On Amir welcomes challenges. He revels when the pressure’s on and he can bring a calm perspective to others. This coveted leadership trait is one he learned from a near decade serving as an air force pilot in the Israeli air force. And when it comes to staying curious to new things, he’s tenacious and always game to learn.
No surprise then that Amir thrives within all three areas of his work: Researcher, professor and behavioral scientist for big businesses. And while maintaining a hefty class load as a marketing professor for the UC San Diego Rady School of Management, his prolific research, which strives to understand how human behavior intersects with business, winds up in top-tier journals. Recent research published in 2021 in Judgment and Decision Making found that encouraging decision makers to consider what others might do—and why they might do it—can improve how we coordinate problems. But it’s his first “home-run” paper — “The Dishonesty of Honest People. A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance” which remains his favorite. This work attracted front-page coverage via the Science section of the New York Times and earned the 2012 William F. O’Dell Award. For context, only one paper receives this award annually in the Journal of Marketing Research.
With more research underway, becoming the Wolfe Family Presidential Endowed Chair in Life Sciences Innovation and Entrepreneurship feels like a huge honor and is gratifying, he says. “I care about the work I do. But the nice thing about the Chair is it means that someone appreciates what you do.”
Challenges at a Young Age
When asked about early inspiration for his work, Amir points to growing up in a small city outside of Tel Aviv, Israel, where he learned strength, stamina, and the power of a strong education. Ramat Hasharon was known back then for citrus groves and delicious strawberries, “the best in Israel,” he recalls. Since his boyhood, his culturally diverse hometown with beach proximity has grown into a thriving city of its own.
The environment he grew up in encouraged curiosity and asking questions. As he studied and learned within Ramat Hasharon’s “excellent” education system, he even tackled an experimental program by the Ministry of Education for research, while in high school. He lost himself in this work—developing cutting-edge statistical software to analyze data from biology experiments—which later drove a life and love of research.
Meanwhile, Amir’s dad served as an air force pilot for the Israeli air force and Amir followed suit. Several wars provided a backdrop and the peace process with Egypt felt big and “hard to beat.” When joining the military air force, at age 18, he served the mandatory nine to ten years required from Israelis, which felt big also. He wisely used this time, almost completing his computer science undergraduate degree simultaneously. “That curiosity which sparked in me as a child, kept me in this academic career, once I accidentally stumbled on it,” he says.
That stumble came from some serendipity, some boldness, and some strategy. He and his wife, also a budding academic, pursued academic positions at U.S. universities once Amir ended his air force service. With the hard choice of Harvard University vs. MIT Sloan, a friendship he formed with an Israeli faculty, who to his surprise had grown up 400-yards from his home in Ramat Hasharon, helped Amir settle on MIT Sloan for his Ph.D. in management science and marketing, which offered more research opportunities, versus the MBA degree he initially thought he’d go for. “I felt I never was really a student because I completed my undergraduate studies on the side. And actually, I got into the Ph.D. program at MIT and then quickly needed to finish up my undergrad.”
Finding a Home within Academia
As he went about his studies, and with his wife pursuing her Ph.D. also, he noticed gifts from what he’d left behind. He recalls that his death-defying air force service, which often required fighting for his and others’ lives, helped bring calm and perspective amidst exam pressure. “I looked at everybody in my study group and said: ‘Nobody's going to die. It's just an exam.’”
He also continued connecting with the Israeli professor, Dan Ariely, who became his advisor and then co-author of his proudest research papers. While Amir’s childhood friends went on to run startups—something he knew he’d enjoy and excel at, too—a love for research compelled him to stay within academia. His happy place he discovered included using large scale field experiments and field data with companies to address behavioral science questions.
When asked which of his 23 papers make him proudest, he struggles separating impact from pride. The paper about honesty had the biggest impact on the world and, he and his top three collaborators agree, is their mutually most successful paper. So as much as he’s proud of impact, he’s proud of how he collaborates—and how curiosity for what drives our behavior drove the concept.
The honesty paper evolved when Dan Ariely wondered whether Amir thought he was an immoral person for routinely breaking the speed limit as he drives. Amir rejected the notion; but the ensuing discussion inspired researching whether reminders of moral standards curb transgressions. Studies to test the idea formed when Nina Mazar, a post-doc student, joined the team which came up with their theory. When the NY Times Science section ran the piece on the front page it “felt good,” Amir recalls. “That was the first time I thought that what we do might matter beyond the academic community, and the one or two companies that bother to read academic papers.”
