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Meet Ethan Milne, Ivey PhD candidate

  • Communications
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  • Dec 15, 2021
Meet Ethan Milne, Ivey PhD candidate

Ivey’s PhD Program in Business Administration is a full-time research-based program designed to develop scholars and to place graduates at high quality research universities around the world. Our PhD candidates are showcased at conferences around the world, and regularly featured in top-tier academic and industry publications.

To help you get to know them, we’ve asked them about their academic and personal interests.

Get to know: Ethan Milne, HBA ’20, PhD candidate

Ethan Milne is no stranger to Ivey. He transferred to Ivey’s HBA program from the University of Waterloo’s Knowledge Integration and Science and Business programs in 2018. During his time at Ivey, he has made his mark as a research assistant, a writer and editor for the Ivey Business Review, and as a co-founder of Marlow, a medical device startup born out of a capstone project in the New Venture Project. Now he’s pursuing a PhD in Marketing and Consumer Behaviour and his research interests include consumer revenge, moral judgments, and prosocial behaviour

Q&A with Ethan Milne

What attracted you to Ivey’s program?

I really enjoyed my time as an undergraduate student at Ivey, especially in my Marketing and Analytics classes. However, I found myself constantly asking, “OK, but how do we know this works?” That led me to talk to professors; including Matt Sooy, Larry Plummer, and Neil Bendle; about their research and the PhD program. Through these conversations, I saw that research could be a viable career path.

After meeting with Kirk Kristofferson and Miranda Goode – now my PhD advisors – I was confident that Ivey was a good fit for me. Their philosophy of research and collaboration appealed to me, and I knew I would be able to work well with them. Two years later, I am extremely happy with my decision to pursue a PhD, and have learned an immense amount from my advisors.

What is your research focus?

My research focus can be roughly summed up as: people doing good things for bad reasons. I look at prosocial behaviours and find cases where the people doing them have ugly motives for doing so. For example, one of my projects involves expressions of outrage at immoral brands, and how such expressions may be motivated by a desire to look good or powerful rather than to cause positive change. While consumer activism is undoubtedly a force for good, it is also clear that it need not be motivated by pure altruism. 

Why is that area appealing to you? What big problems/issues need to be addressed?

The marketing literature about prosocial behaviours, such as charitable giving or consumer activism, misses that our good actions are often motivated by quite ugly desires. While it’s true that many people donate to charity in order to make the world a better place, others do so to satisfy deep feelings of rage, or to make themselves look more moral in the eyes of others.

From a research standpoint, this is interesting. How do you go about identifying when prosocial behaviours have those ugly desires? People have a direct incentive to lie – to themselves and others – about their own motivations, so it can be hard to measure when a good act has ugly motives. Figuring out what methods can get at one’s true motives is very interesting to me.

I also find this research appealing from a philosophical standpoint. What makes a behaviour “good,” or “prosocial?” Perspectives differ on this. Some would say the outcome of an action dictates its moral quality. Others might say the intent is all that matters. Some might say it’s a combination of intent and outcome together. These different positions are implicitly held by different scholars in the field of prosocial behaviour and understanding the values they bring to their research is interesting to me.

How do you see your research making an impact?

Consumers are human beings, and human beings are outraged, spiteful, and narcissistic by nature. Given how common these motives are, finding ways to channel them into good actions, such as charitable donations, can be very impactful.

How do you see research as an aid to business improvement?

All businesses face problems, and those problems can be solved in better or worse ways. The empirical question of which methods produce better or worse outcomes can be answered by researchers.

I think most businesses implicitly understand this. There are always analysts tasked with establishing the relative efficacy of different business decisions and presenting their findings to managers. These industry analysts are likely university-trained and relying on analytical techniques developed by researchers. Without academics to push the frontier of business analytics, businesses would be hampered in their ability to learn from experience.

My own style of research also contributes to business improvement by showing businesses that new marketing strategies are possible. I study novel marketing phenomenon that marketing professionals can leverage to create new ad campaigns, or change their practices moving forward.

What previous experience prepared you for this?

In high school and during my undergraduate program, I had experience with medical research. I had invented and patented a novel measurement tool for use in emergency departments and had a couple of publications in Annals of Emergency Medicine and Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine. While not marketing research, I had exposure to the process of generating research questions, identifying appropriate methods, getting ethics approval, and conducting statistical analyses.

I’ve also worked for Canadian Tire’s Financial Planning and Analysis division, analyzing the sales impact of store events and promotions across Canadian Tire, SportChek, and other stores in the Canadian Tire portfolio. This made me much more comfortable with the analytical component of academic marketing research. 

Where did you grow up and what was it like there?

I grew up in Goderich, Ont., a small town with a population of 8,000 on the shores of Lake Huron – a 1-1/2-hour drive from London. Growing up in a small town, I had to create my own opportunities. We didn’t have model United Nations, or DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America), or even a science fair in my high school. When no one else in my high school would do science fair projects, I did one myself and self-nominated to participate in the regional fair – ultimately winning a few medals at the national science fair.

Who have been your strongest influences in life?

My parents. I wouldn’t be half the person or researcher that I am without them.

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

I play four instruments: violin, guitar, ukulele, and the theremin, which is the instrument the original Star Trek theme track was played on. 

What is the most played song on your playlist as of now?

I can’t stop listening to 30/90 from the movie, Tick, Tick... Boom!, which is about the life of broadway legend John Larson. Andrew Garfield is a surprisingly good singer!

What is your best podcast recommendation?

I listen to a lot of podcasts, so this is tough to choose!

My go-to podcast is Blocked and Reported, hosted by Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog. It covers internet outrage at its worst (or best?). Because my research often touches on people being very angry, this podcast has been a great source for stories to motivate my research and keep me entertained on long car drives. I like it so much that I pay them money for extra episodes.

Some other favourites: Very Bad Wizards (philosophy and psychology), Two Psychologists Four Beers (psychology), Quantitude (statistics), and Decoding the Gurus (meta-criticism of other podcasts).

What book would you recommend to others? Why?

The Quick Fix by American journalist Jesse Singal has quickly become one of my favourites. Singal addresses a problem endemic in social science research: there is a strong social incentive for social scientists to overhype their findings as quick and easy solutions to complex social problems.

Singal looks at instances where policy-makers and the broader public bought in to psychological claims that outpaced the available evidence. There is a whole world of high-profile academics from eminent institutions, such as Harvard and Princeton, who take their research to a TED talk stage and begin making wildly unsubstantiated claims. In one case, Singal shows how a self-esteem intervention designed for children was quickly adopted by the U.S. military as a way of preventing veteran post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There was no reason to believe this would ever work, but the researchers came from a prestigious university and were good at talking up their findings. In the process, they wasted hundreds of millions of dollars.

The solutions to important societal issues like PTSD, racism, sexism, or poverty will not be some quick fix like telling people to adopt a “growth mindset.” These problems are highly structural and require change at an institutional level, not highly educated professionals attending 30-minute seminars on self-love, or whatever other psychological finding is fashionable that week.

While Singal focuses on psychology more broadly, these same ideas apply to marketing as well. Marketing managers should be generally skeptical of researchers who claim that one weird trick will make your customers happier, your brand stronger, or your business more profitable. As marketing researchers, we also have a moral duty to not overhype our findings and waste everyone else’s time and money.

What tips have you learned for staying connected in an online learning environment?

Establish regular routines with the important people in your life! Some friends and I have a weekly Zoom call where we watch an episode of a TV show and chat. We just finished a full rewatch of Glee and have moved on to Riverdale.