Podcast #14: Spencer Greenberg - Combining Technology and Behavioral Interventions

We just dropped our latest podcast episode: "Spencer Greenberg - Combining Technology and Behavioral Interventions.” You can listen at:

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/action-design-radio/id1293571224?mt=2

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndcHzJHy5C4&list=PLnI9JtesUFbHcjw6x7YrCnAdceAGIZJ5i&index=2&t=0s

Podcast Addict: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.bambuna.podcastaddict&hl=en

Or anywhere else you usually get your podcasts.

Spencer Greenberg is an applied mathematician, entrepreneur, and self-described “collector of powerful tools.” He is the Founder and CEO of multiple companies, including Spark Wave – a venture builder (a.k.a. a foundry, or startup studio) that creates software products with the goal of achieving large social impact. Spencer joins Erik and Zarak to discuss his unique perspective on psychology and behavior. He takes a background in technology and combines it with applied social science to build platforms that implement complex behavioral interventions.

How does one choose the right methodology when conducting a study? What’s the difference between testing a hypothesis and trying to accurately predict the future? How does fatigue change throughout the day? Are most people who suffer from depression aware of it? How can social media be utilized to inspire creative thinking in research? Why publish a paper when you can release an app that people can use?

All of those questions and more are addressed in our latest installment of Action Design Radio!


Sound Bite:

Spencer: “You’ve got a tool belt. The tool belt has 20 tools on it. At any given moment, you have to decide what tool to use. Each tool is a way of gathering information. One tool might be running a randomized controlled trial to test different interventions. One tool might be running a qualitative survey. One tool might be interviewing people. . . You have to ask yourself ‘Given the things I don’t know, and the most important of those things that I need to know, which tool in the tool belt is best?’” 

Links for anyone who wants to learn more about Spencer’s work:

Enjoy the latest episode! And don't forget to follow Action Design on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/actiondesign/

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Hacking Cognitive Biases for Good with Alicia Salvino

This post was written by Emily Springer. Emily is a health marketer and design strategist supporting Action Design event coverage in Washington, DC.

Recently Action Design DC had the pleasure of hosting Alicia Salvino of Brave UX to talk about cognitive bias (read: arguably the whole reason why design thinking, UX and the study of behavioral psychology at large exists!). 

Alicia kicked us off, keeping us honest:

Irrationality = Universal

Irrationality = Universal

As discussed in last month’s Action Design podcast, irrationality is one of the key things human-centered designers and product managers must keep in mind to be successful. As podcast guest, Kristen Berman put it, “A BPM (Behavioral Product Manager) understands that humans have systematic irrationalities. They seek to understand these irrationalities and build for them.”

But how do we build for irrationality?

Alicia emphasizes it starts with thinking about how our minds process the world around us. She recommends thinking about bias in two different ways:

1)    Cognitive bias - Similar to Daniel Kahneman’s System 1, Alicia describes cognitive bias as how our brains unconsciously process our complex environment by categorizing all of the inputs -- accurately or not -- to make sense of them. Cognitive bias is universal and unavoidable, but creation of these associations are necessary for us to take in our surroundings.

2)    Individual bias - Individual bias is based on a person’s experiences. It is deeply personal, and involves a strong emotional connection. For example, when someone has a bad experience at a restaurant (e.g., a long wait to be seated, horrible service, average food), they might have a strong aversion to that restaurant based on that one experience.

So how do we design for irrationality? While every user context is different, there are three things Alicia urges us to keep in mind. 

1)    Ability - When testing users, note that people are notoriously bad at assessing their own ability to do something. Research shows that if you are good at something, you likely don’t think you are as good at it as you are relative to other people. This is because you understand the skill or field in-depth, and feel you have a lot more to learn. Alternatively, if you are bad at something, you don’t know how bad you are at it. This is because you know less about it. 

            When considering a consumer’s ability, it’s also critical to remember that people are always multitasking.

We might be able to see that a web page was clicked and kept open, but we have no way of knowing whether the user got interrupted, the UberEats delivery guy arrived, his or her boss called or the baby started crying. Account for this by conducting testing in a natural context where distractions happen, if possible.

2)    Ownership - The second factor to consider when being mindful of a user’s irrationality is ownership. Ask yourself, how can we design so that users can make their mark on a product? One way to create ownership through experience is to apply friction in an intentional way. For example, think about the IKEA model. IKEA allows customers to a) purchase parts, and b) build their own furniture -- creating more value among customers as they took the time and effort to build it. The investment matters to them. This concept is consistent with the i+1 learning principal and endowment effect, which says acting effort is needed for effective learning.

3)    Identity - The third way to think about irrationality, Alicia suggests, is considering the user’s identity. Ask yourself: How will the user see themselves reflected in this product or service? What is the user being remembered as?

Think in terms of BuzzFeed quizzes. Yes, these are ridiculous. But, people love them! And that’s because whether it’s a type of cat or a Disney princess, people take the click bait because they like inputting their information and seeing if they identify with something. Giving users a way to relate can help enhance their experience with a product or service.

The Takeaway

So, what does all of this come down to?

While there are no easy “hacks” to cognitive bias and designing for the irrational humans that we are (remember, we are ALL guilty!), taking the time to honestly reflect on the above can help guide us.  

What are principles of psychology you’ve applied to combat cognitive bias? Comment below.


"Zach's Corner" - Podcast #9: Kelly Leonard - Why Second City Says "Yes, And" to Behavioral Science

You can access this episode of Action Design Radio on YouTube and iTunes (or wherever you typically get your pod on). Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and sign up for the newsletter on our website to see if an Action Design Network city near you is hosting a free upcoming Meetup event.

Zach Simon is the producer of the Action Design Radio podcast. Zach’s Corner is a synopsis of each episode, as well as Zach’s own thoughts on the topics discussed by podcast hosts Zarak Khan and Erik Johnson with their guest speakers. Zach is an Assistant Director of Admissions at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and has a Master’s degree in Behavioral Economics.

About Our Guest: Kelly Leonard is the Executive Director of Insights and Applied Improvisation at Second City Works and the President of Second City Theatricals. He has worked at The Second City since 1988 and has overseen productions with such notable performers as Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Adam McKay, Seth Meyers, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Jason Sudeikis, Keegan-Michael Key, Horatio Sans, Amy Sedaris and a host of others.

In 2015 Kelly along with former CEO of Second City Works, Tom Yorton, co-authored Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration. Here’s a Chicago Tribune video of Kelly and Tom speaking on 25 Key Tips to Improve Communication and Teamwork they write about in their book, “Yes, And.”


In our newest episode, Erik and Zarak chat with Kelly Leonard about his recent involvement with the Second Science Project – a partnership between Second City and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The Second Science Project utilizes cutting-edge behavioral science to better understand and support improvisation in everyday life. By approaching behavioral science through the lens of improvisational comedy, they create executive training programs for businesses to improve innovation, creative thinking, and ways to challenge our instincts and assumptions.

This was possibly the most unique episode we’ve done so far, simply because improvisational comedy is not a realm to which business executives typically look to improve their leadership and decision-making skill sets. But what Kelly is doing with the Second Science Project is truly innovative and groundbreaking. In this interview on YouTube Kelly describes that project in detail along with Heather Caruso, the University of Chicago’s Executive Director of the Center for Decision Research. “What we feel you need to do is get in there and practice and hone your skills,” Kelly says. “Because agility just doesn’t come because you want it to. Agility comes when you think about it, and act on it, and practice it.”

It’s the “practice” piece that Kelly emphasizes throughout his conversation with Erik and Zarak. As he points out in the interview, developing better communication and leadership skills is not something you can achieve by taking one class. He equates that mentality to thinking that you’re “in shape” after going to the gym one time. It’s something that you need to put in constant time and effort in order to work at now in order to reap the long-term benefits later.

Bringing this analogy – and many others – back to the world of Second City comedy, he points out that it’s very rare for executives to naturally have incredible decision-making skills. He likens those individuals to Chris Farley: someone just so naturally talented that he makes his craft look effortless, resulting in immediate, rock-star-like success. And then others are more like Steve Carell, who Kelly says took about 6 years of performing at Second City before people started realizing this guy was a special talent and would become a massive star one day.

