In this week’s podcast, Sonya sat down with Katy Milkman, a professor at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, to discuss behavior sciences, behavior change, setting goals, and much more. Katy conducts research that looks at insights from economics and psychology and how they can be harnessed to change consequential behaviors for good. She co-founded, and co-directs, the Behavior Change for Good Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.
Last year, Katy published How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, which the New York Times named one of the eight best books for healthy living in 2021. She was also named one of the world’s top 50 management thinkers and the world’s top strategy thinker by Thinkers50.
Katy’s extensive resume includes work with many organizations on behavior change, including The White House, Google, the U.S. Department of Defense, the American Red Cross, and more. She also hosts a podcast called Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab, that explores the lessons of behavioral economics, exposing the psychological traps that lead to expensive mistakes.
“We have to actually diagnose what’s holding us back in order to come up with the best solutions instead of just reaching for a shiny trick. We want that one size fits all – set big audacious goals, that’s all I need – but in reality, it really depends. Lots of people are held back by different barriers. Some people lack confidence, some have decided to pursue goals they find miserable so they can’t motivate themselves on a daily basis to actually make progress because it’s so unpleasant. Even though the long-run rewards are great, the short-term pain is over-weighted, so we end up not being able to push through. Some people have habits that are really hard to break and that are negative and that can be their barrier. So there’s a wide range of different challenges that different people face and there are different strategies, solutions out there that science has proven can help, but they need to be well-matched to whatever challenges the particular person is facing.”-Katy Milkman
- How Katy got into behavioral sciences
- Leading reason to make change
- What the hell effect
- How to set an appropriate goal
- Commitment devices
- Temptation Bundle
- Learn more about Katy’s book: How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
- Katy’s podcast: Choiceology
- Check out my Substack about high-performance mindset
- Sign up for my weekly newsletter!
Sonya Looney: I love getting to learn more about you because I realized we have a lot in common. We both I don’t have a PhD in engineering, but I have my master’s degree in engineering. I play tennis growing up, and I also really liked Andre Agassi’s book. And although I don’t have anywhere near the knowledge and experience in behavioral sciences that you do, it’s also something that I really love. So I was like, I think I could be her best friend if she left me.
Katy Milkman: I’m honored. That’s so cool. I love finding out about those commonalities, and I’m excited to be friends.
Sonya Looney: So how did you get into behavioral sciences? Because people look at engineering, they’re like, well, how does that have to do with this?
Katy Milkman: Yeah, it’s a great question. It doesn’t have a lot to do with it. I think it was a pretty weird transition, but I actually was in a PhD program in computer science and business. So it was a part of engineering that has a little bit more overlap with social science. And I was already interested in understanding things like, how does e-commerce, how is it going to come along and change the world, both in terms of how people think about computing and how people think about business? That’s what I thought I wanted to study as a 22 year old who really didn’t have a clue. And then I was required to take this class to get my degree, actually a series of classes on microeconomics at the graduate level, I hated undergraduate microeconomics. Like, hated it, hated it so much that I actually switched out of the Bachelor of Arts program I had entered school in and took summer classes in order to be able to transfer the engineering school because I was so turned off by what I had thought would be my major. And what I hated about microeconomics when I first encountered it was the way it was taught as, like, this prescriptive model that people are perfect decision makers. They’re optimal choice making machines. They never err, they’re dispassionate, they’re patient. I just thought, have you met a human? This isn’t what they look like. How can we make those assumptions and start modeling the world that way and think it’s going to be in any way useful? When I got to graduate school and took this graduate series that I had to take in microeconomics, my experience was completely different because I was at a place that had really embraced a new wave of economic theory that included behavioral economics or a series of models that said, look, people are imperfect decision makers. There are systematic and predictable ways that they deviate from optimal choices, and we can incorporate that into our world view, and that can improve things. So it included assumptions like, people are impatient, people hate losing, and they hate it much more than they enjoy winning and that can bias their actions. We overweight small probabilities. Our risk preferences are determined by whether or not we feel like we’re in the domain of gains or losses. So if you are familiar with the work of Danny Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in 2002, sort of laid the groundwork with Amos Tversky on this. And I was like, wow, this is fascinating. And I believe it. And there’s a whole world that’s studying these questions and amazing. I also saw immediately there was an opportunity to create some prescriptions, which is sort of like engineering me. Once you recognize that people are imperfect, once you recognize their systematic and predictable ways, they make mistakes, there’s a whole world of opportunity to help improve those decisions and engineer solutions. So it felt like a major pivot in some ways, but in other ways, it felt completely natural that maybe this had been the home I just hadn’t found earlier. And it’s been a great, fun career ever since I made that pivot and that discovery of the field.
Sonya Looney: I think it’s really interesting because a lot of times people will start something and then they get curious about something else, which it sounds like you noticed something, you got curious, you explored it further, and then you’re able to move in that direction. A lot of times, we’re afraid to explore our curiosity because of whatever reasons hold us back. And it’s just amazing what can happen if you have the courage to do that.
