« Freakonomics Radio

282. Could Solving This One Problem Solve All the Others?

2017-04-06 | 🔗
The biggest problem with humanity is humans themselves. Too often, we make choices — what we eat, how we spend our money and time — that undermine our well-being. An all-star team of academic researchers thinks it has the solution: perfecting the science of behavior change. Will it work?
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If you'd like to listen to free economic radio without ads the place to do that is sticker premium five dollars a month and you can get free month trial by going to stick your premium dot com and use a promo code freak. You also get access to all our bonus. Episodes and you'll be supporting our show to that sticker premium: dot, com, promo code, freak thanks, The one problem that really confronts humanity in the twenty first century is huge. Haiti itself that's Angela Duckworth, in other words the problem with human beings, is that their human beings and that they repeatedly decisions that undermine their own long term, while being even when they know full well that they are eating the wrong thing. There spending their money on the wrong thing and their spend their time in an unprofitable way. Duckworth is a professor of psychology, universally Pennsylvania, with secondary appointments in the graduate schools of educate.
business. I am also the founder and scientific director of Character LAB a nonprofit dedicated to advance. the science and the practice of character. Development in kits you may know Duckworth from her best selling book called grit, which we discussed and economics radio that's right, eye redefine genius? If you will, I wanted to find you as greatness that isn't necessarily effortless, but in fact it greatly that is earned. However, you do on it. That's right, that's exactly right and that is Katy milkman. Also, a professor at pen, primarily in the business school, with a secondary appointment in the medical school. My background is actually that I have phd in computer science and business a joint phd in those two fields, you may know milkman from an earlier episode, is well talking about her research on temptation, bundling so when I talk about temptation, bundling I mean combining a temptation. Something like a tv show a guilty pleasure, something that will.
Paul you into engaging in a behavior was something you know you should do, but might struggle to do for instance. So what? If you only let yourself get a pedicure while catching up on overdue emails for work? or what, if you only let yourself go to your very favorite restaurant, whose hamburgers you crave, while spending time with a difficult relative who should see more of those would all be examples of temptation. Bundling like her friend and colleague, Angela Duckworth Katy Milkman also believes that we hear are often our own worst enemy that we make poor decisions that lead to self sabotaging behaviour, a problem that if we fixed it, can truly solve every social problem. We could think of Now there has been plenty of progress in the science of behavior change as listeners of this programme no well, but
Angela, and I discovered that we both thought the biggest problem that needed solving was figuring out how to make behavior change. Stick so not how to intervene and change behaviour once or twice so people would make. small decisions in a better way or even big decisions in a better way, but so they would repeatedly make good decisions. So, together, milkman Duckworth began to dream up a project, a huge it would seek to experiment with and understand and codified and eventually distribute to all of humanity, the most effective behavior change nudges. And incentives. Duckworth milkman word themselves, responding to a rather large incentive in two thousand and sixteen Arthur Foundation made it and It's meant that for the first time they were going to dip into their endowment and award in gold hundred million dollar prize to one team to solve one social problem
anywhere in the world, Angela Duckworth at one Macarthur fellowship in two thousand thirteen, the so called Genius award. Now? What kind of genius would she If she didn't go for the hundred million dollar Macarthur Prize, she and milkman began recruiting fellow academics to join their team and corporate institutional partners to they came up with a name for their project called at making. Behavior change stick and they submitted their proposal. I'm just curious to know what you guys both think is your probability of winning. So I'm going to ask on the count of three to blurred out the number of a probability in percentage terms, on the count of three that you will win one tooth, twenty one percent. If it were further, I would worry about the two of you, but I just exactly following. We hire just because you there's more delusional
