From Capstone to Think Tank

Mark Barrett ’16 often gets a puzzled look when he tells people he studied both psychology and economics. But his two majors at Loyola Marymount University were a perfect pair, he likes to reply. “One looks at how we think and behave, and the other looks at how we behave with scarcity and in markets. They work really well together.”

He uses both approaches in his work as a Research Assistant at the RAND Corporation, a policy research center and think tank. In the role, his first full-time job off the bluff, Barrett supports a major evaluation project for the U.S. Department of Education.

Barrett says his experience in psychology and economics has prepared him to excel in the world of professional research. The practice he got using statistics programs–SPSS in psychology, Stata in economics–serves him well on the job, he says. He also credits his psychology research methods course with helping him understand the fundamentals of experiment design and data collection. “It’s the mindset of being research-oriented,” he said. “Thinking about how to set up a question, how to ask it, how to progress with whatever data you have.”

He held numerous research positions as a student, including a Rains Research Assistantship. But Barrett’s most formative research experience was a senior capstone project in his “Psychology and New Technology” seminar. Taught by psychology professor Richard Gilbert, the course surveyed a range of new technologies and their impacts. One issue that captured Barrett’s attention was the unemployment crisis that experts predict, as artificial intelligence replaces human workers in some sectors. At the suggestion of Professor Gilbert, he focused his capstone project on a controversial but compelling solution to address the projected waves of job losses: a basic income guarantee, a government program that would cut citizens a monthly check with few strings attached. His research considered whether or not a policy like this would create a disincentive to remain in the workforce or continue working the same number of hours.

After a thorough review of existing studies on the topic, he and Gilbert found much evidence to suggest that a basic income would not significantly reduce recipients’ motivation to continue working. “There’s an intuitive belief that if people are given money, they are just going to sit at home and do nothing,” said Barrett. “But that is not what we have seen so far in this research, which is really promising.”

The project and its preliminary results were so compelling that Professor Gilbert offered him a post-graduate research position to continue it. “The data so far seem to support our hypothesis that a basic income guarantee does not significantly reduce participants’ motivation to work,” Gilbert said. “If this finding holds up, it could have a meaningful impact on a public policy debate that is likely to intensify as new technologies continue to disrupt the lives of workers throughout the world.” 

Professor Gilbert and his team continue to study the topic, though Barrett has since moved on to his position at RAND.

Although he is unsure of whether his next move will be graduate school or industry in data science, Barrett knows that he is in the right place right now. “If you can find something that you really enjoy in college and can find a way to make money from it, that’s pretty ideal,” he said. “But what really drew me to this position was knowing that at the end of the day, I’m helping a lot more people.”