Author Interviews

The science of making personal change

Adrian Terron | Updated on: Jan 14, 2022
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Author Katy Milkman says there is such a huge opportunity to improve lives if individuals can change their behaviours

In a world of constant flux, we are all exhorted to change, but few people offer scientific advice on how to get it done. In this interview, Prof Katy Milkman of The Wharton School, whose book  How To Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, explains how it can be done.  Her book  was added to the list of ‘must read’ books for policymakers, business leaders, and brand builders alike.

The book seems to deviate from the usual literature in Behavioural Science and Choice Architecture used now by policymakers at a macro level. What made you mould it into a manifesto for personal change at a micro level?

When I was thinking of the audience, I wanted two-third of the stories to focus on personal change and about a third on organisations trying to change the behaviour of employees. Still, I agree the first audience is personal change. The reason is that there is such a huge opportunity in terms of improving lives if individuals can make a change. I start by talking about this graph that I saw when I was an assistant professor at Wharton showing that 40 per cent of premature deaths are due to behaviours we could change around healthy eating, physical activity, smoking, vehicle safety and alcohol consumption.

I was blown away that that was the biggest portion of a pie graph you can make on premature death! That’s why I felt like we needed a useful book that individuals could pick up and learn the best science.

We tend to default to ‘trying harder’ rather than ‘identifying our opponents’ – what made you identify the need for this shift?

It was just 15 years of working with organisations on behaviour change projects. They always come with pre-defined ideas of ‘oh you have a grab bag of tricks’ - by the way, my MBA students do the same thing- I teach a class on managerial decision making and I constantly saw them skipping the diagnosis phase and just jumping to ‘oh defaults will work!’… instead of thinking ‘ what is the actual obstacle?’. The other thing is that why people skip the diagnosis phase, I suspect it may be due to the fundamental attribution error – the tendency we have to think that everything is about the person and not the situation. There’s a similar bias to assume that situations are not key to understanding what will solve a problem. That if you have a good solution it will work for any situation. But the situation is so powerful that diagnosing it is critical to solving it for change successfully.

Your book takes a compassionate but not condescending view of human nature – laziness, forgetfulness etc. What is your central thesis on what can counter laziness and ‘inadvertent amnesia’?

In general, there’s a way of flipping the script in a lot of these cases - taking what feels like a limitation and turning it into an asset. ‘Present Bias’ – the fact that we overweight the present can be flipped on its head once you start to understand that you can strategically make it more instantly gratifying to do the things that are aligned with your long term goals. An engineered solution – a ‘temptation bundle’ if you choose a different path to approach a goal that is actually an enjoyable path then ‘Present Bias’ actually starts working for you instead of against you. It’s the same idea when it comes to inertia – defaults turn what used to be a human foible into an asset because the path of least resistance now leads us down the right path.

One of the most counter-intuitive pieces of advice – when somebody is not able to achieve a goal, you ask them for advice as if they were coaching someone else. If their advice can be effective, why haven’t they used it on themselves?

(Laughs) It is fascinating! I think this is a piece of wisdom from the book where you have to think of the context carefully. Is the barrier to change really motivational as opposed to informational? The research shows that when we put people in the position of advice givers, it makes them feel more confident in their abilities because now they’re thinking ‘you believe in me!’ and so it boosts confidence. Also, they may have introspected before giving advice. Instead, usually when people have failures they may be averse to thinking about it. Then of course, once you’ve told someone, you feel hypocritical not taking the advice yourself.

The piece de resistance of the book is ‘The Fresh Start Effect’ – how can people harness the potential of this insight to meet their goals?

The research is only a decade old so it’s fairly newly discovered behavioral insight. It describes a tendency where we feel more motivated to pursue a goal at moments that feel like fresh starts in our life. Moments where we feel like we are turning the chapter on one era and closing a previous one. They feel like new beginnings. Moments like this include the most familiar one – New Years, but also the start of a new week, season, birthday and other life shifts – moving to a new community, a promotion etc. If you are moving to a new home, not only is there a fresh start, there’s a lot of change in your environment.

This can be helpful in making changes in your life because you are now not bound to old habits or routines. So there is this terrific opportunity to have a psychological clean slate or a literal one. And we feel more disconnected from our past self and past failures feel like ‘that was the old me’. We can use them in our own lives by noticing them more and trying to look at those moments to step back, reflect and seize on the tools of science to make change.

But when we are looking at other people we see that if you invite people to save after an upcoming birthday as opposed to another day that isn’t labelled as such, 20-30 per cent more money ends up getting saved. So, we should be pointing out these moments to people more – they feel natural to people as a time to start making a positive change - especially for changes where a momentary bit of motivation can matter.

You are a big advocate for personalised strategies - but is it possible to have personalised strategies at scale?

Even though I am advocating for tailoring to what stands in your way, I think there are a lot of commonalities in what stands in the way for a particular problem. The bigger mistake I see is not a lack of personalisation to the individual but a lack of tailoring to the situation. For instance, trying to get people to exercise is a really different problem to trying to get them to take their medication or encouraging them to study. The failure is to use the same hammer for a lot of different nails. So I think the organisations that are doing situational tailoring are the organisations that have behavioral science at their heart.

One of my favorites is O-Power which sends people a mailing of how their energy use compares to people in similar homes and reliably, in every market it is rolled out in, it reduces energy consumption at almost no cost! So you are getting tailored data on yours and your neighborhood but also that most people don’t realise it’s feasible and desirable, and this quickly conveys both of those things. It recognises the barrier to change in that specific context.

Check this book out on Amazon

About the Book

How To Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

Katy Milkman

Vermilion

Pages: 272; Price: 517

Published on January 14, 2022

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