that's it I'm she's brought me up. I thought it was lower for a while, but I forgot whether enough there are now twenty five percent and now let me ask you this: if this grant were an available, would you to still be trying to do some version of this collaboration? Absolutely and we we will entail we are right, I mean were, were working on it. I think it was a day or two after we turned in our proposal late August of two dozen. Sixteen for four we actually just getting to work and fund raising talking to these scientists about their best idea as for enduring behavior change in and also talking our organizational partners and whether or not were picked, for the hundred million dollar grant we ve now built momentum around this group- and I truly think that that is the hardest thing, not even a funding at funding. It will be easy. Compare to getting this incredible group of people and organisations
together and moving in this direction since milkman and Duckworth have already gone to so much trouble and since or so ambitious and enthusiastic, we thought it makes sense for for economics radio to chronicle their journey, whether or not they win a hundred million dollar. Graham. So today, the first instalment of making behavior change stick and will check in with them periodically over the coming months or years after all, ie like they have long been interested in the science of behavior change and now that their rolling up all the small known victories into one potentially giant leap for humankind, dwelt. What kind of show would we be? We didn't want to go on that right, I'm happy
from W and Y see studios. This is freakin comics radio podcast explores the hidden side of everything. Here's your house, Stevens Abner, as most of us know from personal experience, changing even your own behaviour. Can we really hard whether it's how you take care of your mind and body or you? go environment. Are you worker interact with other people? You name it even when you do make a change, it can be hard to make it stick and what, if you're, trying to change other people's behaviour? Over the past few decades, alot of brain power has been spent, trying to develop a science of behavior change and there has been a lot of success, but these successes are often take circumscribed for several reasons. One is that a lot of the experimental research has been conducted by academics, who use college students as their subjects, so the sample size
small and also not very representative. This is called the weird problem, weird standing for subject to our western educated and from countries that are industrialized rich in democratic weird. Then there is the fact that a lot of experimental research is to artificial to, unlike the real world, also to context dependent and too low stakes. How much stocked you really wanna put in the decision made by a college student in a one time transaction in a classroom lab where the reward some free pizza. Another problem with incentivize in behavior change is that incentives we're off on day one you might happily choose to eat Kale instead of french fries, for it you dollar, reward by day ten. You might be willing to pay two dollars, maybe twenty dollars for some french fries and news at least one were big problem with designing incentives to choose
in other people's behaviour. The people who are typically in charge of the design are fairly accomplished. People accomplished, people tend to be disciplined and driven and cooperative, so the incentives they design may in their minds be perfectly logical, but the red of humanity may not be as disciplined and driven and cooperative his them. So even if you can find the right levers to press to produce, save your change in the right measure in the right circumstances. How can you generalised that scale it up from the individual to the population level and how can you make it stick? That is the massive challenge that Angela Duckworth and Katy Milkman have given them. so massive that they wanted lotta help. Thinking on this scope in magnitude, it was easy for us to start making phone calls to people, normally be, I think, maybe a little too shy to pester with
ideas, so we started sending emails to all of our academic heroes and because of the scope because of the excitement around. This as everyone said. Yes, they put together and all starting a more than two dozen researchers, psychologists and economists, and so apologists, but also people for medicine and computer science and marketing. The team includes four members of the National Academy of Sciences, three Macarthur, fellows, One Nobel laureate, the Labour economist, Jim Hechtman, as duck, an milkman right in their Macarthur proposal. This team of researchers has collectively quote developed interventions at meaningfully improve, flew, shot, take up Jim Attendance retirement savings charitable, giving medical.