Chris Farley helps Adam Sandler study in "Billy Madison"

Chris Farley helps Adam Sandler study in "Billy Madison"

Steve Carell in a moment of deep thought as boss Michael Scott on "The Office"

Steve Carell in a moment of deep thought as boss Michael Scott on "The Office"

Although the Second Science Project is only a couple years old, Kelly has already expanded its reach beyond Chicago. He’s partnered with Caring Across Generations to create a program called “Improvisation For Caregivers,” which they’re currently running at the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas. The data is still being gathered, but so far the evidence points to participants in the group becoming stronger every week by taking these pro-social behaviors from the improv exercises and applying them back into their caregiving situations. Kelly’s think-outside-the-box approach has led to what he says is the first-ever effort to collect data on these behaviors in an improv setting. It’s always been anecdotal before, but now they’re making it scientific by focusing on the data.

Speaking of thinking outside the box, below are my “3 Big Takeaways” as far as the parallels between the worlds of business, behavioral science, and improvisational comedy that Kelly chatted about with our hosts this week:


1.  Experiment

Perhaps the biggest running theme in this conversation was the importance of experimentation. In both business and improv comedy, it is necessary to devise a systematic way of testing what works, what doesn’t, figuring out why, and improving the finished product for the next round. In order to put together a 60-minute Netflix special worth of stand-up comedy material, that comedian goes through an entire year (or more) weeding through the process of failure by experimenting with new material at small comedy clubs, bombing a lot of it, but identifying enough things that work well to keep in his or her repertoire.

Kelly really hammers home the idea that companies simply don’t test out new ideas enough. He identifies the value of experimentation as “a push to divergent thinking.” He talks about an innovation they’ve implemented at Second City called “Taboo Day,” where for one day a month employees come in with an idea that Second City would NEVER allow on stage. Employees’ are tasked with coming up with something so offensive or so expensive that it would just be ludicrous; the crazier the better.

According to Kelly, the value of Taboo Day is that about half of the ideas actually end up on the stage, because even in the outlandish ideas there is often enough substance below the absurdity to tinker with and make work. He encourages businesses to create their own Taboo Day; he says they should start with having two “Terrible Idea Days” per year, where people come up with ideas that couldn’t possibly work or would totally sink the company. It will be a fun morale activity to do with employees, but more importantly, they very well might come up with some really good outside-the-box ideas that would normally never come to the forefront.

You can’t identify valuable new ideas without experimentation, so combat status quo bias by going out of your way to experiment with things completely different from the status quo. "The pedagogy of Second City improv is centered around recreating human behavior and giving people nudges to work better within groups of other human beings," Kelly says. But they didn’t just wake up one day with a list of best practices and techniques that work. It took decades of experimentation.


2.  Consider the Context

A while back, Second City expanded to Las Vegas, and they decided to put on the “Best Of Second City” show there, a compilation of classic skits from Second City’s past that has always been a big fan favorite in Chicago. Everyone involved with rolling it out in Las Vegas assumed it would go over well with audiences there too. “Everyone took for granted that it would just work,” Kelly says, but the problem was that almost everyone at a show at a casino in Las Vegas is a tourist from a completely different background than the person sitting next to them. Everyone in the audience came from different backgrounds, places, socioeconomic statuses, and the show just wasn’t working because people weren’t responding to the humor as a group.

So what did the show runners do? They focused on commonality. What do these audience members have in common? They’re in Las Vegas right now. So they started putting together skits that made fun of the Bellagio fountain, made fun of the guys selling porn on the streets, made fun of the casino theater the audience members were sitting in. This approach worked – the audiences were able to relate to the subject matter because of their shared Las Vegas context.

A great quote from Kelly during this episode relates specifically to the importance of context and re-framing:

“Everyone was getting really frustrated with their bosses, about the way they were communicating. “They’re constantly bitching at me, they don’t trust me,” etc. So I told everybody to write this down and put it on their wall: Replace Blame With Curiosity. So when you take that call, you say, “Hey, my boss is curious about why we haven’t sold more tickets, let’s get to the bottom of this,” rather than say it as blame. Within weeks I had people coming to me saying this was great, that it feels like a magic trick, and they feel so much better and more at peace just by shifting their mindset. So that kind of stuff – which is very small and very manageable – put into the hands of people on an everyday basis, I feel is making daily transformations for people at Second City.”

That is pretty powerful stuff. And all it took was a simple context shift from blame to curiosity. Blame satisfies egos and reinforces power dynamics that already exist. Curiosity gets everyone involved thinking and talking about why something went wrong this time, and how it can be done better next time.


3.  Challenge Assumptions

Kelly describes how costly assumptions can be by telling a story about the failure of “Slap Shot Live,” Second City Toronto’s theatrical version of the classic 1977 hockey comedy starring Paul Newman. The show received very positive reviews from critics, and everyone involved with the production felt that it was well-done and hysterically funny to boot. There was just one problem: nobody was buying tickets to go see it.

The Hanson Brothers from "Slap Shot"

The Hanson Brothers from "Slap Shot"

The whole team was forced to brainstorm about why this was the case. It’s funny, it’s about hockey, and it’s in Canada, what more could people want? But Kelly and the rest of his team realized that they just assumed it would appeal to people and they would want to go see it. However, they didn’t actually test out the concept beforehand by, for example, asking sample audience members what they thought.

It turned out they just assumed the hockey-loving Toronto audience would be into the idea, but they didn’t do any research about actual enthusiasm levels for a live theater reboot of Slap Shot. And Kelly adds that they also forgot to take into account the fact that it’s usually the wives who buy the theater tickets for married couples who go see live shows. If they had tested married women’s interest levels in a reboot of a 40-year-old hockey comedy with gratuitous foul language, violence, male nudity, and the Hanson Brothers wreaking havoc..…you see where this is going? They may have been able to scrap or alter the idea early and focus on something else that would have been more successful. But what ended up happening is they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on hockey equipment that Kelly says is probably still sitting in storage somewhere in Toronto.

This is the same sort of thing that companies end up doing when they make assumptions about product features or target audiences. They often lose hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of dollars on products, programs, or policies that a simple testing before the fact would have alerted them to alter their focus or approach, or even avoid the idea altogether. Behavioral science is about testing EVERYTHING. Correlation is readily apparent, but you cannot assume causality. You’ve got to back it up with data.

In this case, it might be safe to assume that Kelly came to these conclusions about why Slap Shot didn’t work out after his boss expressed her extreme “curiosity” regarding the low ticket sales.

Irrationally yours,



You can access this episode of Action Design Radio on YouTube and iTunes (or wherever you typically get your pod on). Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and sign up for the newsletter on our website to see if an Action Design Network city near you is hosting a free upcoming Meetup event.



"Zach's Corner" - Podcast #8: Kristen Berman - Introducing the Behavioral Product Manager

You can access this episode of Action Design Radio on YouTube and iTunes (or wherever you typically get your pod on). Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and sign up for the newsletter on our website to see if an Action Design Network city near you is hosting a free upcoming Meetup event.

Zach Simon is the producer of the Action Design Radio podcast. Zach’s Corner is a synopsis of each episode, as well as Zach’s own thoughts on the topics discussed by podcast hosts Zarak Khan and Erik Johnson with their guest speakers. Zach is an Assistant Director of Admissions at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and has a Master’s degree in Behavioral Economics.


          Our latest podcast episode, “Introducing the Behavioral Product Manager,” features guest Kristen Berman, co-founder of Duke University’s Common Cents Lab, as well as co-founder (with Dan Ariely) of Irrational Labs. Kristen was on the founding team for the behavioral economics group at Google and has spoken at Facebook, Fidelity, Equifax, Stanford, and many more leading companies.  Kristen hosts one of the top behavioral change conferences globally – StartupOnomics – and she also co-authored a series of workbooks (again with Ariely) called Hacking Human Nature for Good: A Practical Guide to Changing Behavior.

          So…yeah. Like Ron Burgandy, Kristen is “kind of a big deal.” One of the many reasons she is such a sought-after expert in this field is because she has a unique understanding of both sides of behavioral science: the research side and the applied side. It is one thing to identify a cognitive bias in an academic or laboratory setting; it is quite another to translate it into layman’s business terms and convincingly identify how this knowledge can be applied to organizations across industries to help them improve their processes and turn a profit.

