After suffering an hour-long commute back home after working overtime, I arrived home around 8:30PM to launch my Skype. Too tired to be nervous, I called my latest victim, Professor Dilip Soman, a man of many important titles, as soon as he logged on:
Q: You’ve turned down offers from other prestigious universities in favour of Rotman Commerce. What sets this school apart from others?
A: “… I think there are three things that I find compelling. One is, the University of Toronto is one of the most interdisciplinary schools that I’ve ever come across… In most universities you’re kind of locked into your own discipline or your own specialization area, but U of T tends to [have] a lot more collaboration across departments, across faculty members. That’s particularly appealing for the kind of research that I do…
Also… the research environment at the University of Toronto is very special thinking about the way we get funded, applied research is encouraged and the school doesn’t care only about being very good at publishing stuff, but they also care abut the impact that the work has on society…
I’d say that the third thing is the students… One is just the diversity. I mean it’s stunning. I remember when I first came to U of T… this was in 2003. What struck me was how incredibly diverse and well travelled our student population is… I remember I was telling my colleagues that it was almost like teaching at the United Nations… it’s not just visible diversity, but people’s experiences are truly diverse.”
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the research you’ve been doing in recent years here at the University of Toronto?
A: “… A lot of people ask me what I do, and I think the simplest way of describing my research is in the following phrase: my research helps people help themselves… Oftentimes, when we think about human behaviour, in various domains, like healthy eating, retirement saving, paying taxes on time… it’s not that people don’t want to do these things, but things get in the way… If I were a government or physician, how would I respond to this? The typical response would be to give people more information. When people aren’t saving enough for retirement, what does the government do? They will try and teach people about the importance of retirement savings; that’s what financial literacy is all about…
But my work shows that giving people more information doesn’t do anything because, in most cases, they know that they need to do it. So my team and I have been trying to understand how we can change things in the choice context to help people make better choices. Little things like presenting choices differently will increase the chance of people choosing the appropriate choice etc. So that in a nutshell is what my research is all about and I apply it to largely financial and health care decisions although we started doing work in a whole bunch of different areas as well.”
Q: If money were of no issue, what thesis would you research?
A: “Oh God, that’s a good one. I think more than money, there’s also a sheer practicality to it. So let me tell you about a problem I’m interested in studying that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do.
When you think about making decisions, like your decision to go do your internship at Deloitte and your decision to come to U of T, you had other options. A lot of times, people spend a lot of time and energy choosing. They do it in the belief that there is some ‘truth’ in the word that the Boston office is better than the Chicago office of Deloitte, or whatever that ‘truth’ that may be and the job in decision-making is to actually find the best option.
But in my opinion, people overestimate the importance of that decision. For example, if you went to Boston or Chicago, would that really change the quality of your life? I mean, maybe it will, but not to the extent that people might think it will. That would be a problem I would love to study.”
Though I never considered myself to be any sort of academic, having more strength in doing over thinking, I was intrigued by Dilip’s research. As our interview drew to a close, I felt regretful that I could only dig this fascinating man’s brain for such a short amount of time. However, I also felt proud that such unique research was going on at the University of Toronto and that we get to learn from such brilliant professors.