An accessible behavioural science armoury for everyday life

Updated on: Nov 29, 2021
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The author dips into behavioural science to create a DIY toolkit for personal metamorphosis

If there were an award for the quotation of the century, it would most certainly be the words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ ranks as a clear winner. Oddly enough, the Mahatma never quite uttered this slogan. Dig a little deeper, and what emerges is a longer, thoughtful meditation on the individual being a microcosm of the world around them. (The Mahatama’s actual quote at the end of this review)

This contrast between crafting pithy slogans for the masses versus a deeper exploration of what transformation entails at the most fundamental unit of change - the individual - is at the heart of How To Change - The Science of Getting from Where you are, to Where you want to be. Prof Katy Milkman of Wharton’s treatise on affecting change harnesses the ever expanding expertise of behavioural science to create a DIY toolkit for personal metamorphosis.

Not to be confused with your standard issue ‘self-help’ book, Milkman delivers a potent yet unmistakably personal account of how change is often booby-trapped not by our follies, but by our inability to acknowledge and counter them effectively. Thus far, the legion of much feted behavioural science books and their accomplished authors rely on subtle nudges to modify group behaviour and aid policy. At a time when the science of ‘nudges’ has pre-occupied policymakers and marketers alike, the pursuit of changing aggregate behaviour has seemed more urgent than attaining individual goals. Thankfully, Milkman’s compact volume adds a refreshing twist to this narrative. By providing readers the armoury for everyday life, we’re presented with a playbook for change that blends the particular (how to floss more often), with the more profound (how to get a promotion).

To do this, she first exposes a glaring blindspot based on her background as a competitive tennis player, and involves the story of Andre Agassi’s transformation, no less, from a laggard to legend. The trick, it would appear, is not to treat the obstacles to attaining our goals as immovable objects, but as opponents instead. Blunting our opponent’s strengths, or even using it against them, is often a more productive alternative than merely powering forward unthinkingly. This is a particularly engaging line of thought that elevates attaining goals to something more akin to a game of chess, requiring playful planning, rather than relentless repetition.

The human condition

Yet, the professor is also acutely aware of what really trips us up despite our best intentions and doesn’t hesitate to call it out. Demonstrating an unabashed view of the human condition, the book is even organised in chapters devoted to our baser instincts. Whether it’s the impulsivity that bedevils the best laid plans, the procrastination that trips us up, or the ‘flakiness’ and slothfulness that can sabotage the goals we seek out; each of these can be neutralised cleverly enough, she suggests. Equally potent are the recipes for counteracting defeatist attitudes and breaking out of performance plateaus by resisting the unspoken norms that shape our self-limiting beliefs.

Milkman’s behavioural science seniors, the celebrated Nobel laureates, caution us against overconfidence (Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow ) or advise ‘libertarian paternalism’, the act of providing the right ‘Nudges’ through policy so that people can be guided to doing what is good for them (Richard Thaler in Nudge ). To Kahneman’s dictum of clearer judgement under uncertainty and Thaler’s doctrine of benevolent oversight, Milkman adds a more compassionate view of the self. In a pragmatic complement to these perspectives, she sketches alternate scenarios. Sometimes, it isn’t excessive confidence but the lack of it that undermines the desire to change. Often, it isn’t prescriptive advice people need. Counter-intuitively turning them into coaches could help flip the script. Ask them what they would advise someone similar and it will help them better navigate the way to their own goals.

Where the author really comes into her own, however, is the sharing of her proprietary research on the ‘Fresh Start Effect’. Along with collaborators Hengchen Dai and Jason Riis, Milkman first outlined this effect in a 2013 paper titled ‘The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behaviour’ . The use of specific time points to signal a ‘changed self’ does indeed lead to a boost in goal attainment. Whether it is a new year’s resolution, a milestone birthday, or indeed any number of changed circumstances like a new college or workplace, they can all catalyse desirable changes. The episodic way in which we register the passage of time, allows us to see our past self as someone different. Consequently, our present or future self is unburdened to pursue our cherished goals. Milkman and her team mates are also quick to point out the perils of applying this blindly. As with other strategies, they also reveal when not to apply these strategies.

An osmotic influence

Milkman’s wide lens perspective of behaviour change finally circles back to the force that shapes our behaviour more powerfully than most - the osmotic influence of others. We’re encouraged to shed the ‘false consensus bias’ that pre-supposes everyone else sees the world as we do. Try instead to see the world the way people who succeed at the tasks you want to do. Then simply copy-paste their bag of tricks, making little adjustments to mould these stratagems to your context. Equally, in reverse, influencing others might simply be a matter of letting people ‘declare’ desirable behaviours like saving energy, or stepping out to vote, vaccinate or workout. Signalling ‘norms’, especially ones that might enhance perceived social status, can be a powerful motivator.

The real ‘master key’ to ensuring continued success at the endeavour of change, however, is just that - a continuous process. Not only do ‘universal’ strategies not work for all individuals, neither does leaving them on auto pilot.

Still, the more powerful clue to lasting change in this taut treatise may arise from fellow author Angela Duckworth’s introductory advice to read this book from cover to cover. If you adhere to her advice, you discover in the acknowledgements, the sheer range of people it can sometimes take to attain personal milestones. Milkman graciously acknowledges a long list of supporters from family to fellow academics to forthcoming doctoral students. The bigger lesson when it comes to socially engineering the self shines through like a beacon. Like Gandhi himself demonstrated, if you want lasting personal change, enrolling others in its common pursuit may be your best bet yet.

The Mahatma’s quote

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” Mahatma Gandhi

( The reviewer is Head, Customer Centricity, Tata group, and is always curious about what makes people think and act the way they do)

Check out the book on Amazon here

Book Review:

How To Change - The Science of Getting from Where you are, to Where you want to be.

Prof Katy Milkman

Pages: 272

Published by Portfolio

Price: $20

Published on November 29, 2021

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