#181: The Science of Change with Katy Milkman
#181: The Science of Change with Katy Milkman
Do you want to create lasting behavioral change but can’t seem to make it stick? Katy Milkman, Wharton School Professor, bestselling author, and podcast host has dedicated her life to studying behavior change, and in this episode, she gives a science-backed blueprint of how to create lasting change and achieve your goals. In this episode, Hala and Katy chat about barriers to change and why humans are so impulsive. Katy shares science-backed strategies to help you create lasting change like temptation bundling, gamification, and the fresh start effect. Katy also dives deep into what she’s learned about encouraging others to adopt a behavior through nudging, and the powerful effect giving advice can have.
– What first got Katy interested in human behavior
– Relationship between engineering and human behavior
– What makes it so hard for us to change?
– Why are humans impulsive?
– Temptation bundling and gamification
– Commitment Devices
– The Fresh Start Effect
– Rigidity versus variability for habits
– Counteracting the “What the Hell Effect”
– Perspective on the power of negative thinking
– Why acting like a mentor can help you succeed
– How can we become advice-givers?
– COVID-19 Vaccine Adoption Research
– Katy’s actionable advice
– Katy’s secret to profiting
– And other topics…
Katy Milkman is a James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the host of Charles Schwab’s popular behavioral economics podcast Choiceology. She is also the co-founder and co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, a research center with the mission of advancing the science of lasting behavior change whose work is being chronicled by Freakonomics Radio. She is also the author of the best-selling book, How to Change.
She received her undergraduate degree from Princeton University (summa cum laude) in Operations Research and Financial Engineering and her Ph.D. from Harvard University’s joint program in Computer Science and Business.
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Katy’s Book: https://www.katymilkman.com/book
Katy’s Website: https://www.katymilkman.com/
Katy’s Newsletter: https://www.katymilkman.com/newsletter-milkman-delivers
Katy’s Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/katy-milkman/
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Katy’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/katymilkman/
Katy’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/katymilkmanphd/
Katy’s Podcast, Choiceology: https://www.katymilkman.com/podcast
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[00:00:00] Hala: Hey, Katie. Welcome to young and profiting podcast.
[00:00:02] Katy: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here. Thanks for having me, me
[00:00:05] Hala: too. I'm excited for this conversation. So for those who don't know you, you are professor at the Wharton school at the university of Pennsylvania, your Google scholar. You're an author of the bestselling book, had a change.
And your close colleague and fellow professor Angela Duckworth describes you as the smartest person she's ever. So your name has been referenced at least five times on my podcast. Before we talk a lot about human behavior, your peers often bring you up and before we dive into all your great work on change, I'd love to understand what first got you interested in human behavior.
[00:00:37] Katy: Oh, that's such a great question. I think honestly, I got interested in this in as a young person, just because I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. So a lot of scholars in this area are really doing, not just research, but a little bit of research and. When I realized there was a science behind optimizing my decisions and figuring out how to drag myself off the couch, into the gym and to make better financial choices.
And so on, then I got really excited because I'm an engineer by training and a data person at heart and finding this opportunity to sort of marry all the things I love, like understanding how to make life better with science. Was this really exciting revel?
[00:01:19] Hala: Yeah. And so for my research, I saw that you studied financial engineering in college.
And so what is the relationship between engineering and human behavior?
[00:01:29] Katy: Yeah. Great question. And it's not an obvious one at first blush, right? Because I spent a lot of time taking classes about computer science and statistics and optimization. None of these things obviously relate to human behavior, but actually it's really interesting because the origins of my field, I'm a behavioral scientist in, in a field that includes behavioral economists go back to the 1950s.
When someone named herb Simon was realizing that advances in computing technology gave us a lot of insight into the human mind. And that if we started to think about human decision making the way we think about computer decision making. We could actually make giant leaps for it. We could recognize that just like computers, humans are limited in their capacity to remember things and their capacity to compute things and that we have to work within those constraints.
And so actually I think there are a lot of analogies. And in my work, the way I sort of use engineering as a jumping off point is by recognizing that every situation where we wanna make a better decision is a problem to be solved. And we need to unpack that problem by thinking about what are the forces opposing our goals and how can we overcome them strategically, just like an engineer would try to figure out what are the forces opposing, keeping the structure erect and how can we overcome them?
[00:02:47] Hala: super, super interesting. So I wanna get into change. I wanna get into the meat and potatoes of the interview. And so I learned from your book that an estimated 40% of premature deaths are the result of personal behaviors that we can change. So we do a lot of things that we know are bad for us, like not exercising or eating poorly or doing recreational drugs.
We all know those things are bad. So what is it that makes it so hard for us to change?
[00:03:13] Katy: Oh, gosh, so many things. And first of all, I just thank you for bringing up that statistic because it really blew my mind. And as part of what gave me laser focus in my career was recognizing the opportunity to change lives for the better once we better understood what keeps us from changing, but change is so hard for a lot of reasons.
A lot of the reasons I actually don't cover in my research reasons like financial barriers to change, right. Health barriers to change. So there's a lot of reasons that people can't achieve their goals that are external to them. But what I study is the internal barriers to change. So I take a look at what inside us is actually making change hard, even when we've got everything else lined up.