Katy Milkman: Absolutely. I think especially when you’re in school, especially when you’re early in a career or starting something new already, there’s this tendency to escalate commitment that’s actually it’s a bias that I teach my MBA students about. You invested a little bit. You plan to go into this major, this degree program, you’ve taken a couple of classes, so you’ve gotten your requirements out of the way, or you think you’re going to pursue this career. So you’ve spent two years going down that path and you think, oh, no, I’ll lose all that progress. I can’t possibly pivot, even though I’ve found something I’m more passionate about. But in general, we should ignore that. That’s what’s called a sunk cost, because you can’t recover it and you just focus on what will make you happy and most productive for the rest of your life. That’s what you need to make your decision on the basis of. And too often we don’t pivot. We should be exploring more and exploiting less now, to use a sort of computer science nerd way of putting it, in life. And I think that’s how all the great stuff happens. We rarely know. You certainly don’t know at birth what you want to do. So you have to spend some time exploring and following what interests you and just it’s important not to commit too soon, I think
Sonya Looney: Yeah, to pivot a little bit. When it comes to habits and making changes in your life, I think that one of the biggest issues is that people say, I want to do this big thing, and then they set a goal that’s way too big. And then they try and take on way too much all at once or too many things all at once. And then they feel like, oh, I’m so disconnected. I want to do this thing, but I can’t make myself do this thing. So how do I make myself do this thing? And I know that’s, like, the premise of your entire awesome book, “How to Change…” is like, how do we make positive changes? So what is the leading reason why people have a difficult time making changes?
Katy Milkman: I think the leading reason is a failure to diagnose the reason that they are struggling to make change, which I sort of answering your question almost with another question. But to me, this is one of the most important things, and it’s sort of the central principle I’m trying to communicate in the book I wrote that we have to actually diagnose what’s holding us back in order to come up with the best solutions instead of just reaching for a shiny trick. I think we want that one size fits all, like big audacious schools. That’s all I need. But in reality, it really depends. Lots of people are held back by different barriers. Some people lack confidence. Some have decided to pursue goals that they find miserable and so they can’t motivate themselves on a daily basis to actually make progress because it’s so unpleasant. Even though the long run rewards are great, the short term pain is overweighted. So we end up not being able to push through. Some people have habits that are really hard to break and that are negative, and that can be their barrier. So there’s a wide range of different challenges that different people face, and there are different strategies.
There are solutions out there that science has proven can help, but they need to be well matched to whatever the challenges that particular person is facing. If I boost your confidence but your barrier is that you find the activity miserable, that’s no good. Or if I make the activity fun, but you keep forgetting to do it, I haven’t solved the key problem. So that matching, I think, is more important than anything else. And then, of course, we have a litany of solutions to the different problems that I know we’ll get into as we talk.
Sonya Looney: And this kind of goes back to what you’re saying of like, humans are imperfect, and there’s not just one way for everybody to do something, but the knowing yourself part can be really hard. Number one, that requires taking responsibility for yourself and being able to recognize what these patterns are. So how can people start on that matching process and get to know what is actually holding them back?
Katy Milkman: Yes, it’s a great point. For some people, it’s obvious, right? Some people are like, oh, yeah, it’s painful. That’s my problem. I hate doing this. That’s why I’m not doing it. I’m totally confident in myself. I hate it. Other people won’t be as able to diagnose. And I think that’s okay, too, because then we were just talking about sort of explore, exploit and experimentation, and you can try some different things. There’s no problem with trying some different tools and just recognizing when something isn’t working for you. That may mean you haven’t really diagnosed what’s standing in your way and you want to sort of pivot in a direction to try to solve a different problem because the problem you’re solving isn’t probably the key one if it’s not working. So I think some combination – either you can know yourself and do the matching and diagnosis perfectly, or you can just experiment a bit and get there. Either path will help you reach your solution eventually.
Sonya Looney: The experimentation process – I think a lot of times people will try one thing and then it didn’t work. So they’re like, oh, well, I just give up. And it takes a little bit of courage to try again and to try something else and to realize I just got to find what works best for me.
Katy Milkman: I think that’s right. And to be deliberate about it as opposed to thinking I’m going to give this one shot to actually know that your plan from the beginning is you are going to reevaluate at some frequency, say, once every two weeks. How’s it going? Do I need to try a different approach? Is this really working for me? So if you can sort of lay that out for yourself at the outset, as opposed to just assuming you’ll still feel as motivated to pivot when the time comes, you may make more progress.
Sonya Looney: It’s going to be impossible for us to get into all of the amazing information in your book. So this is kind of like a teaser for people. But I think the first one that I think people really resonate with is the what the hell effect, and everybody’s familiar with self sabotage. I’ve already like, I’ve only been at my parents house for a couple of days, and they have all these treats around, and I’ve caught myself giving into the what the hell effect. Can you talk about that?
Katy Milkman: Yeah. The what the hell effect is my favorite name for an effect in all of behavioral science. It’s the phenomenon that we experience when you have some goal, maybe some daily objective. Let’s just talk about eating, because I think that’s what was first studied. But this can happen in any part of your life. You have some objective that you’re trying to achieve in terms of healthy eating, say, and then the morning somebody maybe offers you a donut and you eat it because donuts are delicious, and then you realize, shoot, my goal is pretty far out of reach for having a healthy eating day now. And you say, what the hell? And then you have pizza for lunch and cake for dinner, and the whole thing is out the window. So that’s what the hell effect. It’s like a little goal slippage leads to a complete failure because you abandon the goal completely when you see something going a bit off track. And again, I gave you the example in terms of eating, but this could be true in terms of your exercise regimen, your sleeping goals, your productivity goals, your savings goals. It can happen in any part of your life.