adherence hand, hygiene, energy efficiency, cancer, screening compliance, voter turnout, weight loss, smoking, cessation job choice, GPA attendance in classroom conduct. That said, this project will focus on three major areas: number one focusing on problems and health, so think smoking, cessation, healthy eating, increasing exercise, reducing our I'll consumption number, two education: can we get kids to have better outcomes in school and stick to school and then finally, and then finally, savings can people make better financial decisions on a daily basis. So, though, have better financial outcomes, the research will not be done in academic isolation, but rather in Calabria, with real world firms and institutions going out in working with a real organizational partner like New York, city, public schools or sea. s care mark or no Bank of America One of these organizational part
and literally working with their customers or their students on experiments to try to change outcomes for the better. I am curious if the subject line of your email was like a nigerian email scam like we have a hundred million dollars to the team that can change behaviour. What what was your sure I ask to these people to get them on board. How did you scribe the level of participation that you wanted from them and so on. We set our organizational partners like you, we care about making people's lives better and like you, we know how hard it is. One thing that we bring to this is the perspective of science. We bring the scientific method we bring the power of random assignment placebo, controlled studies? You, of course bring years of hard fought. The trenches wisdom, maybe there's something that we might discover working class, nation that neither of us will be able to do a part one of the places where
a start is with exercise, so we have to Jim partners, In this study, blink fitness, which has about four hundred then members and twenty four hour, fitness which has about four million members, what you It was, you are encouraged to sign up and then when you and wrong this program, you experience a personalized five minute survey and your launched into a five program where you gonna, be getting reminders to the jam on a regular basis, you'll accumulating, rewards points for actually engaging in physical activity and you'll, be getting texted tips about how you can be more persist in achieving our goals. That's our baseline group. We also have a program that will compare that too in a bee tasks that won't actually experience this intervention and then finally will have additional swear were testing new science new Ideas- how we can build on what we already know can be effective. What we
I care about is not the five weak intervention period when people are accumulating points in an accrue, These rewards that they can get excited about, but rather what happens for that. Knowing what we know about loss aversion there is some researchers are not about to using loss aversion instead of the reward incentive set up for Jim Participation, what's at literature yet. There is some fantastic research showing that, if you're thinking about the carrot versus, stick as a way of motivating behavior change, that you can get more bang for your book in general by penalised people for non engaging in good behaviour, then you can get by putting them. There are some downside set and cancer. or partnering with companies that care very much about maintaining satisfaction. You know we have some constraints in terms of what practices we're going to deploy, to try to change, behave, for the better who were planning to focus on bonuses or pluses that were offering people, as opposed to the the stick for the reasoning
we care not only about whether or not people get the most out of this problem. But also whether they're happy, and I think, frankly being we may have a lot to do with long term benefits and talk about the the sort of subjects who will be enrolled in this research in a one problem is, as we all know, is it a lot of academic research draws from a pool of subjects. Typically, you know college graduates, that's pretty narrow and compliant and willing to do almost anything for free space, a pizza. So Is your subject, pool more universal, then that far more the people work and we recruiting earned of either the customers of the companies we work with and frankly, work were building on has not always looked exclusively at undergraduates, in fact, when the pilot studies at twenty five hundred people from a fortune, five the company, and we know that the techniques were planning to deploy these Jim populations were very effective in that simple, in education, is important for us to be helping all kids, but it's, I guess, especial
important that we help the kids who need the most help, and so it's for that reach and that we have deliberately partnered with large urban districts. The New York City, public schools, of Philadelphia schools and also charter school part who largely serve students from disadvantaged households, and so it's not that poor, kids I'll, have a different psychology. I think that there are circumstances are different, and so there challenges can be different, but if you, I'm trying to understand motivation your essentially trying to understand human nature. Let's say you're looking at trying to encourage people to make nutritious grocery purchases In your study or suite of studies, how would that be measured? Are you also measuring the less nutritious purchases, and so on have had is at work, so we'll have to use loyalty, rewards cards rights. That would be how we would track food, but it's only gonna be at that grocer. So you're you're playing at a limitation It also rely to some extent oneself report and then one of those