Goodness knows is hard, hard to make happen. So it turns out some of the big barriers are things like our tendency to care more about instant gratification than long term rewards. Our tendency to procrastinate, which directly follows from that, that overweighting of instant gratification. Um, our forgetfulness, our preference to take the path of least resistance or be a little bit lazy in a slightly less nice way of putting.
Or lack of confidence in certain situations. So there are all these different barriers to change that are internal. And I think what's really important for people to recognize. And they don't always is that science has a lot of solutions, but they're not one size fits all. So once you actually understand better, which of these challenges you are facing, you can use better techniques that are better matched to that challenge and see better results.
[00:04:41] Hala: Yeah, I like that. You focus on that in your book. You say you need to actually know what your obstacles are and then design something. That's gonna work for you because it's not one size fits all. You can't just have some life hack. That's gonna fix everything for you overnight.
[00:04:54] Katy: Absolutely. Well, first of all, there are no easy solutions in this sphere.
Unfortunately, there's sort of, there's no like pill you can take or shot. You can give yourself that will magically allow you to change and achieve your goals. But we do have lots of good science. And even if it's not a quick fix, it's a more likely to work fix if you apply it in the right
[00:05:14] Hala: situation.
Okay. So I wanna touch on something that you briefly mentioned. You talked about impulsivity or present bias, and that's when we act impulsively, we prioritize instant gratification over our long term goals. So why is it that we're like naturally tend to be impulsive? Why is that?
[00:05:32] Katy: Yeah, it's a fantastic question.
And I should say, this is one of those things. Really an evolutionary psychologist is best, uh, trained to answer. So my understanding it's a guess we don't know. Right. Cuz we can't go back and observe our ancestors and figure out when did this trait evolve. Exactly. But our best guess is that this was a really good trait at some point in our ancient history.
Because at some point you wanna just prioritize like that food that you can get in the moment you can get. And the mate that you can have, and the second you can have them, all of these things that would make sense to our long term survival as a species a long time ago when we were evolving. But that aren't so great when you're trying to choose between Cheetos and a salad or going to the gym versus sitting on the couch and binge watching Netflix.
So the instincts that we evolved in a totally different moment don't seem that well adapted to our present circumstances.
[00:06:28] Hala: Yeah. It's so interesting when you say that, cuz it's so true. It's like when we were hunters and gatherers, it totally made sense to like wanna have that fruit right. When you see it now it's causing a problem for us.
So let's talk about the two main ways in your book that you talk about counteracting this impulsiveness and that's temptation bundling and gamification. So temptation bundling from my understanding is pairing something that you like was something that you don't like. I thought this was so, so good. So tell us about that and maybe share some
[00:06:57] Katy: examples.
Yeah, absolutely. And actually just to back up for one second, I wanna point out some of my favorite research that suggests why these two strategies you noted are so valuable, um, which is worked by university of Chicago psychologist. I L at Fishbach, which shows that most of us have the wrong intuition when we're thinking about how to reach our goals.
And we think we should just take a really efficient path and that all that's the best, like who could argue with efficiency and I'm an engineer. . But instead, what she's found is that we do better when we look for a path that we'll enjoy more, even if it's a little bit more circuitous. And the reason for that is if we enjoy the way that we're pursuing our goals, we persist longer.
Whereas, if it's painful because of present bias, we throw in the towel. If you're going to the gym and getting on the maximum leap, punishing StairMaster, it's not a fun experience. Whereas if you're going and doing a Zumba class with a friend, you love it and you keep going back and maybe you get less in shape per unit visit, but overall you have a better outcome cuz you're repeatedly showing up.
So I think that's a really important insight and it points to these different ways then that we can actually make it. To pursue our goals and to overcome procrastination and to overcome impulsivity. We want to make it so that we're not like having to resist doing what sounds awful, but rather it actually sounds good to us.
So temptation bundling is exactly what you said. You pair a chore. With something that is a source of pleasure or a temptation. And I did this first in my own life, actually with exercise. So I only let myself enjoy indulgent entertainment while I was exercising of the gym. And that meant I started craving trips to the gym and wasting less time at home on garbage when I should have been getting my work done as a graduate student.
And it was so revolutionary in my life in terms of the benefit. I started studying it, ran experiments, demonstrating this is useful for other people too, and thinking about ways to apply it more broadly. So in my own life, I don't just temptation bundle with exercise, but have found all sorts of other ways to create these bundles.
Saving favorite podcasts for while I'm doing household chores, favorite bottle of wine. I only open when I'm making a fresh meal for my family, um, restaurants that have unhealthy options that I limit visits to only when I'm spending time with either a difficult relative or someone I should be seeing more of at work.
Who's an important mentee perhaps, but can be otherwise not as enticing to spend time with if I didn't like it with that unhealthy meal. So there are all these different ways. In life, we can create temptation bundles and make something that would otherwise be dreaded and procrastinated on alluring and instantly gratifying.
So you basically flip the script.
[00:09:33] Hala: Yeah. I loved your example. I listened to you on another podcast and you were talking about this restaurant example, how. If you have to meet somebody that you don't particularly wanna meet with, you go to like a burger joint. it's your favorite spot and it helps make it a little bit better.
So I think that's, it's such a great tactic and I feel like we do this naturally. And if you think about like cherry flavored cough syrup, right? Like that's another great example. You don't wanna take that nasty medicine, but if it tastes. Okay, you might end up taking it. So I think that's a great lesson, like just in general, trying to make things more fun is a great strategy.
