In today’s episode of The Decision Corner, we are joined by Cass Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University. Professor Sunstein is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School. He is a prolific writer, who has written over 40 books, and hundreds of articles, including the international bestseller and essential introduction to behavioral science, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler, 2008).
He is a recipient of the Holberg Prize, which is bestowed by the Government of Norway. The Holberg Prize is recognized as a counterpart to the Nobel Prize for unparalleled contributions to scholarship in the humanities or the law. Sunstein is currently the Chair of the WHO technical advisory group on Behavioural Insights and Sciences for Health, and he advises the United Nations, the European Commission, the World Bank, and countries around the world on issues of law and public policy.
He was Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012; subsequently, he served on the President’s Review Board on Intelligence and Communications Technologies and on the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board. He is now working on a variety of projects involving the regulatory state, “sludge”, fake news, and freedom of speech.
In the episode, we discuss:
- What is fun?
- What kind of people have the most fun, and whether that is something worth pursuing as a society.
- The effectiveness of fun in marketing, such as Amazon’s frustration-free packaging project.
- The role of fun in policy-making: determination and playfulness in Taiwan, how jokes can lead to optimism and hope, New Zealand’s Prime Minister’s attempts at making peoples’ days better.
- Political leadership and vulnerability.
- Making mandated behavior change a more tolerable and shared enterprise.
- Fear appeals: the benefits of enhancing high stakes situations to prevent harm.
- Populism and the need for personal connections with our political leaders.
- Cass’s nuanced distinction between the first and second waves of behavioral science.
- FEAST (Fun, Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely): Cass’s guidelines for engaging affective responses when developing policy.
- Why every revolution must tolerate dancing.
- What Cass Sunstein asked a world-class athlete about having fun under pressure.
“The word fun connotes something that makes you smile with a kind of ease and joy. It’s a particular kind of joy. It means you’re laughing a little bit, maybe. The notion of fun is associated with play, something that inculcates something like delight, a sense that life is good, some amusement. … And, life, often, even in the time of pandemic, will have moments, and, if you’re lucky, hours of exactly that.”
The power of lighthearted policy in serious times
“With respect to policy making, if we look at leaders in the context of COVID-19, we can see that some have emphasized not grimness and death, but instead, determination and a kind of wink at the same time. … If people feel that there is wit and a joke, they are also likely to feel there’s optimism and hope.”
Whether it is better to be feared than loved
“The fact is that for much behavior change, policymakers have overestimated the impact of scaring people relative to the impact of making people think that they’re in an enterprise which has, if not enjoyment at the core, has plenty of enjoyment in it.”
Populism and the priorities of a democracy
“It’s a responsibility of public officials to meet people where they are. We’re all human. COVID-19 has put in variable letters the fact that we’re all mortal. We have a number of years on the globe, and if you’re enjoying your interaction, let’s say, with a member of the human species or, particularly, if a member of the human species is laughing with you about something that you’re supposed to do now, then your willingness to do it is increased compared to if there’s some elite telling you, ‘If you don’t do this, you’re going to be in trouble.’”
Humor as a social equalizer
“If a leader makes a joke, at least much of the time, in business or in politics, a leader is making himself or herself vulnerable because the joke might fall flat. A joke has in it a bit of a plea, which recognizes the authority of the person to whom the joke is being offered. If you have someone who, let’s say, is a subordinate, who is an employee, who is trying to make the boss laugh, if the boss laughs, that’s an acknowledgment of a quality on the part of the employee. A student who can make a professor laugh or a professor who can make a dean laugh, there’s something equalizing about that, that’s really important.”
What applied behavioral science looks like at the highest levels
I had said that people don’t follow rational actor models to, let’s say, the Secretary of Transportation and the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, they would’ve looked at me as if to say, “What are you talking about, and how is that useful?” … What people actually do and how they respond to things, that’s interesting. In government, if you automatically enroll people in a program for free lunches and breakfasts for poor kids, let’s say, the take-up rate is going to be much higher than if you asked them to fill out a one-page form. That’s interesting. It doesn’t use the word rational. It’s not academic.”