So then the question is, okay, well, what do we do about it? Great. It’s great to have a name for it. It’s great to be wise to the fact that this can happen. But is there anything we can do to prevent it from taking over and rearing its ugly head? And the good news is, I think there are a few techniques that scientists have proven can be helpful. My favorite comes from research by my colleague Marissa Sharif at Wharton in collaboration with Suzanne Shu of Cornell University. And this is based on Marissa’s own life experience as a runner who really wanted to try to run at a high frequency. It made her feel good. It helped with her mental health and her physical health. So she noticed that she had this tendency if she set a tough goal for herself, that would push her, like trying to run seven days a week. Tough goals are better than wimpy goals in terms of getting us motivated and getting us to achieve more. But they also have a bigger risk that will give in to the what the hell effect. Right? Because if she’s trying for seven days a week and then Tuesday, she’s not feeling well, or friends in from out of town, and she misses her regular run. She says, oh, what the hell? And she gives up. And then she doesn’t run anymore for the whole week. So she is a smart behavioral scientist, and she came up with this trick she played on herself, which was she gave herself what she called emergency reserves. So she set a tough goal for herself to run seven days a week. But she’d give herself two emergency reserves or get out of jail free cards. She tried not to use them. She was really…they were emergencies only, right? So most weeks she would run seven days a week. But if she had that friend in from out of town on Tuesday night and they went out for drinks and she didn’t manage to get a run in, she’d pull out an emergency reserve card and say, I’m still on track, that was just one of my emergency reserves, still can achieve seven days a week because that was sort of a mulligan doesn’t count. This helped her immensely, and she then did dissertation work where she demonstrated in very different contexts from exercise to productivity tasks, that if you deliberately help people set a tougher goal and give themselves these emergency reserves that leads to better outcomes than giving them tough goals without any wiggle room or the identical goal to where you’d land if you use all your wiggle room.
So to be really concrete, seven days a week, that’s your tough goal. But no wiggle room. Five days a week, that’s your wimpier goal with no wiggle room. Or you can do seven days a week with two get out of jail free cards, that seven days a week with two get out of jail free cards, it’s identical to five days a week, but it leads to way better outcomes than either of the other extremes because it keeps you pushing hard towards the end goal and gives you the wiggle room. So I think we should all think about using emergency reserves in our lives. And if you think about like cheat meals, for instance, which I know WW is one program that offers these, it’s kind of the same psychology. It’s giving you a way to not give up on yourself completely when you have a slip up, but instead declare it – like you don’t want it to get out of control. If everyday is an emergency, then you have the same effect – but if you have a limited supply, this can be a useful tool to keep us on track when inevitably we fall off the wagon from time to time. So that’s one tactic that I think is useful.
Sonya Looney: That’s kind of like the antidote to all or none thinking and perfectionism, because then you’re not so focused on being perfect seven days a week. You’re not so focused on I have to do all and if I don’t do all, then I’m just going to do none.
Katy Milkman: Absolutely. I totally agree with that. And it’s also super related to this research by Carol Dweck of Stanford on the importance of having a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. Carol’s research shows that if we go into life thinking like skills, say IQ, are fixed, and then we have some bad day, something bad happens, we think it’s diagnostic, I’m incapable, and we give up on ourselves at a higher rate than if we go through life thinking that something like IQ – I’m using that as an example, some trait – is something we can grow. And if we think about it as something that can grow, then when you encounter an obstacle, you think, well okay, I failed at that, but it’s not diagnostic of me as a person. It just teaches me something I can learn from it and next time I’ll do better. So if we can try to approach goals with that growth mindset, that’s also really helpful and not being too disheartened when we have a misstep; instead trying to learn from it and think we’ll improve and do better and outsmart it next time.
Sonya Looney: I think that’s a really big part of health coaching is helping people set appropriate goals and then setting weekly or biweekly action steps. And a big part of it is having them set goals where they feel pretty confident that they can meet that goal. Like you rated on a scale of zero to 10, how confident are you that you can do that? And we want people to be a seven or higher. But for some people, like saying, well, I’m going to run seven days a week with these two get out of jail free cards, that still might be way too big of a goal. So how can people set an appropriate goal for themselves without overreaching and making it way too big so that they lose confidence in themselves because they need five get out of jail free cards?
Katy Milkman: Yeah, it’s a really great question. There’s some evidence that an important place to start when you are trying to make a change is just a little bit of self monitoring to understand, to make sure you have a sense of like, well, what are you up to now? And how can you up the ante, but not by an extreme amount. Right. So if you think about how this might work with something like physical fitness, you might start wearing a Fitbit or some other physical activity tracker…I’m a Fitbit user, but that wasn’t meant to be a marketing pitch for Fitbit. Everybody has their preferred trackers. You might put one on for a couple of weeks before you set your goals. Just sort of see where you are now and then think, can I get 10% better? You don’t want to push yourself so hard that it’s going to be a natural flop. But if you have a sense of what you’re already achieving and you can up the ante 10%, maybe 20% instead of 200%, which would be pretty tough to go straight to, then you’ll be able to set more realistic goals and hopefully achieve them at a higher rate.
Sonya Looney: Yeah. And something else I wanted to bring up with commitment devices because I have a couple of additional questions on top of what was in your book. So can you explain to people what commitment devices are and how they can use them?