          In this edition of Action Design Radio, Erik and Zarak chat with Kristen about her philosophy of incorporating behavioral science into the Product Manager’s domain, thus creating what she dubs the Behavioral Product Manager (BPM). In this podcast – and in an article written earlier this year for Medium – Kristen outlines how behavioral science gives us the missing pieces of the Product Manager’s toolkit.


“Create a shared language so that it’s not one person at the helm using all of these terms that no one else in the conference room understands.”

~ Kristen Berman




***(All “Traditional PM vs. Behavioral PM” visuals grabbed from Kristen’s article)***


          For example, a BPM would prioritize measurement and experimental infrastructure sooner than a normal PM would, highlighting that you can’t move a company toward consumer outcome if you’re not properly measuring it. Most companies, as well as their Product Managers, use traditional methods like focus groups and interviews to find out what their customers “think” and how they “feel.” But the Behavioral Product Manager concentrates on things like behavioral mapping and identifying friction, because the behavioral world focuses more on what people do and less on what they say.

          That last concept was important, so I’ll repeat it: behavioral science professionals focus more on what people do and less on what they say they do. It’s old news that we as consumers oftentimes do a very poor job of accurately identifying what we feel, and an even worse job of articulating why. Because of this, Kristen believes companies need to spend more time on implementing a 3B Framework.



          Kristen and her team at Irrational Labs define “the Three B’s” as:


Focus on a key Behavior

          “I think the main thing that product managers should spend more time on is the first one: figuring out what behavior to focus on,” says Kristen. “Because most of the time an organization pushes people toward outcomes, like engagement, active use, logging in, revenue, etc. And as a product person trying to design a product that gets someone to do something, we kind of forget this crazy rigorous focus we have on revenue that we need to instead put on behavior. And the right behavior.”

          If users are logging in, great. But once they're logged in, do we even know they're properly using the service? Identifying and then measuring the proper behavior is crucial.

          Companies’ classic downfall in this step is to be too vague. Kristen insists that you need to “get uncomfortably specific” when identifying the behavior you are trying to target and then modify. “Increase employee savings” is general, “Increase employee 401k contributions by 3%” is specific.


Reduce the Barriers

          Eliminate all barriers if possible, but if not, reduce as many as you can. The essence of this step is reducing complexity. Use things like defaults to simplify user choice and avoid choice overload or paralysis. The goal here is designing for the path of least resistance. In other words, Make. It. Easy. Or as Michael Scott would say, the KISS method: Keep It Simple, Stupid!


Amplify the Benefits

          Direct and immediate benefits are key, since countless experiments have shown that people are significantly more motivated by the prospect of an immediate reward than by a future one. You don’t need to be fluent in hyperbolic time discounting theory to realize that humans have a penchant for immediate gratification.

          Maybe your company needs to increase the benefits of a product or service, or perhaps they’re just not communicating the current benefits well enough to consumers or employees. You want to design for a benefit that triggers an emotional connection. Function can be useful too, but emotion is stronger and thus more likely to result in people actually engaging in the desired behavior.



          Meticulous behavioral mapping is also a huge part of what goes into making a good BPM. That involves outlining every step that goes into a process, identifying any possible friction, and then making sure the proper data-tracking metrics are being utilized. Mapping out what people do is a critical behavioral skill. PM’s are usually evaluated on customer and business outcomes. BPMs figure out strategic ways to run experiments and gain customer insights in ways that are not intuitive. Behavioral science requires people to justify their intuitions with data. Empirical, observational data is where it is at for the BPM.

          One parting piece of advice Kristen emphasizes toward the end of the episode: Create a shared language! “It’s great if the PM knows behavioral science terms, but it’s their job as leader of the product to infuse this within the copy writers, designers, engineers – the whole team,” she says. “Create a shared language so that it’s not one person at the helm using all of these terms that no one else in the conference room understands.”

          And if you are reading this and this stuff really interests you, but you just don’t know where to start: Start Small. Read up on Loss Aversion and start using the term with your work team. Once you’ve got everyone thinking in gain/loss frames, move on to some more advanced concepts of Choice Architecture, like re-assessing whether your company is using the right incentives. Or share around the office this TED video of Barry Schwartz talking about The Paradox of Choice, and then have a conversation about whether your company is simply giving its customers too many options to choose from.

          You have options. Now it’s just a matter of pinpointing the best one. Your work as a BPM has already begun.

Irrationally yours,



You can access this episode of Action Design Radio on YouTube and iTunes (or wherever you typically get your pod on). Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and sign up for the newsletter on our website to see if an Action Design Network city near you is hosting a free upcoming Meetup event.

Podcast #7: Linnea Gandhi - How Businesses Can Apply Behavioral Science

We just dropped our latest podcast episode: "Linnea Gandhi - How Businesses Can Apply Behavioral Science." You can listen at:

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/action-design-radio/id1293571224?mt=2

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLnI9JtesUFbHcjw6x7YrCnAdceAGIZJ5i

Podcast Addict: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.bambuna.podcastaddict&hl=en

Or anywhere else you usually get your podcasts.

In this week’s episode, our hosts sit down with Linnea Gandhi, managing partner of the boutique consulting firm BehavioralSight and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Linnea, Erik, and Zarak discuss the importance of following the scientific method. This process applies to all settings, including the corporate world where the demand is always for results – and getting them today (or yesterday, if possible). Avoiding gut reactions, intuition, and emotional responses – and instead replacing them with statistics, data, and algorithms – will lead to more optimal decision-making.

But how do we apply this process, especially in situations where important decisions are at stake? Linnea’s focus is on getting executives across industries to realize that we are all more capable of creating algorithms than we may think – even when it comes to decisions such as whether to merger with or acquire another company, or whether to lay off a significant amount of their workforce.

Linnea argues that research and psychological literature are not useful to most people unless you can apply it somewhere practical. So she urges us to make our brains work more like an algorithm by removing intuition from the equation as much as possible. Reduce the “noise” as much as you can and isolate the data. Then, translate your behavioral science improvements to the language of the stakeholders. That is what will truly grab attention.

And never forget to be painfully aware of your own confirmation bias.

Enjoy the latest episode! And don't forget to follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/actiondesign/

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Reducing Inhibiting Pressures and Behavior Change in Business: Insights from Matt Wallaert, Chief Behavioral Officer at Clover Health

This post was written by Sameer Jain. Sameer is the co-organizer of Action Design San Francisco.

If there is one thing to be said about Matt Wallaert, Chief Behavioral Officer at Clover Health, it’s that he practices what preaches.

When a fellow Action Designer put me in touch with Matt, I was intrigued by his background, but daunted at the thought of juggling event logistics and orchestrating his talk during an especially busy period. Then Matt offered up what was essentially an Event in a Box -- a choice of two interesting talks ready to go, and a venue to host us, to boot -- I immediately jumped at the opportunity.

It was only when I heard his talk that I realized this was a devious example of how he approaches designing for behavior change:

  • Start by writing a behavioral statement, considering the following factors:
    • Population: the organizers of Action Design SF
    • Behavior (make sure this is clear / measurable): get them to host a Meetup with Matt (rather than, say, “get them excited about Matt as a speaker”)
    • Limitations: scarce time to help speakers develop a compelling presentation and find a venue to host
    • Motivation: interested in bringing compelling insights to the Action Design community
  • Focus on removing inhibiting pressures.

Matt approaches behavior change using a “competing pressures” model which examines the forces promoting and inhibiting the desired behavior. People tend to bias towards creating promoting pressures, but it’s often more effective to target people who’re already motivated to take action, and remove the barriers to their doing so. (Instead of focusing on amping us up about how awesome his talk was going to be, Matt correctly determined that the most effective approach would be to make it super easy for us to take action.)

If people aren’t sufficiently motivated to do exactly what you want them to, see if you can take advantage of the power of identity and emotion through “drafting” -- connecting your desired behavior to the things people already care about.

Another neat trick for applying this model: start by determining the steps to persuade someone to do the opposite of your target behavior, and then reverse what you came up with!