How to have a good time in the revolution
I don’t have anything good to say about communism, and Emma Goldman was a communist, but she had one very good thing to say herself, which is, “I will participate in no revolution in which they do not dance.” That was about social movements, generally, that if you lose your capacity to dance, heads might roll, and, in any case, it’s not going to work as well.
A Selection of Cass Sunstein’s Work
- Too Much Information: Understanding What You Don’t Want to Know
- Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness
- The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science
- Simpler: The Future of Government
- The World According to Star Wars
Brooke: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a non-profit think tank dedicated to democratizing behavioral science. We conduct behavioral research and consulting projects with clients such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director here at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion.
Brooke: My guest today is Cass Sunstein, Harvard professor, former senior member of the Obama administration, and coauthor of Nudge, the landmark book he wrote with Richard Thaler. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about fun, what it is, using it to promote better outcomes, and ways that we can just have more fun. Professor Sunstein, Cass, thanks for joining us.
Cass: Great to be here.
Brooke: So, let’s dive right in. What do we mean by fun, and what is it as a solution?
Cass: Well, the word fun connotes something that makes you smile with a kind of ease and joy. It’s a particular kind of joy. It means you’re laughing a little bit, maybe. The notion of fun is associated with play, something that inculcates something like delight, a sense that life is good, some amusement. If you think of opening a present on a holiday, say, Christmas, it might be really fun if it’s something that you quite like and can do something good with. And, life, often, even in the time of pandemic, will have moments, and, if you’re lucky, hours of exactly that.
Brooke: Why do we have the subjective perception anyway? You pointed out that perhaps the objective reality and the subjective perception differ. But, the subjective perception, there isn’t always a lot of fun going on. I’m thinking especially of professional contexts and, as we’ll explore later, engagements with government and other policy contexts.
Cass: It’s a great question. So, there are billions of people. What’s happening worldwide with respect to the fun curve, let’s call it, is to be determined. It’s a great empirical question. My guess is that we’d find a lot of diversity out there, meaning that amongst some demographic groups and some regions, fun is on the increase, and in some places, the curve is flattening in not a very good way. And then, it would be very good to know exactly why.
Cass: So, among people who are struggling, of course, economically, the stress and preoccupation of trying to figure out how you’re going to make ends meet diminishes fun, and among people who are working really hard, either because they’re obsessed or because their employer is pressing them hard, or because they’ve just gotten into the habit of working really hard, fun is likely to be less. So, it would be a very good empirical project to figure out the drivers of life. I’m sure that we get some big surprises with respect to who’s having fun and who isn’t, and what factors actually are causally associated with that.
Brooke: That’s interesting. It’s a different twist on a somewhat Socratic project, seeking the good life. But, in this case, we’re not just sitting down and musing about what constitutes the good life with going out and running experiments to figure out how we get there.
Cass: There is a lot of very good work done on two things. First is what kind of purpose people are having in their lives, whether their life is meaningful. And, also, what kind of pleasure people are getting from their lives. So, we know spending a whole lot of time with young kids doesn’t create a lot of pleasure, though for many people it creates a sense of purpose. And, we know that for many people, watching TV or watching your laptop can give you a sense of pleasure. It’s fun. Can be fun. But, it’s not extremely meaningful.
Cass: Targeting fun in particular would be a completely new project. The reason why fun is important is that it’s an ingredient of a good life, or almost all of it, and also that it has knock-on effects. If you are smiling and laughing at … Let’s say lunchtime, you’re having really a lot of fun. There’s a good chance that in the afternoon, things are going to go better.
Brooke: You talk about fun as a solution in a policy space, that we can deploy fun strategically as a way to be more engaging with the public, for instance. Can you talk to us a little bit more about fun as a policy solution?