So speaking of that, how about gamification? Is there a right or wrong way to do that?
[00:10:09] Katy: Yeah.
Gamification is really interesting and is actually a little bit tricky. So the research on gamifications benefits is mixed and the reason for that seems to be that. If you are intrinsically motivated and the gamification is aligned with what you are trying to achieve yourself, the benefits are pretty co consistently achieved, but when it's being imposed on you, your employer is trying to gamify some miserable tasks.
It can feel like forced fun and it can actually backfire. So gamification is a promising strategy when it truly works, but the recipe is a little tricky to actually turn something that would otherwise feel like a chore into a source of joy just by adding, you know, points and bells and whistles and streaks and stars that doesn't always do it for people.
It can be really motivating though. If you have some goal of your own, say, you're trying to get in shape, or you're trying to learn a new language, or you're trying to meditate more regularly, you choose a program, you engage with it and you say, you know, help me achieve this. And then it gamifies the experience.
That seems to be more universally beneficial, because it never is gonna take on this feeling of forced fun. And it's helping you experience your successes in a way that's a little lighter hearted and also the tracking itself. That comes with gamification is useful. Yeah.
[00:11:27] Hala: I find that very fascinating because gamification was like a really cool, unique concept, like 10 years ago, but then it seemed like everybody started to gamify everything and then it kind of just got like corny.
And I remember working at like Hewlett, Packard and Disney before I was an entrepreneur. And they would always try to like gamify everything and it was, it was just like corny or just like, I know what you're up to. Right. Very transparent. Yeah. I'd love to hear like a good example of gamification versus like a bad one.
[00:11:56] Katy: Okay. Here's one of my favorites. This is a research study that was done actually with Wikipedia to try to gamify the experience that their contributors have when they're posting content and updates on the Wikipedia website. For listeners and Watchers who aren't super familiar, right? Wikipedia is like this amazing encyclopedia that's created by an all volunteer army around the world and tells us everything we need to know about everything, including probably both of us in this podcast.
So a lot of volunteers who start doing great work for Wikipedia, don't stick around or don't stay engaged. They're sort of momentarily interested. They sign up for an account, they do a little bit of editing and then they burn. And so the company was looking for ways to make the experience more enticing and engaging.
Again, this is something people are opting into it's volunteer work. How can we make it a little more fun? And they partnered with this researcher named Deanna Galles who's at UCLA now. And she had the idea to do a really simple gamification, like the most minimal, which was just give people a little award for, um, their great work when they were new employees or new volunteers.
In their first month and she AB tested this. So people who had been top performers, some of them were randomly assigned to get this award, telling them, Hey, you're a superstar. We're so pleased with the work you've done. And others didn't get that notification that praise that. And it's like a little badge that shows up for them.
And she compared what happens and she sees a huge increase. And the rate at which the people who get this little badge, this little bit of praise and award and small bit of gamification stay engaged with the platform, not just for the next month, but actually for a whole year. And I think it's a really nice illustration that sort of showing our appreciation with things like badges or, or other awards in a setting where somebody is intrinsically motivated, but might lose that motivation can just make them feel appreciated.
And like the whole thing is more fun and reward. I love that simple example. There are many others, but that, that just shows you a simple setting where gamification in, in this a very minimalist way can be useful. You also ask for an example of where it could go awry. And for this I'll point to research by my colleagues at Wharton, Nancy Rothbard and Ethan Molik who ran a big experiment with a sales.
Force type company. It was everyone working on different sales floors is, is trying to get as many sales as they can. And the company randomly rolled out a basketball gamification program where every time you get a sale, it's. Called a dunk or a free throw. There's like different names, given and basketball terminology for different sizes of scores.
You can win a bottle of champagne at the end of the program. There's all this sort of gimmicky stuff around it, emails, leaderboards, and they rolled it out. And actually didn't see. Benefits from this. And when they dug into the data more carefully, what they found is that a lot of people said, this felt like forced fun.
It wasn't fun for me. I wasn't into it at all. I just hated it. And it didn't actually have benefits. In fact, seem to backfire among those. There was a small fraction of people who said, I love basketball. I love this. And it seemed to help them maybe a little bit, but the lack of appreciating the audience and the mismatch on.
That sense that they were creating forced fund to achieve an, an outcome that the company cared about. Not that the individual necessarily was really trying personally to achieve seemed to be the missing
[00:15:14] Hala: ingredient. Yeah. So I think the key is, first of all, the person should volunteer their own accord, right.
If possible, and they should also want to do that thing. They like proactively wanna do that thing and have incentive to
[00:15:27] Katy: do that. And ideally what you're creating actually does feel. Pleasant joyful, exciting in some way. And even something as small as the little badge I mentioned, Wikipedia really was a source of joy for people to feel appreciated in a way that they didn't realize someone was looking and noticing what they'd accomplished.
So think about, is it really creating fun? And can you, and can you build this in a way that will resonate with.
[00:15:54] Hala: Yeah, and it seems like gamification with the rewards and everything. It makes total sense. Cuz when we talk about habits, it's always Q routine reward, right? You end with a reward, you get a shot of dopamine in your brain.
You wanna keep doing it and getting you crave that dopamine. So that's why it works.
So that's pretty interesting.