Beyond his general approach to designing for behavior change, Matt also shared some great insights on driving behavior change within your organization and its processes:

  • Act as an enabler rather than a magician.
    • Empower people, “upskilling” them with knowledge and tools they can use themselves, so that the behavioral team isn’t a bottleneck. Use intuitive models people can understand.
    • Let the project owners you’re working with (rather than the behavioral officer/team) claim the ROI. How to demonstrate the behavioral team’s effectiveness? Measure NPS (willingness to recommend their services)!
    • Reduce inhibiting pressures! Invest in systems that make it as easy as possible for people to pilot and test behavioral interventions.
  • Pilot, measure, and scale.
    • The literature typically focuses on assessing individual interventions, but determining the optimal combination and configuration of interventions as applied to real-world problems is an unsolved problem: it requires testing and iteration.
    • Start with an “operationally dirty” pilot (one requiring some manual work). Then, if results are promising, invest in making it more efficient and testing on a larger population.
    • Include both quantitative and qualitative assessment for a richer understanding.
    • Pay more attention to real world significance (effect size) and less attention to statistical significance (p-values) than you would in the lab. If your results suggest a big effect, even if there’s a 10% probability they could be due to chance, they’re worth exploring further.
    • Continue to monitor even after you’ve scaled. Effects can evolve over time (for example, badges are less effective now that gamification is everywhere).

Where to learn more

In the spirit of reducing inhibiting pressures: Matt shares many more great insights on applying behavior change to business (and how and why to create a Chief Behavioral Officer position) in his interview on the Action Design Podcast -- to listen, just click here! You can also find the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, YouTube, or wherever else you get your podcasts.

And as always, to stay connected with Action Design, you can:
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Design This: You


[In my previous articles, I applied behavioral insights to help millennials get started on investing. Here, I introduce ideas to help us craft our own investing environment, based on how we really think and behave, not how we ought to.]

Design is never neutral.

Take this experiment. At work, people presented with savings as a default option, by automatic investments of part of their salaries into a retirement account, nearly quadrupled their savings relative to people requiring to opt into a savings plan.

Default options are sticky. We are prone to status quo bias; we favor the existing reality rather than exerting the mental effort to change. Simply, our brains seek to minimize effort and maximize pleasure.

When it comes to millennials and investing, which is the most likely scenario? Choosing between meeting friends after work? Or, studying those saving plans to opt into the most lucrative one (that is, after befriending Investopedia to grapple with the financial jargon and trying to visualize your needs in 30+ years)? What would you rather do? Well… that’s just what a recent Financial Times poll on millennials found; they tend to prioritise spending time with friends, often at the expense of thinking about saving: “managing money well and promoting short-term happiness are often seen as in direct conflict and where this conflict occurs short-term happiness usually wins.”

However, saving doesn’t have to be zero-sum game. Designing environments conducive to automatic action can help us have it both ways.

Default options are critical not only to work with the grain of our ubiquitous status-quo bias, but also to help reduce loss aversion. Loss aversion is our tendency to perceive losses as greater than gains. Try asking friends whether they prefer earning £100 or avoid losing £100. They’ll generally prefer not losing £100. We like holding on to what we have. While saving generally translates into future wealth, we may also perceive it as loss: less money to spend today. But, if we design strategies to earmark our earnings by deducting a portion for savings with automatic investments we can help bypass loss aversion.

Choice architecture: Better decisions, less effort.

The experiment above shows the power behind “choice architecture” or the blueprint that determines how options appear in our environment. Popular examples include restaurant menus or even something as silly as target marks in a urinal. Aside from the order, layout and framing of information, choice architecture also involves the way an environment is designed to interact with the people who come in contact with it, through incentives and feedback.

Note that I’ve made no mention of who the “architect” is. How often do you ask yourself this question? Businesses and policy makers have long used choice architecture to influence social and consumer decisions. At the individual level, however, there is more ground to build on how to become our own “choice architects” to behave in the ways we intend to. At least there is growing appetite to design personal environments that help us make better decisions without the unwanted efforts and luckily today products allow for more personalization to help us do just that.

Design you

You can alter how you present yourself with options and information to behave as planned. Here’s a simple framework to get you started on how to become your own choice architect:

  1. Attitude: do you perceive savings as losing money you can use now? Recalibrate your thinking to reframe savings as a gain and temper loss aversion.

  2. Perception: do you find yourself struggling to spend less? Earmark your income as soon as it is transferred to account for the money you’ll put aside for savings. This simple accounting trick changes your reference point, similar to setting your watch five minutes earlier to avoid being late. (You know you’ve done it, but it still works.)

  3. Intrinsic motivation: what are your existing preferences? Are you visual? Choose a mobile banking app that can keep track where your income and expenses go every month.

  4. Extrinsic motivation: do you have trouble keeping yourself accountable? Surround yourself with people that can pinch you when you’re steering away from good habits or use tools with social sharing features for a dose of healthy social pressure.

  5. Reinforcement: do you find it easy to start something new, but hard to keep at it? Design regular reminders to meet small, clearly listed milestones.

While these questions seem arbitrary, they’re based on the main tenets behind behavior change. By applying choice architecture, you’re more capable of achieving your goals without the additional effort that makes it all seem less appealing. Whether it’s better health -- or greater financial well-being -- your odds are better when you’re the architect of your own future.

So go ahead. Start designing.

For further browsing and reading check out:

  1. Video: Ted Talk on techniques to help us manage and practice choosing by choice expert Sheena Iyengar (fast forward to minute 10.25 for ideas on how to become your own choice architect to improve savings).

  2. Article: how digital tools and digital nudging can help with saving @HBR

  3. Experiment: researchers test and discuss different savings commitment devices @RAND

  4. Blog post: quick read on crafting your "habit environment" (or becoming your own choice architect) @ZenHabits


This article was written by our guest contributor Rebecca Van Roy, Behavioral Science Consultant.

Rebecca consults on what drives human behavior and how to improve and predict decision making. She has worked in tech, health, international development and energy in Washington DC and London, helping organizations design better products and services. She holds an MSc in Decision Sciences from London School of Economics, an MA in Communication and Digital Technologies from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in International Economics from University of Richmond.  She can be reached at rebeccavanroy@gmail.com.


Dr. Sarah Newcomb is a behavioral economist at the investment research firm Morningstar. Sarah’s personal and professional passion and professional goal is to bring independent financial advice to populations that are currently under-served by the financial services industry, namely: women, low/moderate income households, and younger investors.

Sarah discusses the psychology of money and explores why smart people can make poor financial decisions. She outlines techniques to change one’s thinking, such as distinguishing between a “need” and a “strategy” to meet that need. A person may not need a car. What that person needs is transportation. A car is one of several strategies to meet that need – all of which come along with a different price tag. Zarak doesn’t necessarily need to go to Starbucks every day. What he needs is to get out of the office for 15 minutes every afternoon, and Starbucks is just one strategy to meet that need. Sarah invokes Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to help us reevaluate what our true needs are, and why that can help us financially.

Sound Bite

"Every decision that people are making is based on a story they’re telling themselves, and they’re trying to meet a need. So what are your customers needing? Put it on Maslow’s hierarchy! How are you helping your customers to self-actualize? And what are the stories? What are the stories you’re helping people tell themselves? Is it healthy, or not? Once you learn to see these deep needs in yourself, then you learn to see it and hear it everywhere else.”

Where to Listen

· iTunes Action Design Radio

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Enjoy the latest episode! Do not forget to follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/actiondesign/

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Notes from Warren Buffett. Less is more.

This is the second article in our series from Rebecca Van Roy

In our previous article, Steve Jobs and his turtlenecks: A lesson for new investors, we explained that you’re more likely to start investing if you focus on your values, instead of trying to fully grasp the elaborate world of finance all at once.

Cool, so what’s next?

You’ve identified a set of goals that you want to invest towards- it could be a first home in five years or a retirement. Congratulations! You now have a clear sense of direction. You’ve carefully penciled your priorities and choices. You feel great about it.

This sense of empowerment is an essential first step.

Social cognitive research has found that you’re more likely to follow through with your plans if you’re feeling confident. Feel incompetent? Chances are, you’ll dip, duck and pass without ever crossing the finish line. We’ve all been there.

