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 Preeti Kotamarthi.
Preeti was the first Behavioral Scientist at Grab, the leading ride-hailing and mobile payments app in South East Asia. Over a period of 4 years, she has set up the behavioral practice at the company, helping product and design teams understand customer behaviour and build better products. She completed her Masters in Behavioral Science from the London School of Economics and her MBA in Marketing from FMS Delhi. With more than 9 years of experience in the consumer products space, she has worked in a range of functions, from strategy and marketing to consulting for startups, including co-founding a startup in the rural space in India. Her main interest lies in popularizing behavioral design and making it a part of the product conceptualization process. She also writes for The Decision Lab and hosts a podcast on applications of Behavioural Science (The Work Brain).
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I had a pretty typical path in the early part of my career. I had joined a large conglomerate in India, in their Corporate Strategy team, having just graduated from a fancy MBA degree. As a part of that role, I co-founded a rural start-up - an Uber for tractors. Many farmers in India cannot afford to buy a tractor, given how small land-holdings are, and end up renting tractors from their richer neighbours. Hence, this idea was logically right - give tractors on rent to small farmers. That’s where things got fun!
Here I was, a marketing enthusiast, roaming around villages in India convincing farmers to take tractors on rent from us, instead of their neighbours. What could go wrong? Turns out everything! What seemed like a logical solution to us was not accepted by our users and not just that, I also quickly realised a lot of what we had learnt as marketing truths in our MBA were not exactly working out with real customers. It seemed like consumers were not as perfectly rationally as the books believed them to be.
That’s when I stumbled on to Behavioural Science - in an attempt to understand our customers better. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I quit my job and landed in a Masters program in Behavioural Science at London School of Economics. I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I was only fuelling my curiosity about consumer behaviour. But somehow, that path worked out and here I am!
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
I was the first behavioural scientist at a tech company with more than a 1500 employees at the time. An even bigger irony was that the person who hired me quit before I even joined! That’s good and bad:
Bad because no one knew what I was supposed to do.
Good also because no one knew what I was supposed to do!
Faced with multiple challenges of establishing myself in a new career, in a company that hadn’t done this before, in a country I hadn’t lived in before, under a manager who didn’t know what I could bring value to - I think my biggest accomplishment was overcoming this to systematically think through how behavioural science must fit in a tech, product company from scratch.
Finding low hanging fruit, running experiments with product managers who were willing to listen, doing fundamental research and convincing everyone about the need to understand consumer behaviour better, training large design teams to understand the value of behavioural design and finally, making a convincing enough case to actually hire and create a team - it was a long journey, but something that taught me a lot about what it takes to move from behavioural science books to applied behavioural science.
And that’s my passion now - helping companies establish behavioural science units and integrating them into the process and most importantly, guide companies to think about behavioural science as a legitimate career path for young people.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
As adventurous as I would like to imagine myself to be, I think it’s safe to assume, I would have continued on my path of a corporate career in Strategy and Marketing, finding new business problems to solve and going about doing that in a logical way.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I am an ardent believer in streaks, despite all the literature that proves they don’t always work. I enjoy maintaining long streaks and often see myself picking up a lot of habits because of my need to maintain streaks (sometimes even meaningless ones). From running regularly to skipping to reading, I have done many rounds of such habits.
The most annoying one, though, has to be my French learning streak on Duolingo. I am on my 575 day streak there and I am ashamed to say, I stopped progressing in learning actual French a good 200 days ago. I just login daily to do the bare minimum, to keep it going and stop Duo, the moody owl mascot, from getting angry.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
Behavioural science is at a point of inflection - more and more companies are recognising the need to integrate this into their processes. At the same time, accessibility to knowledge has also reduced the subject to a form of a toolbox. Most generic online training programs in the subject project behavioural science as a toolbox of solutions. It’s a lot more nuanced than that.
I think a dedicated behavioural scientist should bring a lot more to the table than just nudges and biases. They should be able to understand behaviours in different contexts, create frameworks that explain the various factors that impact behaviours, use data to find patterns, be able to bring in nuances about how and when behaviour can be influenced and the need for rigorous experimentation to back all of this. And most of all, help companies think beyond nudges as the only value that behavioural science provides.
The other extremely important role a behavioural scientist should take, irrespective of whether they are explicitly asked to or not, is that of a guardian of ethics. Businesses will use whatever it takes to help them reach business goals. It’s up to a behavioural scientist to be that person who reminds the company about ethical implications.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
Based on my experience of working with startups, I have seen that:
More and more companies want to set up dedicated behavioural science teams.
But in order to do this, they want experienced professionals with backgrounds in the subject, making the entry barriers very high.
Fresh graduates from very good courses often ask me how they can get entry into a behavioural science role when the basic requirements are for PhDs or Masters with experience. I have come to the understanding that most new fields go through this journey - Data Science, User Research, People Analytics - been there, done that!
I hope that Applied Behavioural Science follows the same path as these fields and over the next 10 years:
Becomes an integral part of companies as an established, dedicated team with a certain career path (and not just an experimental one).
As the current crop of “experimental” behavioural scientists establish themselves, they start building teams and opening up the hiring criteria to bringing in fresh graduates, encouraging more young folks to pursue the subject.
The subject itself will evolve to become more practical, more data oriented and move away from dependence on academic literature. With new fields such as crypto, metaverse and AI, it’s a matter of imagination to see how behavioural science will fit in here.
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field?
Be curious, read a lot and constantly think about how you can convert academic literature into actual applied solutions.
Go beyond nudges and biases. You know behavioural science is a lot more than that! Help others understand that.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I have immense respect for applied behavioural scientists, especially those who had the unenviable task of establishing behavioural science units. I would love to read about their journey into this. Some I can think of -
Maya Shankar - First Behavioural Science Advisor to UN, Director at Google and founder of White House Social and Behavioural Sciences team
Peter Fagan - Very curious to learn more about his work on NFTs and the use of data in understanding behaviour better
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Preeti!
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!