So there's some other things we can do to limit our temptations and you call them commitment devices. So how can we use commitment devices to create better change?
[00:16:23] Katy: Commitment devices are so interesting.
Um, I think because they're so powerful and frankly underused and they're basically, it's very counterintuitive. I think this is one of the reasons people don't use them. It's setting up constraints on yourself. So we're used to our employer, penalizing us when we, you know, don't do something well, like, oh, you get a ding on your bonus or having constraints set up by our government.
Say you drive too fast, which we might be tempted to do. You're gonna get hit with a ticket. Or you're gonna get thrown in jail if you break this rule. Okay. So we're used to all those constraints being imposed on our bad behavior by someone else. And what a commitment device is, is it's actually you saying here's some behaviors I don't wanna engage in.
Here's some things I wanna prevent myself from doing, and I'm gonna ding myself. If I mess up. So lemme give you a really concrete example, say you're smoking and you wanna quit. You can put money on the line that you say, I, you know, I'm gonna put $500 down and I'm gonna, I'm gonna forfeit that money in three months.
If I haven't quit smoking and I'm gonna find a friend who's gonna hold me accountable. And they're actually websites that you can use where they'll, they'll let you do this, where you put money on the line, you choose a referee to hold you accountable and you give up that money to a charity of your choice.
If you do not achieve your. The smoking example, I think is a particularly useful one, cuz there's a wonderful experiment testing whether or not this helps smokers quit. And in this randomized controlled trial where people were either given a standard smoking cessation protocol or that protocol, plus the opportunity to put money on the line that they would forfeit.
If they didn't pass a urine test in six months, the people who also had that commitment. They quitted a 30% higher rate. So it's really powerful stuff. And yet we don't love the idea of penalizing ourself of putting money on the line or saying, you know, I'm gonna constrain myself. You know, I'm gonna shut off my phone or prevent myself from visiting certain websites after certain hours.
Anything that constrains you feels a little funny and yet very powerful.
[00:18:19] Hala: Yeah. It seems like when you put money down for anything, you just take it a lot more seriously.
[00:18:24] Katy: Absolutely. You're incentivizing yourself. That's exactly what you're doing now. There's a con. And if you recognize that you wanna create incentives that set you up for success with your life goals and that those goals, while important to you in the long run might not align with immediate temptations.
You might wanna eat the extra burger. When you go out for dinner with a friend or spend the extra money or go to the casino. When you know, you shouldn't. If you set, set up boundaries so that there's a fine associated with those decisions in the future. If you make them impulsively, then you're actually much less likely to fall into those traps.
[00:19:00] Hala: And is there anything aside from cash that you can use as a commitment
[00:19:03] Katy: device? Yeah. That's a great question. There are all sorts of penalties you can impose on yourself naturally, quite naturally. Um, you can set simple boundaries, right? Just time based boundaries. Like I'm not allowed to do this outside the hours of X and Y or.
A friend will shame me for instance. So you can use shame, accountability to others. Those are certainly useful things you could take privileges away from yourself. You know, just think about the way that you would manage anyone else. If you were managing someone or if you were raising a, a kid and thinking about what are the things that are your tools, sort of carrots and sticks, you can basically do the same to yourself, proactively, um, recognizing what your goals.
[00:19:45] Hala: that makes a lot of sense. So let's talk about setting ourselves up for success from the onset of wanting to start a new behavior. You talk about this concept called fresh starts.
I think the other term for it is a temporal landmark. We had Dan pink on the show and he talks about new year's resolutions and starting your habits on, you know, our resolutions on Jan one or your birthday. Can you tell us about fresh starts and what we need to know about
[00:20:08] Katy: them? Yeah. And I love that Dan pink talked about my work on here.
That's so cool. He's wonderful. I love his writing. And so the fresh start effect is something that my collaborators and I started looking at about a decade ago after I made a visit to Google's headquarters and was presenting a bunch of research on behavior change to their HR leadership. And I got this fantastic question at the end of my presentation, which was okay.
We're completely sold on using these behavioral science tools to try to improve our employees engagement with all these different programs we're offering from educational programming to wellness program. To financial wellness offerings, but is there some ideal timing for encouraging change? And I just thought it was such a fantastic question.
So I came back to my office in Philadelphia, sat down with my then PhD student hang Chen dye. Who's now professor at UCLA and Jason Reese. Who's also, uh, a collaborator and we just started hashing out our, I. We all shared the intuition of course, January one, right? That's the magic moment when 40% of Americans set goals.
But what we were interested in is there's something generalizable, some principle around new year's that we could sort of extract insights from that could be useful and tell us things about other moments that would be, that would be good to start pursuing our goals. So we learned that there's this whole literature on the way we think about time and that we don't actually think about time in our lives.
In a straight line, but instead we think about ourselves, like we're characters in a book and like we're living chapters. And so there's these discontinuities in our life timelines. Right? You think about maybe the college years or the years living in a certain city or working for a certain employer and you sort of bookmark or bookend life around these shifts.
And it turns out there are big chapters and small chapters as well. There's sort of the mini chapter breaks and everything from the start of a new week or a new. To the celebration of holidays that give us a sense of fresh starts like Memorial day labor day birthdays,they all have the same psychology of creating a chapter break in life and giving us a sense that we are starting something fresh that we're turning the page, that we have a new beginning, that we have a new self.