Cass: So, Pepsi is a soft drink company, marketed Diet Pepsi in various nations. I don’t know what the figures were exactly, but I do know that in some nations, Diet Pepsi was not a spectacular success. Others, a shift to Pepsi Max, which, let’s just stipulate, tastes a bit different, but not crazily better than Diet Pepsi. Pepsi Max was very successful, has been very, very successful.
Cass: A reasonable inference is that Pepsi Max, that’s a fun concept. Max … maximum … and also diet. Diet Pepsi, by contrast, you think diet. And then, you think, and, also, maybe good tasting. The idea of putting an emphasis on the fun aspect, which is Max, is behaviorally clever.
Cass: There’s a more rigorous test of this hypothesis. Let’s call it the fun hypothesis, which involves how to get people to eat vegetables. It’s a study out of Stanford. If you emphasize vegetables are healthy, you get a significant increase in consumption if it’s done right, about 14%. If you emphasize that the vegetables are really tasty and delicious, you get a much bigger increase in consumption, over 25%. That’s because tasty and delicious sounds like fun, and healthy sounds like worthy, or earnest, or hooray for the long term, which isn’t exactly fun.
Cass: Amazon markets certain projects with a kind of frustration-free packaging. That’s the term, and it’s fun. You open up the product, and there it is. If it’s an electric razor, which I use, it’s right there. You don’t have to work with plastic and wires and cut yourself. It’s not time-consuming. But, if you look at what frustration-free packaging is about, it’s really about no plastic, no solid waste, recyclables. It’s environmentally preferable. They don’t market it as green packaging. They market it as frustration-free. Frustration-free is in the vicinity of fun.
Cass: Okay. With respect to policy making, if we look at leaders in the context of COVID-19, we can see that some have emphasized not grimness and death, but instead, determination and a kind of wink at the same time. In Taiwan, the notion of fun has actually been taken explicitly onboard by the highest level officials who have said, “Humor, not rumor.” That’s smart because if people feel that there is wit and a joke, they are also likely to feel there’s optimism and hope. Whereas, if they feel they’re being terrified and put in a place from which they’ll never emerge, they might do it out of fear, but their days are going to be a lot worse.
Cass: In New Zealand, the prime minister has said at one point, “We’re going to have a lockdown or relative lockdown. But, the Easter bunny and the Tooth Fairy, they’re going to get exemptions.” And, to say that in the midst of something not good is to make one’s fellow citizens smile and laugh a little bit, and to do that can be both an instrument of making the days better, which is very important, and also an instrument about making the suggested or maybe mandated behavior change not merely more tolerable, but also a kind of shared enterprise that makes people smile a little bit.
Brooke: Is fun a universal solution? Is it relevant everywhere, or are there specific kinds of problems that are worse handled by tapping into fun?
Cass: I wish I could say it was universal and say, “Whatever we think its domain of usefulness is, we are underestimating its domain of usefulness.” But, there are certain areas where it’s extremely challenging to introduce fun. If people are facing a very grim situation in the pandemic … Let’s say members of the family are really, really sick and possibly at serious risk of dying … then fun is going to be very challenging to introduce. Maybe a smile and a sense of meaning will be possible, but fun not so much.
Cass: There’s some context where what’s called fear appeals are the best approach. If people are at risk, let’s say, of doing something on the beach, like swimming, and circumstances in which that’s really dangerous, to give people a sense that the stakes are really high and they might get hurt, which isn’t a fun thing to hear, is a really good idea.
Cass: Graphic health warnings for cigarettes seem to be effective. Something like fear appeals for cell phone use while driving seem also to be effective, and those aren’t exactly fun. We need to think of our domain, but the fact is that for much behavior change, policymakers have overestimated the impact of scaring people relative to the impact of making people think that they’re in an enterprise which has, if not enjoyment at the core, has plenty of enjoyment in it.