Katy Milkman: Yeah. This is one of my favorite insights from behavioral economics that I think is really underused in the mainstream. And I hope more people will get on top of this because it’s so powerful. But it’s also a little bit… it’s intimidating, let’s say. Okay, a commitment device is when you treat yourself the way a parent might treat a child or a policymaker might treat a citizen when trying to help avoid bad behavior. So think about the following scenario: You’re on a highway, you might be tempted to speed, but someone set a speed limit and you’re worried you’ll get slapped on the wrist with a ticket if you break the law. So you don’t. Right. So there’s a temptation and this rule and the possibility of a fine associated with breaking the rule keeps you in check. So we’re really used to other people imposing those kinds of rules. Or your teacher gives you a deadline or your parent says you have to go to bed by this time or else you’re grounded. We’re used to being incentivized in that way to not give into temptation, but it’s some outsider who’s doing it. A commitment device is when we actually impose the same kinds of rules and penalties on ourselves that we’re used to those outsiders imposing. So we won’t give in to temptation in the future. So it could look like you tell somebody you care about, I’m going to do X by this date or I’m going to achieve X by this date. So you’ll just be embarrassed when they ask you. And that’s the penalty. It’s sort of the shame of having to admit your failure to this person, but it can also be more concrete. So one of my favorite kinds of commitment devices is the cash commitment device. You literally can put money on the line that you will forfeit if you fail to achieve a goal. And there are websites out there like Stickk.com with an extra K for contract and Beeminder that will let you put money on the line. They’ll take your credit card, you choose a charitable organization, and it can, by the way, be when you hate like they have charities on either side of hot button issues. And so you say, my money is going to go to this charity if I don’t achieve my goal. And you declare a referee who holds you accountable and reports to the site. And it could be a digital referee, by the way. So we’re just talking about step trackers. There’s all sorts of digital referees you could choose that would hold you accountable for a goal and then your money goes away if you don’t achieve that goal. So that’s a commitment device. It is something you can use to constrain your future actions and make sure they’re more aligned with what you really want them to be so that you don’t give into temptation in the heat of the moment and make decisions you would later regret.
Sonya Looney: Yeah, you kind of make it painful for yourself, but you’re the one who’s driving this. You’re the one who’s deciding…
Katy Milkman: Exactly.
Sonya Looney: People listening are like, that sounds terrible. I’m not going to do that.
Katy Milkman: Yeah, no, I mean, that’s one of the issues. Okay, first of all, I haven’t said anything about the evidence. The evidence that these things are useful is really strong. They may be the most powerful tool for behavior change, maybe for obvious reasons, because you can create a penalty that’s so steep that to fail is unacceptable and you won’t, right? I tell a story in my book about someone who put his life savings on the line in one of these commitment devices, $14,000 of his money that he was going to have to forfeit if he didn’t write a book and go skydiving and he did it because otherwise he would have lost everything. So if you create a strong enough incentive, you can get yourself to achieve a lot. But on the other hand, what if he lost his life savings? So you can imagine not actually wanting to achieve the goal as much as you want to avoid losing the thing. So that’s where things get tricky, but they are really effective.
One of my favorite studies shows that if you just give smokers access to an account that they can put money into that they’ll have to forfeit in six months if they fail a urine test for nicotine or cotinine, you can improve their quit rates by 30% over and above what you’d see if you just put them in a standard smoking cessation program. That’s a really powerful tool. And it’s also been proven to help people achieve other kinds of goals, like can help people save more, which sounds counterintuitive, but in that case, you’re not finding yourself for failing to save. Another kind of commitment device is like a locked bank account. You can’t take your money out unless you have achieved a certain savings balance or reached a certain date. And research shows that giving people access to this kind of account increases savings 80% year over year. So there are all these different ways. They’re powerful, but as you said, the idea of submitting yourself to that penalty can be off putting, and so they’re not universally adopted.
Sonya Looney: Is a commitment device the same as accountability? Like if someone has a coach and they have to report in their training log like what they did is the coach the commitment device?
Katy Milkman: Absolutely. It’s a different kind of commitment device than a fine. But in either way, there’s some cost you’re imposing on your future self if you fail to achieve a goal. In the case of the coach, I’m going to feel ashamed. And there might even be another sort of psychological effect working where I might feel like I wasted money on hiring the coach if I’m not achieving these goals. And so you feel like there’s this penalty associated with it. It’s a psychological cost rather than a cash cost, as would be the case if you had a cash commitment and you’re going to donate $100 to this charity. But those are real costs, because when you’re thinking about how am I going to behave today, what’s my next step? You’re weighting the pros and the cons and those pros and cons could be shame or they could be money. So it’s really the same idea.
Sonya Looney: And as humans, we are so loss averse. So that kind of brings that out and makes it kind of the central focus. You’re trying to avoid losing something.
Katy Milkman: Exactly. Whether it’s your reputation or your money.
Sonya Looney: I’m not sure if you’ve read Gretchen Rubin’s book The Four Tendencies, but she talks a lot about internal versus external expectations, on how we set goals and how we do things in our life. So some people really need like, a person to hold them accountable. That’s like kind of an archetype. And then there’s people where they’re very internally motivated and even having an external accountability person actually doesn’t work at all for them because for them, she calls them questioners, it’s like they’re just internally motivated. And then there’s kind of the in-betweens of both of those. So in the research that you’ve done, I didn’t read the specific studies, but it seems like a lot of them are looking at people who are externally motivated. There’s like some external things saying like, this is the accountability piece, and if you don’t meet your goal, the punishment is going to be external instead of internal. Have you come across anything about that?