that's really amazing about our study and the partners we ve collected is that we hope we will be able to track people through multiple different partner, so think about a purse. Who say has enrolled in our study is hoping to have better outcomes and is both a severe care Mark sharper a whole food shopper. and also a human health insurance customer if they agree and are comfortable with us accessing all of those different sweets of data than one possibility would be to not only look at whether or not there are making more nutritious grocery purchases, but we can also see will what are they buying at the pharmacy or they are picking up the chips that they have stop buying at the girl. Restore there, and then we can look at actual health outcomes are Dave. You know the visiting the doktor has their blood pressure look and so on. I am exactly the kind of person that you don't want. Your study. I guess because I think we're waiting if your and sent devising that stuff from those places. So I I know that
I go and get you know a lot of cauliflower sunflower seeds and what not, then I'm getting kind of a rebate on those and with that man, I save I can buy like for more burger king burgers every week and there's nothing you can do or know about that until I hope at the Dockers office and potentially you can tell that I have don't have much cauliflower bloodstream. You know the question that you're asking Stephen is actually very deep, because we all know the kind of diet, Coke in Big MAC Effect right. The the idea that You get healthier in one choice, you feel like your license to indulge the little in another since I'm ordering the diet, coke and not the sugary cook, well does have an extra side of rise with that Ray and that's actually not what we want. We certainly dont want incentivize, buying cauliflower, sunflower seeds and then the person not go to the gym, because I feel like they made healthy choice aid. Why make a and b? In fact, I would say that the holy GRAIL of
during behaviour changes when you change identity when you for the sort of person who buys cauliflower an sunflower seed, and goes to the gym every day. In fact, economist would call this complementarity the across your decisions, that, if you do one, you know you're more likely to do the other. In fact, the benefits of the other are enhanced when we talk to our partners, for example, weight loss in talking to the chief scientific officer of wheat watchers on this. You know he would say that If you look at people really lose way over the long term, there a change in the narrative they think of themselves as different people, and I would say this thing is a former classroom teacher, the kids who get out of poverty and are able to thrive, are ones for whom you know that, you're, not piecemeal decisions. Should I do my homer tonight, or should I be the social media, I'm the sort of kid who does my homework? No matter? What of the three categories that you're going to be working in health, personal finance will call it an education which
seems to have the largest gap between low income and middle income. That's a great question. I think in all three, though there is domains. The gradient is huge well known in education, that there is a standard deviation, difference between the performance of rich and poor kids eyes about as early as you can measuring the college dropout rates, which, in this case we are astronomically high on average, so one out of two kids, starting I was in the United States, but not finishing with their degree, but the statistics are grossly distorted, suffered the kids who come from vantage were first in their family to go to college. You are from underrepresented, minority backgrounds or from poor households are are much much worse off. Reno health disparities and outcomes by income are just enormous and also their racial disparities having trolling for income. There are enormous. So that's another I swear, we know, will have more upside working with people who have less
and certainly an eminent and financial decision making in finance it's almost like exponentially difficult, exactly, is financed, actually about money, compound interest yeah exactly here and as soon as you get into debt things spiral. So all of these are just settings where it matters so much the bottom end of the spectrum to to get in there and make changes coming up on economics, radio, you be thinking to yourself, Duckworth Milkman, some really smart, so smart are they don't think worse, and we also think that drivers or the recitals and I'm here to defend himself. But you see a great for economics, guess where that settled still good, pretty smart more after this Angela, Duckworth and Katy Milkman are both professors.
University, Pennsylvania and CO leaders of an ambitious project called making behavior change stick, but they are hardly the same person Duckworth, a former teacher the research psychologist he's been studying the ins and outs of grit, which is a quintessentially internal motivation. Milkman with a background in computer science and business is now Sesar of Quote operations, information and decisions, heavy on the external forces, and we disagree all that. I think we disagreed daily. You know four ample incentives, hourly hourly. Yes, exactly minutely incentives as one focal case of dispute, which you know I as a psychologist, think to myself what you know that our reams of research studies in psychology that show that incentives can often backfire and that you can, in fact crown out intrinsic motivation. Katy has it will you have your own evidence, unity, counterweight against certain
That will be the art of this project. If we can get these endeavours, minded organizations. Are these independent minded academics who are working? on one thing in their way to work on other things with other people who have different prospect, Then our bet is that something will come out of this that hasn't come out before I mean the problem of behavior change. goes back to Aristotle if not before, and so it's it's not just You were, as that makes us think that you know we're smarter than than Aristotle wording worsen. Don't think we're programmes are recycled and I'm here to defend himself, but you ve a great for economics, gas by resurrecting privately run over and over again and instead what is exciting to me about your project. Is that all these some motivated smart, hardworking people are
