Tali Sharot – Cognitive neuroscientist
We all have some behavior that we would like to change about ourselves. And we certainly all want to help someone else, change their behavior in a positive way. Maybe it’s your kid, your spouse, your colleague. I want to share some new research with you that I think reveals something really important about what gets people to change their behavior.
But before I do that, let’s zoom in on one strategy that I think you probably use a lot. So, let’s say you’re trying to stop yourself from snacking. What do you tell yourself? Well, most people in a monologue will say, “Beware. You’ll be fat.” And if this was your kid, you would probably tell him that smoking kills and, by the way, he’s in big, big trouble.
So, what we’re trying to do here is we’re trying to scare ourselves and others into changing their behavior. And it’s not just us. Warnings and threats are really common in health campaigns, in policy. It’s because we all share this deep-rooted belief that if you threaten people, if fear is induced, it will get them to act. And it seems like a really reasonable assumption, except for the fact that the science shows that warnings have very limited impact on behavior.
So, graphic images on cigarette packets, for example, do not deter smokers from smoking, and one study found that, after looking at those images, quitting actually became a lower priority for smokers. So, I’m not saying that warnings and threats never work, but what I’m saying is that, on average, they seem to have a very limited impact.
And so, the question is, why? Why are we resistant to warnings? Well, if you think about animals, when you induce fear in an animal, the most common response you will see is freezing or fleeing; fighting, not as much. And so, humans are the same. If something scares us, we tend to shut down and we try to eliminate the negative feelings. We might use rationalizations. For example, you might tell yourself: “My grandpa smoked. He lived to be 90. So, I have really good genes and absolutely nothing to worry about.” And this process can actually make you feel more resilient than you did before, which is why warnings sometimes have this boomerang effect.
In other times, we simply put our head in the ground. Take the stock market for example. Do you know when people pull their head out of the ground to look at their accounts — not to make a transaction, just to log in to check their account? So, what you’re seeing here, in black, is the S&P 500 over two years, and in gray, is the number of times that people logged in to their account just to check. And this is data from Karlsson, Loewenstein & Seppi, it’s control data for all the obvious confounds.
So, what do we see? When the market is high, people log in all the time, because positive information makes you feel good, so you seek it out. And when the market is low, people avoid logging in, because negative information makes us feel bad, so we try to avoid it altogether. And all this is true as long as bad information can reasonably be avoided. What you don’t see here is what happened a few months later, in the financial collapse of 2008, when the market went drastically down and that was when people started logging in frantically, but it was a bit too late.
So, you can think about it like this — it’s not just finance: In many different parts of our life, we have warning signs and bad behaviors now. And they could potentially lead to all these bad outcomes later, but not necessarily so, because there are different routes from your present to your future, right? It can go this way, it can go that way.
And, as time passes, you gather more and more information about where the wind is blowing. And, at any point, you can intervene and you could potentially change the outcome, but that takes energy and you might tell yourself: “What’s the point about worrying about something that might happen? It might not happen.” Until we reach this point, at which time you do jump into action, but sometimes it’s a little bit too late.
So, we wanted to know, in my lab, what type of information does leak into people. We conducted an experiment where we asked approximately 100 people to estimate the likelihood of 80 different negative events that might happen to them in the future. So, for example, I might ask you: what is the likelihood that you will suffer hearing loss in your future? And let’s say you think it’s about 50%.
Then, I give you the opinion of two different experts. So, expert A tells you: “You know, for someone like you, I think it’s only 40%.” So, they give you a rosier view of your future. Expert B says: “For someone like you, I actually think it’s about 60%. It’s worse.” So, they give you a bleaker view of your future. What should you do? Well, you shouldn’t change your beliefs, right? Wrong.
What we find is that people tend to change their beliefs towards a more desirable opinion. In other words, people listen to the positive information. This study was conducted on college students, so you might say: “College students are delusional, right? We all know that.” And surely, as we grow older, we grow wiser. So we said: “OK, let’s test that. Does this really generalize? Does it generalize to your kid, to your parent? Does it generalize to your spouse?” We tested people from the age of 10 until the age of 80, and the answer was yes. In all these age groups, people take in information they want to hear — like someone telling you you’re more attractive than you thought — than information that they don’t want to hear. And the ability to learn from good news remained quite stable throughout the life span, but the ability to learn from bad news, that changes as you age.
So, what we found was that kids and teenagers were the worse at learning from bad news, and the ability became better and better as people aged. But then, around the age of 40, around midlife, it started deteriorating again. What this means is that the most vulnerable populations, kids and teenagers on the one hand, and the elderly on the other hand, are the least likely to accurately learn from warnings.
But what you can see here is that it doesn’t matter what age you are, you can be 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60; everyone takes in information they want to hear more than information that they don’t. So, we end up with a view like this of ourselves. Our mistake as teachers, as mentors, as employers is that, instead of working with this positive image that people so effort-fully maintain, we try and put a clear mirror in front of them. We tell them: “You know, the image is just going to get worse and worse and worse.” And it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because the brain will frantically try to distort the image, using Photoshop and fancy lenses, until it gets the image it’s happy with.
But what would happen if we went along with how our brain works and not against it? Take hand washing, for example. We all know that hand washing is the number one way to prevent the spread of disease, and this is really important in hospitals.