Katy Milkman: It’s really interesting, and I think that distinction is related to this idea of trying to tailor the approach to the barriers that are given individual faces and the idea that these types of people would maybe respond differently to different types of strategies for improving outcomes. First of all, I should say I have zero training in personality psychology. It’s like a whole other world that’s quite separate from what I do, which is, in behavioral science, we tend to treat the situation as the most important feature rather than the individual. And of course, the reality is it’s some of both, right? Like, there’s these individual traits that interact with the situation, and that’s what produces output. But when we’re trying to be interventionists, since we can’t change the personality traits, we just focus on what we can affect, which is the situation the person finds themselves in. So I haven’t looked at this particular trait. But when we do our research studies, almost always we sort of look for individual differences, meaning are there certain types of people who respond better or worse to this outside intervention? And one of the things that I find most interesting is how hard it is to find those types that respond differently, which makes me more confident about the universalism of a lot of these principles. So when we look like, does it work better for men or women? Does this tool work better for older or younger populations? Does it matter if it’s a minority population or a majority group member? Does it matter if they were like a really strong performer or weak performer previously? It’s amazing to me how invariant the results tend to be. We always expect there will be what we call them moderators. These strong differences, like the effect, will be moderated by age. Older folks won’t respond as strongly as younger or something like that, but it’s rarely there. So it’s not that I would have doubt on the fact that there are types of people and they’re different and that you can give someone something that’s better suited to them or not. But I think it’s hard to find just demographic types and traits that predict who those people will be.
Sonya Looney: I always think about the actual studies and how challenging it would be because there’s a lot of variables to control for and a lot of different people with different backgrounds and different ways that they’ve done things. And it’s really interesting to hear that you have been able to kind of use the word universal and find ways to create these great studies that kind of will account for that.
Katy Milkman: I think what’s interesting is that in a given context, there’s a lot of similarity in what people are struggling with. Where I think there’s the most opportunity for using this sort of idea of making sure you fit your solution to the problem is the cross problem domains. There’s even more potential there than even within person or across people. So, like exercise, trying to motivate yourself to exercise feels really different than, say, trying to motivate yourself to save or to avoid cursing in public or something like that. These problems, the barriers, can be different, or trying to motivate yourself to apply for a job that feels like a dream but a stretch, that can be really different in terms of what the barriers are then trying to get yourself to exercise. And the diagnosis is super important in that context. Maybe even more important than saying like, well, Bob and Sally each are different people, and so they might have different struggles with going to the gym. That’s true. They might. But I think the bigger challenges, like Bob and Sally are going to both be more similar maybe in terms of their gym struggles. And they’ll both really different from Bob and Sally, who are struggling to reach some other really different goal, like motivate themselves to apply for a stretch dream job.
Sonya Looney: Yes. Now that you say that, it is really common to hear somebody say, I’m really motivated and I work really hard in this one area of my life, but in this other area of my life, I have a much harder time motivating or sticking to my goals and habits.
Katy Milkman: Yeah. And again, I have a lack of background in personality psychology, but I do hang around with Angela Duckworth, who’s a friend and collaborator and has studied personality types a lot. She studied Grit, if that name is familiar. Her bestselling book, Grit, might be why? And she likes to point out that self control, which is a really widely studied trait, is amazingly not… it’s almost as different across domains within person as it is across people. Right. So some people have amazing self control at work, but terrible self control with eating or with sleep regimens, and they look just as different as another person would be, which I think that’s fascinating. It doesn’t seem like it would be your intuition. You’d think if I am a self controlled person, I would be self controlled everywhere, but that does not seem to match the data.
Sonya Looney: I want to move on to talking about temptation bundling. And this is something that I accidentally started doing because when I moved to Canada, I had to ride my bike inside all winter for like three or four months every single day. And I hated riding my bike inside. And I had to figure out a way to motivate myself to be excited to show up and ride my bike, and certainly some workouts, I had to be super focused. But I told myself I’m only allowed to watch Netflix if I am on my bicycle pedaling. And then I got excited about riding my bike. And even now I get excited to watch a show and ride my bike because I only allow myself to do it in that context. And then I learned about temptation bundling and I thought, wow, that’s what I’m doing. And how can I use this in other places in my life?
Katy Milkman: That’s so great. I love that you’re a natural temptation bundler. Me too. I came to studying this topic because I first did it and then it worked so well for me. And then I was a behavioral scientist and I was like, wait a minute, I’m doing a thing here that’s kind of interesting and seems bizarre. I’m like restricting access to one thing in my life in order to achieve some other higher order goal. That’s peculiar. So I started studying it, proved that it’s useful, named it temptation bundling. And for me, it was kind of exactly the process that you just described for yourself, but it was studying it that helped me codify, okay, yeah, this worked for me for exercise. And where else can we use it? Once you start to see it as a principle rather than a tool that you employed in one part of your life, you start to recognize, oh, okay, well, I can only let myself open my favorite bottle of wine when I’m cooking a fresh meal for my family. I can only go to my favorite restaurant, whose unhealthy hamburgers I’m craving, when I’m spending time with a difficult mentee who I should see more of. And that will motivate me to arrange those mentoring meetings at a higher clip. And I just started seeing it everywhere – only listen to my favorite podcast while I’m doing household chores, etc. And so I do feel like we’ve proven that it can be a useful tool, and lots of people come to it naturally. I think actually, in exercise, that’s where it feels the most natural. But the key is, I think, recognizing actually there are lots of opportunities to use this, that we struggle to do a lot of things because they aren’t pleasant in the moment. And a way we can solve that problem is by linking them with something that is and changing the dynamics so we won’t put off and we won’t dread the activity because now it has this sugar on top or cherry on top spoonful of sugar, to use the Mary Poppins terminology.
Sonya Looney: What about people who have trouble holding that boundary? Like they say, I’m only going to do this when I’m exercising or cooking, but then maybe I’ll just do a little extra over here.
