Ying Zhang received a PhD in marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 2007. He completed his undergraduate studies at Nanjing University in China and was then award a Shell Centenary Scholarship to study at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, where he completed a MPhil in management studies. He is currently an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin.
Zhang uses experimental procedures to understand consumer motivation and decision making processes. In particular, his research examines how thinking about future outcomes influences consumers’ choice of actions in the present. For example, how thinking about future workouts influences food choice in the present.
One stream of Zhang’s research investigates how optimistic expectations impact people’s immediate actions. A general finding in the literature is that people are optimistic, believing that they will achieve more in the future than during a comparable period in the past. For example, people make new years resolutions despite the fact that they failed to keep their last year’s resolutions. How do optimistic expectations influence present choice of actions? Zhang’s research explores the conditions under which expectations substitute versus complement present actions. Thus, on the one hand, expectations of future goal pursuit justify present indulgence when they signal goal progress, but on the other hand, the same expectations increase the motivation to pursue congruent actions when they signal that the goal is important. For example, workout plans justify present indulgence when they signal progress but they motivate similar actions (e.g., eating healthy dinner) when they signal that the goal is important. Moreover, because people expect to do more in the future, optimistic expectations exert greater influence on present choices than retrospection of past goal pursuit.
A related question concerns the underlying reasons for people’s optimism. In addressing this question, Zhang’s research explores a possible cause for people’s optimism. His research proposes that in order to cancel out the effect of upcoming obstacles in goal pursuit, people adopt a more optimistic performance standard, which motivates increased effort input and consequently better outcome. Functioning as performance standards, optimistic expectations serve as a self-control mechanism that motivates high level of effort when people foresee increased need for effort in goal pursuit. For example, Zhang found that when a task is boring but important, people expect to perform better if they believe the task is difficult, compared with when they believe it is easy, and indeed they invest more effort in completing the boring task.