Preeti Kotamarthi

Preeti Kotamarthi is the Behaviour Science Head at Grab, Singapore. She is the co-host of ‘The Work Brain’ podcast. She is also a staff writer at The Decision Lab.

What motivated you to work on Behavioural Science?
I followed a pretty typical path in India – doing my Engineering, followed by an MBA in Marketing and then landing a Marketing/Strategy job in a large conglomerate in India. A major part of my job involved spending time in rural India and marketing products there. That’s when I started realising that our standard marketing knowledge needs to be amped up on more consumer behaviour insights. And I entered the rabbit hole of behavioural economics. The rest as they say is (not quite history), quitting a well-paying job, doing a second masters and reinventing myself in the field of behavioural science!

What do you think is the future of Behavioural Science in the next five, and ten years? What major challenges do you foresee?
With the kind of interest the field has garnered over the last few years, particularly this last year, I foresee this to become mainstream in many ways. But for me, personally, the biggest win is when every team is equipped with knowledge of the subject and knows exactly how to apply it in their work. For instance, in a tech company, everyone from designers to product managers are actually trained on the basic aspects of the subject. Then the role of behavioural scientists will actually be to focus on new research, finding new paradigms of consumer behaviour that when passed on to any team, gets integrated into their workstream, because they know exactly how to use the knowledge.
The challenge in my opinion and also in my personal experience is crafting the right career paths for people entering this field. From the initial fascination of starting a behavioural science team in the company to actually being committed to it and ensuring young, excited people get a chance to grow into roles that they dream about, I think that’s a journey many companies have only started on and needs a lot more thought.

Which behavioural scientist(s) do you admire the most and why?
The two behavioural scientists I admire the most are incidentally women.
I absolutely love everything Katy Milkman publishes. Her work on temptation bundling and more recently on COVID vaccine uptake is inspirational and more importantly, very very practical with many repercussions across industries. Her podcast, Choiceology is also a treasure trove of information. She has a book coming out soon and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.
The other behavioural scientist whose work I follow religiously is Kristen Berman from Irrational Labs. Her focus on making the tech industry more behavioural focused is amazing. I learn a lot from her tweets and her talks. She is very practical with her recommendations and makes sure complex behavioural science theories can actually be put to use.

What advice would you give to a beginner in Behavioural Science? What are some of the crucial skills one has to develop to succeed in this field?
My two pieces of advice for anyone joining this field would be:
1. The field is constantly evolving and changing by the minute. At no point will this end. It is important to keep track of the latest developments. Keep reading the research, follow all the leaders in the field and keep yourself updated.
2. There is no absolute result in this field. Never make the mistake of saying this theory works. Everything is context dependent. The best answer you can give as a behavioural scientist is, I don’t know, but it’s worth experimenting.
In terms of crucial skills, the one thing that I have had to constantly learn on my job is analytical skills. The subject of behavioural science sits at the Venn diagram of a lot of fields (e.g. design, marketing, user research, data science), but no matter which Venn diagram you draw, the constant circle will be the ability to look at data objectively and drawing the right conclusion. So, learn statistical softwares like R. It’s a big advantage.

If you were starting your career again today, what would you do differently?
The community of behavioural science is amazing. I learn a lot from other people in the field. I feel like I may have entered that game late. If I could do it again, I would start out there. I would start out by reaching out to others in the field, keeping in constant touch with them, sharing frameworks openly and adopting what the others are doing.

What books/publications would you like to recommend to our readers? (around 3)
There are the standard bibles that everyone recommends, such as Thinking Fast and Slow, Predictably Irrational and Nudge. My personal, all time favourite behavioural science book is Scarcity by Senthil Mullainathan. The book absolutely changed my world view on not just the subject but how to look at poverty, how to look at scarcity, how to understand different aspects of bandwidth. I also really enjoyed reading Matt Wallaert’s Start at The End. It seemed like a very practical guide to applying behavioural science, baked in tons of experience.

What is your favourite quote in Behavioural Science?
Consumers don’t think how they feel. They don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say. – David Ogilvy

How do you apply the notions of Behavioural Science in your personal life?
I wish I could have had a more substantial answer here. I do manage to do minor things here and there that are inspired by what I read. For a while, I was going to the gym regularly, only because I told myself I could watch Gilmore Girls (my guilty pleasure) while working out. That’s temptation bundling. That worked but then, COVID came and I stopped. The one thing I have been trying to do this year, is a streak of skipping everyday. There are days when I do a 1000 skips and there are days when I do only 10 skips, but as long as it’s non-zero and my streak is maintained, I sleep in peace.

If you could interview any one fictional or historical figure, who would you choose and why? (optional)
I find myself giving a lot of references to Seinfeld during my talks, because I feel like his observational humour style lends itself very well to any talk on consumer behaviour. I would love to interview him to understand how he manages to latch on to those insights. I have a feeling as consumer behaviour experts and user researchers, we might get a lot of tips from that!
For example, his morning guy/night guy clip is a perfect example of Present Bias.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on. (optional)
That behavioural science can fit in every part of the organisation. (Product, design, data science, marketing, human resources, finance, investing). It’s totally dependent on how far you are willing to take it.

Tell us something interesting about yourself most people don’t know. (optional)

I am a huge closet Carnatic music a cionado and I recently started learning classical violin. My neighbors would be testimony to how bad I sound currently, but I will get there at some point, hopefully!

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