Katy Milkman: That’s a great question. I ran a study where we tested a version of this where we ourselves, like constrained people. They literally couldn’t access tempting content unless they were at the gym. And we had another version where we gave them the tempting content and said, you can use it anywhere, but we would encourage you to try to only use it at the gym. And you get about half the benefit from just telling people to do their best as you get if you can tie their hands for them. So it’s definitely the case that there’s some slippage, and it’s not as powerful if you struggle with holding the line. But I think the good news is the psychology of hating the activity is the biggest thing you’re trying to overcome. And even if you slip, right, like even if you let yourself watch Bridgerton not only while you’re on your bike but also for half an hour at night, it’s still going to be more fun to be on the bike with Bridgerton playing than without it, even if it isn’t the only time you get to watch it. So I think that you can get some of the benefit for sure by just sweetening the activity, even if it’s not the only time you get to do the enjoyable thing. So the hook will be a little bit less than but you’re still solving a part of the equation of present bias, the fact that if it’s not instantly gratifying, we delay doing things because you’ve made it more instantly gratifying to engage.
Sonya Looney: It’s kind of going back to the get out of jail free card. In a way, it’s about trending in the right direction, not being perfect. And if you can be generally trending in that direction, then you’re probably going to see positive gains than if you just don’t even try.
Katy Milkman: That’s so true. I love that. That’s a really nice way to put it. That’s basically always the case. It’s always better to put in some effort towards something than to give up. And so whatever tricks and tools you can use, even if you only get halfway there, you’re making progress.
Sonya Looney: I really love that you talked about getting advice versus giving advice and how people hate getting advice. And this is something that I had to learn how to coach. And I didn’t realize that in coaching you actually very rarely are actually giving advice. You’re usually just like listening, reflecting, and asking questions. And it was really hard for me to wrap my head around that. And then I learned why – giving advice actually demotivates people, and that was so surprising to me. So can you talk about that?
Katy Milkman: Yeah. It’s so interesting to hear you connect that with your journey as a coach. So the research that if you were the one trying to achieve, then you get more out of giving advice than you do out of receiving it, I think is really fascinating. It comes from research by Lauren Eskreis Winkler, who is at Northwestern University, and she was doing her dissertation work studying a bunch of people who are struggling to achieve, salespeople who weren’t cutting it, students who weren’t making good grades, and she’s interviewing them and trying to figure out sort of what would help. How could we turn these people into more effective humans? And she was really surprised by all the insights they seemed to have into their own struggles and how much they actually, when she probed them, seemed to know already about what would help them. She was also interested to learn that they found it frustrating and demotivating to be constantly coached by other people whenever they lamented about their struggles. The reaction they were used to getting is like somebody putting their arm around them who knows nothing about their plight and just offering their two cents, you think I’m such a fool that I’ve been struggling with this for years and I haven’t thought of that? It just made them feel worse.
And Lauren wondered if we sort of have the script flipped. We’ve got everything backwards when it comes to helping people who are having a tough time. If instead of putting our arms around them, giving them that advice, which turns out to make them feel like you think they’re worthless and useless, maybe we should be actually asking them for wisdom, asking them to coach other people who are maybe just a tiny bit behind them in a similar situation with some similar goals, because they really did have a lot to offer in terms of insights. And by putting them on a pedestal and asking them to coach someone else, you can boost their confidence tremendously. Now you’re saying, I don’t think you’re a doofus. I think you’re so insightful about this that you could really help someone else who’s a little behind you, see what you can do, and then in the process, it’s going to force you to actually come up with something to say. You have to think about what would work for someone like me. Let me come up with some insights here so you might dredge up ideas that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And then finally, once you tell someone else to do it, you’re going to feel like a hypocrite if you don’t walk the talk right. Telling someone else, oh, yeah, you should turn off your phone whenever you’re studying for exams and then studying for exams, your phone is buzzing. Like I just said to someone else, they shouldn’t do that. I’d better turn this off too. Right. So all of those things she felt or suspected would combine to make putting people in the position of advice giver an effective tool for helping the adviser achieve more. And she has now found that in study after study, when there’s a motivational challenge, this is not how you teach someone calculus or something where there’s an information gap with all this. If there’s a real skill that you need to communicate, this is not how we should teach people to drive, et cetera. So there are limits. But when it’s a motivational barrier, this seems to be a really potent tool, and it’s low cost and can be effective in small doses.
Sonya Looney: My question is, what about the person who is now receiving the advice? Because now there’s somebody down the line, like, now they’re receiving advice from somebody. So are they getting demotivated by that, or is there a context where it’s actually going to be really helpful?
Katy Milkman: It’s a great question. So I think the key to the demotivating component of receiving advice is it’s really demotivating when it’s unsolicited. So it’s not so bad to get advice when you go out and ask for it. What’s really crummy is when you get it unsolicited. So actually, I think one interesting idea that has helped me in my life is thinking about having advice clubs. So I actually have a group of women scholars at similar career stages. We all face similar challenges with work life balance, with trying to figure out how do we sort through all the opportunities that we have and figure out which are the ones that we want to take and which are the ones we want to decline because you can’t do it all or else life will explode. So we formed this club where we advise each other. We reach out to each other when we’re struggling with a decision like this and ask each other for help. So it’s soliciting advice. And what’s been really wonderful about this group is: I anticipated the benefits of wise people helping me when I had problems and I was soliciting their help. I anticipated that it would be nice to have a group of friends who sort of were in it together in the career space, but I didn’t know about this research and advice giving yet. And I’ve been amazed, actually, that I’ve also benefited when I’ve given advice to others because it helps me prepare for and anticipate similar dilemmas I’ll face myself. And as an objective outsider, I’m much better at sorting through like, this is what you should do than when I face it as an insider. But once I’ve given someone else the advice, I’m like, oh, wait, that’s the situation. I just suggested this path on three weeks ago, and I know how to do this, so it’s boosted my confidence and competence. So I actually think we could all have more advice clubs in life. People like-minded folks have similar shared goals where we have this circle where we’re reaching out for solicited input, we’re offering advice, so we’re gaining from that, too. And that might be a way that we can get all the benefits of advising without the downside.