Your subconscious thoughts, and the ensuing emotions, can compromise your ability to achieve goals despite your best intentions.

But why? Well, for starters, we have irrational minds. Thinking involves multiple, complex and simultaneous processes. To muddle our thoughts further, we’re bombarded by unconscious biases that form beyond our control.

One of the most powerful unconscious biases is the overconfidence effect that (unintentionally) leads to a miscalculation of our capabilities.

When putting new plans into action, our newfound enthusiasm can lead to an overconfidence effect, that inaccurately perceives the challenges ahead. It’s okay, this effect is natural, even hard-wired — and can be wonderfully effective for some of life’s “just go for it” moments.

The problem arises when overconfidence leads to a miscalculation of resources such as time or expertise. In academic circles, this is called the planning fallacy. As we realize that we’re biting more than we can chew, and our incompetencies unfold, we become less likely to follow through with our objectives.

This is especially true for new investors, who commonly feel the need to monitor, analyze and control every tick, which, can become impossibly consuming. Luckily, new technologies and user experiences can manage these tendencies, to make investing more enjoyable, and re-calibrate our thinking. Otherwise, a well intentioned person may cease investing towards a first home because it felt like too much to handle.

Ok, noted. We fail when we try to do too much. But where should we draw the line?

Lucky Number Seven

George Miller, a renowned psychologist, found that our brain can only handle about 7 ideas at once. In layman terms, our brain collapses when we think too much. As much as we intend to process information carefully prior to any important decision, our brains often restrict excessive information and become satisfied with less, an idea called bounded rationality.

Here’s the good news - by becoming aware of these limitations, you can optimize your mental capacity to reach your personal or financial goals.

It seems like Warren Buffet has done exactly that. He credits many of his successes to the “less is more” mantra. With a net worth around £60 billion, things have worked out just fine for Warren.

In a nutshell, Buffett believes that you should crystallize your main objectives when planning ahead. Here’s an interview with his private pilot, who once asked Buffett for advice:

- Buffett: “Make a list of the top 25 things you want to do in the next few years or even your lifetime, and then pick the five most important. The other 20 things? Forget about them for now.”

  [The pilot went ahead and did just that.]

- Buffett: “But what about these other 20 things on your list that you didn't circle? What is your plan for completing them?"

- Pilot: "Well, the top five are my primary focus but the other twenty come in at a close second. They are still important so I'll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I'm getting through my top 5. They are not as urgent but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.”

- Buffett: “No. […] Everything you didn't circle just became your 'avoid at all cost list'. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you've succeeded with your top 5."”

(Excerpt from Live your Legend by Scott Dinsmore.)

Like many great thinkers and shapers, Buffett has succeeded by believing less is more. Your mind is like a muscle that can only carry so much, don’t try lifting a bulldozer. 

This article was written by our guest contributor Rebecca Van Roy, Behavioral Science Consultant.

Rebecca consults on what drives human behavior and how to improve and predict decision making. She has worked in tech, health, international development and energy in Washington DC and London, helping organizations design better products and services. She holds an MSc in Decision Sciences from London School of Economics, an MA in Communication and Digital Technologies from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in International Economics from University of Richmond.  She can be reached at rebeccavanroy@gmail.com

Podcast #5: How to Design Effective and Lasting New Year's Resolutions.

How can we create better habits? Many of us ask this question of ourselves as we enter the New Year and implement our resolutions. Exercising regularly, flossing, healthier diet, studying hard in school, financial decisions – why are better habits so hard to maintain? What can we do in order to improve our chances of meeting these goals for ourselves?

In this week’s episode, Erik and Zarak tackle these questions with Dr. Katy Milkman, associate professor of behavioral economics at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. They discuss behavioral concepts like habits, incentives, motivation, rewards, consequences, accountability, and commitment devices. Katy brings an engineering background to her current focus on quantitative social science research, such as how to help people create lasting and positive behavior change.

One of the most relevant behavioral concepts to New Year’s is the fresh start effect – how at the start of new cycles in our lives, we feel extra motivated to tackle new goals. Entering a new period makes us feel like we have a separation from our past failures, and we have a renewed optimism to finally do the things we want to do but never got around to. According to Katy, emphasizing milestones or life events (big or small) can be effective motivators for behavior change.

Sound Bite

“One of my favorite solutions is something I call temptation bundling, which is trying to link a “want” with a “should.” So you can only enjoy a “want” when you’re engaging in the “should” in order to make the “should” more appealing. There are many different ways you can construct these types of bundles. My research has shown that this can be an effective way to promote behavior change. We actually ran one experiment where we showed that temptation bundling helped get people to the gym more.”

Where to Listen

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Enjoy the latest episode! Do not forget to follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/actiondesign/

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Steve Jobs and his turtlenecks: A lesson for new investors

We are kicking off 2018 with a series of articles by guest contributor, Rebecca Van Roy. Rebecca has worked as a consultant and program manager across various industries to understand human behavior, and improve decision-making. Currently, Rebecca is contributing with Foundation, a finance start-up in the U.K. This series was originally posted to the Foundation blog.


Ok, why are we talking about turtlenecks?

Well, for starters, let’s remember that some of the world’s most iconic innovators - like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Matilda Kahl, and even Einstein have a knack for wearing the same thing every day. These are accomplished people, by any account, whose fashion choices have helped them overcome barriers that deter everyday investors.

These deterrents, grounded in behavioral science can be categorized as “decision paralysis” and “cognitive overload.” Writer Michael Lewis, whose stories often uncover how our thinking goes astray, captured both terms in an interview with Obama, where the former president said:

“'You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits, I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.'” He [Obama] mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions.”

Now, investing will likely require more thought than blue or grey suits. But being smart about our money often requires a habitual--or even automated--approach, especially when we’re getting started. Understanding how these two concepts affect our thinking and behavior (and knowing that we're not alone!) can help us get started.

Decision paralysis

Decision paralysis is the inability to decide. It results from three conditions arising from a decision situation:

  1. Having too many choices
  2. Experiencing little or partial understanding of these choices
  3. Facing uncertainty regarding the outcome of these choices

Cognitive overload

Cognitive overload is the mental draining that derives from analyzing multiple options to inform a decision. Yup that's right - thinking too much can really weigh us down. 

Decision paralysis and cognitive overload often reinforce one another. When combined, the mental exhaustion forges a crippling inability to decide. And when it comes to investing - indecision can hurt. The younger we are when we start investing, the more we can benefit from compound interest and recover losses through downturns. But, under the grip of decision paralysis and cognitive overload, years can go by without putting our money to work.

Mitigating strategies

The good news is that there are strategies to mitigate decision paralysis and cognitive overload to get started in investing. Many of these strategies draw from behavioral science and "nudge" concepts. In this post, I’ll focus only on one: value-focused thinking.

Apply value-focused thinking

So how do we limit our options and minimize mental effort? One way is to apply value-focused thinking, a decision making approach developed by Ralph Keeney. He argues that we should make decision according to our values instead of externalities like the stock market. In Keeney’s words:

“The standard way of thinking about decisions is backwards: people focus first on identifying alternatives rather than on articulating values. A problem arises and people react, placing the emphasis on mechanics and fixed choices instead of on the objectives that give decision making its meaning.”

In this case, Keeney is encouraging people to start investing, but to do it with your personal values and objectives in mind. Sounds sensible, of course. However, if values are subjective then how will laying them down lead to a coherent investing strategy?

Luckily, there is no such thing as a perfect investing formula. Investing should be highly subjective, because we all want to achieve different things with our money. For some, it may be a plush retirement, and for others, a holiday next August. Naturally, those two objectives require different investing strategies. The underlying premise of value-focused thinking is that investing should enable you to enhance your happiness according to the things you value.

Once we grasp that there is no right or wrong formula, we can release the pressure blocking us from getting started with investing. Just like Jobs, Zuckerberg, Kahl, Obama and Einstein, you can declutter your brain space and start taking action.

(Stay tuned for more mitigating strategies in the next posts. Spoiler: they have to do with one unapologetic advice by Warren Buffet, architecture that is not for buildings and biases we're often unaware exist.)  