Brooke: That’s interesting, and it resonates with a piece that came up in a discussion you had with the Washingtonian. In that piece, there was some discussion of fun and identity and authenticity. I wonder whether you could tell us a little bit about your views on whether fun represents an opportunity for politicians to reconnect with rank-and-file, everyday people who are feeling very disconnected from the political cast. They feel that there’s a group of elites that is disconnected from them, that runs on their behalf but not in their best interests and mind.
Brooke: We see this globally with a lot of different groups turning towards populist leaders, populism, of course, being exactly that kind of reconnection to genuine, authentic relationships with people. Is fun an opportunity for us to counter populism?
Cass: Well, I think populism has many virtues, so we shouldn’t see it as something we need to counter, that populism is, at least in some form, at the root of any understanding of democracy. Respect for the dignity of individual people is what democracy should put maybe as top priority. It’s certainly on the list.
Cass: I agree with the thrust of the question, which is that a sense of fun has a quality built into it. So, when the prime minister of New Zealand said, “We’re going to make an exemption for the Tooth Fairy,” that was really connecting with ordinary people and their concerns, which is, what’s parenting about now? And, the Easter Bunny gets to go. The Easter Bunny doesn’t have to stay home. That’s connecting with people.
Cass: Whatever your political views, former Vice President Biden was on this when he said early on, “If I can walk, I’ll run.” That was pretty funny because he’s not a young guy, and he was saying, “I can’t walk if I’m not going to run.” But, it both disarmed people who think over 75 is getting up there, and also people who think of politicians as some kind of elite, with different incentives and focus than they have.
Cass: So, completely, it’s a responsibility of public officials to meet people where they are. We’re all human. COVID-19 has put in variable letters the fact that we’re all mortal. We have a number of years on the globe, and if you’re enjoying your interaction, let’s say, with a member of the human species or, particularly, if a member of the human species is laughing with you about something that you’re supposed to do now, then your willingness to do it is increased compared to if there’s some elite telling you, “If you don’t do this, you’re going to be in trouble.”
Brooke: Yeah. I really like that leveling aspect, that egalitarian aspect of fun. I recall hearing a talk that was given some years now at Google, where the presenter was speaking about puns, and especially puns in the political context of … I believe it was the early 1600s in England, when they were trying to put together the first stationeries. He was talking about the politically subversive effects of puns and the fun that they bring with them, that, actually, as lawmakers and, in that case, dictionary makers, try to nail down the meaning of words into such a closely confined box.
Brooke: The pun, of course, is just the sledgehammer that comes and knocks down that wall, and really reemphasizes and reinscribes the fact that the meaning of words is constantly shifting. It’s not completely variable. You can’t use any word to mean anything at one time, but you also can’t completely nail it down and keep it fixed, and that part of what we need to contend with in the political sphere is the fact that our ecosystem is always evolving, as convenient as it might be to be able to nail it down.
Cass: You’re on a deep point. So, really, thank you for this, I hadn’t thought of, to which is that if a leader makes a joke, at least much of the time, in business or in politics, a leader is making himself or herself vulnerable because the joke might fall flat. A joke has in it a bit of a plea, which recognizes the authority of the person to whom the joke is being offered.
Cass: If you have someone who, let’s say, is a subordinate, who is an employee, who is trying to make the boss laugh, if the boss laughs, that’s an acknowledgment of a quality on the part of the employee. A student who can make a professor laugh or a professor who can make a dean laugh, there’s something equalizing about that, that’s really important.
Cass: I know a lot of people have a lot of different views on Amazon. But, when it says frustration-free packaging, it’s making an acknowledgment of the worth and the time of its customers. Whether it’s doing that solely for economic reasons, or partly because it feels it, people get that. And, that makes them think, I’m going to get that electric razor which doesn’t drive me crazy to open rather than someone else’s electric razor.