Sonya Looney: Just kind of laughing to myself because there’s lots of people that think they’re in your advice club, especially on social media. And specifically right now, I’m pregnant with my second child, especially around pregnancy and what you should be doing. There’s a lot of people that think they’re in your advice club.
Katy Milkman: Yes, there are. There absolutely are. Yeah. But it can be helpful to have an explicit advice club.
Sonya Looney: So what’s the best way to give advice? Because a lot of us try and help our family. And our family either doesn’t want to listen to us or they might never listen to us because you’re just like my daughter and I’m never going to listen to you. Is there a way to help family by giving advice in a way that’s more solicited I guess?
Katy Milkman: Yeah, that’s a great question. Right. Somebody hasn’t solicited your advice, but you really have some advice you’d like to offer them. What do you do? Tip one is like maybe try to bite your tongue a bit more than you would be tempted to. But sometimes it’s like, wow, their life is careening off course. But then the question is and by the way, I should say I would recommend… we’re veering into the domain of Bob Cialdini, who’s a brilliant social psychologist who has written about the science of influence and, in fact, has a book called Influence. And you’re going to be able to see it, but listeners won’t. It’s called Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion. Holding it up now. It’s one of my favorite books. Yes. So good. This is really like what he studies and talks about is how do you influence other people’s decisions? How do you insert yourself into their lives in a way that is effective as opposed to producing reactants? And he has many tips, but I think one of the most useful ones is when you want to change someone’s course, you don’t always need to explicitly instruct them on how to change. You don’t need to walk up to your cousin and say, I think you really should get a vaccine. Well, PS, maybe they really should. Let me just add that addendum. But they may react negatively to that. They’ve obviously thought about it by this point in the pandemic if they haven’t done it. So what can you do that is a little bit less explicit but still guides them in positive directions? I think my favorite tip is social norms really matter. So we’re really influenced by the behavior of other people around us, other people like us, what people in our identity group are doing en masse. When we hear, you know, 60% of your neighbors are using less energy than you are, suddenly we cut back our energy use. When we learn that other people in our hotel reuse their towels, mostly we feel like, oh my gosh, I should reuse my towels, too. I’m giving you a couple of examples of studies that have been run. We hear all of our friends have voted in the latest election because Facebook shows us pictures of all the people who voted while we rushed the polls at a higher rate. So I think that’s a subtler way of exerting influence and trying to give advice is by communicating about things like, hey, did you notice this is a norm? Did you notice your friends are doing it or even exposing people to social connections they might not have already made? Maybe you introduce them to someone who is succeeding in an area and try to help them strike up a friendship so maybe they could learn a little bit just by being around this high achiever. There’s a little danger there if they’re, like, too far removed. But there are subtler ways than directly just going for the kill and saying, I think you should do X, and that may be more effective.
Sonya Looney: Actually, I had a question about this conformity piece, what you just mentioned, and it sounds like you just briefly touched on it because sometimes comparison can actually demotivate somebody because they’re just like, well, I’m never going to be able to do that. So it sounds like if you’re comparing or you’re looking at conformity, the person needs to be kind of similar to you, not so far removed from who you think you are.
Katy Milkman: That’s exactly right. And it’s such an important point, and PS, is one that I learned sort of the hard way and from doing some research where we didn’t appreciate the importance of that and seeing it backfire. So one of my favorite findings in the scientific literature on social norms is that the roommate you’re randomly assigned, if they were better, they got higher verbal SAT scores, your grades go up in college. Totally fascinating, right. That basically the studiousness of your roommate is going to affect your life outcomes. But it turns out there’s this really interesting second study that was done to try to engineer a way of improving the grades of at risk students by placing them with top performers. So you have somebody who just got into your college or university or worried they might be at risk of dropping out. So you give them, like, the very best applicant as their roommate in the hopes that superstars study habits will rub off. This turned out to backfire, so it was tested experimentally, and the students who were sort of engineered into top and bottom performers matched ended up doing worse than students who were randomly assigned to roommates. And the reason was that they had so little in common, they basically had nothing to do with each other. And then all of the low performers on the hallway, I guess form their own cliques and the top performers. And there was no overlap at all. There was no helping the underperformers. They were just left to struggle. So there can be gaps that are so large that you don’t get social benefits. And I think it’s important to think about if you want to run a marathon, right, then hanging around other people who’ve done it is a great idea. But trying to meet the person who’s won the New York City Marathon and see if they’ll train with you probably not a great idea because their regimen is going to be too tough. It’s someone else who’s run one or two. They’re a little ahead of you, so they still remember what it’s like to be in your shoes. Their tips and tricks are probably not going to be for someone in a totally different category, and they won’t make you feel small in comparison. But that’s kind of the ideal. And people like you are also important.
So someone who resembles you demographically or politically, someone you feel closer to, there’s lots of research showing we’re more influenced by observing the behavior of the people who we can identify with and all those different ways.
Sonya Looney: And I think we’re making an assumption here that if you’re spending time around somebody who’s a little bit better than you, that everybody’s going to rise instead of like, maybe this person who’s a little bit better is spending time with someone who’s a little bit worse in an area, and then they end up coming down from their positive habits. How often does that happen?
