Saturday, January 16, 2016

Dilip Soman: The Last Mile

Dilip Soman's "The Last Mile: Creating Social and Economic Value from Behavioral Insights" is a welcome addition to the emerging volume of books on behavioural science aimed at a general audience. The book builds on the Nudge and Choice Architecture ideas of Sunstein and Thaler by providing a detailed account of the concepts, experimental methods and evidence in behavioural science and the manner in which they can be applied in business and policy settings. The "Last Mile" is essentially the stage at the roll-out of a product, technology or policy where the main development work has been completed and now the basic nitty-gritty of human interaction takes precedence. For example think of Obamacare as a long-run legislative development compared to Obamacare as a set of insurance exchange websites being used by millions of people trying to process complex information. Soman uses the concept of Last Mile a device to explore the many ways in which human psychology interacts with the choice environment and the implications of this for practice.

The book is divided into three main sections: (i) The Theory of the Last Mile: Principles and Ideas from the Behavioral Sciences contains six chapters outlining key ideas including the main concept of the book (last mile issues), choice architecture and nudging, and the main concepts in the behavioural literature including the axioms of rational choice, inter-temporal choice, heuristics and biases and several others. This section functions well as a primer on behavioural science. (ii) The Methods of the Behavioural Scientist  provides a detailed account of lab and field experimental designs followed by a chapter specifically on how to conduct studies on intuition, judgement and choices. (iii) At the Last Mile: Engineering Behavioural Change describes the various methods utilised in the literature to change behaviour and in particular to de-bias judgement and choices. Chapter 9 uses the concept of Choice Repair to examine how choices might be improved in different contexts and this is developed in Chapter 10 through the idea of changing choice architecture. There is a lot of useful material throughout the section on practical applications of nudging in different contexts.

This is a very useful book that I would happily recommend to students or anyone in business or policy thinking about the applications of behavioural insights in their domain. The final section of the book discusses ethical issues and this is one area that I would have liked to see more on. It would also be good to get more treatment on the potential for poorly executed nudges to backfire. Having said that, the book does what it sets out to do very well. In terms of readers, it functions well as an airport read with an accessible style but the level of detail and conceptual depth makes it arguably more suited as a primer for people with serious intentions in this area.  It would certainly function very well as a companion to an executive education or MBA programme in this area and is probably the best book on this general area to recommend to business and policy readers looking to apply this work and will certainly be added to our programme in various ways. For example,. Chapter 13 deals specifically with retail and makes the book as a whole a very nice bridge between behavioural science, nudging and retail/marketing. A real strength of the book is the elucidation of a wide body of experimental literature across behavioural economics and psychology along with providing its relevance to application and even expert readers will likely be introduced to new material. In summary, I think this book will do a lot to bring the emerging literature to a wide business and policy audience and will facilitate a lot of useful discussions between different disciplines and sectors.

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