Interview with Dilip Soman

Behavioural Economics is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisation, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This series (a collaboration between Etinosa Agbonlahor and Merle van den Akker) features 12 behavioural economists and behavioural scientists whose work and research is at the forefront of the field. In today's interview the answers are provided by Dilip Soman.

Dilip is a Professor of Marketing and holds the Corus Chair in Communications Strategy at Rotman. His research is in the area of behavioural economics and its applications to consumer wellbeing, marketing and policy. As such, he is a member of the Behavioural Economics in Action Research Cluster (BEAR). He is also the director of the India Innovation Institute at the University of Toronto. He works with ideas42 and serves as advisor to a number of welfare organizations. Besides that he has authored several books. Despite being obviously busy, Dilip found the time to answer some question. Read his answers below:

Who, or what, got you into Behavioural Economics?

I started my Ph.D. work at the University of Chicago in consumer psychology and marketing in the early 1990's. The school had a "Judgment and Decision making (JDM)" tradition, and a number of my fellow Ph.D.'s (John Gourville, Jack Soll, Klaus Wertenbroch) were working on JDM topics that then became foundation pieces for what we call Behavioural Economics today. I was also fortunate to have faculty like Steve Hoch, Chris Hsee and Richard Thaler to turn to for advice. So I guess it was a confluence of where I was, my interests and the faculty that were around there that got me into the field.

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural economist?

On the knowledge creation side, I'm really happy with some of the early work that I did - first with John Gourville and then with Ph.D. student Amar Cheema - on deepening our understanding of both the conceptual basis of mental accounting and its applications.

On the dissemination side, it would have to the massive open online course (MOOC) entitled "Behavioural Economics in Action (BE101x)." The course has been running since 2013, and has seen upwards of 200,000 registrations across multiple versions. I've been able to reach learners in all parts of the world, upwards of 120 countries and territories. I'll confess it was a lot of work putting it together (without any tangible reward). But over the past few years, the reward of visiting with BE101x alumni in various parts of the world and the several stories of how that course encouraged many to take up the field are ample rewards!

If you weren’t a behavioural economist, what would you be doing?

I'm not sure. In my pre-Ph.D. life I has jobs in sales and service of engineering products, and then advertising, so perhaps one of those? 

How do you apply behavioural economics in your personal life?

That's an interesting question, but in my case I think its more a case of my applying my personal experiences and observations to developing a research agenda. I would say most of my research has been influenced by observations in personal life that then became bigger empirical observations and finally a topic for a research paper. Richard Thaler always encourages us to make sure that our research is about the world rather than about theory, and I guess I've always subscribed to that principle.

With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural economist? Are there any recommendations you would make?

Since our science is a science about humans and not about econs, the ability to keep an eye out on what it means to be human is definitely an important skill. I also do think there are a few other pillars to do this field well. 

How do you think behavioural economics will develop (in the next 10 years)?

I've to confess that I always hesitate to speculate given that I (and indeed, many humans) are not terrific forecasters. I do expect three things to happen. First, in the theoretical realm, I expect we will see a lot more work on the marketplace effects of human behaviours, not just empirical demonstrations of "humanness." Second, on the applied realm, I suspect we will see more of a convergence between our field and other, related applied fields (design, human-computer interaction, machine learning). Finally, I hope we get to a place where we won't need to repeatedly keep using the "behavioural" term in our field; that people realize the centrality of human behaviour in developing both economic theory and practice. 

Thank you Dilip! In the next interview on this blog we will hear from Andrew Oswald. If you cannot wait, or would rather get a business perspective on behavioural economics, check out the interviews by Etinosa here.