopus. I don’t know the plural and so I hesitated, but I’ve been exploring that through watercolor. Octopusses? Octopus?
Zach Coseglia: Octopi? I don’t know. What is your favorite place?
Caitlin Handron: I just got flooded with such a beautiful feeling of so many places that I’ve loved. I guess one that’s always near and dear to my heart is the Pacific Northwest. I grew up there, and I just think the land is so beautiful—I feel so much gratitude. Speaking earlier about the Ohlone people whose land I’m on now, I really appreciate that in Seattle, there is such a strong presence of the Indigenous People. I feel like that’s really shaped a lot of my worldview, and I just really value the time that I spent there.
Zach Coseglia: What makes you proud?
Caitlin Handron: I feel probably the proudest about being on teams that I really admire and look up to. I believe in the work that we do together, and I think it’s stronger because we are a team. And so I really take a lot of pride in the products we put forward.
Zach Coseglia: That’s great. All right, we’re going from deep to very shallow: What email sign-off do you use most frequently?
Caitlin Handron: I resort to “Thanks!” usually.
Zach Coseglia: What trend in your field is most overrated?
Caitlin Handron: This might be controversial—I am really excited and curious about what conversations are going to emerge when we begin moving away from talking about the brain in terms of system 1/system 2. I’m curious to know what’s possible as we transition to think beyond the dichotomy between those two. I think there’s a lot of really important and interesting work happening in neuroscience, and it’s just a question of, “How do we actually apply it in ways that are accessible and practical?” So, to Hui’s point earlier, that translation piece is so important. And so I think system 1/system 2 has been such a powerful tool in terms of helping us understand just how much of our cognition is happening outside of our conscious awareness. I guess I’m just curious now, given some of the misunderstandings that have emerged because of that, I think there’s a lot of expectation now that if we just lean more on system 2 or if we rely more heavily on that rational thinking, then we can overcome some of our biases, and I think some of those conclusions could use some challenging.
Zach Coseglia: Last question: What word would you use to describe your day so far?
Caitlin Handron: Fantastic. Today has been a day full of team meetings and getting to work with folks, and it’s just such a joy every time I get to speak with you all.
Zach Coseglia: Terrific. Thank you so much, Caitlin. You will be back, 100%, because there is so much more to talk to you about, but that is all the time that we have for today. Thanks to everybody for tuning in to this episode of the Better Way podcast, and for continuing to explore with us all of these various better ways. For more information about this or anything else that’s happening with R&G Insights Lab, please visit our website at www.ropesgray.com/rginsightslab. You can also subscribe to this podcast wherever you regularly listen to podcasts, including on Apple, Google and Spotify. And if you have thoughts about what we’ve talked about today or the work that we do in the Lab more generally, or if you just have ideas for better ways that we should explore, please don’t hesitate to reach out—we would love to hear from you. Thanks again for listening.