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Be the expert: How would you use psychological defaults to change these 3 behaviors?

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I wanted to share something from the cutting-room floor of my New York Times article on the psychology of financial willpower, which didn’t make final print.

In the article, I shared some of the latest research on how extraordinarily difficult it is to change our behavior: Many of us think we’re in control of the decisions we make about money, but when we simply “try harder,” our willpower often fails us and we fall right back into our old spending habits.

One powerful solution for behavioral change starts by changing your defaults. It’s not sexy and it’s not a “magic pill” — but it works.

Now, let me show you another example that you didn’t see in that article.

How to reduce infant HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa

By changing the default from opt in to opt out, the pre-natal screening no longer required “willpower” to change behavior. The results: Testing rates skyrocketed from 65% to 99%.

The implications for changing pro-social behavior are profound.

Be the Expert: How would you engineer behavioral change?

Let’s say I hire you to change the following behaviors:

  1. Help a busy executive lose 10lbs
  2. Help a careless 26-year-old save $1,500 in his savings account by June
  3. Help someone feel measurably happier

How would you do it using defaults?

(If you’re not sure, refer to my NYT article, my bookmarks on psychology, and the superb book, Nudge.)

The BEST answer gets a phone call with me, where I’ll help you pinpoint and change, amplify, or eliminate one critical behavior.

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  1. 1. Cook meals in advance and have them in containers for each day of the week. Have plenty of healthy snacks handy.

    2. Automate it so that x dollars go into savings automatically with each pay.

    3. Help them put their mood into perspective. Have them list what they’re greatful for.

    • Good…but vague. For example, think about the busy exec. If you told him to cook his meals in advance, what do you think he would say?

      If you told someone to automate their money, what would they say?

      When you think about the recipient, you start to see it’s not as easy as simply giving people the information!

  2. 1. For the busy exec, I would fill his/her fridge with healthy foods that were easy to prepare (microwaveable, already doled out in correct portion sizes). These would be foods that reflect the person’s preferences, so they would be more desirable and convenient than ordering takeout.
    2. I would help the careless 26 year old set up an automatic transfer $300 a month to a savings account right after he/she received a paycheck so that he/she was saving without even noticing. This assumes that moving $300 at the start of the month will still leave them with enough for their expensese.
    3. If you link happiness to stress levels (meaning lower stress levels = more happiness), and you like an overwhelming number of choices to stress, I would imagine that helping someone streamline the number of choices they have to make on a daily basis so that they can more easily and automatically make better choices for themselves, might lower stress and increase their happiness. Exactly how to streamline the stressful decisions someone needs to make and help steer them toward a limited set of choices (so as not to paralyze them with options) really would depend on the person and what was making them unhappy.

  3. #2 is easy – automate/direct deposit some of his paycheck into savings. Never see it, never miss it.

    I’d get #1 a standing desk & headset. If s/he doesn’t have to sit down to use the phone or computer, s/he’ll get healthier quick – and probably more efficient at work too. Most execs I know love to pace & gesture dramatically, which is much easier if you’re already standing. (I’d also stock that desk with satiating healthy snacks like almonds for folks who skip meals or get the munchies – if it’s closer than the vending machine, s/he’ll eat that instead of the king-size snickers bar.)

    #3… how do you measure “happier?”
    Actually what I do is I have inspirational quotes set up as reminders in my outlook calendar. Every Monday I get reminded of something awesome about life. I don’t know about “measurable” but definitely “happier.”

  4. Great challenge!

    1. Busy executive: 3 came to mind immediately:
    – Move the exec’s parking space to the back of the parking lot so they have to walk further to get to their office every day.
    – Shut down the elevator so stairs are the only option.
    – Schedule meetings with the exec at the gym during a quick 10-minute jogging session (like Keith Ferrazzi talks about in “Never Eat Alone”)

    2. Careless 26 year old: Set up an automated savings plan like your book says, to have $250 moved automatically to the savings account, 1-2 days after pay day (assuming this person is paid on the 1st of the month). In 6 months they’ll have the $1500 saved up without needing to focus on it.

    3. Measurable Happiness: Commit to spending time with this person for 10-20 minutes per day in some type of social environment where we can DO some type of activity (to keep the mind occupied) and talk with the conversation being focused on them and what they want/like/dislike/are interested in. This could take place in a fitness center, coffee shop, mall, cafeteria, book store, etc. If there are other people around and we’re having a good time, little by little it’ll add up to them being able to notice that there is a change in their demeanor.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking idea!