And with that. Feeling comes optimism because you can say, you know, yeah, last year or last week, I plan to get around to X, but I didn't, but that was the old me. And this is the new me and the new me is gonna be different. So those discontinuities give us this sense that we can change. They also lead us to step back and think bigger picture about our lives and our plans, which can really facilitate goal pursuit.
So we've done all this research, um, both on sort of the inner workings of why it is that these fresh starts matter, but also documenting. Big spikes in things like gym attendance and goal creation and searching for the term diet on Google at these moments that we associate with fresh starts
[00:22:56] Hala: in life.
So fresh starts seem to really help us make sure that we get started. Right. There are great motivators to get started, but it turns out that 80% of new year's resolutions fail. And so we obviously need strategies to make sure that we keep executing on our goals. So, one thing that I found super interesting with your work was this concept of flexibility and emergency reserves and kind of setting ourselves up to be more flexible, as opposed to rigid in order to execute on our goals.
[00:23:24] Hala: So can you talk about why rigidity doesn't work?
[00:23:27] Katy: Yeah. Rigidity. I will say is something that I was initially bullish on, which probably sounds silly now that I'm putting the term rigidity to it. But when I first started thinking about habits and what we knew about habits, it seemed clear that you wanted a lot of consistency in order to build lasting habits.
And so I have done research looking at whether or not it's actually better when you're building a habit to try to always do it at the same time, or try to vary when you are engaging in the behavior. And I was sure that consistency would be better and surprised actually to find that it was worse. And when I sort of dug into the data I had analyzed, and that I'd collected to look at this where we'd randomly assign people to basically.
Engage in the behavior. They were hoping to make habitual on a really consistent basis or in a more variable way. What we found is that the people who were consistent, built, rigid habits. So after the startup period, when we're sort of training them to, to build the habit, they're decent at getting to whatever the, getting to their goal in this narrow timeframe that they had had picked as their like magic time.
But if they miss that window, they don't do it at all. Whereas people who had trained their habit in a more variable way, who were. Say trying to go to the gym more consistently. And sometimes they go at 9:00 AM. Sometimes they go at noon. Sometimes they go at five, they also tend to go. They tend to choose a time that's optimal.
And let's say half of their visits end up being at that time. And that's useful. You do want sort of a first best, but if they miss their best window, they still get around to doing it. And overall that leads to more robust and lasting. Habits and better outcomes. So this led to this concept that like rigidity is something that we often characterize as consistency.
And we think of as good for building habit. But if it gets too consistent and too rigid, it becomes britle and we actually won't achieve as much. And, and there is some real meaningful value. If you're trying to build a new habit, whether it's around learning a language and when will you practice or going to the gym or check-ins with mentees.
So you wanna spend time with whatever that thing is, meditation. It's important. Not always to do it at the same time, but to build in some variability. So, because life doesn't always allow you to get to your goals at the same time, things come up and you wanna be able to pivot and have a fallback plan.
And that really is what builds the most lasting change.
[00:25:51] Hala: Yeah. I think the key is like always having a backup plan. Absolutely. So related to this is something you call the what the hell effect. And, and basically from my understanding, it's like, let's say you're on a diet. And you cave, you grab the chips instead of the apple, then the rest of the day, you're gonna pig out because you're like, well, what the hell I already ruined it for the
[00:26:10] Katy: day?
Absolutely so well described. And by the way, one of the best named effects in all of psychology.
give us an example of, of how we can basically have an emergency reserve to counteract us falling down this spiral of, of the, what
[00:26:25] Katy: the hell effect.
Yeah, so you're, um, you're pointing to some wonderful research by my colleague, Marisa Sharif on the importance of actually having really tough goals. Like I'm gonna try to. Exercise seven days this week, or I'm gonna try to meditate seven days this week. You wanna push yourself? Cuz tough goals are best in terms of accomplishment.
However, then they create the, what the hell effect as a big problem. Because if you're trying for seven days a week, you miss one day you say what the hell I'm never gonna hit my goal. So she came up with this very clever idea that I think relates to ideas used by some dieting programs, for instance, of giving yourself some like cheat days, emergency reserves, she actually thinks it's important that they be referred to as emergency reserves rather than cheats, because then you don't feel entitled to take them, but rather only allow yourself to recover when there is a true emergency.
She ran experiments, showing that if you tell people set the toughest goal seven days a week, I'm gonna aim to do this thing, but I'm gonna give you two emergency reserves. If you have a miss, we'll pull out that chip. We'll call it, get outta jail free. And we'll say you're still on track. If anybody uses dual lingo, you might have seen, they have streak freezes.
If you're like trying to build a streak of, of practicing, um, the language, they'll let you have sort of this kind of emergency reserve where you freeze. It doesn't really count as a, a breakage. So you get outta jail free and she tested this against something that's psychologically should be identical, which is let's set a wimpier goal instead of seven days a week.
I'll try to do it five days a week. That's literally identical to seven days a week with two emergency reserves, but you see dramatically better outcomes when people are striving for that higher tougher goal, but just giving themselves these emergency chat. chips As opposed to a wimpier goal that isn't gonna push you and stretch you as much.
So I think it's really interesting research and, and we can think in our lives about where is it that we might wanna push ourselves hard, but also have a way to recover when there is a misstep that doesn't lead us to throw up our hands and give up on ourselves. How can we give ourselves those emergency boundaries?