Brooke: Coming back to the behavioral science perspective on this, so often, behavioral psychology, behavioral economics, is introduced as something of a response to microeconomics, where microeconomists make the assumption of the total rational agent, who behaves in extremely predictable and maximizing ways. And, behavioral science comes along and says, “Well, actually, there are some pretty clear systematic deviations from that.” And, what we’re going to do as behavioral psychologists is map the contours of how we deviate systematically from this rational ideal.
Brooke: But, that presentation of the history of behavioral psychology doesn’t do much to displace the ideal that if we had our druthers, we would all be these ideal, rational agents. It just turns out that we aren’t. What you’re talking about here really blows that whole idea up.
Brooke: What you’re talking about is something that is much more, I think, embracing of a deeper and richer conceptualization of the human experience. The way that you’re talking about fun, the way that you’re talking about enjoyment and pleasure and connecting with other human beings … I didn’t hear you mention once that we’re doing this for maximizing purposes and all to get the most gain out of it that we can, for ourselves personally. Can you elaborate a little bit on your views about a rational human agent in an environment with others?
Cass: Okay. So, that’s great, and there’s some distinctions to be made. The origins of modern behavioral economics … I’m going to say that rather than behavioral science because behavioral economics, developed by Robert Shiller and Richard Thaler in the early days, was as you say, very self-consciously a response to rational actor models.
Cass: So, there’s that, saying that you think that people maximize, but, actually, people suffer from biases. Let’s say present bias. They focus on today and not the long term. Unrealistic optimism. They often think, things are going to work for me, even though a rational actor would say, “The risk that they won’t is higher than the unreasonably optimistic person thinks.” And, the documentation of systematic departures from rationality was certainly the first generation, maybe the second generation of behavioral science.
Cass: Then there’s applied behavioral science, both in business and in government. I worked in the White House for a number of years, and if I had said that people don’t follow rational actor models to, let’s say, the Secretary of Transportation and the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, they would’ve looked at me as if to say, “What are you talking about, and how is that useful?”
Cass: And, if you think of a company like Facebook or Coca-Cola, using behavioral insights or behavioral economics, the claim that people don’t follow rational actor models isn’t that interesting. What people actually do and how they respond to things, that’s interesting. In government, if you automatically enroll people in a program for free lunches and breakfasts for poor kids, let’s say, the take-up rate is going to be much higher than if you asked them to fill out a one-page form. That’s interesting. It doesn’t use the word rational. It’s not academic. So, let’s distinguish between the first and second generation of behavioral science, and then apply behavioral science by policymakers in the private sector.
Cass: Then, there’s a third thing, which I think is you’re getting at, which is what we call the third or even fourth generation of behavioral economics and behavioral science, which is less preoccupied by departures from rationality and more intrigued by particular associations between human motivations and outcomes. So, if you can show, and this is something that’s very much a research work in progress, that if people have fun with something, they’re more likely to do the thing, then you will have an empirical finding that’s extremely useful.
Cass: I gave you the example about increasing consumption of vegetables, where fun beats health as an incentive. Now, in terms of rational actor models and this relationship to fun, I have good news and bad news, and it’s the same, which is that I was a colleague for decades of Gary Becker at the University of Chicago, who is probably the principal exponent of rational actor models, and I can channel him with respect to fun.
Cass: He said, “I have no problem with fun. People like fun. If you make things more fun to do it more, not a problem for me. It would be a problem for me if people avoided fun. I’d have to figure out what was in their utility function such that fun was, for them, a negative thing. Maybe they would think that fun was associated with something illegitimate or something. And, I can start modeling people’s utility functions.”
Cass: That’s actually an interesting enterprise, I think, for researchers. As we talk, it could do that, where some populations, and I’m sure this is actually true, would prefer green packaging to frustration-free packaging, because greenness is greater than fun. But, Amazon has made what is probably an informed ad, which is fun is greater than greenness for the majority of its consumers.
