What Works, What Doesn’t (and When): Q&A with Editor Dilip Soman

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Using seventeen cases where researchers applied behavioural interventions in the field, this book identifies not only what works but also what does not work (and why). Read the full Q&A about What Works, What Doesn’t (and When) by the editor, Dilip Soman.

Tell us about when the idea for What Works, What Doesn’t (and When) first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?

This book emerged at the confluence of two sets of ideas. First, Nina Mažar and I had previously edited a book in the series called Behavioral Science in the Wild. In that book, we make the point that behavioral science interventions might not always scale and translate across situations because of differences in the context in which the interventions were designed. The point we made there was that practitioners should watch out for differences in context.  

Second, several others and I had been thinking about the fact that our literature in applied behavioral sciences is extremely non-representative. In particular, we only publish successful interventions and not unsuccessful ones. As a result, a practitioner trying to gain familiarity with the science might overestimate the ease with which it can produce results. 

I was keen to put together a volume that did two things in response. First, I wanted to showcase specific features of context that might change behavioral interventions. It seemed dissatisfying to simply say that the results of interventions might not translate across context, so documenting what it was about the context was an important driver of this project.  

Second, I wanted the reader to get a taste of what it is that the applied behavioral scientist goes through in coming up with an intervention project. Where do they get the idea from, and how do they adapt it to suit the needs of the local context? Does the intervention always work? 

Therefore, I worked with the authors of this volume to put together case studies that highlighted both aspects – identified features of context but also told real stories about how those projects evolved from start to finish. 

Is there a particular case study in this edited collection that stands out to you?

I truly believe that the value of this book is in the collective and not in any individual case study. For instance, across the volume, you will find diversity in terms of where the interventions were carried out, in which domain they were carried out, and more importantly, whether those interventions succeeded similarly to the original studies that inspired them, whether the success was only partial, or whether, in fact, nothing worked at all. I’d like for the readers to take in the breadth of successes and failures as well as the breadth of applications because it serves to showcase the reality of both the power of applied behavioral science and the nuances and the resulting care that must be taken in applying it to any real-world situation. 

What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

I probably do not need to emphasize the obvious challenges of coordinating with 17 sets of contributors in this volume. However, I think the bigger challenge was to work with the chapter contributors to make sure that each of the 17 chapters was structured in a similar way and had pretty much the same format. As you might imagine, some of the sections in the case study were less relevant in some chapters than others. Likewise, some of the reporting instruments were less relevant – for instance, a study that had a simple two-condition design could have done without a flow chart explaining how the design worked relative to a study that had a more complex multiple-condition, multiple-arm design. It was therefore tempting for some of the authors to drop certain sections or underweight them. The challenge for me as an editor was to convince them that consistency in formats across the chapters allows the reader to more easily see the underlying issues and focus on what is most relevant to them.  

What Works, What Doesn’t (and When) by Dilip Soman
What was your experience like working with the editors at University of Toronto Press?

This is an interesting question because of the unusual situation that I found myself in. I served as the editor for this volume but in turn ended up working with the editors at the University of Toronto Press. I have nothing but fabulous things to say about the support I received from UTP. Everybody was always on the ball, very professional, and extremely helpful in helping me make editorial decisions about some of the chapters. 

What do you hope readers will take away from reading What Works, What Doesn’t (and When)?

I would like readers to take away two specific things. The first is that behavioral science is extremely powerful. Across the chapters, we have seen it being applied to all kinds of situations, including cash transfer programs, social assistance programs, helping individuals increase their savings, increasing heating efficiency in buildings, and many other contexts.  

The second thing that I would like readers to take away is the fact that not all interventions work all the time and that their success is highly context-dependent. To use a phrase we used previously in Behavioral Science in the Wild, I’d like to emphasize the dangers of ‘nudge store shopping’. Instead of just using an intervention off the shelf, I hope the book gives people guidance on how to adapt them successfully to the situation at hand and how to navigate the challenges they might face in doing so. 

Finally, I hope that the volume serves as a useful companion to courses in applied behavioral science. The family of 17 case studies would be ideal to teach across a semester or two so that students can grasp the nuances of how to do applied behavioral science.  

Read an excerpt of What Works, What Doesn’t (and When), edited by Dilip Soman, here.


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