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Interview with Neela Saldanha

Behavioural Science 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 interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Neela Saldanha.

Neela is an independent consultant. She is currently a Senior Advisor at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, a research and advisory firm dedicated to advancing and applying behavioral science in the Global South and a board member at The Life You Can Save, a non-profit that inspires and empowers people to take action in the fight against global poverty. Before this, she was the founding Director of the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change at Ashoka University, a centre funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Neela has more than fifteen years of experience in the private sector across consumer insights, branding, strategy consulting and sales. She has worked with leading consumer packaged goods multinationals Nestle, Unilever and PepsiCo and with strategy consulting firm Accenture. Neela has an MBA from IIM Calcutta and a PhD in Marketing (Consumer Psychology) from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.


Who or what got you into Behavioural Economics/Science?

After many years working in marketing, I went to do a PhD in marketing (consumer psychology). I thought I was going to research branding, consumer strategy, that sort of thing. But my mind was blown when we read our first papers in what I now know as behavioral economics - Prospect Theory by Kahneman & Tversky, the work on mental accounting & the endowment effect by Richard Thaler and so on. It seemed so foundational and I wondered how we had done MBAs in marketing with no exposure to how people think and make decisions and choices.  

What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural economist/scientist? I would say setting up the Centre for Social and Behavior Change (CSBC) at Ashoka University in India recently. This was funded by the Gates Foundation. I was proud to set up the centre, shape the direction and form some great partnerships with the Busara Centre for Behavioral Economics and Yale Centre for Customer Insight to bring more behavioral science to India, especially in areas of communication for health, nutrition, financial inclusion and other social challenges. 17% of the world's population is in India and yet behavioral science is only starting out there. I am so proud to see initiatives growing to grow behavioral science - for communication, policy, design and more in countries like India.  

If you weren’t a behavioural economist/scientist, what would you be doing? Probably continuing along in my profession and being a marketer, "learning" some behavioral science & psychology through anecdotes & experience. Though sometimes I think I may have made a good lawyer!  

How do you apply behavioural economics/science in your personal life? Too many to count! I took the studies on happiness seriously and both my husband and I have prioritized not having a long work commute because the data are so strong on that one. I don't stock tempting snacks at home, from all the work on self-control & environmental changes. I am trying a commitment device - my daughter (on my request) has hidden the chocolate I binge on and she gives it to me only once a week (again at my request). I told her I would beg and threaten and yell but she was not to listen to my elephant self at that point -she reminds me we have a "contract." So far it's working! And finally, behavioral science experiments are wonderful bedtime stories - my daughter knows about the marshmallow experiments, the Stroop task and much more! 

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

I would say it is a combination of content, technical expertise & domain knowledge. Content - you should know the theories, and not just from reading the books (which are very useful and entertaining) but by going to the source papers. Take classes in social & cognitive psychology if you can in addition to economics classes. Technical expertise - learn the ins and outs of running experiments, analyzing data and also (this is new for me) how economists view data vs. psychologists - sometimes we use different terms for the same construct! Run experiments, replicate famous ones. Learn about emerging technical areas e.g. machine learning. And finally don't ever forget the domain knowledge - how can you apply behavioral science to a situation or problem? For this, you need to understand where the discussion is in that field - whether marketing or organizational behavior or development & poverty alleviation or any other that you are thinking of applying behavioral science to. Unless you know the domain area well and understand the problem, you will be like a hammer looking for a nail.

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

After reading all the work on predictions, I will offer none. However, I see many interesting opportunities and hope behavioral science will develop in those directions. For one, I think we need to broaden the definition of behavioral science from choice architecture to questions of motivation & goals, identity and habits. Second, I hope to see more research in non-WEIRD contexts (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich Democratic - thanks Joe Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan for that memorable term!) . Finally, I see some very interesting interactions between data & behavioral science and think that in the future nudges will be much more segmented than they are now. Data will tell us where to play and behavioral science, how to play.

Which other behavioural scientists/economists would you love to read an interview by? I would like to hear more from the marketing & psychology community to complement the economics community and from some folks who are actually implementing this work in non US & European countries.

Some of the folks I would love to hear from are:

Cait Lamberton at the Wharton School who always has thoughtful things to say about behavioural economics & marketing. Dilip Soman at the U of Toronto Rotman School who has built a really successful centre for behavioural economics and done some great collaborations with the Canadian government. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, who has done fascinating work across cultures & food habits. Ravi Dhar at Yale School of Management again leads a great centre – the Yale Centre for Customer Insights and really has a great perspective on the future of behavioural science given his extensive consulting with companies as well as being a prolific researcher. Finally, I would love to see an interview with Ned Welch, who was at McKinsey and now at the U of Toronto, and who has a really great academic-practical side to using behavioural economics.

I would also like to hear from Saugato Dutta at ideas42, Chaning Jang & James Vancel at the Busara Centre for Behavioral Economics, Pavan Mamidi at CSBC, and Fadi Makki who founded the first nudge centre in the Middle East. I think we could learn a lot from their experiences applying behavioural science in countries in Africa, Middle East and in India.

And in practice –the inimitable Rory Sutherland at Ogilvy Change of course, Matt Wallaert at Clover Health, Jason Hreha, and many more.


Thank you so much for these amazing answers Neela! As I said before, this interview is part of a larger series which can also be found here on the blog. Make sure you don't miss any of those, nor any of the upcoming interviews! Keep your eye on Money on the Mind!


Behavioural Science

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