Research Heroes: Dilip Soman

DS-Imag1Our first Research Hero of 2016 is Dilip Soman who is a professor at the Rotman School of Management and the Munk School at the University of Toronto, and the co-director of the university’s Behavioural Economics in Action research cluster. His research interests are in the area of decision-making, financial wellbeing, health behaviours and inclusive innovation. He is the author of several books, including the recently published The Last Mileworks with several governments, businesses and NGO’s in the area of behavioural insights and teaches an open online class (MOOC) on Behavioural Insights. In his past life, with degrees in engineering (B.E., Bombay), management (MBA, IIM) and the Behavioural Sciences (Ph.D., Chicago), he has worked in sales and advertising, consulted for several organizations, as well as taught at the University of Colorado and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He currently serves as a senior policy advisor at the Privy Council Office of the Government of Canada.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career…

….to spend a lot more time studying, understanding and developing (one’s own) philosophy of science. Many graduate students get thrown into a massive drift of domain specific knowledge right from the get go. And today, with all the pressures of publishing and getting started with your research early, there is even less of an emphasis on understanding the philosophy behind everything we do.

I most admire academically…

Richard Thaler. He hasn’t written as many papers as he could have over his career, but he taught us to try and make each paper important and meaningful. I could cheat and give you more names, but I’ll stop at the “most” admired.

The best research project I have worked on during my career…

The early work with John Gourville on transaction decoupling and payment depreciation. We were able to out some structure on the mental accounting model, and we had a lot of fun working on those papers. In one of the papers, we received data from a theater company on ticket sales and attendance. The data came in several shoeboxes stuffed with ticket stubs and paper order forms, and it too eons to get it into usable form. We did a number of other field studies (many which never made it to the paper) on ski slopes and at cricket games.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career…

Honestly, none! There were some I fleetingly felt I should never have done, but on deeper reflection I learnt even from the ones that didn’t work out for whatever reason!

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research…

I won’t zero in on one, but doing fieldwork is always throws up the best moments. I did a bit of work in India a few years back on savings and healthcare behaviours. Many of the field studies didn’t work out given the sheer difficulty of achieving experimental control, but in a very small way we were able to change people’s lives and the happiness and gratitude they expressed more than made up for the unsuccessful studies!

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…

Sometime in 1999, I received a paper on Dual Processes in Cognition to review. I was suitably confused as to why I had received it and politely wrote to the editor saying that I didn’t feel I had the expertise to review it. Several years later, I found out that Steve Sloman had received a paper on mental accounting to review and was similarly suitably confused! Unlike me, he told me that he labored through and completed the review. These were the days of manual paper processing, and clearly someone had confused Sloman and Soman!

A research project I wish I had done…

In many situations in life – in decisions relating to health, family, careers – we spend a lot of time agonizing over choices; and we do so with the implicit belief that there is some “truth” underlying each option and our job as decision-makers is to find the correct option. I’m beginning to think that we tend to overweight the importance of “the choice.” There are also a series of post-choice decisions that we need to make that will help shape the outcome of the choice. You could, for instance, end up at an seemingly inferior job but do well and actually succeed in your career; you could seek and find happiness in a city that wasn’t your top choice for places to live in. So I guess the study I would like to run is one which tests whether choices we believe are important in life actually determine success and happiness. As you can see, a good study like this one would need more than money!

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…

A physicist (I turned down admission to a Physics program to study Business) or a not-very-good cricket player.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years…

Both rigour and relevance. As a field I think we need to do a lot more to formalize our models – not necessarily through math – and test them more rigorously. A lot of researchers today answer conceptual questions about their model with empirical data. And we need to be relevant to someone – policy, welfare, business, consumers… anyone (this doesn’t simply mean being applied applied).

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is…

Two – first, leave the comfort of the lab. There is a whole world outside that is overflowing with data. Even if you choose to primarily do lab experiments, go out and observe behaviour or identify phenomena that you can test. Second, you could do research that explains a lot of phenomena parsimoniously (but none perfectly), or you could do research that explains a phenomenon thoroughly (but doesn’t explain much else). While the world might push you towards the latter, I think the former lives longer and has much more of an impact!

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