This article was written by Rebecca Van Roy, Behavioral Science Consultant.
Rebecca consults on what drives human behavior and how to improve and predict decision-making. She has worked in tech, health, international development and energy in Washington DC and London, helping organizations design better products and services. She holds an MSc in Decision Sciences from London School of Economics, an MA in Communication and Digital Technologies from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in International Economics from University of Richmond.  She can be reached at rebeccavanroy@gmail.com.  


Podcast Episode #4: Mind/Behavior/Development: Behavioral Science at The World Bank

Join Erik and Zarak for a new episode with guest Dr. Julian Jamison, member of the Mind/Behavior/Development (eMBeD) Team at the World Bank. Julian’s focus is on behavioral applications in international policy development in economics, health, and finance. His background includes a Ph.D. in Economics from M.I.T. and experience working with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, D.C.

In 2015 the World Bank came out with a World Development Report titled “Mind, Society, Behavior.” Since then, there’s been an overt focus on using behavioral science in order to improve the way the World Bank attempts to fulfill its mission around the world. Julian discusses how the World Bank utilizes behavioral economics to tackle global issues such as poverty, early childhood development, household finance, health, and climate change. Follow the eMBeD Team’s current projects and publications on their website: http://www.worldbank.org/en/programs/embed

Julian also shares the behavioral similarities that are essentially universal to all human beings, and others that differ from culture to culture. He discusses the history of field experiments and how his team utilizes them in their work.

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· YouTube Action Design Radio

How to Become a Behavioral Science Professional

On Tuesday, November 7, Action Design Chicago hosted a panel discussion with four Chicago-based expert behavioral science practitioners. The title of the discussion was: “How to Become a Behavioral Science Professional. Topics included the various ways our expert panelists currently utilize behavioral science in their companies and how to run experiments; advice for how aspiring professionals can break into the field; and what they think the future of this field has in store for us all.

The panelists included:

Stephen Wendel is a behavioral social scientist who studies financial behavior, and how digital products can help individuals manage their money more effectively. Steve serves as Head of Behavioral Science at Morningstar, a leading provider of independent investment research, where he leads a team of behavioral scientists and practitioners to conduct original research on savings and spending behavior. Steve is the author of Designing for Behavior Change (November 2013) and Improving Employee Benefits (September 2014).

Linnea Gandhi is the Managing Partner at BehavioralSight, a boutique consulting firm applying insights and methodologies from behavioral science to everyday business problems. Her past work includes decision aids for complex consumer products, processes to reduce error in human capital decisions, and strategies for fairness in pricing. Outside of BehavioralSight, she serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor and Teaching Assistant for the Executive MBA course “Managerial Decision-Making” at the University of Chicago and is a regular contributor to the blog for Richard H. Thaler’s book Misbehaving: 'The Making of Behavioral Economics.’

Sam Evans is Director of Strategy and Innovation at Egg Strategy, where he specializes in helping Egg clients focus brand strategy and innovation to design products and services that change behavior and drive growth. Sam has more than 14 years of brand-building experience from multiple perspectives, including several years at PepsiCo and extensive agency-side experience across major consumer brands like Merck, Kimberly-Clark and Kraft.

Erik Johnson is the Marketing Optimization Manager on Morningstar’s Behavioral Insights Team, where he applies behavioral science principles to marketing processes and communications. The Behavioral Insights Team is a group of researchers and practitioners who use behavioral science to help Morningstar better serve investors and be more effective as an organization. Erik previously held roles at ideas42, IBM, and co-created ProductPsychology.com.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

What are some of the challenges you face in your careers?

EJ: I want to build on what Steve said about organizational and structural change. This stuff seems really easy on paper, like ‘Let’s just implement a nudge!’ Change takes a long time and you have to look at this work as a behavioral problem in and of itself.

SW: I think it’s really about staying true to how little we know. There’s great temptation to sell snake oil. To be very frank. And there are a lot of people who do in our field. And the challenge is that much of the research we draw on is not in the context of which you work. So what do we do with that? We have answers that can help you, but at the same time, we’re not sure. It’s a very difficult stance to take. And there’s always temptation to have more confidence than the data says.

LG: I’d build on what Steve said. People read about this, they get excited, and they think that behavioral science is a silver bullet. A majority of industries I work with, pharmaceuticals, financials, the publishing business, etc…how do you reeducate people that we don’t know if this is going to work? We don’t want to tell people they’ve been sold something that has limitations. We can’t be sure this is going to replicate, persist over time, persist if everyone puts this stuff in place…And even if we can check the box for all of that, can we even scale this? All of these ideas of generalizability are hard to articulate because there’s uncertainty involved, but they’re also neat. This is our way of giving back to academia. But it’s a challenge.

SW: I can add on to that. One of my heroes in the field, Dean Karlan, has a book called ‘More Than Good Intentions’. He took down micro-credit and micro-lending. Because after thousands of people with good intentions went into developing countries and said, ‘What we need is to give small value loans at high interest rates, and people said, YES – This is helping!” then Karlan went in and said, ‘OK, but how is this working? Where is the control? Are we really helping people?’ He went in to study this and ran some of the first randomized control trials to test the impact of these interventions. And what he found was that the effect was nothing to negative. What’s another name for unsecured debt at high interest? Credit cards! So when I think about this, the work we’re doing is relative to people basically going blind. Running into a problem blind and saying, ‘We have our good intentions, we have an answer, we’re going to go and do it!’ But we know that most of people’s efforts are a failure and a waste of time, and ten years later they’re going to realize this. And while it’s really hard to take the stance of a structured humility, it’s a lot better than looking back after ten years and saying, ‘What the hell did I just spend my time doing?’ So it’s a very difficult stance to take. We know we’re helping, but it’s the not the silver bullet.

LG: Its’ the difference between insights and methods. Methods is where it’s at.

SE: You (to Steve) said something years ago that stuck with me. Rather than keepers of the deep truths, our aspirations need to be ‘Let’s be a little less wrong.’ Let’s take the pressure off and try something. That pressure hinders our ability to try something new. There’s endless complexity because humans are endlessly complex. Let’s think about what is the larger frame. I am a creative problem solver. Once we frame the problem, what is the problem our clients are trying to solve, but can’t do today? Behavioral economics is not the microwave of society. It’s a way in.

For people who might not be working in a closely related field, the aspirational behavioral science professional, what’s it like to actually work at your organizations? What are you actually doing?

SW: First, we spend time thinking about what type of problem we’re solving for people, come up with an experiment, and seeing where we’re wrong. That means working with software people, running with A/B testing, email, mail. Second, we write. And then we do quite a bit of internal consulting. We’re a small team. We started in marketing, and now we’re working across the company. It’s a lot of coming in and seeing if we can apply the research that’s out there in a thoughtful and limited way. I’m where researchers go to die – management.

SE: On my happiest days, I’m workshopping with clients and pushing their thinking. My job is to get clients down to specifics. Asking whose and what behavior needs to change. We do a lot of smart phone and in-person ethnography. I like the crazy projects which afford snapshots of behaviors. And pushing clients on the back-end about how to change the way they’re thinking. A lot of positioning, framing, and implementing.

LG: I do a mix of activities. I manage myself. I’d say that projects vary from ethnography. You have to observe what’s going on. Then it’s how to match that up with what we know theoretically. Then we have a big list of hypotheses. Then it’s about what we can control within the company. Then we choose what we can run as rigorously as possible, a test. You have to see how wrong you are. Lately, on my good days, what I love doing, is the science of doing science. I work a lot with people doing market research. This toolkit can be used for making this research better. Behavioral science can help you figure out how to tease out a bit more about their preferences. The thing is about how to get people to work better in the back room. Something I’ve been working on is akin to pre-registration, a version of that is to independently write down what people are predicting to keep people honest. How are we going to know if what we’re doing is working? You’d be surprised to see the disagreement that you wouldn’t think is there. Incorporating really easy exercises from the decision-science literature is a nifty day for me.

EJ: That covers a lot, so I’ll mention the grunt stuff. There’s a lot of grunt work too. Actually executing this stuff involves managing people. It’s keeping 15 experiments at once. It’s about navigating the data and analyzing, prepping it, cleaning, etc. Building email and websites. And then, there’s a lot of training, speaking, and writing. And talking to the wider field.

