Why We Need More Than Just a Nudge

Call it a bout of myopia or a lack of imagination, but it did not occur to me two months ago — watching the lockdown of some 57 million people in Hubei — that we would all soon find ourselves homebound, too.

The world has ceased its normal operation. Even as a profound anxiety over an uncertain future prevails, the greatest contribution most of us can make is simply to stay home, wash our hands, be kind to each other online. A small and selfless sliver of the population — nurses and doctors, grocers and restaurateurs, factory workers and delivery drivers — quietly keeps society open and moving. For the rest of us, life is on something like a pause.

Self-isolation, the watchword of the day, has quickly moved from recommendation to requirement. Almost all affected countries, or localities therein, have instituted some form of mandatory social distancing. But we did not end up here overnight. While Italy moved into lockdown on the 9th of March in an effort to contain the virus’s rapid spread, here in the UK the government opted instead to issue “very strong advice” for people to avoid crowded public venues. The next day, life in my London neighborhood kept moving: the tube and buses ran, the pubs’ pints poured. It would take ten more days for the government to formally call for closures

The UK’s range of responses has illustrated both the potential contributions, and the crucial limitations, of behavioral science in policy-making. I’ve highlighted three main lessons therefrom on how to best use behavioral science in crafting public policy:

#1: You can only nudge so far

Nudges — the popular term for measures that steer people towards a desired outcome without limiting their choices — are not the right tools for wholesale changes.

While recognizing the importance of social distancing, the UK kept a laissez-faire manner in its initial response, seemingly telling its citizens: here’s what you should do, but it’s up to you. In line with behavioral economics’ founding principles of libertarian paternalism [5] — or so-called ‘regulation for conservatives’ [1]  — the government eschewed heavy-handed mandates, hoping instead to nudge the public toward its desired outcome of social distancing.

A similar strategy of suggested, but not enforced, isolation has characterized much of the US response as well. Yet — as reflected in scenes from still-crowded restaurants and beaches — simply suggesting people stay home does not always work. Part of the problem in the US and the UK seems to be the overall inconsistency in messaging. For example, Canada has also been slow to enact outright bans on movement, but has maintained a strong and clear message (‘go home and stay home’) throughout. In order to harness the considerable power nudges do have, we must clearly and consistently articulate our desired outcome. When done properly, such policies can provide an important middle ground between request and requirement.

Yet — even with a clear point — it is too difficult to nudge an entire population to fundamentally change their daily behavior. By way of example, in Washington state, which has one of the country’s worst outbreaks, initial pleas for people to shelter in place were deemed ineffective, and a formal ban on social gathering (backed by fines and criminal penalties) was necessary to keep people at home. Since then, a number of US states and nearly all European countries have instituted enforceable limitations on their citizens’ movements.

Such a response is, by any metric of policy intervention, extraordinary. Indeed, a government-enforced lockdown is “likely the last step” democratic states can take. And of course, as with any sweeping use of government power to limit citizens’ rights, there has been criticism of these restrictions.

Yet, at present, the best public health information we have tells us that drastic measures of social isolation are necessary to suppress the virus’s spread. It should be left to public health experts and epidemiologists, not policymakers (or behavioral scientists), to debate the accuracy of these analyses.

The point is, if such a radical change in behavior is the stated goal of governments, they must shove, not nudge, their citizens into compliance.

#2: Check, then share, your evidence base

More broadly, the UK’s strategy apparently rested in part on fear of behavioral fatigue — or the idea that people can only change their behavior for so long, and will eventually revert to the norm. If there was a limited window in which self-isolation policies could work, they surmised, better to save it for when it would be most crucially needed, as the spread approached its inflection point.

Yet, in response to this policy, more than 600 UK-based behavioral scientists penned an open letter to the government, urging it to share the evidence on which its approach was based, or else to scrap it altogether. Whilst there is indeed some evidence of media fatigue [2] in the uptake of preventative behaviors against influenza, uptake is also known to be correlated with perceptions of risk. Thus, given the increased risk of this outbreak relative to the normal flu, it is debatable how well such studies apply to the present moment. As the letter’s authors put it, it seems likely that people’s behaviors would correlate more directly with how serious they believe the situation to be — so a message of “carrying on” could be counterproductive.

Ultimately, it is unclear how well predictions of behavior based on normal times will hold up in this environment. It is also unclear how robust the evidence for behavioral fatigue is. We should all be glad when policymakers engage with academic research, and base their responses on evidence rather than ideology. But it’s also important to be transparent about what evidence is being used, and how it will be applied.

#3: Use behavioral science where it works

When the time came to announce the shift to a formal lockdown, signs summarizing the government’s new coronavirus message were front and center: Stay at home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives. This type of clear and concise language is critically important to communication during crises. Indeed, a working paper summarizing behavioral insights to help fight COVID-19, notes that effective crisis communication “involves empathy and promoting useful individual actions.” [4] The new messaging does both: it calls on our empathy to look out for our peers providing healthcare on the frontlines, as well as those who might be affected by the virus’s spread; and it tells us what we can do to accomplish this — stay home!

This is where behavioral science is most effective: in helping with the rollout of wide-reaching policies. As two of the field’s founders put it, “behavioral economics should complement, not substitute for, more substantive economic interventions.” [3] If governments want to keep their citizens home, they’ll need to rely on traditional economic solutions — fines and penalties for adverse behaviors — to accomplish it. But if they want insights on how to best get the public to buy in, well, behavioral science has a lot to say about that.

All the tools we’ve got

With its focus on preserving people’s agency over their decisions, behavioral science is simply incompatible with a policy that requires us to do something — it lacks the necessary enforcement mechanisms. It is rather a means of presenting options such that people choose the best option for themselves.

Yet, there is still an important role for behavioral science in this fight. Too often the choice between behavioral and traditional policy solutions is framed as an either/or, when — as economics Nobelist Richard Thaler writes — we should instead make use of all the tools and insights available to us. 

In the coming months, as we move from this period of mandated isolation into something more similar to normal life — or, as one highly informative analysis calls it, as we move from the hammer to the dance — it will be critically important to keep practicing preventative behaviors. Even when the lockdowns are lifted, we will need to continue washing our hands, keeping our distance, offering elbows when we greet. For promoting these and other desired outcomes, nudges no doubt still yet have time to shine. 