    – Josh

  5. The Result and the Time Frame

    For achieving any goal, the most efficient way to plan to succeed is to have a quantifiable result, and a time frame in which to reach the result. For item 2, a specific result is given and a time frame is provided. For item 1, a result is provided but not a time frame. For item 3, neither a result nor a time frame is provided.

    For item 1, let’s say that the executive has 20 weeks to lose the 10 pounds.

    Item 3 is difficult because we must first establish a criteria for measuring happiness. What is the goal that should be reached? What does the person hope to achieve? Is there a certain event to cause happiness? An item to receive, buy, or achieve? A relationship to develop?

    The person in item 3 could be asked, “What makes you happy now?” The answer would provide input on how to help the person achieve happiness in the future. Still, the person might not know everything that could make him or her happy, so another possibility would be that a new form of “happiness”, or at least another cause of “happiness” might exist that the person is not aware of.

    Behavior Modification

    Small course corrections are better than large lifestyle changes. Think of the Titanic sailing. It’s hard to make a sharp turn to avoid an iceberg that’s right in front of you. It’s easier to steer away from it gradually from far away. (And that way, the guests won’t spill their champagne.)

    Item 1

    For a busy executive, scheduling and efficiency are key factors in daily operation. To ensure that he or she loses the 10 pounds, the contributing causes (exercise and proper diet) must be made automatic and unavoidable. The executive has to find certain periods of the day that can allocated to those tasks.

    For busy individuals, exercise early in the morning (before work preparation) provides a solid block of time that can be automatically allocated. The time after work (through the evening) can be taken by emergency work, business dinners, or other random commitments that spring up during the day. Before work provides a stable time for consistent exercise.

    For a healthy diet, small tweaks can be made to the existing eating habits. Removing soda or other sugars is a convenient way to adjust diet, although there are many other methods as well.

    This isn’t a post on exercise and diet (of which there are many) and instead focuses on behavior. The most important part of helping someone to reach a specific goal lies with not drastically altering the person’s existing lifestyle in an unsustainable manner. There are many anecdotes from people who tried extreme diet, exercise, or savings (uber-frugal) approaches that are not conducive to long-term application.

    Over 20 weeks, with minimum effort the executive will have the desired results.

    The default is, “Exercise right after you wake up. The day isn’t busy then and there is no work to do. Make small dietary corrections, but don’t punish yourself on your eating!” (No matter how poorly the rest of the day goes, at least you’ve exercised!)

    Item 2

    For item 2, the “careless” 26 year old could save the money by automating finances. June is 6 months away, so a $250 per month automatic transfer would easily get it done, and the person wouldn’t even know that it was gone! By not making the saving a conscious decision, it’ll happen without effort.

    The behavior to save will change (he or she is now saving!) and the effort required to change that behavior is minimal.

    The default is, “Save $1600 by June by automating a $250 transfer per month to your checking account.”

    Item 3

    To sustain an increase in happiness, the person must permanently add what we’ll call a “happiness creator” to his or her life. One action (attainment of the “happiness creator”) will then lead to automatic increases in happiness in the future.

    Example 1 A person who really likes pets. If the person does not have a pet, then that person should go and get a pet (a cat or a dog, maybe). After the singular action of getting a pet, happiness will automatically follow. Every morning, the person will wake up and see the snuggling animal, and be overcome with joy.

    Example 2 A person who whose feet hurt after a day’s work. If the person buys comfortable shoes, then every day, they’ll be happy because their feet don’t get overcome by stress from bad shoes. One small action leads to continued returns.

    The other important thing to note about Item 3 is that there is not a specific answer that will be applicable to every person. Input must be taken first for each individual to craft a solution that will work.

    The default is, “Make a permanent addition of a ‘Happiness Creator’ to your life. Happiness will follow!”

    In all of these examples, small changes lead to lasting and sustainable results. The counter-productivity of drastic changes is readily and repeatedly available.

    Ramit, what is your next small change for long-term repeated results?

    • I appreciated your thoughtful response.

      To piggy back off of your answer to Number 3, I think it’s important to not only think about what could create happiness, but also about what is making you not happy.