What are some skills or attributes that you’d recommend for a person looking to work their way into this field? Could they even be building up a portfolio to someone hiring in this field?

LG: I would say people skills! You have to earn the right to do the stuff you want to do. To me that means taking jobs you’re not that jazzed about and sneak behavioral science in. Building relationships. You need to sell yourself to get to do this work. Another thing is basic stats. It’s important for reading the primary literature and for getting creative about measurement. Basic statistical concepts so that you can jimmy something as close to an experiment as possible is really useful. There are a lot of people going into this field, maybe you feel there’s a proliferation, maybe even a bubble. And if the bubble bursts the people who will be left standing are the people who actually understand this stuff, who actually understand science and the methods behind this. And finally, find your sand-box. You have a sand-box right now. What’s under your control right now? You can change around the way you do emails, even the way you set up your kitchen counter. There’s a lot you can be doing, sort of an entrepreneurial spirit about what you can be doing. If you’re trying to build a portfolio – where do you not have to earn the right to play? Go and do work in that space.

EJ: One maybe non-obvious one, have a blog and write about it. That’s the first thing I did. I have no formal qualifications to do things in behavioral science. I started reading a lot and writing about it. It demonstrates you know what you’re talking about and you have enough passion to take the time to write about it. It was very helpful getting started. If you’re in a company, find a way to run experiments. Take the time to learn basic statistics. The book Naked Statistics is good to get the basics. I would also pick up a technical skill, like coding. The specifics will vary on what field you’re in, if you’re doing email marketing, UX, etc. There’s tons of free resources (e.g., Coursera, boot camps, etc.). The last thing I’d say is, build up as much credibility as you can. I helped out with Action Design. I helped a researcher build a website. I started at Ideas42 as a project manager. Think about ways to build your ways into organizations and establish credibility. It’s a very approachable field.

SW: I usually look for demonstrated interest in one or two areas. I meet a lot of people who say they want to be behavioralists. One of the first questions I ask them is what they have read. I want people who have shown an interest, not by reading half of a job description, but by showing they have an interest in the psychology. We have people from a practical background, a sociologist, an economist, and a political scientist. There’s no title I look for. I look for people who like understanding how people behave. The level at which they come in have different requirements. If people are coming in at entry level, I want to know that they’ve read books in the field that they can talk about. For someone who is more senior level, I want to see that they’ve had some formal training. The second is, are they consciously thinking of interventions and how to measure them? We focus on helping people, on doing something. It’s a different mindset. We have a toolkit – so ask ‘What can we do?’ That means that at the junior level, it’s the ideas. The more senior level, do they know experimental design and how to run experiments? And throughout all of that, I look for a healthy skepticism. If people can’t tell me what they did wrong, they’re out. We have to have that internal sense of skepticism; where are we wrong, and where can we learn more?

SE: I look for people who are interested and are interesting. You can’t teach passion. I want to look for people who are scrappy about solving problems and are curious, always questioning the answers. You should be reading the literature, volunteering, getting involved. I’d also mention storytelling. The best ways to really create momentum is by telling really compelling stories. One of my brands is producing really great stories. They’re not innovation strategy decks – it’s imperative to tell the story – understanding your audience and facilitating that call to action. I look for people who are masterful storytellers – and that starts with telling your story to me. What’s your story, and how are you positioning your story to me? It’s really about communications skills tied to interpersonal skills.

SW: If you haven’t seen Eric’s post about job possibilities in behavioral science: Go read it.

What are your thoughts on where the field of behavioral science is going in the near future? I don’t think a decade ago that many people would have thought that governments would have Behavioral Insight Teams. As a subset of that, what role do you think ethics will play?

LG: I kind of think there’s a bubble, because it’s not very defined right now. It’s kind of a buzzword, and I think it will pop in the near term, but I don’t think it will go away. I hope people will understand it’s just another toolkit. I think it will start specializing more, the way data science has, and be incorporated as just another tool. It’s not a magic secret sauce, it’s just another thing we do. Separate from that, I don’t think this is a bubble, is experimentation pure and simple. That is something I think is starting to pick up steam. From an ethics point of view, Thaler will always say that you have to make some choice, you have to use something, why should we just keep doing something we have always done? That’s the Choice Architecture argument. I think there’s some ethics in experimentation. There was that backlash when Facebook did that experiment on their newsfeed. I don’t have a good answer about that. I say do no harm, don’t take advantage of people’s limited resources, don’t convince yourself that what you’re doing is great, follow the Golden Rule, and be humble. We know we’re going to fail. Do pre-mortems (e.g., write the narrative of how projects will fail before starting them).

EJ: I think this field is still so new in actual application. How people do this in the real world is all over the place and very ill-defined. I think design is a good example. It’s not what companies used to think of. Same thing with data science. So people have to figure out the same with behavioral science. There are a lot of models to test outside of labs. There’s a long way to go.

SW: I think of behavioral science like Math and English. It’s not very common to find a job listing for a behavioral scientist in the same way it’s not common to find a job listing asking for a Math or English major. More often it’s in the skills you need. An understanding of psychology, an understanding of testing, and of how to help people. I see an institutionalization in companies in this way. This is happening in product, design, marketing, and HR. In terms of ethics, most importantly, I say serve your users. Are you helping them? There’s nothing wrong with helping your company, but that should be second. Consider everything you do to be public. If it was made public, would it hurt you?

SE: I worry about putting this on a pedestal. Making the focus of this field the thing itself. If we focus too much on the tool, then we forget about the point of solving problems. We’re going to be wrong a lot. So if you view all of these things as lenses we can test, I think that’s the question. Let’s have humility. I think we need to stand at the intersection of humility and credibility.

EJ: I think we need to shift the perception from the fun examples of heuristics to a process. The reason a lot of people are interested in this, but they don’t know what do with it, is that they have no idea of the process behind it. So we have to change the thinking. This is actually a process. The mind is so fickle that we’re never going to have universal laws. Maybe things work, and maybe they won’t. But we have to sell the process of solving problems.

SE: People have read the books, and we now have to help them solve the how, not the why.

Podcast Episode #3: The Social and Personal Impact of Nudging

Hey Action Designers!

Today, we launch our third Action Design Radio Podcast!

This week’s episode, "The Social and Personal Impact of Nudging," Erik and Zarak chat with Dr. Rory Gallagher about his journey from academia to government. This episode focuses on the application of behavioral concepts to government to create better public policies and services that benefit citizens in myriad ways. We also discuss his new book co-authored with Owain Service, “Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals,” details how behavioral science can help people achieve their goals.

Here's a soundbite: “What we found is that many of those (self-help) books don’t bring those different tools together, and they don’t do it in an evidence-based way. So that was our attempt, I guess, to do that. And quite often what our team tries to do is give people a simple framework – often its public servants – for using these tools.”

Listen to the podcast and let us know what you think! If you like it, sign up to hear new announcements and help us spread the word by telling your friends!

· iTunes Action Design Radio

· SoundCloud Action Design Radio

· YouTube Action Design Radio


Introducing the Action Design Podcast!

Hey Action Designers! We have exciting news for you:

This coming Tuesday, October 10th is our Action Design Radio official launch! Action Design Radio is our podcast that explores a variety of topics through a behavioral science and psychology lens. It is hosted by Erik Johnson and Zarak Khan who are a part of our national Action Design Network leadership team.

In our launch episode, "Are Chief Behavioral Officers in our future?," Erik and Zarak chat with Behavioral Scientist Matt Wallaert to discuss how and why organizations should create a Chief Behavioral Officer position. Matt shares insights and examples from his 15+ years of behavioral science experience to explore how academic concepts can be practically and efficiently applied to businesses. Ethical considerations are discussed, always keeping the public good in mind. Low operational costs and high efficacy make the creation of a CBO position a savvy idea for businesses.

Here's a soundbite: "If I have a bone to pick with our industry, it’s this. Stop (stop!) telling me about your fancy design thinking and just tell me what you’ve built. Because if you can’t show me anything that you’ve ever built that’s been successful and tell me exactly how you built it and tell me exactly what the success was and tell me all of the metrics, then I’m just not interested in listening to you.”