Photo by Brian Wangenheim

Covid-19 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Virus (not really)



Needless to say, the world is very different today compared to a few weeks ago. Things have more or less come to a standstill in a way that was recently unimaginable. With that in mind, I think it affords some of us the opportunity to become just a bit:

  1. Less afraid to miss out on what is out there, and more likely to fear missing out on what is here, now.
  2. More aware of just how equal we all are in some ways, and how incredibly unequal we are in others.
  3. More epistemically demanding of those we allow to take positions of power around us.

We know social isolation is not great

While none of us can say exactly what will happen next, it seems that many – definitely the most ever, though likely not enough just yet – people around the world are weathering the storm isolated in their homes. Social isolation can of course be a terrible thing, especially for those of us more vulnerable to psychological distress. It correlates with (though may not cause) things such as lower immune function, cardiovascular risk, insomnia, depression and in some cases even PTSD (e.g. Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009). From a neurological point of view, social isolation is not well understood but seems to correlate with reduced activity in the Temporoparietal Junction – an area commonly associated with Theory of Mind, or our ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes (Cacioppo et. al., 2011). All of this sounds like bad news for us. But not so fast – is social isolation really the accurate term for our collective experience right now? I’m not so sure.

Social Distancing

Is “social distancing” actually antisocial?

For many of us, what governments have called ‘social distancing’ has in fact been an opportunity to physically distance ourselves while in fact bridging the social distance to those closest to us and perhaps, in a way, those furthest as well. Without trivializing how difficult this time is for many of us – especially those already at risk or marginalized – I wanted to point out a few interesting opportunities this opens to some of us.

A moment to clarify whom this is addressed to…

Before doing that, I wanted to take a moment to say just how bad the current situation is, and just how disproportionately it is affecting marginalized groups. From everything we’ve seen so far, we know that this disease, at its core, isn’t particularly troublesome for those of who can self-isolate in a cabin for a few months. But for the masses in western countries that live paycheck to paycheck, or the far bigger number in developing countries that live day to day, this isn’t a remote possibility.  A picture is worth a thousand words so:

I’ll spend the rest of this article providing perspectives for our readers – opportunities for them to grow into more self-aware and responsible global citizens. Thus, when I say ‘us’ and ‘we’ – I will be referring to the yellow and orange (or are they both orange?) parts of this graph. For this us – especially those of us who are lucky enough to maintain our job security, and for whom the biggest change right now is more free time around the house – there is an additional responsibility to make use of this time in a way that can help those around us. With this aside, here are a few things I think we should be thinking about these days:

1. JOnMO: The Joy Of (not) Missing Out

One of the things afforded to some of us on the left of that graph is unprecedented opportunity to stop and think without a real opportunity cost. There has never been a moment in time when humans collectively stopped doing the things that we use to make each other jealous. FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) has become so intense in the age of social media, especially in the context of developed economies, that one could be a genius rockstar astronaut and still feel that they are missing out on life.

Joy of Missing Out

Live, laugh, love

We are constantly exposed to people around us ‘living their best lives’ and seemingly filling their time to the brim with things we can only hope to do 5% of our time. It makes things feel futile sometimes. It devalues our time and ultimately makes many of us feel that our lives could have been better spent. Ironically, it is the time spent entertaining this very feeling that makes a part of our lives misspent. But during this state of global limbo, there is barely anything out there that we would rather be doing (at least not things we could be doing). We are forced to pause, but it is quite different when we do it together. This crisis gives us the psychological license to distance ourselves from the weight of what could be and focus on the present moment. To perhaps get a taste of what it means to be human again, in an age where the meaning has been slipping away from us.

2. Self-Determination and the Great (un)Equalizer

Humans are social creatures and, as such, have a strong need to relate to others. This sounds like a trivial statement but it can drive large parts of our emotional and physical reality. Self-determination theory tells us that we monitor those around us to see how we are doing and then regulate our own state to reflect this assessment (e.g. Ryan & Deci, 2000). If we feel that we are ranking low in the social hierarchy, our brain punishes us. In “The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity”, Michael Marmot makes a solid argument that, well… what the title says.  Unsurprisingly, it really matters who we look at when we think of ‘others’, because this will entirely drive our assessment

Self Determination COVID-19

Status is a matter of defining your who your peers are

So what does social standing look like in the age of covid? Well, on one hand, this virus has exacerbated systemic inequalities around the world: between countries, between social classes, between age groups. Make no mistake –  the widening of these gaps is perhaps the largest casualty in this global crisis. At the same time, the situation may, for the few of us who are in the yellow and orange part of my graph, instill a very strong sense that we are not poor Americans, Canadians, etc. but incredibly fortunate humans. It may change who we view as peers and give us the opportunity to self-determine in a healthier and more realistic manner.

On one hand, this means that we may feel we are more equal than we ever thought – that we are just as vulnerable and mortal as anyone else. Political alliances, geographic borders and social classes may start to seem just a little less important when we read the news each morning. Oh those Italians are having an issue? That sucks, thank God I’m not in Italy. Wait.

On the other hand, the situation may teach us just how incredibly unequal and fortunate we are – to understand that we live in the yellow and orange zones of the graph above and perhaps make us wonder in a more real way than ever before what it is like to be in the red zone.

So which one is it – are we all equal or incredibly unequal? Well, for better or worse, both. The important thing Corona is teaching us is that our ultimate peer group when s**t  hits the fan is humanity and not that neighbour who bought a new car. Corona may just be an opportunity to move toward this way of thinking. Will this feeling last when things get better? Perhaps not. But it does give us a chance to think a bit more deeply about how social standing – a driver of our mental and physical health – is, at the end of the day, a matter of perspective.

3. Ideology in the Time of Corona

Ideologies are abstract simplifications we use to deal with the world around us. Things are complicated, uncertain and confusing, while our brains are limited. In response to this, we form models about the world and operate ‘as if’ these models are true. This doesn’t just apply to things like political ideologies. Every single thing we perceive around us with our senses is, in a sense, a model of what is actually out there. We do not experience raw data about the world but always a simplification. While models can be both useful and dangerous, what is important is knowing when to use which model.