[00:28:24] Hala: So this concept of emergency is sort of like a negative way to approach our habit building. We often hear about the power of positive thinking, but you, you talk about over optimism and how we can blind ourselves and it could lead to overconfidence.
And you say that anticipating and planning for obstacles can be more powerful than adopting a positive mindset. So in terms of everything that we're talking about, tell us about your perspective on the power of negative thinking.
[00:28:51] Katy: Yeah. So this is another one where I just wanna say you also have to believe in yourself to get things done.
So there, there is, it is important to have positive beliefs, to some extent, but if you don't plan for what can go wrong, if you aren't thinking negatively and anticipating obstacles, I mean, that's sort of the, the whole benefit of. All the research that's been done on behavioral science and strategies.
Because if you say this might go wrong, if I don't create constraints, for example, if I don't set goals that I break down into bite size pieces. If I don't seek out social support or come up with a commitment device, then you are much less likely to succeed. So it is really important to set yourself up for success by doing that planning process, anticipating obstacles.
And there's really wonderful work by NYU psychologist, Gabrielle Egen on the importance of that kind of obstacle based planning. Where you think what could go wrong? What could get in my way as I'm trying to achieve this goal. And then you say, okay, and how am I gonna overcome it? And that improves results.
And it's something we do, I think naturally, right, again, going back to engineering, it's something we do naturally when we take on certain types of work, but we don't always do it in our personalized. We don't always do it more. Think about our productivity and it's important to do it there too. It's also been called a preor.
So we know what a postmortem is like something fails and you go, oh, what went wrong? Like let's analyze it, but it can be really useful to do the same thing before you pursue a goal and to sit down and say, imagine this all falls apart and goes wrong. What would be the reasons? What are the most obvious reasons this would go wrong?
So that's a premortem and that's another way of thinking about planning for obstacles.
[00:30:31] Hala: And it totally makes sense because the more you plan, the more prepared you are, so that negative thinking is actually quite positive. exactly.
Yeah. So something else that was really interesting and, and was quite surprising to me is that when someone is struggling, they can actually be helped if they're put in the position of a mentor. And you say that giving advice, even if it's something that you're struggling with or not very good at can help you achieve what you're trying to do.
So tell us about, that's pretty interesting.
[00:30:57] Katy: This one of my favorite findings of the last decade, really, and it's, it's researched. University Northwestern university's, um, Lauren Esri Winkler, and she was doing her doctoral dissertation work, trying to understand what made people gritty, working with Angela Duckworth, who we've talked about a couple times.
And she started interviewing people who were struggling to succeed and was really intrigued to discover that. Even students who were getting CS, even sales people who weren't hitting their numbers, even people who weren't achieving their, their health goals actually had a lot of wisdom about what was going wrong and what might help them course.
Correct. And they lacked confidence in many cases to actually implement those insights. And as she talked to them, she also discovered they loved being asked for this wisdom that they had accumulated about what might turn things around, but what they were used to hearing from people who came to talk to them was.
Just other people's 2 cents. When someone's struggling, they're constantly being peppered with unsolicited advice about how to turn their life around and rarely are they put on a pedestal and told maybe you actually have some things figured out yourself. So she thought, what if we sort of flipped the script?
What if these people who actually have a lot of insight, cuz they've been trying so hard, even if it hasn't been working out, what if I put them on a pedestal and make them coach others? What would happen? And she thought a few benefits might ensu to the, the coach. She thought one thing is it's gonna boost confidence because now I'm putting you in the position of advice giver.
You're gonna think, gosh, maybe I'm not such a Schmo. Maybe I could achieve something. If there's someone else who's even sort of further behind me who I could help, I must have what it takes. Second, they're gonna have to introspect more deeply about what insights they have that could be working for them.
And maybe they won't have thought about that very carefully before, even though they were trying to achieve this goal, maybe they didn't put them their so whole heart and soul into figuring out the, how that they need to. Now that they're accountable to someone else and have to give someone else coaching.
And finally, once you coach someone else, you're gonna feel like a hypocrite. If you don't take your own. So that was sort of the magic formulas, three things she thought might lead advice, giving to help the advice giver. And she has now run lots and lots of experiments showing that it really works when you are giving advice to other people, you actually get benefits yourself.
If it's a situation where just motivation and confidence are the barriers. We did this with high school students, in one case where they coached their younger peers on how to study more effectively in school. And they literally didn't have social interaction. They just filled out an online survey where they answered questions and, and were told, you know, your answers are gonna go to a younger student and that significantly improved their grades.
I think it's a really powerful tool that we should be using more. When we see someone struggling is instead of just putting our arm around them and offering them advice, which can be demotivating thinking, how can I put this person on a pedestal? How can I get them coaching someone else so that they may have better outcomes themself.
[00:33:48] Hala: love this so much. How do you think we can use this in our personal lives? Like let's say we have some sort of goal. What can we do ourselves to become advice givers?
[00:33:58] Katy: Yeah, I love this question because it's one, I've thought about a lot and I actually realized that I am using it unin sort of unintentionally or unwittingly in my own life in a way that I think lots of people could copy and paste to achieve my professional goals.
So I have what I now refer to as an advice club. Which is a group of women at a similar career stage with similar career goals, who we all got together a number of years ago and said like, we're struggling with some decisions about like, should I do this? Should I do that? We have a lot of different asks that are made of us.
