Home » How to Change Your Behavior for The Better: Dan Ariely (Transcript)

How to Change Your Behavior for The Better: Dan Ariely (Transcript)

Here is the full text of psychologist Dan Ariely’s talk titled “How to Change Your Behavior for The Better” at TED Talk conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: How to change your behavior for the better by Dan Ariely


Hi. You might have noticed that I have half a beard. It’s not because I lost a bet.

Many years ago, I was badly burned. Most of my body is covered with scars, including the right side of my face. I just don’t have hair. That’s just how it happened. It looks symmetrical, but almost.

Anyway, now that we discussed facial hair, let’s move to social science. And in particular, I want us to think about where is the potential for humanity and where we are now.

And if you think about it, there’s a big gap between where we think we could be and where we are, and it’s in all kinds of areas.

So let me ask you: How many of you in the last month have eaten more than you think you should? Just kind of general. OK.

How many of you in the last month have exercised less than you think you should? OK, and for how many of you has raising your hands twice been the most exercise you got today?

How many of you have ever texted while driving? OK, we’re getting honest. Let’s test your honesty.

How many people here in the last month have not always washed your hands when you left the bathroom? A little less honest.

By the way, it’s interesting how we’re willing to admit texting and driving but not washing our hands, that’s difficult.

We can go on and on. And the problem, the topic is that there’s lots of things when we know what we could do — we could be very, very different, but we’re acting in a very different way.

And when we think how do we bridge that gap, the usual answer is, “Just tell people.” For example, just tell people that texting and driving is dangerous. Did you know it’s dangerous? You should stop doing it.

You tell people something is dangerous, and they will stop. Texting and driving is one example.

Another very sad example is that in the U.S., we spend between $700 million and $800 million a year on what’s called “financial literacy.”

And what do we get as a consequence of that? There was recently a study that looked at all the research ever to be conducted on financial literacy — what’s called a meta-analysis.

And what they found is that when you tell people, you teach them financial literacy, they learn and they remember. But do people execute? Not so much.

The improvement is about 3% or 4% immediately after the course, and then it goes down. And at the end of the day, the improvement is about 0.1% — not zero, but as humanly close to zero as possible.

So that’s the sad news. The sad news is, giving information to people is just not a good recipe to change behavior.


Well, social science has made lots of strides, and the basic insight is that if we want to change behavior, we have to change the environment.

The right way is not to change people, it’s to change the environment. And I want to present a very simple-minded model of how to think about it. And it’s to think about behavioral change in the same way that we think about sending a rocket to space.

And when we think about sending a rocket to space, we want to do two main things. The first one is to reduce friction. We want to take the rocket and have as little friction as possible so it’s the most aerodynamic possible.

And the second thing is we want to load as much fuel as possible, to give it the most amount of motivation, energy to do its task.

And behavior change is the same thing.

So let’s first talk about FRICTION. In this particular case study I’ll tell you about, there’s a pharmacy, an online pharmacy. Imagine you go to your doctor. You have a long-term illness, your doctor prescribes to you a medication, you sign up for this online pharmacy and you get your medication in the mail every 90 days.

Every 90 days, medication, medication, medication.

And this online pharmacy wants to switch people from branded medication to generic medication. So they send people letters, and they say, “Please, please, please, switch to generics. You will save money, we will save money, your employer will save money.”

And what do people do? Nothing.

So they try all kinds of things and nothing happens. So for one year, they give people an amazing offer. They send people a letter, and they say, “If you switch to generics now, it will be free for a whole year.”

Free for a whole year. Amazing!

What percentage of people do you think switched? Less than 10%. At this point, they show up to my office. And they come to complain.

Why did they pick me? I wrote a couple of papers on the “allure of free.” In those papers, we showed that if you reduce the price of something for, let’s say, $0.10 to $0.01, nothing much happens.

You reduce it from $0.01 to zero, now people get excited. And they said, “Look, we read these papers on ‘free,’ we gave ‘free.’ Not working as we expected. What’s going on?”

I said, “You know, maybe it’s a question of friction.”

They said, “What do you mean?”

I said, “People are starting with branded. They can do nothing and end with branded. To move to generic, they have to choose generic over branded, but they also have to do something. They have to return the letter.”

So this is what we call a “confounded design.” Two things are happening at the same time. It’s branded versus generic, but it’s doing nothing versus doing something.

So I said, “Why don’t we switch it? Why don’t we send people a letter and say, ‘We’re switching you to generics. You don’t need to do anything. If you want to stay with branded, please return the letter.'” Right?

What do you think happened? Lawyers, lawyers happened. It turns out, this is illegal.

By the way, for brainstorming and creativity, doing things that are illegal and immoral, it’s fine, as long as it’s just in the brainstorming phase.

But this was the purity of the idea, right, because the initial design was the branded had the no-action benefit. In my illegal, immoral design, generic had the no-action benefit. But they agreed to give people a T-intersection: send people a letter and say, “If you don’t return this letter, we will be forced to stop your medications. But when you return the letter, you could choose branded at this price, generic at this price.”

Now people had to take an action. They were on even footing. Right? It wasn’t that one had the no-action benefit.

What percentage do you think switched? The vast majority switched.


Do people like generics, or do we like branded? We hate returning letters.

This is the story of friction: small things really matter. And friction is about taking the desired behavior and saying: Where do we have too much friction so it’s slowing people down from acting on it?

And every time you see that the desired behavior and the easy behavior are not aligned, it means we want to try and realign them.

That’s the first part. We talked about friction.

Now let’s talk about MOTIVATION.

In this particular study, we were trying to get very poor people in a slum called Kibera in Kenya to save a little bit of money for a rainy day.

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