An illustrative example with hills

Suppose two scenarios where you want to go downhill – a sand dune and a dangerous mountain path. If you are going down the sand dune, you might just descend in whatever way you want, without much planning. You could run, walk, hop, roll down, etc. – a mental model of ‘just go down’ is probably sufficient for the task at hand. But if you are riding a mountain bike down a rocky mountain path with many obstacles, you would likely want to do more than ‘just go down’. You will take note of the tiniest changes in the path and respond to them. Similarly, as the environment around us changes and demands it, we let more abstract models go and replace them with more accurate and evidence-based ones. Or rather, we should. Some of us do not and this is becoming painfully obvious as we read news about people thinking this is a hoax by the dems. For those of us who do conform to basic principles of survival, we are sliding away from high abstractions and toward ‘wait, by how much will warmer weather affect the R0?’. If there were ever a situation that comes close to the mountain bike scenario, this is it. While we started by saying things like ‘ah covid is basically the flu’, most of us are by now amateur epidemiologists. Emergencies have a way of pulling us out of large abstractions and making us focus on concrete facts.

Uncertainty COVID-19

So what does this mean for the world? Certainly, some of us will continue to respond by doubling down on conspiracy theories and science denial. That is okay (not really). For many of us who are a bit less radical, it is too soon to say but we may see a shift along the model spectrum. Our epistemic standards may be affected by this global emergency. We might just demand a bit more integrity from news and politicians. We may just see that people pay just a tiny bit more attention to experts, become more evidence-based and stop saying things like ‘the environment is roughly okay’. Who knows what that kind of world could look like.


This is not one of those ‘oh, covid-19 is actually a good thing’ or ‘lemons into lemonade’ kind of posts. Nor am I saying we should all be meditating about the deeper meaning of life all day. People are dying every day and it sucks – all the more so if you are not lucky enough to be in the yellow/orange parts of my graph. Even for those of us in the yellow/orange, keeping our loved ones and ourselves safe should be our highest priority. However, I am making an observation around how our understanding of the world might collectively shift. It is my hope that we come out on the other side a tiny bit more grounded in ourselves, connected to fellow humans and willing to put effort in understanding the world around us so we can create a better collective reality. It may not happen but hey… now is as good a time as any.

Can Money Buy Good Health? – RCT of Financial Incentives for Weight Loss

Your daughter is the best in many ways but we should probably cross out doing homework from that list! There are the days that you take the hours off from your work just to be there and push her to do her homework. But it does not really work. You even promise her that if she does her assignment regularly, you will all go to Paris in the summer, as excited as she gets, still it does not impact her lack of interest. Until one day, you tell her for every day that she finishes her assignments, you let her play on the iPad for an hour, boom!! She starts working on her homework and even tries to finish them sooner than later so that she can start playing on the iPad before she is too tired! Does she suddenly like doing her homework? No! But now, she knows that finishing her homework means playing on the iPad! Its pleasure is tangible and immediate. It is not a summer trip to Paris that might happen or not, it is not because of avoiding punishment, rather it is for an immediate incentive. Therefore, the joy of playing games on the iPad is now coupled with the assignments, making them more bearable or even joyful for her.

In 2004, roughly 71% of Americans were overweight or obese. In addition to the toll this takes on individuals’ wellbeing, the alarming statistics highlighted a looming public health crisis for policy-makers, as potential costs for obesity-related illnesses mounted. Seeking to apply lessons from behavioral science, Volpp and co-authors (2004) [1] designed a now-famous study to see if monetary incentives could help people lose weight.

In economics parlance, the term present-bias refers to our natural tendency to attribute greater value to immediate benefits over future ones. For example, we might indulge ourselves with a greasy cheeseburger, ignoring how doing so might affect how we’ll feel tomorrow (let alone our long-term heart health). Understanding this phenomenon, the authors wondered if this very same tendency could be exploited in the service of promoting healthy behaviors. Accordingly, this hallmark study investigates whether daily payments can help people combat their present bias, opting instead for behaviors that promote long-term wellbeing.

Specifically, the study aimed to answer the following question: can offering day-to-day monetary incentives help individuals lose weight?

To answer this question, fifty-seven individuals between the age of 30 and 70, all of whom were classified as medically obese, were recruited and randomly assigned to one of the following experimental groups:

Methodology: After random assignment, participants were part of either a control group (which received no monetary incentives) or one of the two financial incentive programs described above (lottery or deposit contract). In the lottery group, when the participants did not win, they were informed of how much they could have won. Knowing about their loss, the experimenters harnessed individuals’ tendency to avoid losses (i.e. loss aversion) in this group design.

In addition to the 16-week program, the researchers followed up with members of the three groups 7 months after it began (i.e. three months after finishing the program), in order to see the extent to which the target weight was sustained.

Results: After 16 weeks of the program, participants in both incentive groups lost roughly three times more weight than their counterparts in the control group.

Results. Mean weight loss at 16 weeks in three groups.

However, participants in both incentive groups gained weight between the end of the program and the 7-month follow-up, showing that although the financial incentive resulted in significant weight loss during the program, participants did not succeed to maintain their weight 3 months later. That is, while the payments were able to help combat present bias while they were received, people reverted back to their prior habits when the incentives were removed. The results were as follows:

Results. Weight loss in three groups from enrollment to 7-month follow-up

Legacy: While the results were mixed — in that the treatment only worked so long as payments were maintained — this study showed that financial incentives can help people overcome their present bias. Indeed, the study has since inspired other weight loss efforts such as Diet Rewards [2], the reality show The Biggest Loser [3], and a health company, Healthy Wage [4]. Moreover, a host of follow up research has added to our understanding of how incentives can be used to overcome myopia and engender behavior change. For example, the results of a 2016 study by Patel and co-authors [5] showed how the form in which the incentive is delivered impacts its effectiveness. Therein, the authors attempted to proxy the effect of a monetary incentive by reducing participants’ premium charges for their healthcare plans in the following year, or a similar daily lottery entry — but found that none of the incentives work. Thus, as the authors note in their summary, both the size of the incentive and the means of delivering it, are critically important to these interventions. One possible reason for the failure of the lottery is that participants would not get informed about their potential loss if they did not participate in the lottery. Or, in other words, individuals’ loss aversion was not harnessed, demonstrating the importance of applying this principle in the context of weight loss.