Brooke: That raises an interesting point. One of the things you said in there really stuck in my mind, this idea of fun as illegitimate. There’s a deep cultural history to why we might think of fun as illegitimate, as the opposite of productive or morally uplifting and all kinds of other virtues that we tend to put on a very high pedestal in our culture.
Brooke: I want to pivot now into how we put fun into practice, keeping in mind, especially those things that fun struggles to get air time as a legitimate idea, as a legitimate means. The empirical demonstrations of the effectiveness of fun, of course, are a great motivator because the empirical demonstration of effectiveness is something we put on a high pedestal.
Brooke: But, how do we get the ball rolling on putting fun into practice in policy, in corporate contexts? You talked about the example where the instance of colleagues joking amongst each other, subordinates joking with their superordinates. How do we get the ball rolling if fun is struggling with this legitimacy problem?
Cass: Okay. So, to back up, the behavioral insights team in the United Kingdom has a framework called EAST, which has had worldwide influence, partly because it’s really good and partly because it’s a summary of behavioral findings. It says if you want to make things different, change behavior, first, make it easy. That’s the E. Second, make it attractive. The A. Third, make it social, like emphasizing social norms. That’s the S. And, fourth, make it timely. That’s the T. All of those are evidence-based ideas of which in the context of many problems, Olympic gold goes to E, make it easy, and Olympic silver goes to S, emphasize the social norm or the emerging norm.
Cass: My amendment to this much-admired framework, much admired by me, is to turn it to FEAST, meaning have F for fun to start the show. And, that really does resonate, I’ve found, in the last months, in policy circles. There is clarity on the part of many public officials that this connects with something human. And, both, if you are exercising your responsibilities as leader and if you’re implementing a policy, to think of people’s affective response is really important.
Cass: If people are having fun with their job, that can increase productivity and increase effectiveness. So, really, on a front tiers issue here to say, let’s say, in a medium-sized enterprise that is engaged in making something and selling something, that this is a fun place to work. That’s good for business. It doesn’t illegitimate the enterprise. It makes people more motivated. It makes people feel respected. It makes people really want to work there. I’ve worked with law firms and such, and sometimes they are explicit that their job is fun, and they both like that and they market that.
Cass: Some things would be disrespectful to make them fun, and to make a joke on an occasion that has some things associated with it would be inconsistent with the nature of the occasion. And, cultures, as you say, are different, on this count. Since I’ve been working on the topic of fun and behavior change, I’ve actually talked to policymakers. I’ve noticed that in some cultures, the idea is extremely resonant, and in other cultures, there’s a question mark next to it. The idea connects deeply with cultural understandings in some places, and in other places, not that it doesn’t, but just less so, and that’s just how things are now, or maybe how things have been for 400 years.
Cass: If the goal is to stop, let’s say, sexual harassment, probably the EAST framework is really good, and the addition of F is not the best thing in the world. So, it’s even hard to get one’s mind around the idea of not sexually harassing is a fun thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t add fun. I hope it doesn’t subtract fun. But, that’s not what it’s about. On the other hand, if you’re trying to help people to eat healthier, or to cope with the pandemic, or to deal with a safety problem at work, the F is really good to keep in mind.
Brooke: As you were talking, one of the thoughts that jumped to mind is that fun, because it’s effective, is kind of cheating, isn’t it? Is that really fun? Is that authentic fun, or is that instrumentalizing fun simply because it’s an effective means to reach your end goal?
Cass: I think instrumentalized fun is completely fine. If you are a teacher of, let’s say, high school students, and you think over the summer, either because it’s going to be online or because it’s going to be challenging and a hybrid or challenging in there, I’m going to put a premium on fun, both because I want the students to have a good experience, and I think if they’re having fun, they’re going to learn better. That is instrumentalizing fun, and that’s not wrong.
Brooke: I’m reminded of the dictum from Kant, that you shouldn’t use people as a means to an end. We’re not strictly as a means to an end. They should also be a good in themselves. I wonder if fun is something we should treat the same way, that you can use fun to achieve other things, but you shouldn’t only use it for that reason. It needs to have some inherently free-spirited, enjoyable, unencumbered purpose to be able to be what it is.