      Sometimes you need to take something out of your life such as spending time with constantly negative people.

      But other times, it’s not about adding Happiness Creators or decreasing Sadness Creators but about shifting your mindset.

      If something is outside of your control to take action on (i.e. I’m 5’5″ and want to be taller and heels are in style for women but not for men in this era) or may take you a long time to achieve (i.e. I haven’t even used the Earn1K idea generator but I want a multi-million dollar business), you need to learn to accept life and yourself as you are in the moment.

      Also I often see people set themselves up for feeling unhappy by constantly putting unrealistic expectations on what they can complete in a certain amount of time. In this case, it’s not adding or subtracting things but accepting the reality of a situation and judging ourselves by realistic standards that creates a sense of peace, joy, confidence and accomplishment in the moment.

      To your brilliance!

  6. 1. Since they are probably already on a three-meal-a day schedule, I’d allow them to eat whatever they wanted for those three meals, AFTER they ate an apple and a protein shake (one that contains a fiber supplement or oatmeal). That’s right – finish an apple and a protein shake and then you can chow down on whatever you want. The thing is, you’ll be satiated enough by the first two items that you will not overeat on crappy food. Those ten pounds will be gone in no time. Working out would help, but isn’t necessary – you can’t out work a bad diet, and diet is where where the weight management battle is won or lost.

    2. Most HR departments allow you to split your paycheck direct deposit into multiple accounts. Assuming he will get 12 more paychecks (semi-monthly from Dec-May) before June, that’s $125 that magically disappears into a savings account every 15 or so days. By the way, this savings account WOULD NOT be linked to any checking accounts. That’s right, make it very hard to access… if necessary, open a brick and mortar account and cut up the ATM card they give you. I don’t know about the rest of you – I don’t get paper pay stubs, I just check my main checking account, and it would be way too much effort to try to get money out of a savings account to in order to spend it (I’m not standing in line at a bank during my lunch break to get $125. One day in June when there is $1500 in it… well, that’s still probably not enough money to convince me to waste my lunch break standing in line at a bank unless I was on my way to Vegas).

    3. In college, whenever I felt stressed or spread too thin, I’d take the scalpel to my life and revert to “Dane’s Rule of 5.” I never understood how overachievers could really enjoy being involved in dozens of different organizations/activities – and in reality, most of them were really unhappy. I got into that rut once or twice, and I have decided that nobody can be really committed to more than five “things” at once. I would suggest that this person (who I’m assuming isn’t clinically depressed, just in a rut, otherwise they need to see a doctor) pick five things they want to do. In college, my five things were school (now it’s work), weightlifting, one student organization (I was an executive member), following our football team (including away games and bowl games) through the entire season, and a part-time job. Paring my life back down to the basics immediately cleaned out my schedule, allowed me to dominate those five things, have free time to enjoy building relationships with other people, and in turned allowed me the flexibility to test out other things that I might be interested in. Do you have to stay at five? No. You can definitely add something on here or there; however, you will never be happy unless you are mastering what is really important to you. When you are unhappy, Dane’s Rule of Five allows you to identify the basics, effectively live and enjoy your life, and begin to grow as person again rather than being stuck in a rut. Until now I never realized how much that method helped me…that’s it, I’m writing a book/blog about this.

  7. 1. Since you don’t specify a time limit, I’d get her to commit to ONE small default change for ONE month. Something like “I don’t use elevators”, or “I don’t eat dessert on weekdays”, or “Breakfast every morning is two portions of fresh fruit and a boiled egg” – whatever fits best for her. After that month, I’d get her to add one more default change, for another month. And so forth until the 10lbs had gone the way of all flesh (see what I did there?).

    2. Automated money transfer, every payday.

    3. Tricky! Three ideas.

    First, as I understand it, optimists are happier, and optimism can be learned and practiced. So I’d get them to commit to a manageable default practice. Something like “every morning before I get out of bed, I first take two minutes to brainstorm a list of ten things that don’t totally suck” might work.

    Second, they could spend a few days noticing and listing their main stressors, then we could figure out ways to make those “opt-in” rather than “opt-out” – or at least, to change the parameters so that the stress is eased.

    Third, most people don’t get enough rest, which adds to stress and hence unhappiness, so a default like “bedtime on ‘schoolnights’ is 10pm” (assuming that’s earlier than their norm!) would also help.