Takeaway: This hallmark study makes use of several well-known behavioral phenomena. Firstly, immediate incentives — even if they are small — can have significant effects on an individual’s behavior. This was evidenced by the effectiveness of daily rewards. The other lesson is that the experience of past rewards motivates future behavior, and people are particularly attracted to small probabilities of big rewards (another bias to be discussed in another post!), all of which were harnessed in the lottery group. Finally, the lottery treatments played on people’s loss aversion by showing participants “what they could have won” had they met their daily goals. This was also the basis of the deposit contract group.

The main takeaway from this study is the need to understand how much immediate considerations drive behavior. In designing policy, we must harness, rather than fight against, these natural behavioral tendencies.

Behavioral Strategies to Stay Productive during COVID Isolation

We are in the middle of an unprecedented global health pandemic. As more and more people across the world practice social distancing, sanitizing, stockpiling, and quarantining, it almost feels like we are preparing to face an impending apocalypse. Amidst the chaos, older people remain the most vulnerable to the deadly coronavirus, requiring extra precaution and care from their families and societies. But, though their physical risk may be lower, young people will also bear a heavy emotional, psychological, and economic cost from the fallout.

Every summer, as graduates transition into a lifestyle that is quite arduous in comparison with the bubble-enclosed, fun-filled college experience, they are forced to learn how to face the challenges of the “real world,” without a myriad of friends and mentors around to comfort and guide them. Students of the graduating class of 2020 are unexpectedly making this transition in March, without even getting a chance to say their goodbyes. Their spring semester plans have gone down the drain, those who have missed on-campus recruitment opportunities are fearing joblessness, and the majority have been forced to return home for an indefinite period of time. Meanwhile, recent graduates (myself included) are suddenly navigating travel-less work in travel-heavy professions, contemplating the visa and immigration challenges associated with going home, dealing with online meetings at ungodly hours, and wondering if our career plans for the foreseeable future now hold any water.

This sudden unpredictability is perhaps the greatest long-term existential concern for young people. Though the economic dislocations will hit every demographic, a potentially protracted recession would likely have a disproportionate effect on younger people. This was the case in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that led to the highest rates of unemployment for young adults [1]. That in turn, had lasting negative effects on their mental health [2]. While our physiological immunity to the coronavirus may be strong, our emotional immunity to its effects might be lower than what our parents, employers, and institutions would like to believe.

The good news is that insights from Behavioral Science can help equip the young to become better at dealing with these tough times. With the right approach and intent, we can implement practices that help enhance our own well-being and also allow us to care for others in need. Here are a few behavioral nuggets to chew over:

Stay curious & avoid operating from your Defensive Mode:

Unfortunately, our brains do not always distinguish between indignities and genuine physical threats. We might not be living on ancestral savannahs anymore but our survival circuits are still wired to protect us on a daily basis. When we feel challenged, our freeze/flight/fight responses can be triggered, and we might find ourselves behaving in ways that are self-damaging (e.g. getting scared stiff in the middle of a meeting, disengaging and zoning out, or worse, snapping at our coworkers). We operate in one of two modes: discovery or defense [3]. While our discovery system helps us scan our environment for potential rewards (like praise or money), our defensive system is constantly looking out for threats to our safety. Operating from the defensive mode negatively impacts our intellect and prevents us from thinking expansively. Unfortunately, in the present circumstances, we seem to be using our defensive mode by default, constantly stressing about getting infected by the dreaded virus.

Snapping out of the defensive mode and into the discovery mode requires conscious effort and practice — we need to train ourselves to look for potential rewards in all situations, even those we feel stuck in. As more and more universities begin online classes and workplaces implement “work-from-home” policies, we can practice operating from our discovery mode more often.

Activities that help make this switch include: finding humor in a less-than-ideal situation and sharing it with classmates or team members (which triggers a social sense of belonging and recognition [4]); learning new information, getting answers to our questions and gaining new work-related knowledge (all of which have been shown to activate the brain’s reward system [5],[6]); and developing competence and autonomy e.g. by setting and meeting daily goals & taking responsibility for our deliverables (which spurs intrinsic motivation and in turn, helps enhance our performance [7]).

Do not neglect your SNEM: Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise, and Mindfulness

The way we treat our bodies impacts both our cognitive and emotional functioning. The current circumstances require us to stay at home and maintain social distance. While these are precautionary measures we must comply with for our own and others’ safety, they can arouse upset, especially among school and college seniors who just wanted to have fun in their last couple of months on campus. What still lies in our control, however, is how we choose to deal with the given circumstances. The first (and perhaps the hardest) step is to acknowledge that our health and safety supersede our fantastical ideas of what could have been.

The reality is that we will be expected to be productive even while working from home, and for that to happen, we will have to plan out new daily schedules. As we do so, we must prioritize making time for a good night’s sleep, eating well, exercising, and practicing mindfulness. These additions to our routine can help us feel more productive and support us in achieving our goals. We must not be quick in blaming the closing down of our local gyms and salad shops as events that are discouraging us from taking care of ourselves. We would serve ourselves better if we instead choose to find and implement new ways of prioritizing our well-being, even in the confines of less-than-ideal spaces. We live in a world with tons of information at our disposal. Some ideas I am personally incorporating into my daily house arrest are: doing guided meditations right as I wake up, recreating healthy recipes for my meals, and following along home-friendly workout videos on YouTube.

Check your assumptions:

Most of us have a tendency to only see what we are looking for, noticing what we have decided merits our attention and blindly ignoring the rest. This kind of selective attention is known as inattentional blindness. When we encounter situations or behaviors in line with our beliefs, our automatic system [8] will make sure we are aware of it. On the contrary, when we encounter something that runs counter to our expectations, our automatic system will probably discard it. This well-known phenomenon of confirmation bias can indeed prove useful in times when we need to conserve precious mental energy, but it can also stop us from developing new mental models about the world. It can even cause us to distort what we hear and see to match our expectations.

The next time you feel strongly attached to a negative expectation about a situation or person or event, try to recognize that you might be filtering out countervailing evidence. Make sure you are self-aware enough to become more open to new information. You can practice this by actually listening to what that person in your class (whom you’ve always found annoying) has to say in your Zoom course discussion, or paying closer attention to the feedback a reserved coworker may be trying to give you. They might not be as wrong or indifferent as your bias probably has you thinking.