So, in a hospital, here in the United States, a camera was installed to see how often medical staff do, in fact, sanitize their hands before and after entering a patient’s room. The medical staff knew a camera was installed. Nevertheless, only one in ten washed their hands before and after entering a patient’s room. But then, an intervention was introduced, an electronic board that told the medical staff how well they were doing. Every time you washed your hands, the numbers went up on this screen and it showed you your rate of your current shift and the rate of the weekly staff.
And what happened? Boom. Compliance raised to 90%, which is absolutely amazing. And the research staff were amazed as well, and they made sure to replicate it in another division in the hospital. Again, the same results. Why does this intervention work so well? It works well because, instead of using warnings about bad things that can happen in the future, like disease, it uses three principles that we know really drive your mind and your behavior.
Let me explain. The first one is social incentives. In the hospital study, the medical staff could see what other people were doing. They can see the rates of the shift, the rate of the week. We’re social people, we really care what other people are doing, we want to do the same and we want to do it better. This is an image from a study that we conducted, led by PhD student Micah Edelson, and what it’s showing you is a signal in the emotional center of your brain when you hear about the opinion of others.
And what we found was that this signal can predict how likely you are to conform at a later time, how likely you are to change your behavior. The British government are using this principle to get people to pay taxes on time. In an old letter that they sent to people who forgot to pay taxes on time, they simply stressed how important it was pay taxes and that didn’t help. Then they added one sentence and that sentence said: “Nine out of ten people in Britain pay their taxes on time.” And that one sentence enhanced compliance within that group by 15%, and it’s thought to bring into the British government 5.6 billion pounds.
So, highlighting what other people are doing is a really strong incentive. The other principle is immediate rewards. Every time the staff washed their hand, they could see the numbers go up on the board and it made them feel good. And knowing that in advance, made them do something that they, otherwise, may not want to do. Now, this works because we value immediate rewards, rewards that we can get now, more than rewards that we can get in the future. And people tend to think it’s because we don’t care about the future, but that’s completely wrong, we all care about our future. We want to be happy and healthy in the future, we want to be successful, but the future is so far away. Maybe you’ll behave badly now and you’ll be fine in the future, and maybe you’ll be altogether dead.
So, the here-and-now you would rather have that tangible drink, that tangible T-bone, rather than something that’s uncertain in the future. If you think about it, it’s not altogether irrational, right? You’re choosing something sure now, rather than something that is unsure in the future. But what will happen if you reward people now for doing actions that are good for them in the future?
Studies show that giving people immediate rewards make them more likely to quit smoking, more likely to start exercising and this effect lasts for at least six months, because not smoking becomes associated with a reward, and exercising becomes associated with a reward, and it becomes a habit, it becomes a lifestyle. So, we can reward ourselves and others now for behaving in ways that are good for us in the future and that’s a way for us to bridge the temporal gap.
And the third principle is progress monitoring. The electronic board focused the medical staff attention on improving their performance. This is an image from a study that we conducted, that shows you brain activity suggestive of efficient coding of positive information about the future. What we found was that the brain does a really good job at this, but it doesn’t do such a good job at processing negative information about the future. What does this mean? It means that, if you’re trying to get people’s attention, you might want to highlight the progress, not the decline.
So, for example, if you take that kid with the cigarette, you might want to tell them: “You know, if you stop smoking, you’ll become better at sports.” Highlight the progress, not the decline.
Before I sum up, let me just share this small anecdote with you. A few weeks ago, I got home and I found this bill on my fridge. I was really surprised because there’s never any bills on my fridge. So, I was wondering why my husband decided to put that on our fridge. Looking at the bill, I could see that what this bill was trying to do is get me to be more efficient with my electricity use. And how was it doing it? Social incentives, immediate rewards and progress monitoring. Let me show you.
Here are the social incentives. In gray, is the energy use on the average energy use of people in my neighborhood. And in blue, is my energy use, and in green, is the most efficient neighbor. And my reaction to this was — my immediate reaction was: “I’m a little bit better than average” – a tiny bit, but still… and my husband had exactly the same reaction — and “I want to get to the green bar.” And then, I got a smiley face. That was my immediate reward and it was telling me, “You’re doing good,” and it made me want to put this on my fridge.
And although I have this one smiley face, I can see an opportunity there to get two smiley faces. So, there’s an opportunity for progress and it’s showing me my progress throughout the year, how my energy use changes throughout the year.
And the last thing this bill gave me was a sense of control. It gave me a sense of “I was in control of my use of electricity.” And that is a really important thing, if you try to get people to change their behavior, because the brain is constantly trying to seek ways to control its environment. It’s one of the principles of what the brain is actually doing. And so, giving people a sense of control is a really important motivator. OK.
So, what am I not saying? I’m not saying that we do not need to communicate risks and I’m not saying that there’s one-solution-fits-all, but I am saying that, if we want to motivate change, we might want to rethink how we do it, because fear, the fear of losing your health, the fear of losing money, induces inaction, while the thrill of a gain induces action. And so, to change behavior in ourselves and in others, we may want to try these positive strategies rather than threats, which really capitalize on the human tendency to seek progress. Thank you.
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