king and silos that rarely intersect with each other and your project is the first that I have encountered when air, your kind of blowing up all the silos in trying to cross Pallone, all this if you're in data among private firms and academic researchers, and presumably policymakers, ultimately, is my take two grand or to Pollyanna for what you guys are thinking about, or is that indeed, what you're trying to do that is at the heart of the design? In fact, you could argue that cross pollination is the free of change at every level of this proposal, so not to exclusively focus on? health outcomes, but to look in concert with savings and education, because if you look at a human life in those are domains only three of which, of course, you know it's not a complete the other two fields in which a human being operates, but but why beside load and only look at one and not the others, so there's just one disparity at the level of the domain of life that were examining
on our academic team of twenty seven scientists there are people who real strenuously disagree with each other in terms of the approaches they take their public, different journals, they have different so abilities, they have different I guess I would say, taste and away about you know what's important to look at and what you do not care about so much. I think that the idea is one thing and the execution is another and Katy, and I hope to be world class thinkers on this project with the other scientists, but but we will We also need to be world class doors and get this massive thing with there is around the country and academics with things that they were already working on before. We ask them to be part of this project and work together. Are you together to actually produce stuff, so we're grappling with every day, but we also knew that from go. We kind of signed up for being not only academics in the traditional sense, but entrepreneurs and start up of folk, so
That's what it feels like. I think to me this project, unlike any other that I've ever worked on does already feel like its own little company that were building because we're trying to create a product we want it to, these something that people will be excited about engaged with in a way that normal academic studies. Dont worry about these challenges so much. You know, I think, there's something missing in academia that is not missing in Silicon Valley or Madison Avenue, and that is rapid Prodi I think I'm really actually listening to the market with both ears, in other words, the academic. You tend to think a lot and to read a lot and then to come to these top down conclusions, which can be true and valid. But what they're? Not doing a lot of bottom up empirical fat gathering? But I think that is, crucial and we gotta get this right. If we're successful is actually introduce design thinking
in other words, as rapid prototyping, really listen, aim being consumer oriented for this whole thing to fly, so not enough to have the scientists and not enough to even have these institutional partners. We actually need diners end product manage whereas in and folks who actually dud, tend not to hang around the halls of academia but but that's can be assessed. part of our team. Let me ask you very rude, urged impolite question. I guess I'm thinking about the size of grant. A hundred million dollars is a law, especially inequity its lot anywhere you're year, one costs in your proposal you estimated fourteen million dollars, and I guess I'm just thinking a little bit about what economists call the principal agent prob where it looks like everybody's incentives are aligned. But in fact, even if you get this grant and do everything that you propose over six or seven years and doesn't work or nothing meaningful comes from it. Then you still
to kind of run this project and give projects and pay days to all these other reach, tortures so persuade me that this isn't just a kind of rent seeking jobs programme. For you and your friends, I think that the proof is in putting we ve already produced. So we know a lot of answer already, so This baseline model that were building which gets people to make plans, and set goals and gives them reminders and provides incentives for good behaviour or for the course of a five. We can revenge and has actually been tested repeatedly in replicated. Produce lasting behavior change over up to a year, follow up So we know that these elements are going to produce a benefit. And then the question is how much bigger can we make the lift bite?
making the insights from this incredible team of twenty seven scientists, this incredible team of organizational partners that I've been thinking about this on the front lines. So I have No doubt that we're gonna make a big impact by deploying something that's been tested and proven, and randomize controlled trials to change behaviour in the long term. For the better. The question is just how big will the effect be? If all dead was deploy. What we know works. We would have a huge impact by simply scaling up to the large populations. We're talking about reaching, but by a beta. In bringing these insights from different fields and from different practitioner partners. I think the sky is the limit. You write that, among the millions of people we will reach through this project, we aim to reduce high school in college dropouts financial insecurity and premature deaths by ten percent, which is a huge number. What magnitude of change would you consider ultimately, a success, mad you're. Looking back at this ten years now, I wish I'd be happy
ten percent, but I'd be more happy with twenty percent. I mean I think, to answer that question also to think a little bit about the question. You bring But even the seemingly cranky question of you know, maybe this is just a rent seeking just away. patting her own research budgets by an extra several million for six years. To me, the biggest bed of all, is to bet your life on something and key and I looked at each other, and we said this isn't about a hundred million dollars. This is about our research there's an hour are lively with were both working astern. Numbers of hours per week on this war bedding, our lives on this work. So yeah the benefit better, be huge because the alternative to working on. This is to be working on other things, and if we thought that there would be a better way to spend our time to work on a bunch of small projects than we would, but we ve decided that it's worth the the rest If you will of the next seven years plus two were