As an example, consider this: If you’re feeling particularly annoyed about having to spend all day in front of your computer and taking meeting calls online, you might catch yourself expecting a terrible day full of technical glitches. Check your assumption right there and bring to your awareness any thoughts that may challenge your opinion, e.g. “video conferences are now easier to conduct than they used to be as recent technological advancements will ensure a smooth live lecture/conference.” Then, challenge yourself with more open-mindedness, for instance, by setting a goal that forces you to get rid of your assumptions, e.g. “I will choose to notice the strengths of this setup. If any glitches arise, I will do my best to resolve them and bring the meeting/discussion back on track.” Further, make notes of when your negative expectations do not actually happen — rather than just noting when they do play out.

Set implementation intentions:

Have you ever found yourself having positive intentions but failing to act on them? You’re not alone, as most of us often find it hard to act on our positive intentions [9]. With final exams to take and papers (or worse, theses) to submit, students might be struggling to motivate themselves to get everything done on time, having to work harder to create simulated work environments at home. Office workers might also be struggling with the sudden environment shift and the lapses in productivity that follow. It is thus of prime importance to ensure we are able to set realistic and achievable goals for ourselves as we continue to work from home.

One behavioral hack is to create implementation intentions. When setting goals, think about not just what you want to do but also when and how. This is probably news for all my fellow planner-addicts. Most of us only jot down our to-do tasks in long list formats complete with checkboxes, but with no action plan for the when and the how. Take your organization game one step ahead by setting implementation intentions, which usually take the form of “if X then Y” e.g. “if I find myself getting distracted by my phone, then I will put it away for 30 minutes and work on a pressing task” or “if I find myself getting anxious, then I will reorganize my environment into one that helps me power through my coursework.”

Mapping out exactly what behavior you want to engage in (e.g. “writing a paper”) at what time (e.g. “2:30 to 5:30pm”) and how (e.g. “creating an outline, writing the introduction, writing 3 paragraphs, writing the conclusion section”) will help make the task feel more concrete and give you the confidence to complete it.

Take happy breaks:

  • Express gratitude: take a moment to think about 3 good things that happened to you today. Here are mine: I spent some quality play time with my adorable dog, I caught up with two close friends from college via Facetime (now that we are all at home, it was easy to find a mutually suitable time), & I relished a delicious home cooked lunch.
  • Perform a random act of kindness: I came across this postcard bid [10] that a woman in the UK has designed to help neighbors who are self-isolating. Offer help to your neighbors — they might really need it. Plus, you’ll feel like a million bucks afterward too!
  • Make time for healthy human connection: many families are experiencing sudden reunions as workers travel to their homes. As you socially isolate together, make the most of the time you have with each other. Look after the elderly members of your family, help with household chores, and be generous with your expressions of love & gratitude. Those who are not around their families, who are living abroad or alone, can still find ways to stay in healthy contact with the world. Try to find local nonprofits that could use your help as a volunteer (provided you work in safe conditions), give ‘digital dinners’ a go, tune into live concerts or host an online happy hour! Even as we rev up our self-preservation efforts, let us not forget to lift each other up. Ultimately, it is through caring about one another, and not through avoidance and neglect, that we will successfully overcome this epidemic.

Making use of what we know

As I conclude, I want to briefly reflect on the GI Joe fallacy [11] — the idea that “knowing is” actually not “half the battle,” but much lesser. Just knowing about our biases will not prevent us from overcoming them, but the knowledge is still powerful. Changing our behavior for the better will require deliberate practice. The unique situation of dealing with a global pandemic is providing us with a chance to focus on our own and our loved ones’ health and behavior. I hope that we, the young around the world, will make the most of this opportunity to develop skills and behaviors that empower us to care for our emotional and mental well-being. These times may be tough, but we are tougher.

Cover Photo: Berlin, “Keep your distance” (source: New York Times)

How Working From Home Can Amp Up Your Team’s Communication and Creativity

The great work from home experiment has begun. This shift brings small and large frustrations: my friend spent an hour trying to log in to his company’s email server, parents now have a second job keeping their kids entertained, and relationships may be in danger as partners spend much more time together. As you might be experiencing right now, there are downsides to remote work.

But there’s a silver lining. There are some new skills we can learn from this forced remote work situation. Our limitations, like communicating virtually and feeling distant, might even push us to communicate better and come up with better quality creative ideas. Let’s explore how.

1. Get clearer with your communication: Others don’t know what you know

When working with others, we succumb to the curse of knowledge[1]. We assume that others know what we know. We think they’re aware of how hard we’re working, what roadblocks we’re facing, and what we need from them. The distance between us forces us to get better at explaining our situation; we can’t hope that people will “see” what’s going on without an explanation. Fortunately, this can force us to communicate more clearly.

The empathy toy is a team-building product that requires teammates to explain steps to a blindfolded team member. These sessions teach communication techniques in an uncommon environment: your team member can’t see what needs to be done. You need to guide their actions, or they’re left in the dark. A work from home situation seems completely different from this at first glance, as (most likely) your co-worker isn’t blindfolded. But there are some commonalities: coworkers and bosses can’t see what’s happening on your end of the screen, and vice versa. They don’t know if, for example, you’re struggling to keep concentrated in your flat, and you don’t know if they’re frustrated trying to maintain their normal pace of work from an old desktop — thus, more than ever, when working from home we need to communicate even more clearly to close this gap.

As working from home improves our communication, this in turn can also help your team’s coordination[2]. By sharing how your daily and weekly tasks relate to the team’s end goal, team members will see what you’re doing and why it’s important. This keeps the team focused on its objectives. If your team members agree with statements like these, you’re doing a good job with virtual coordination:

“I exchange useful information with my group members to solve the problem together.”

“I try to bring all our concerns out in the open so that the issues could be addressed in the best possible way.”

2. Lower the psychological distance between you and your team

Even though we need to be physically distant these days, we don’t need to feel isolated from our teams. Psychological distance happens when we feel far away from others, regardless of where we are in the world. To prevent your physical distance from turning into psychological distance, consider using these tips to improve trust, coordination, and cohesion on your virtual team.

Researchers analyzed over 7,700 teams to see whether having more trust helped them achieve their goals[3]. Trust had a positive relationship with team goal achievement, likely because it helps members stay focused on the collective. One way to increase team trust is to share personal experiences and show vulnerability; when we share something personal about ourselves, we open the lines of communication for others to reciprocate. These connections the researchers observed were strong, no matter if teams were virtual or working face to face.