Cass: Well, it depends on the context. If you’re going out with someone you’re dating and you think it’s going to be a really fun evening, that’s for its own sake. I mean, it might be relationship building, also, but it’s not to get them, we hope, to lose weight or stop smoking. It’s that you’re going to have a fun evening.
Cass: So, in some context, fun is for itself, basically, only or mostly. It’s not treating people as means to say, “We’re going to have fun together.” We’re going to go to a movie, in the ancient days when people went to movies. Or, we’re going to go to dinner in what remain days where people were able to go to dinner. That’s intrinsically fine.
Cass: I don’t have anything good to say about communism, and Emma Goldman was a communist, but she had one very good thing to say herself, which is, “I will participate in no revolution in which they do not dance.” That was about social movements, generally, that if you lose your capacity to dance, heads might roll, and, in any case, it’s not going to work as well. And, in any case, who wants to be in such a movement?
Brooke: Coming back to the application context and continuing on that point, in circumstances, let’s say corporate contexts, where pressure’s really high … Let’s just say … We’ll characterize them as head-rolling environments, ones where people are very worried about how their behaviors will be perceived, and perception is a very weighty thing in the ecosystem. What are some of the barriers that we might encounter in trying to introduce fun as a solution to promote better engagement and to increase productivity, the types of bottom-line things that companies like that often care a lot about, but that might struggle ideologically with the idea that fun could be a way to get there?
Cass: If you’re tense and scared, you’re not likely to have a whole lot of fun. So, let’s suppose it’s a government which is struggling with a very serious economic problem, and the leaders aren’t sure exactly what to do to get the nation out of that distress, and every day is an obstacle course or a maze, and you can’t find your way out. I’ve been there a little bit during the recession of 2008, where for policymakers, there’s fun, but the pressure’s extremely intense.
Cass: Or, suppose you’re working for a company, large or small, that is facing a great deal of economic pressure. It might go out of business. So, the obstacle is the primary imperative is to perform, and if that’s really on your shoulders as a big way, you’re not going to be having a lot of fun.
Cass: I once asked, by the way, of one of the world’s great athletes, a highly relevant question. I’m not going to disclose his name for reasons that will become clear. This is really one of the best athletes in the world. I was at a large event with maybe 200 people, and I found myself in a group of eight to 10, and one was this guy. And, I looked up at him. He’s tall. This hadn’t occurred to me until your question.
Cass: I said to him, “I just have a question for someone like you. When the game is on the line, and there isn’t much time left, and everything’s on your shoulders, are you having fun?”
Cass: He looked around our little group and paused, and said with a pretty booming voice, “Absolutely. You ask me if I’m having fun at the time when all the pressure’s on me? That’s what I live for. That’s what I’m trained to do. Of course, I’m having fun. That’s the best.”
Cass: I confess, I was surprised by the answer because I play a little sport called squash, and I know some of the really good squash players, and I wouldn’t expect that answer. So, about an hour later, I found myself in a corner of the room by myself, and there was he by himself, close to the corner. I called him over and looked up again, and I said, “Your answer really surprised me. Is that true? You’re having fun with all the pressure?”
Cass: He whispered conspiratorially, and he said, “You want the real answer?”
Cass: I said, “Yeah, I do.”
Cass: He said, “No, it’s not fun. It’s terrible.” He said, “Don’t get me wrong. I know what to do.” And, he does. He’s a fantastic pressure performer. “I’m not having fun. It’s awful.”
Cass: Okay. That was interesting, and it’s relevant to your question, which was when the pressure’s intensely on, you’re just focused. You’re not having fun. That’s a problem for the advocates of fun. It’s okay because after the game, he can laugh, and before things get terrible, he can make a joke or two. Both of those help them, I’m quite confident, to perform well under conditions that just aren’t fun.