really singly on enduring behavior change and not honor you Norman The assortment of little things that are unlikely actually add up to people doing the right thing over longer periods of time than either of us have studied. In the past, keep gathering data and you come up with what I assume then our policy recommendations but not sure they're. Only policy recommendations because are also obviously this. This takes into account private firms dozens and school systems, and so on so does you are working necessarily get turned into legislation, is it happening more in the private sector? Where do you see it ultimately? Taking you know the deepest roots, but first and foremost were literally going to build a piece of technology that is our intervention and that and reported indifferent settings to help people achieve different goals on a long term basis. So that's gonna be open source
share the learning, as well through academic papers and presentations and and heads and so on, so that organizations whether there for profit not for profit, whether or not the governor to or not take our warnings and deploy them or take our technology and reengineer it for their purposes. So our hope is that it will the widely used by every one who sees behavior change as a problem- and I think that's gonna- be everyone working anywhere in the world. Frankly, on social problems, for answer. Would you mind answering the same question? I think that the contributions of this project are going to be the insights. You know it's not that the technology that resolving were building a superconductor or that you know we're programme something in the that we send out tax that is then the way people have sent out. I thought the advances are really, I think, going to be in insights and because we want to make completely transparent. I dont think
those incites are necessarily going to lead immediately to our policy change, but they could think one the trends that that I see that really is a part of the moon. They were both excited about. Is that Policymakers and private companies and everyone else are realising that you have to engineer around human nature. You can't just assumed People will make you know the rational, long term decision. You have to work with the way people are in and if this project, in the course of its run, not only this is a tangible product that helps in the short term. We do hope that it creates some kind of law term knowledge about the way human beings tick and that we would all benefit by it and what happens if you dont want we're going to do it anyway, and how does the scale change? How much money do you think you could raise to do this it would be an order of magnitude last. I think, in order to do this way we really want to do it obviously wouldn't have applied for a hundred million dollars. If we didn't think that need
a hundred million dollars to do them most efficiently, but I think that we could certainly persuade folks in the thought, her up a community that this would be worth millions of dollars. So we may not be able to think about smoking, cessation and savings and educational attainment, all at the same moment, maybe more sequential but we'll do the work anyway. That's for sure, just a couple days after we spoke with Angela Duckworth Katy Milkman Macarthur founded announced eight semifinalist for the one hundred million dollar grant making behavior change stick was not among them most of the semi finalists had much more specific, all's curing river blindness in Africa, for instance, and more traditional goals?
proving newborn survival caring for orphans, bringing specialist medical care to underserved patients, it's hard to argue with the nobility of these efforts or the need, but the Duckworth milkman proposal to me at least, is categorically different, not just in its breadth and ambition, but in its desire to attack a problem way back at its root. Think about the difference between a medical treatment and a vaccine once already sick, you're grateful for the treatment, but how much better would it be too have never gotten sick if behavior change is indeed at the root of all the sub optimal self, sabotaging decisions that we humans make when it makes sense
to start there. The good news is true to their word. Duckworth and milkman are still pushing hard without the hundred million dollars. They ve already raised one million dollars from the only organisation they pitched so far. The chance of burgundy should have in later. spring they'll, be convening they're, all start team of scholars and institutional partners in Philadelphia for economics. Radio will be there too and will let you know what happens next and next, and next and coming up next week on for economics, radio? I thought experiment if we had a chance to reboot our civilization to build new institutions and systems from scratch. What would that look like, after all trial and error on earth. One point: no: how on earth to point no be different will hear from some of the most
aimed economists in the world. Will that thought experiments not so far from how I think about things dated eight and we ask and Nobel Prize winner what he'd do as chief economist of earth to point out. While you know I'd turn a job, I'm actually court hostile to the question of its next time I'm freaking, I'm sorry for you, I'm afraid you is produced by W and my c studios and W productions. This episode produced by Eliza Lambert, our staff also includes Shelly Louis Grech, Result Ski Christopher Worth Stephanie TAT merit Jacob Alison, Hockenberry anymore stern, Harry Huggins in Brain Gutierrez you can subscribe to freedom trading on Itunes teacher or wherever you get. Your podcast can also check out our archive at for economics, DOT Tk
I'm Regan, scream or download every episode with ever made and also read the transcripts in fine links to the underlying research and also financed on Twitter Facebook or be YE mail at radio at freedom of thought. Come thanks to listen
Transcript generated on 2021-01-23.