However, virtual teams can avoid the dangers of low team trust with more documentation[4]. By keeping clear records of their meetings, chats, and workflows, teams can avoid miscommunications that can hurt their performance. This documentation is especially good for clarifying roles and responsibilities. Confusion around who should have done what can hurt team member relationships.

3. Brainstorm separately for more, better quality ideas

Staring at the same wall in your home might be killing your creativity — but you’d be surprised at how effective brainstorming separately can be. If you and your team need to generate creative ideas, virtual “brainwriting sessions” can lead to more and better ideas than brainstorming together out loud. Across over 1,100 teams, researchers found that small groups that wrote down their thoughts individually and anonymously before sharing them as a group ended up with better ideas[5]. Those ideas were rated by experts as more creative and higher quality than teams that simply followed the all-too-typical process of blurting solutions out loud to each other with one dedicated person writing them down. This means our standard brainstorming approach doesn’t make the best use of each team member’s unique perspective. If you’re working with a group of more than ten people, consider electronic brainstorming instead[6]. With this hybrid approach, team members submit their ideas over text and the whole group can discuss concepts as they appear on the screen.

Even if creating ideas is an individual sport, building on them is where teams can shine. Use sentences that start with “yes, and…” to expand others’ thinking and make it even better[7]. This technique, originally from improvisational comedy, has infiltrated the world of work with great promise. It forces your team to narrow their ideas. Here, it’s ideal to have team members with different levels of openness[8]. People who are open to experience can be more helpful when generating ideas, and people who are less open can help narrow down the list of ideas into those with a chance of working in practice.

Despite positive results in work from home experiments, including a 22% performance increase[9], companies are still apprehensive about this change. Even though it’s business as usual to work from your office, the modern workplace isn’t ideal for focusing without distractions. So let’s test it out – try implementing the tips above and track how your team’s creativity, coordination, and trust changes.

Want to Innovate? Stop Hiring the Safest Option

After a three-month hiring process, my friend finally got the call. The job they were uniquely qualified for went to someone else. That person was an industry insider who was twice their age. Despite having skills the job posting mentioned no other applicants had, my friend didn’t have enough years at that seniority level or enough experience in the industry.

This sounds perfectly justified; who could argue with seniority and experience? But this role needed skills people don’t learn in that industry. They needed outside expertise to match the criteria they asked for. This team says it’s trying to innovate from within. So why not start with who they hire?

Innovation. Disruption. Creativity. Agility. Fearing the skills gap and the looming future of work, companies across industries use these buzzwords to describe what they’re looking for. And with a retail apocalypse, low unemployment, and automation at our heels, leaders are worried. Companies turn to innovation, hoping to disrupt before they become disrupted. This all sounds good. But what do companies really do?

They set up innovation hubs, but isolate them. They set up creativity boot camps, but they don’t design processes to turn ideas into successful products. Corporations donate to university innovation centers and fund design competitions, but entry-level jobs still require 3 years of experience. This say-do gap pays lip service to innovation.

There’s no silver bullet to magically become an innovative organization. But here’s a good first step: stop hiring the safest, most traditional person. What I mean is, stop hiring people with the same academic background as the rest of your team, who have already been doing your target job for years, and who only come from your industry. Stop choosing similarity over skill.

“Why?” you might ask. “It’s safer that way. Nobody got fired for buying IBM.

You’re right. It is safer. And that attitude stops your company from embracing innovation. Innovation takes risk. If you aren’t going outside your comfort zone or bringing people in who think differently, how can you benefit from diverse-thinking teams?

Build company innovation by making better hiring choices

Here’s why innovation comes from making smarter, but less traditional, hiring decisions.

Contrary to what we all assume, previous experience is hardly related to job success1 . In fact, a meta-analysis of 81 real-world studies covering more than 10,000 employees found that years of pre-hire work experience is essentially uncorrelated with actually job performance (6%) and very weakly related to training performance (11%). Knowing this, perhaps we can use work sample tests to measure crucial skills instead of relying on unrelated but easy-to-see information.

Innovative, high-performing teams have more diverse functional backgrounds. Across four research reviews2 with thousands of teams in each, teams with higher job-related diversity are shown to have more work innovation3 and better performance. By looking outside our niche, we can build diverse-thinking teams that create new ideas and products like Gmail, Google Maps, and Slack.

The stereotypes we have for who fits in our industry, our company, and our role are limiting. We prefer people who are more attractive4 and taller5 ; we even shift our criteria6 to get the prototypical person hired. These stereotypes are so powerful that people overwhelmingly stick with the status quo: one non-traditional candidate out of four has a near-zero chance7 of being hired. But we can change the status quo: by changing who we attract and hire, we can make it easier to innovate from within.

New ideas come from outside the “safe zone”

Let me tell you a story. Lemonade, an insurance company built on technology, grew from nothing to one hundred million dollars of revenue in three years. They are ranked #1 by consumers for renter’s insurance and they are the most searched-for brand in their category in major states like Texas. All in all, it’s a sweet success story. What should Lemonade’s 100-year-old competitors do?

Instead of solving their own customer challenges to provide a superior product, State Farm launched an attack ad against Lemonade. T-Mobile’s parent company launched a lawsuit over their company colour. Other competitors created copycat brands, including Liberty Mutual’s “Lulo”, complete with an eerily similar logo and benefits page. See for yourself:

Source: Lemonade’s blog post about copycat brands

Yesterday, I saw an ad that tried to shame me for getting insurance in minutes. As a customer, why would I choose a company where I’ll face more hassle and frustration? With established competitors reacting to these threats with fear instead of creativity, it’s no surprise that Lemonade’s cofounders didn’t come from inside the industry. In fact, Lemonade workers say they never expected to work in insurance. This company’s success is unlikely to come from a homogeneous team saying, “this is the way we’ve always done things”. Just like my friend, Lemonade’s employees wouldn’t have passed the industry experience or “years in the role” test.

“Lemonade is one company,” you might say. Yet Microsoft is creating new products and entering new markets by changing who they bring into their company. Their inclusive hiring strategy taps into an ignored talent pool: people with cognitive and physical differences. These folks have lots to offer, but they are hugely excluded from the workforce. You may have seen Microsoft’s “We All Win” Superbowl ad about kids with physical differences finally joining their friends to play video games. But you might not know about Microsoft’s Learning Tools applications, a new way to help children read with cognitive or learning differences. This new service came from an employee hackathon, where a functionally diverse team of developers, speech pathologists, and reading specialists came together to innovate to solve an unaddressed challenge. Microsoft is creating new products as we speak because they broadened their hiring.