Brooke: Right. So, for those listeners out there who are confirmed proponents of fun, in terms of practical takeaways, it sounds like one of them is, take the temperature of the room before you decide how you’re going to move forward. If the room is too tense, now’s not the right time. Wait for the pressure to be a little bit lower before you go riding off on this chivalrous adventure to bring fun back to the workplace.
Cass: I’d say takeaway number one, however much one is oneself having, or the people with whom one works, or the people for whom one works, or the people who are working for one are having, add 15% more. That would be the first takeaway. And, the second takeaway, which is the tension may be your friend if you are a part of the fun brigade. Maybe not. But, if people are very tense, and good leaders are excellent at this, to introduce some fun might be exactly the right thing to do. But, you have to have situation sense. If it’s a context in which the pressure is so intense that introducing fun is just going to make people roll their eyes or get distracted, don’t do it. But, even in circumstances of tension, something like 10% more fun … That’s not a precise number. But, something like that is probably the right idea.
Brooke: I was wondering whether there’s something along the lines of in those more propitious moments, to deploy fun, taking the opportunity to raise the baseline on a systematic basis, to try to find ways that are not just going to bring in a little bit of fun here or there, but to systematically get people having a little bit more fun, basically, all the time.
Cass: Completely. So, there’s ambient fun, and then there’s a fun thing. So, the idea to have Pepsi Max … It’s not the most fun thing in the world, but it’s more fun than Diet Pepsi. That’s a localized, fun thing. But, ambient fun as part of the enterprise is good to keep in mind.
Cass: I’m conscious here that Samuel Johnson, one of my heroes, wrote, “Nothing is more doomed to failure than a scheme of merriment,” meaning if you scheme merriment and fun, you’d better be careful because if it seems to constructed and artificial, people will think, okay, now our task is to have fun. So, a degree of spontaneity and likeness is maybe a necessary precondition for something not to be a doomed scheme of merriment.
Brooke: And, I wonder whether there’s a virtuous cycle to be found there, that by raising the ambient levels of fun, that makes it easier to introduce fun into those moments that are a little bit harder, where you can more easily achieve the effect that you want with a punctual intervention.
Cass: Someone in the White House with whom I worked, who was famously a great manager, one of his management skills is that every meeting with him just was fun. It was and is. He was dealing … in his current business job, is dealing with extremely difficult problems. He was the head of the National Economic Council at one point, and head of the Office of Management and Budget at another point. But, these are positions which he wore lightly, and could make fun for people. So, in a meeting, people would be laughing.
Brooke: Yeah. I really like that idea, and, conscious of time and a generosity that you have shown with your time, we’ll converge towards wrap-up here. I think the idea that resonates most strongly with me, that I’m taking away from this, is to not neglect ambient fun because if you allow that ship to become derelict, it will be harder to have it there when you need it as your emergency rescue boat, perhaps.
Brooke: Are there any summative thoughts that you have to share with us today?
Cass: Yes. So, let’s put a spotlight on the following, which is the difference between Pepsi Max and Diet Pepsi, the difference between delicious colorful vegetables and healthy vegetables, the difference between frustration-free packaging and green packaging … These are targeting some action or product and associating it with something in the vicinity, at least, of fun. That can be a great motivator of behavior change. When people think X is more fun than Y, the choice of X is starting to look better.
Brooke: Well, thank you very much for that. And, once again, thank you very much for your time. I’m sure that all of our listeners will enjoy this. I personally have just thoroughly enjoyed our discussion this morning.
Brooke: I hope that we can speak again at some point in the future.
Cass: Thank you. A great pleasure for me. Thanks a lot.
Brooke: If you’d like to learn about applied behavioral insights, you can find plenty of materials on our website, TheDecisionLab.com. There you’ll also be able to find our newsletter, which features the latest and greatest developments in the field, including these podcasts, as well as great public content about biases, interventions, and our project work.