Big Impact from Big Behavioral Questions
Companies—and many beyond the academic community—do read his papers and because they tie so much to business and consumer decision making and our views and behavior around money. A recent white paper titled: “The Four Stages of a Pandemic Response” noticed that psychological changes we see within the pandemic also surface in marketplace behavior.
As Fiverr’s Chief Behavioral Science Officer, where he still serves part-time, Amir looked at the sentiment of messages sent on Fiverr. He wondered how, throughout the pandemic, communications might change. “People became nicer,” he says. “And while the initial logic was when you feel threatened, you turn to the community and become more communal, we realized a spike in empathy and compassion resulted too.”
This paper aligns with theories on how we cope with harsh situations and uncovered clues in which individuals and businesses can recover, he adds. He feels curious and excited to learn about what patterns exist when a situation becomes dire in your region vs. someone else’s region and vice versa. For instance, when India’s COVID situation was intensifying, he wondered if there would be an effect on positivity towards sellers from India. “There are a lot of interesting sub-questions to this. I am still reviewing the data.”
Previous research centered on what motivates tipping behavior. Amir and co-authors discovered that tipping—across the globe—is very norm driven and less about reciprocity. “Tipping is less about some strategic intent that the restaurant will treat me better in the future or something like that. It's really about norms.” And this kind of insight becomes helpful for businesses to guide tipping behavior. Amir adds that to encourage tipping in a global city like New York, you could use a strategic prompt or a norm-based prompt, just by changing the linguistics of the question. Instead of tipping the server for their effort, a restaurant can remind patrons that it is customary to do so.
In another related experiment with two previous Ph.D. students, Amir found a surcharge much more effective for encouraging customers to use recycled mugs than a discount. Why? Because the surcharge signals a norm exists that invites a surcharge. “So, you can affect positive behavior change by framing the incentives in a way that signals a norm. That's very powerful.”
In another field experiment currently underway, Amir is collaborating with a former Ph.D. student to demonstrate that the quantity-integrated selling format yields higher sales compared with the quantity-sequential selling format. That is, instead of asking whether you would like to buy something and then asking how many, one can simply ask how many would you like to buy? This work, including over 30 laboratory experiments testing various product offers and shopping contexts within a large, global IT company, teaches us about the psychology and structure of choice formats. The field experiment, involving hundreds of thousands of observations, yielded higher sales of a major office supply item amounting to over $1 million in revenue for the company.
Bringing Real Value to Big Business through Field Experiments
When sharing these kinds of intriguing findings, you see Amir’s relentless energy grow. He describes these intersections— when behavioral science research, field experiments, and big business intersect—as a “spectacular, three-way street.”
For these same reasons, he passionately collaborates with his Ph.D. students, present and past, and many go on to succeed in ways that big business and the media notice. Alumnus Pierre Sleiman Jr.’s company Go Green Agriculture with Hydroponics now sells lettuce to Whole Foods and Costco and invited a $25 million buying offer upon Sleiman’s graduation. The first product design for the packaging of live lettuce came up as conversation topic in Amir’s class—and he loves that connection. “You have this direct impact on the world, through the success of the students, and that's phenomenal.” Amir also serves as a faculty member for the Student Veterans Association, something he holds close to his heart as a fellow veteran—and someone who can understand the unique nature of this community. “We have a common language,” he says.
When teaching Lab to Market, Applied Market Research and various Ph.D. classes, he views his role as someone who is teaching smart, curious people how to think. “I teach not what to think, but how to think by throwing challenges at them and guiding them on how to solve them correctly,” he says. All courses he designs involve hands-on learning and instill in his students the vital role that positioning has in a company’s success.
With the pandemic still underway at the time of this article, Amir’s ongoing focus is on his students, research, and ambitions for the Rady School’s future. Given the growing success of his Ph.D. students, his own research interests and the excellence among his faculty peers, like Kanishka Misra and Karsten Hansen, he sees the Rady School leading the world at combining experiments with big data analysis to solve business problems. “This is the future, and Rady could quickly become a world leader in this direction,” he muses. “And I think that’s going to have a big impact.”