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  • Writer's pictureMarie Brand

Leveraging Curiosity and Pondering Questions of Morality – a Conversation with David Soberman

Written by Marie Brand, PhD Candidate at WU Vienna

Throughout my Ph.D. journey, I've been lucky to have had conversations with many brilliant people. When you sit down with David Soberman, it immediately feels a bit different. You can start with an innocuous question like the difference between quantitative and behavioral researchers in marketing, but by the end of an hour-long conversation, you will have talked about Taylor Swift concert tickets, how marketing and morality intersect on issues like tobacco consumption, free speech, propaganda and echo chambers, climate change, and insights from his job as an Area Editor for IJRM.

Can you tell me a bit about your career?

"I have a somewhat weird perspective on the field of marketing. Among academics, I'm known as a businessperson, and among business people, I'm known as an academic."

David spent 10 years as an engineer before catching what he calls the "academic bug," which seems to be hereditary (both of his parents were professors). Initially fascinated by psychology and behavior, he wanted to get away from the quantitative side. However, being an engineer, he was pushed to become a quantitative marketer by his advisor and is now primarily a game theorist and quantitative researcher."

"When I started doing my PhD, I thought, 'What the hell have I done here?' You know, the first time you go skiing, you can't even do a snowplow and you fall on your face, but then once you figure it out, it's actually a lot of fun." – David Soberman

Where do you think the marketing field is going?

"One of the things that makes marketing interesting is that there are multiple fields involved. You certainly have the two main fields, psychology and economics. But sociology, neuroscience, and computer science are now all contributing... bringing behavioral concepts into quantitative research or using quantitative analysis in a psychological context is an important source of progress."

How much of a role should one’s own morality or political opinions play?

"There are political opinions that I have, which I try to separate from the academic questions that I'm considering as a marketing professor. Marketing is a discipline that can be used to peddle evil or can be used to peddle good things or it can be used to handle things that are sort of morally neither good nor bad. And if you want to understand the mechanisms and further knowledge, you need to divest yourself from it to a certain degree."

For example, David talks about the tobacco industry and how some of the most brilliant insights about the psychology of marketing and branding were developed by tobacco companies.

"I think we're trying to understand how the human mind works, how people make choices, how exchange takes place, how people evaluate products and services afterwards, and sometimes these products and services can be bad. There are big issues out there, from climate change to false information. Marketing is trying to figure out how all these things work. What governments and policymakers need to do is try to figure out regulations that would help to protect people. We've done that with tobacco, and with a lot of prescription medicines. Other topics are a tougher nut to crack. But it's definitely doable. It's just that you're gonna need a lot of commitment from people to do it."

How do you approach your job as an Area Editor for IJRM, and how do you separate the chaff from the wheat in submitted papers?

David says two things can kill a paper in the desk rejection stage. The first one is "Who cares?" The second one is, “is it wrong?” If something is just wrong, that is an easy one to reject. The first one is much trickier to answer, and you have to be very careful about how to approach it.

"When you read the paper, obviously, there are things that would interest me, and if I'm interested, then that passes the 'Who cares' test. Even if I personally don’t find something interesting, I've got to imagine that I'm a person who works in this area. Is this something that I would find interesting?" - David Soberman

After a paper doesn’t pass the "Who cares?" test there are two more reasons for a desk reject David explains; if something is just plain wrong or if it is deemed too obvious to be interesting. But whatever the decision is, David says he tries to make sure that the feedback he gives will help the authors make the work better.


Meet David Soberman

What would you be doing if you weren’t in academia?

Well, you know, I worked in marketing, and I worked in the beer industry, making ads, and I really liked it. I think I'd probably be in some kind of internet-based startup company trying to provide people some kind of service online.

What do you appreciate most about your career?

I think for me, the big thing is that if I ever stopped being interested in learning, then I might as well be dead. The nice thing about being a professor is that you can always learn, and you don't even necessarily have to learn about marketing, especially when you're an old guy like me.

What is one big answer you hope to find by the end of your career?

One big question for me would be, what can I do to spark curiosity among my doctoral students? People who get into a school like the University of Toronto are going to be really smart, and if you add curiosity to the mix, they can do amazing research.

If you could have a conversation with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you ask them?

I'd have liked to have met Albert Einstein, I'd like to have met Winston Churchill, and I'd like to have met Jesus Christ. Two Nobel Prize winners and then the guy who's probably had the most influence on the world, for good or for bad.

Kind of like Monty Python, I would ask, what is the meaning of life? Why are we here? And what's the purpose of our existence? They'd be quite equipped to help answer that, and I think that would be a great discussion to be a part of.


This article was written by

Marie Brand

Ph.D. candidate at the WU, Vienna

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