And wouldn't it be helpful if we could ping each other for that sort of outsider perspective when we get stuck. So we did this. I initially thought it was gonna be really useful to have this group of women, cuz it would form social bonds and I'd get their sort of expert consulting for free and I'd be happy to give mine an exchange and those things have happened and they've been great, but what's been really interesting and surprising is actually every time they ping me about a challenge they're facing in their careers and how to handle it, I'm finding.
I get huge benefits from thinking through their challenge, offering my perspective. And the reason is one it's actually much easier from that arms length distance to think through a problem, right? Like I'm not emotionally connected to it. The person who asked them, I don't have a relationship with that person.
So I'm not walking through all of those issues. In general, when we take an outsider perspective, we're much better at making judgements. So I can think of it from arm's length and I can come up with a good solution. Then I articulate that for them, it builds my confidence. Cause I'm like, wait a minute. I can totally tackle these kinds of tough problems.
I've got it figured out. And then, because our careers are similar, our life circumstances are similar. I get a similar. Issue. I, you know, asked a few months down the line, I've already thought it through. I've analyzed it. I've got my answer. I'm ready to go. And so it benefits me immensely to be in this position of the advice giver.
And so I think we can all form advice, clubs when there's some goal that we have that we wanna achieve, that we know will face obstacles. That could be a challenge, finding other people with similar aspirations who are likely to encounter similar obstacle. Green, you want to form an advice club. So there will be only solicited advice, given not unsolicited advice.
That's really important. And then you can benefit not only from the power of advice giving, but from social cohesion and from the information these other folks will bring to, uh, bear. And I think sort of this magic solution we should all use. More in life. And I think it's no accident that lots of organizations that are set up to help us achieve goals, build things like this.
Right? If you think about sponsorship in alcoholics anonymous, or there are lots of entrepreneurs, groups that create these kinds of mentoring cycles, so it's out there it's being used, but I think we can all harness that insight and put it into our lives in more ways.
[00:36:36] Hala: I agree. I think this is an excellent.
So let's talk about your research with COVID, uh, 19 vaccine adoption. I thought this was pretty cool. So you are one of the leaders for behavior change for good initiative at the Wharton school. And you guys did a lot of research around helping people take the COVID 19 vaccine. And I'd love to spend some time on this because I think a lot of these tactics can actually easily be adopted into business and marketing.
And so I'd love to hear what were the most effective tactics to get people, to take the vaccine. And what were the tactics that didn't work?
[00:37:08] Katy: Yeah. Great question. Well, so let me back up and say that we weren't necessarily trying to persuade the vaccine, hesitant that isn't my area of expertise, but most of my research is really around people who have something they're up for doing.
They even think might be good for them, but maybe there's some barriers that could be obstacles that prevent them from achieving their own goals. And this is the case often where you have some intention actually. 78% of people who say they'll get a flu vaccine every year, follow through. So lots of people who intend to get a vaccine or go to the gym or get a colonoscopy or save for retirement, never actually nail it.
So we were focused more on that. Group. I think that's important to point out cuz I think you'd need different cha solutions to hesitancy. But what we then did is we ran a tournament. So I have about 150 scientists and different disciplines who are part of the behavior change for good initiative that I co-direct with Angela Duckworth.
And we said, let's go to all these brilliant minds and asked them, what do you think is the best communication strategy? If we wanna nudge people to get a vaccine, either at an upcoming doctor's appointment or at a Pharmac. Where they've gotten a vaccine previously, like what, what should we say to them?
And they came up with dozens of ideas, actually almost a hundred ideas. And we sort of whittled it down to like, what's legal, what's feasible. How do we people? And we tested dozens of messages and hundreds of thousands of Americans. And the first really boring, but important finding is just sending reminders, reminder, text messages that alone.
Go get a vaccine it's available for free go do this. That alone helps significantly. So just simple reminders are more valuable than we appreciate. In fact, repeated reminders also more valuable than single reminders. We probably don't nag people enough. So that's my boring advice, but more interesting insight is that what rose to the top of sort of the best communication strategy among all sorts of things tested.
Humor, let's drop a joke in there to make people laugh, to tell people everyone else is doing it. Cuz we know about social norms. Um, the best performer said a vaccine is reserved for you, um, or it's waiting for you. So that feels like it already belongs to you. It's been set aside. And so what's the psychology.
That's propelling that to be so powerful. Well research shows, first of all, that we value things that belong to us more than things that could belong to us or belong to other people. It's called the endowment effect and we don't wanna lose that thing. Oh, it's mine. Like don't nobody else should have my vaccine.
It's got my name on it. It suggests there's an, a recommendation your healthcare provider, right. Wouldn't reserve something from, for you. If they didn't think it was a really good idea that you get it. So it's conveying that recommendation and probably also a sense that there may be scarcity. Like not everybody has one reserved for them and may be a desirable thing.
Right. And maybe they're going fast. So what I think is really cool is that this. Robust across different settings, whether it was encouraging people to get in their car, drive to the pharmacy, or they're already coming in to see a, a healthcare provider. And they're just gonna be invited to get a vaccine when they're there.