Of course, changing who you hire is only one step towards innovation. But by starting here, we defend against the forces that push us towards homogeneity. The more similar our company is, the narrower our talent pool will be. The stronger our culture of conformity, the more likely workers who think differently will leave. We need to design processes to make hiring for innovation easier. Fortunately, we can take controlled risks and design for diverse-thinking teams by stepping out of our safe zone.

What Does China Approaching Epidemic Peak Mean for Us? Communicating Risk in the Age of Social Media.

I listen to the radio everyday on my drive to work and I’ve been hearing a lot about COVID-19 (Coronavirus). Tales of its spread across the globe, proposed plans for preventative action, and tips for staying busy in self-quarantine are now mainstays of my commute. All this despite the risk of infection where I live in Canada remaining low, at the time of writing.

Yet, the level of risk doesn’t seem to correlate with the behavior of many Canadians. 

We’ve all seen social media posts or news reports of shelves across the country empty of hand sanitizer and facemasks, pasta and toilet paper. A friend shared on Twitter that her hair salon has cancelled her appointment, citing risk of coronavirus as the reason for this self-imposed shutdown (despite only 2 reported cases in the entire province at the time). 

What is driving this seemingly disproportionate response? 

It is well established that the response to the threat of disease is driven by people’s perception of risk (1). That is, however great or small we personally believe our risk to be is often a better predictor of our behavior than is an objective metric of that risk (2). In turn, our perceptions of risk are influenced by information we encounter in the media (1). Yet, as mentioned, the broadcasters here have consistently drawn attention to the relatively low risk at present. What then can explain the disparity? 

At the start of an epidemic (or now, a pandemic) information received about the crisis by the media greatly influences our behavior (3), which in turn affects the efficacy of societal responses necessary to contain the spread. However, the information we receive is no longer like what it once was: dependent on geography (4). Most of us regularly use social media — I personally am on Twitter and Instagram multiple times a day — and receive much of our information and news headlines from both friends and strangers, at home and across the globe. This information can be consumed by anyone, and although it is accessed within a cluster of ‘followers’, these ‘followers’ are not close in physical proximity (4). Though a pandemic is a global struggle, the transmission risk across different countries is not equal, and so the perception of risk and the corresponding responses should not be either. For those of us on social media, we are constantly exposed to information that does not necessarily pertain to our local communities, and therefore our reactions may not correlate to local disease risk (4). 

In a pandemic, information on the risk of infection is often coupled with information on prevention behaviors — and the former can impact the uptake of the latter. Both types of information have been visible on social media in recent weeks. More recently, social media posts have encouraged social distancing by deeming those who continue going out to bars and restaurants as “irresponsible”. My exposure over the past few days to this content resulted in feelings of guilt that led me to cancel a little getaway to a neighbouring community. 

Whether it was aligned with actual risk or not, the quantity of the information being shared, and who is sharing this information, has undoubtedly influenced my uptake of preventative measures. Research suggests that such promotion of disease prevention behaviors on social media is actually quite effective (4,5). This is thought to be due to both ‘homophily’ in and ‘clustering’ of our virtual social networks (5). Homophily is “the tendency of people to associate with those who resemble them” (5), while clustering is the “tendency for people’s friends to be connected to each other through redundant ties” (5). In other words, we are more likely to adopt a health behavior if we know someone similar to us has done so, too (5). 

What is the problem if people in low-risk environments start washing their hands more frequently and practicing social distancing? Other than the economic impact, the potential issue on public health is that the influence of media on our uptake of preventative behavior is not uniform across the duration of an epidemic. A study by Xiao and co-authors from 2015 illustrates this point. Therein, the authors investigate the media impact of infectious disease transmission during the 2009 A/H1N1 influenza, or swine flu, outbreak. The analysis shows that media coverage significantly decreased the severity of the outbreak (3) — however, the effect was not uniform. Media coverage had the greatest effect during the early stage of the outbreak, but had no significant impact at the peak (3). This is because uptake of behavior change is most influenced by the “rate of change of case numbers” rather than the absolute number of cases (3). This means that knowing how fast the disease is spreading, influences our uptake of preventive behavior more so than knowing how many people are sick. At the onset of an epidemic, the spread of disease is rapid, but at the peak, the number of new cases is relatively the same and so the rate of change is (by definition) zero. Consequently, how and when we receive information about an epidemic influences our individual response. 

Early preventative measures can be seen as mostly positive, even if they are not directly correlated with risk levels. However, if we are both exposed to and affected by information from across the globe, will our responses also be affected by conditions elsewhere? Specifically, as countries and communities approach the epidemic peak (and thus the lower rate of change) at different times, will the uptake of necessary preventive behavior be sustained in areas where disease spread is still rapid? This is the underlying challenge posed by the ubiquity of social media during a pandemic. The best advice is to follow globally but react locally.

Featured image source: Reuters/Stringer

The Stages of Change: How to Motivate, Facilitate, and Reinforce Desired Behaviors

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to make cycling my primary mode of transportation. I knew about the many benefits of cycling to work: I would save money, lower my carbon footprint, get more exercise, and increase productivity by combining exercise with my daily commute. Still, I struggled to make the change. Why was it so difficult? It’s hard to change our habits; it requires conscious efforts to break down those learned behavioral patterns. Not to mention the fundamental challenges associated with learning a new behavior.

It took me a few years but I have now become a habitual cyclist. Looking back, I recognize two factors that helped increase my motivation and make me more confident in my ability to change. First, I got my gear shifter fixed so that I could face the steep hills on my way to work. This removed a physical barrier, and instantly made my goal feel more attainable. Second, I learned about a bike map prepared by the local government that highlights the best bike routes. When travelling by car, we often use the most direct routes, but those are often not the safest — nor are they necessarily the fastest — for cyclists. I found a route with low vehicle traffic, bike lanes, and pedestrian- and cyclist-controlled traffic lights, allowing me to reach my destination safely, and as quickly as my previous bus commute.

Change is a process

Research in health and environmental psychology suggest that behavior-change occurs in a series of stages. Would a bike map have facilitated long-term behavior-change if I didn’t already feel motivated? What if I hadn’t already fixed my bike? Probably not, because I wouldn’t have been in the right stage.Stage-based models provide tools to help guide behavioral transitions.