Katy Milkman: Oh, absolutely. It’s called the magnetic middle. And you would expect empirically to see both. If there’s two people, one of whom’s over performing, one of whom is underperforming, and they start hanging around each other, you’d expect rub off in both directions. So they’d sort of move towards the middle of the distribution. That would, by the way, anyway, for statistical reasons, that would happen a little bit anyway. But if they’re exerting influence on each other, it’s going to happen to a greater degree. That’s absolutely true. And so it’s also something for someone who’s doing well to keep in mind, if you start only hanging around a bunch of people who are behind you in whatever domain of achievement you’re in, it could be harmful. So probably want a more balanced group in general in life if you’re looking to hold your own or continue to move forward.
Sonya Looney: Yeah, thanks for pointing that out. I have a question about self talk, and this might even tie into Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, because people will say things like, I’m going to force myself to do XYZ, I’m going to make myself do this. If I’m able to do this, which is kind of like negative and defeating in some ways, versus you could say, like, I get to do this, or this is an opportunity for me to do this. Have you come across any of that in some of the behavioral sciences? Has there been any overlap?
Katy Milkman: That’s really interesting. So you’re making me think of research by Ethan Cross from the University of Michigan. He’s written a wonderful book called Chatter, where he’s a friend and fellow behavioral scientist, but his research is on a pretty different topic than mine. The main takeaway I have from reading his work is on how important it is to distance yourself in self talk to sort of say, like, you can do this as opposed to Katy can do this, or I can do this, that the distance can create a more motivational frame and distancing yourself can make that self talk more useful and less emotional. But yeah, I don’t know as much about the sort of forcing function language and whether or not that’s been studied.
Sonya Looney: Something I’ve just been wondering, like that would be a really interesting thing to study of how it relates to some of these habits people are trying to change and the language they use when they’re trying to make these changes. And if there’s a way to or if there is something that’s going to be helpful versus not helpful.
Katy Milkman: Yeah. I think Ethan is the perfect person to think more about. I’m sorry, I don’t know more of that literature, but I know who to point to.
Sonya Looney: He’s actually been a podcast guest. I should have asked him that question.
I wanted to ask when you’re writing your book and when you’re recording the audiobook, which from what I understand, recording an audiobook is incredibly difficult: what strategies from your book did you use to help you stick to your habits? Because I know for some people, writing is just like or doing an audiobook is just so hard to keep showing up.
Katy Milkman: So first of all, I actually didn’t find the audiobook all that hard, so I probably can’t help with that as much. The audiobook was kind of fun because I have a podcast, and so I’m used to talking into a microphone and it didn’t bother me. It wasn’t that long or onerous, so that one wasn’t tough. But writing the book, now that was long and that was a lot of work. And in that case, I definitely used tons of strategies from the book, from accountability, so I actually hired an assistant to help with the project, and we had weekly meetings and I was accountable to her in that I was literally paying her salary. And if I wasn’t making progress, that felt like a waste. And there was this person who’d be like, what do I do next week? So that helped me a lot. And it was a very deliberate choice. I think I could have gotten by without a full time book assistant, probably, although the one I heard was amazing. I’m so grateful, Cassie, I’m sure you’re not listening to this, but thank you, Cassie. And she’s the best.
I also was very deliberate about blocking time and planning on my calendars. Like, when is book time? When are the times when I will be working on this project? I had a weekly schedule. It was Fridays for a while. We’re always all day writing blocked from everything else. And if I had to move it, I did like something came up on Fridays and Tuesday or something. I made sure there was a day, a week that was my book writing day. And then in the summers, it was more than one day. So a lot of planning, blocking it off, trying to anticipate the obstacles that could be a challenge, commitment, devices, trying to think what I did to make it fun. Well, maybe I would say that having an assistant on the project who I liked so much, it was more social that made it more fun. Writing about a topic I love made it fun. And I certainly did give some advice. Lots of people would reach out to me earlier stages of writing and the academic world say, like, how do you sell a book? How do you find an agent? How did you get started? So I definitely picked up those calls and tried to be useful when people asked. So maybe that helped me too. And I hung around other people who were writing books. So social norms were there and asked for lots of advice from them. I tried to copy and paste strategies. My friend Angela Duckworth had written a wonderful book. I asked her for lots and lots of wisdom. I think she literally shared her whole Dropbox folder and organization scheme for how she… and I was like, oh, I’m going to do exactly that way. This is brilliant. So I used a lot of the tools. Yeah, it’s a fresh start. I started the day that I moved into a new home.
Sonya Looney: Oh, that’s awesome. You basically got to use everything, but then while you’re using it, you are writing about it, and it was on top of mind, and then you’re probably talking about it. So it just kind of kept, like, reinforcing itself.
Katy Milkman: Very dizzying, actually, to think about it that way. It’s like one of those mirror rooms right where it’s like everywhere you look.
Sonya Looney: Well, we are out of time where is the best place for people to find you and your podcast and your book? Because I’m sure people are like, I got to know more about this stuff.
Katy Milkman: Oh, thank you. Probably the best place I have a website. It’s Katy with a Y like Katy Perry Katymilkman.com. And you can find my podcast Choiceology, which is about behavioral science. You can find more about the book How to Change. You can find my newsletter, which my MBA students insisted I named Milkman Delivers. I had another name picked out, but they thought that was too funny to pass on so you can sign up for that there too or read my research if you like science nerdy stuff. All my papers are published and posted on that site.