Um, do they take. Telling them in advance that a vaccine has been reserved for them makes it more likely that they say, yeah, I'd like that when they're at their appointment. And there's been research done since by a team at UCLA showing that this kind of reserve for you language, it doesn't just promote vaccination, but it makes us more inclined to do everything from.
Register for a conference where someone says, Hey, a seat's been reserved for you to download an audio book or a, a Kindle book, a nook book, whatever kind of online device you, or whatever kind of reading device you prefer. If something is reserved for you or communicated as reserved for you, you value it more and you're more likely to follow
[00:40:38] Hala: through all I see.
And I'm a marketer, so I'm just like, I'm definitely using that for one of my next email subject lines. Like your XYZ is reserve for you or waiting for you. I feel like that will work. So. So we had Dr. Maya Shan Shanker on the show, and she talks about nudging. She was working for the Obama administration formally, and she was head of their nudge unit.
I'd like to understand what nudging is for anybody who doesn't know. And how has that changed the world
[00:41:04] Katy: for better? Yeah, that's a great question.
I love that you had Maya on this show. She's a dear friend and collaborator. So nudging is trying to encourage people to adopt a behavior that they would agree is in their best interest. So importantly, it's not like sneakily trying to get people to buy cigarettes or do something that, that, that isn't in their best interest.
But a nudge would be pushing people with the tools of psychology, towards a decision that they already would favor if they had all the time and in the world to analyze their choices. And doing so in a way that doesn't create any change in their incentive. So you're not paying them to go say, get a vaccine, or you're not mandating that they get the vaccine, you're leaving them total freedom to choose and not changing their incentive structure.
You're just using our understanding of how humans make decisions to set them up for a choice that's in their long term best. So I think a good example of this, probably the sort of best known example of a successful nudge and a big win for nudging is in the retirement savings domain, where lots of people say their employer has a retirement savings program.
They could put a little portion of every paycheck into it. It'd be matched by their employer and they'll build up this security for retirement, but lots of people don't do that, even though they know they should or even mean to get around to. You have to sign some paperwork and lots of people just don't bother.
So a sort of classic nudge win is showing that if you default people, meaning they don't have to take any action. It's just set up for them into saving for retirement when they join an employer and they can, you make it easy to opt out so they can say like, please don't do that. Please. Don't put a portion of my paycheck.
I maybe just check a box on a form and I can opt out. You end up seeing. Some vastly like 30 percentage point increases in how many people enroll in these programs, as opposed to the standard way that this kind of program worked, which was you join a new employer and you can fill out some paperwork, check a box to enroll in it.
So that would be the default is you're not enrolled, but you can take steps to opt in way less effective way lower enrollment rates than. It's the default that you're enrolled and you can take steps to opt out. And this is true for lots of things that seems to matter for things like whether I'm an organ donor, am I defaulted in or do I have to just check a box inside my aim to become one?
When I go to the DMV, whatever the default is, that's a nudge it's sort of. Nudging you towards it, you infer that it's recommended or else, why would I have been defaulted into it, but you can easily get out of it, but it matters really quite a lot. And so thinking carefully about how do I use defaults wisely can lead to better outcomes in a lot of settings.
And that's just one example. There are lots of nudges saying something's reserved for you is a nudge for instance.
[00:43:43] Hala: Yeah. I love nudging. I feel like it's, it's so interesting. All right. So as we wrap this up, I always ask the same two questions at the end of the show. Then we do something kind of fun at the end of the year, and like chop it up with all the different guests.
So the first one is what is one actionable thing my listeners can do today to become more young and profiting tomorrow.
[00:44:03] Katy: Ooh, I love that form. An advice club form, a group of people with whom you share ambitions and goals. And say, you're gonna reach out to each other when you hit stumbling block blocks, and aren't sure of what to do.
And, um, having that advice club you're gonna benefit from in all sorts of ways, including giving the advice is going to make you wiser and more confident and more capable. And you'll also form friendships and learn from other people's
[00:44:28] Hala: wisdom. Yeah. And I have to say I did this when I was coming up as a podcaster.
And when I was growing my influence on LinkedIn, I found every podcaster who was making any noise on LinkedIn. I put them all in a WhatsApp group. I scheduled a monthly mastermind call and it was great. Cuz to your point, I felt like I was smarter cuz I was telling them what I knew. It made me remember things more and learn things more and wanna find out more.
And then you learn from other people and you create this great network. So it's a great strategy. And. What is your secret to profiting in life and profiting doesn't have to mean financial. It can mean just profiting in your life.
[00:45:01] Katy: My secret is that I do things I love for a living. And that means that every day when I wake up, I find it fun to do the things that are on my calendar rather than a source of pain or something I have to get through.
And I do everything I do better because I'm enjoying it. And that's generally, I think a secret to life is finding ways to. What might feel like a chore might feel like work into a source of pleasure so that you'll put your whole self into it.
[00:45:27] Hala: Yeah. I think that's a big lesson from today's show, you know, making sure that you have fun even in the things that you don't necessarily want to do.
And so Katie, where can our listeners go to learn more about you and everything that you do?
[00:45:38] Katy: Probably the best place is my website, which is just Katie milkman.com. And it's Katie with a Y like Katie Perry, you can find out about my book, how to change my podcast. Triology all of my research. My newsletter milkman delivers all on that
[00:45:51] Hala: one site.
Amazing. Well, thank you so much for this great conversation.
[00:45:55] Katy: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
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