Essentially, stage-based models suggest that changing day-to-day behavior happens in three successive transition phases. Let’s call these phases: motivate, facilitate, and reinforce. Deciding on the optimal behavior-change strategy will vary depending on which transition phase is being targeted. For example, to go from seeing no reason to change to having an intention to change, we need to feel motivated. To progress from having an intention to change to actually making a change, we need to feel capable. Finally, desired behaviors need to be reinforced to avoid relapsing into less favorable behavior patterns.

Applied behavioral insights

A recent review (Keller et al., 2019) provides insights on ways to stimulate movement through these behavioral stages. Experimental studies have successfully used phone-based conversation (Bamberg, 2013) or a mobile app (Sunio et al., 2018) to help participants reduce car use, and videos and textual information to help them limit beef consumption to weekly recommendations (Klöckner & Ofstad, 2017). Researchers followed participants over a period of 4 to 8 weeks and found that, as participants progressed along the stages, they enacted the desired behaviors more frequently.These are the strategies they used:

Motivate the desired behavior by discussing its health, environmental, and social benefits. For example, reducing car use helps protect the climate, and limiting beef to weekly recommendations helps protect against cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer. In addition, highlighting that our peers are also taking steps toward the desired behavior can help increase motivation and perceived capability. 

Facilitate the desired behaviorby helping participants make concrete how-to plans. We all face different barriers depending on our living situation and personal preferences. Getting to know these barriers allows us to provide alternatives suited to different lifestyles. For example, limiting beef consumption to weekly recommendations can be achieved by eating smaller portions of beef, by sometimes replacing beef with leaner meats, or by trying vegetarian meals. For transportation behavior, the use of technology can be particularly helpful to plan for daily commutes.

Reinforce the desired behavior by finding ways to overcome challenges. Implementation planning — in which the changer anticipates situational obstacles (e.g., will I be able to find vegetarian food on holiday?) and finds ways to proactively manage them — can help develop new desired habits (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006). For example, a potential problem for households with young children is that, when trying to make a dietary change, the kids might not like the new recipes. Swapping recipes with other parents, and joining blogs where feedback and suggestions are shared, is one way to face this challenge ahead of time (Klöckner & Ofstad, 2017). Providing feedback can also help sustain motivation levels.

Consider the contextual hurdles

A lack of infrastructure, access to alternatives, or poor design can impede our capability to change our behavior. Nudging or choice architecture is one approach for getting rid of contextual barriers. For example, bike lanes can make cycling safer and reduce travel time. Going back to my own example, the city where I live is one of the best Canadian Cities for Biking, which played a key role in facilitating my behavior-change. Combined with easy access to bike parking, urban planning helps make cycling more convenient. Incentives and rebates could also be used to address other contextual barriers and incentivize change. All that’s left from there is to set a behavior-change course and ride.

Can Defaults Save Lives? – The Power of Default Options on Life-Saving Decisions

The local gym around the corner advertises that if you join, you get a half-price subscription for six months! “Wow! Such a great deal,” you say to yourself. Even if you are not really a gym-going person, holiday season is coming and you already know you’re going to feel guilty about over-eating. So this is a great deal: you will pay half price, go 5 times a week for six months to work off those extra calories and then cancel the subscription. Perfect plan! You enroll for the gym online and you even end up going to exercise.

At least, at first, until your motivation fades and you find yourself going less and less often. After six months, you’re not even thinking about going to the gym anymore — but you still don’t cancel the subscription! It’s hard, it takes time, and it takes energy. So, you keep paying for a subscription you don’t use — and now that the deal has expired you’re even paying full price, just because you don’t want to expend effort. That is the magic of defaults: they’re very effective at leveraging our aversion to extra effort.

Understanding the power of defaults, co-authors Johnson and Goldstein (2003) designed a study1 aimed at promoting organ donation. At any given time, hundreds or thousands of people will be waiting for suitable (and life-saving!) organ donations. As such, it is important for policy-makers to understand the main factors that determine donation rates. The first factors that may come to mind are a person’s religion or her economic and educational status. Yet, reviewing the empirical evidence, these factors failed to explain differences in organ donation rates between countries and localities. Thinking outside the box, the authors wondered how countries’ default policies toward organ donation — i.e., whether people are automatically listed as organ donors with an option to opt-out, or vice versa — might affect propensity to donate. Thus, the present study was designed.

Specifically, the study aimed to answer the following question: can a change in the default policy for organ donation in a country increase the number of people who actually donate? In many countries (including the US), the default option is for people not to donate their organs — though they may change this default by actively choosing to donate. If this were reversed, and, by default, people were enlisted to donate their organs unless they explicitly opted out, would that increase the number of donations vis-à-vis the alternative system?

Methodology: To study the effect of defaults on donation agreements, the researchers looked at the real donation rates in European countries with either opt-in or opt-out default regimes.

Results: The below depicts real donation rates in European countries depending on their policy:

As can be seen in the above graph, in European countries where opt-out was the default, almost everyone consented to donate their organs. Conversely, in opt-in countries, the agreement rate is about 5 times lower.

Recall that previous research failed to identify personal factors that could explain variation in donation rates. By comparison, defaults offer a powerful explanation for disparities in propensity to donate. Defaults have a huge influence on behavior, and setting a default wisely really can save lives.

Legacy: After about 17 years, the results of this study still hold. Beyond simple inertia, others have noted how defaults frame our understanding of the options at hand.2 People tend to consider the default policy as a type of norm. Accordingly, opting out of organ donation not only requires effort, it carries a negative perception — in a society where it is common for citizens to participate in a selfless, meaningful deed, I am explicitly stating (even if only privately, to myself) that I won’t be as altruistic as those around me.

Takeaway: When it comes to designing policy, decision-makers need to be mindful of how default settings create a path of least resistance, one that is likely to have a powerful influence on people’s choices. Opting for a different path requires people to overcome their inertia, and also to oppose what may be viewed as a societal norm. Defaults must, therefore, be selected wisely, with a mind toward achieving the best societal outcome. Of course, in so doing, every effort must be made to ensure that opting out of that default (whatever it is) is made as easy and smooth as possible. The result of such a design is a more efficient system that helps society achieve its collective goals while still retaining individuals’ rights to decide for themselves.