Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit

Inside the Science of Purpose: Dilip Soman

By Oren Shapira, Alex Shaw

In our continuing series of monthly posts on the NPP blog called “Inside the Science of Purpose,” we get access to our NPP network members’ minds and discover how they bring purpose into both their research and their own lives.

This time we interviewed Dilip Soman who is a Corus Chair in Communication Strategy and Professor of Marketing at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management.


Tell us in a few sentences about your NPP project.

My NPP project is in collaboration with Claire Tsai, and we are looking to develop an intervention that can help people stay motivated and engaged in long and complex tasks. These might include things like completing a volunteering assignment, an exercise regimen, learning a new language or skill, or a weight loss program. JDM [judgment and decision making – O.S.] researchers know about the “middle slump” in tasks like these – we start with much enthusiasm, and should we get to the stage when the end is in sight we typically roar to the finish line. It’s really in the middle when people lose focus and their sense of purpose, and are most likely to renege and give up.

JDM and psychology researchers also know a few things about motivation, so Claire and I would like to delve into that literature, convert some of our conceptual and experimental knowledge in that area into simple interventions, and then develop and test a smartphone app based on these interventions. If our work can help people stay on track with their intentions, we will consider it to be a success.

research purpose motivation accomplish achieve goals success progress focus research wellbeing intervention

Professor Dilip Soman

How do you think this research can contribute to the understanding of purpose?

I would argue that the perhaps the single biggest failure in human purpose occurs when people carefully set goals that they know they would like to strive towards, but they fail to accomplish many of these. The sense of motivation and purpose can be ephemeral and transient – often driven by cues from the context and task. Take the sense of progress, for instance, which we know is important for continued engagement. One of the first projects I worked on after finishing my Ph.D. was on progress and how people construe progress using a series of simple cues.

Understanding thoroughly what the various drivers of motivation are, what causes the “middle slump,” how important each of those drivers is, and what we can do to keep those motivation-switches on will allow us to practically help people stay engaged and accomplish goals. And goal accomplishment can be infectious; we believe that early successes can strengthen the sense of purpose.

Purpose is not something that has traditionally been studied in behavioral science. Do you think your work will help to make the subject more attractive and tractable for future researchers? Why?

We believe so. Purpose is a complex area, it has many facets, and can appear daunting. What we (and indeed other researchers on this initiative) hope to demonstrate is that one can decompose a complex concept like purpose into small, achievable blocks and tackle them one at a time. I believe that this family of projects can go a long way in giving the research community a vocabulary and a framework around which to organize their ideas on purpose.

Please consider the times when you personally feel the strongest and most satisfying sense of purpose in your life.  What do you find most helpful in promoting those experiences?

As an academic, I obviously love knowledge creation. But what gives me the greatest sense of purpose personally is the process and outcome of knowledge translation and mobilization. There is nothing more satisfying than being able to see that an academic insight you came up with can actually help people, say save more money or stay focused or make tough life decisions. The translation process isn’t easy and it takes time.

I personally am always searching for relevance. In interactions with colleagues, students and practitioners, one of the first things I try to assess is the question of how knowledge can be converted into a simple, meaningful intervention. I’ve learnt this from my advisors at Chicago and I hope to pass it along to my students.

Thinking broadly about all of your research interests, if money were no issue, what is the study you would most want to run?

I’ve been recently thinking a bit about the importance of major decisions – things like career, health, family, financial wellbeing. These decisions are important and many of us agonize over, say, which of two jobs to accept or schools to send our kids to. But I would argue that we have this implicit mental model that there IS a correct choice and our goal is to find it. I’m beginning to think that is an error, that we tend to overweight the importance of “the choice.” There are also a series of post-choice decisions that we need to make that will help shape the outcome of the choice. You could, for instance, end up at an inferior job but do well and actually succeed in your career; you could seek and find happiness in a city that wasn’t your top choice for places to live in. So I guess the study I would like to run is one which tests whether choices we believe are important in life actually determine success and happiness. As you can see, a good study like this one would need more than money!


Next month in “Inside the Science of Purpose” we will interview Professor Benjamin Converse from the University of Virginia Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy about his work on resolving the “urgent-important” conflict in goal pursuit.

Do you have a question for Prof. Converse? Please send it to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  and we may include it in the interview!


Oren Shapira is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit

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