  8. 1. Helping a busy executive lose 10 lbs.

    Most offices are full of junk food, and when people are busy, these staches become meal replacements. Simply replacing whatever candy or other snacks are around the office with nuts (because they don’t go bad, and therefore can be kept on hand unlike fruits or vegetables) would cause snacking to become a healthy endeavor. Also, since nuts have been shown to increase satiety, the executive would not feel hungry as often.

    2. Helping a careless 26 year old save $1500 by June.

    June is 6 months away, so to save $1500, the 26 year old needs to save $233 per month. Let’s just round up to $250. The 26 year old can take 10 minutes to set up an automatic transfer to savings every time they get paid or monthly, depending on their preference. That automatic transfer will happen and the 26 year old is unlikely to cancel it unless there is a serious emergency. This approach works for me, a careless 26 year old who saved $4000 for a honeymoon to Jamaica last year. (And did I miss the $400 a month I used to spend carelessly? Not really. I’ve noticed that I tend to overspend at the end of a month when I look at my credit card statement and see that it is low and think, “wow, I can totally afford that X-whatever-thing I’ve been wanting (usually some sort of biking gear).” Then I go buy it).

    3. Help someone feel measurably happier.

    This one is a little harder. It depends what is making them feel unhappy. If they are unhappy because they are strapped to a machine that is shooting electric currents through their body (for science), then I’d just make the machine force their face to contract in a smile, because that would make them feel happier. That is unlikely to be the case though, so I’ll assume this person has a more realistic problem. One thought would be to get a small plant (even a fake plant) because exposure to greenery has been shown to elevate mood. Put it in their office or home or wherever it is that’s making them unhappy, and their elevated mood would lead to measurably higher happiness.

  9. 1) Have healthy, pre-made meals delivered. Remove all other food from the house/work area, except for specifically delivered healthy snacks.

    2) Change to direct deposit (if not already done). Have $1500 / paychecks until June directed to a different savings account via direct deposit (or automated withdrawals from the main account, if DD doesn’t allow for multiple accounts).

    3) Find something that makes them happy, and put pictures of that thing in places that they will see/interact with it (like computer desktop images, on the fridge, etc.)

  10. 1. I’m assuming the busy exec has a PA: start of every month the PA asks the exec to approve a list of five healthy lunches. Once the exec signs off, the PA now orders lunch every day for the exec. Exec never has to think about lunch: either it just appears every day at 12:30, or the exec goes to pick it up him/herself; instead of being a cheeseburger with fries, it is a sushi box, salad, whatever. If the exec doesn’t have a PA, he/she can get a willing co-worker to do this, a spouse, or even just a friend. Or stump up some money for a PA through elance or similar, who can do the lunch order every day.

    Getting the exec to sign off on the lunches is important: that way you have consent, it is something the exec will enjoy eating, less likely to expend the effort on ‘breaking’ the system.

    2. Assuming that the 26-year old has a job and gets paid regularly every month (hopefully so!): tell him/her to arrange all payments to go out (i.e. rent, phone bill etc.) on the day after pay comes in. Set up a savings account. Set up a monthly payment from main account to savings, to go out the same day as all of the bills, in the amount of 1500/6 = $250. Then probably blow the 1,500 on a trip to Ibiza.

    3. I’m happy when I think about people I love, things that are important, and I think that’s probably true for most people. Because I’m basically a huge sap, I quite like to look at my wedding pictures from time to time, and then I feel all happy and sentimental. So here’s a very small, but specific idea.

    Stick a recurring appointment in this person’s calendar (Outlook, iPhone, whatever), could be every week, daily (depending on how much happier this person needs to be). In that appointment is a link to a photo album on Flickr, containing wedding pics, holiday snaps, pics from the holidays. Anything that will provoke the gooey-happy feeling. Then when that appointment comes up, the person clicks the link and is reminded of good and happy things in life.

    I realise that this is small, but it could easily work for people. And it could be adapted quite easily: if you’re a GTD buff, how about putting a picture or a letter in your Tickler file to brighten up your day at the end of the week? When you reach that day, just move it on to the next day/week/month, ready to cheer you up again. Or book in a regular phone call with your Mum, a recurring appointment like above.

    This idea for 3. would obviously need to be tailored a little bit depending on the individual, but the important part is having it as recurring and automatic.