Listen to the podcast and let us know what you think! And if you like it, sign up to hear new announcements and help us spread the word by telling your friends!

· iTunes Action Design Radio

· SoundCloud Action Design Radio

· YouTube Action Design Radio



Behavioral Design for Incentives and Rewards: An Interview with Nick Naumof

Nick Naumof has studied people from different scientific perspectives ranging from economics to consumer behavior, behavioral economics, and evolutionary psychology. Author of It Makes (No) Sense–Between the Joy of Gaining and the Fear of Losing, Nick translates academic insights of behavioral science into practical applications in business and service design. Nick Naumof gave trainings, workshops and conference talks on four continents. You can learn more about Nick at www.naumof.com

Zarak: Thanks again, Nick, for an excellent talk the other day.

Nick: Thank you for having me for the third time in about 18 months at Action Design DC. As usual it was a pleasure.

Zarak: Could you give us the gist of your presentation for our members who couldn’t attend your talk?

Nick: The talk was a preview of my latest workshop. The focus of the talk was on how learnings from behavioral science can be applied in the area of designing incentives and rewards (feedback) systems. There are two major learnings on how understanding human nature can lead to better incentives and rewards systems.

First, when we deal with a one-time-off behavior, such as signing up for a service, monetary incentives work rather well. Behavioral science gives some tips on how the perception of these incentives can be magnified. For example, instead of giving a relatively small amount of money (e.g. $20) to every new user, a company can organize a lottery with a grand prize of $100,000 and with a probability of winning of 1 in 5,000. The objective expected-value of entering (playing) this lottery is $20, but because people overestimate small probabilities, the perceived value of entering this lottery is approx. $5,000 (according to calculations based on Prospect Theory).

Another way in which the perception of monetary incentives can be “supersized” is to give objects instead of cash. Recently I won a prize in the form of a Visa gift-card with some cash on it and I ended up spending the money on groceries. I can’t say that I mind cash or that I’m not aware that I got some “free” groceries out of it, but I would have definitely appreciated more an object that is meaningful to me such as a good book or a new Fitbit. (Not advertising, just a big fan).

Zarak: Nick, these are great insights. What is the second major learning?

Nick: The second learning concerns repetitive behaviors. Most often, companies want people to perform recurring behaviors. This goes from treatment adherence to compulsively using your social media apps. In the end, it is about performing a behavior repeatedly.

In the case of recurring behaviors, quite often behavior and natural feedback are decoupled. During the talk, I gave the example of trying to lose weight by sticking to a diet. Going on a diet and, most importantly, sticking to it is unpleasant and requires a lot of willpower. Unfortunately, results of dieting don’t come very soon. It can be weeks before one notices some weight loss by going on a scale and even months before receiving the natural feedback of feeling and looking better.

One of the reasons people give up dieting is that they keep on denying themselves treats without any noticeable positive feedback. I call this time span between starting the desired behavior (e.g. going on a diet) and the moment when natural feedback occurs (e.g. less knee pain) “the dark, silent period”. During this time, there is no feedback, no reward there’s just an agonizing exercise of willpower.

Good rewards/ feedback systems fill-in this gap between the desired behavior and the natural feedback. 

Zarak: That is absolutely great insight, Nick!

Nick: Thank you!

Zarak: I noticed that during your talk, you were critical about “Framing of Outcomes” and “The Fun Theory”. Could you give us more details on this?

Nick: Ha, ha! Zarak, my middle name should be “Critic” [laughs]. I guess, the main takeaway is that, when you see examples that seem very easy and appealing, they aren’t all that easy to apply in real-life settings.

Among behavioral science enthusiasts, there’s this belief that reframing a situation as avoiding a loss rather than achieving a gain (reframing outcomes) is a panacea for behavioral change. I don’t challenge the power of reframing outcomes. It is, indeed, very powerful. But, it also is rather difficult to apply in practice.

Zarak: And about The Fun Theory?

Nick: Regarding “The Fun Theory”, I guess we have a clear case of mistaking “appealing” for “effective”. The main idea behind “The Fun Theory” is that once you make a certain behavior fun, people will keep on doing it. There’s some truth there, in the sense that we, humans, like to do fun things. However, there’s a big flaw as well: something that is fun now will not be fun the tenth time we do it. After all, you won’t lough at the same joke more than twice. In short, making things fun is good for one-time-off or infrequent behaviors. For supporting repetitive behaviors, you need variable feedback.

Zarak: Thank you, Nick! We look forwards to hosting you again!

Nick: With great pleasure.

Discover Nick Naumof’s workshop on Behavioral Science for Designing Incentives and Rewards.






Digital Behavior: Neuroscience and Online Decision Making

As marketers and designers in the digital space, we often get caught up in driving consumers to take specific actions and lose sight of why these decisions are being made. We understand how specific tactics work through testing and best practices, but rarely understand the psychology behind why.  

Brian Cugelman has been studying the psychology behind digital decision making for almost twenty years. While in town for his recent workshop Brian took the stage at the Morningstar auditorium to address Chicago’s Action Design Network on Digital Behavior Change.

The workshop and presentation gave users an in-depth perspective into the psychological principles used to drive behavior in the digital space, as well as their practical application. This material revolved around his interactive influence model.


The model breaks down nine domains of interactive influence; from initial exposure through desired outcome and finally, feedback. Each one of the following stages is thoroughly explored and broken down throughout the workshop.

  1. Source: This can be a company, brand, or otherwise that is creating content for users to interact with that can be trusted and earn a reputation.

  2. Source message and functionality: The actual message or functionality that the source provides to the audience.

  3. Source message expression & audience interpretation: The way a message or functionality is expressed by the source and then interpreted by the audience.

  4. Audience: The person, group, or organization you are trying to engage and influence.

  5. Audience feedback and behavior: The actual feedback or behavior expressed by the audience that is recorded in the media.

  6. Audience feedback expression & source interpretation: How the audience expresses and transmits their feedback to the source, who interprets it.

  7. Source feedback adaptation: The persuasive and behavior change techniques that depend on user feedback. If the source has not previously captured feedback from the audience in domains 5 & 6, then none of the persuasion techniques can be used.

  8. Media: The various media used to express a message, such as words, images, video and audio

  9. Social and physical context: The social, physical, or virtual environment in which relationship occurs.

Behind each of the domains we took a deep dive into the psychology of digital users and their decisions online. Both the workshop and presentation gave us a fascinating look into loss aversion and incentives with a re-work of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by Douglas Kendrick. This segued into the different types of neurochemicals, how they are released in the brain, and understanding impact emotion cognition and behavior.

 Applying the above, we are able to create experiences that cause the brain to release cortisol and dopamine to drive action. Cortisol is triggered by creating a threat to the audience. For example, anti-spyware companies letting me know that my computer is at risk of infection. This grabs the user’s attention, and drives them to remove the threat by taking action. On the other hand, Dopamine is triggered during any experience that promotes survival by creating anticipation of reward. This drives users to pursue this reward. For example, companies offering a free gift for signing up for a service.

 Overall, Brian Cugelman gave us great insight into the nine domains of his interactive influence model, an in-depth dive into the neuroscience behind each, and how to practically apply these concepts to digital design. He presented to the action design group on motivators and detractors within the digital space. His workshop and talk gave designers an understanding of why consumers make the decisions they do online.

If you would like to learn more about Brian and his work, visit https://www.alterspark.com/ for more information.

Welcome to the Action Design Blog!

Hello there! We’re Action Design, a group of people around the world who are working to promote the use of behavioral economics and psychology in policy and product design, in an effort to better the world we live in. Our group has over 10,000 members who meet at Action Design monthly events in cities across the world to share research and practical lessons on how to help people voluntarily change daily routines and behavior to improve their lives. You can find more about us, here.

We’re excited to launch our Action Design blog to further connect with the world by sharing research and practical lessons using behavioral economics and psychology. We'll also soon be posting video snippets promoting our behavioral economics content.

We encourage you to interact with our blog posts and provide your feedback. If you’d like to get involved with Action Design or guest blog writing, please reach out in the comments. 

The Action Design Team