How to motivate yourself to change your behavior | Tali Sharot | TEDxCambridge

TEDx

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xp0O2vi8DX4
Transcriber: Leonardo Silva Reviewer: Denise RQ So, we all have some behavior that we would like to change about ourselves. And we certainly all want to help someone else change their behavior in a positive way.
00:00:26
So, maybe it's your kid, your spouse, your colleague. So I want to share some new research with you that I think reveals something really important about what gets people to change their behavior.
00:00:39
But before I do that, let's zoom in on one strategy that I think you probably use a lot.
00:00:44
So, let's say you're trying to stop yourself from snacking. What do you tell yourself? Well, most people, in a monologue, will say, "Beware. You'll be fat." And if this was your kid, you would probably tell him that smoking kills and, by the way, he's in big, big trouble. (Laughter) So, what we're trying to do here is we're trying to scare ourselves and others into changing their behavior. And it's not just us.
00:01:15
Warnings and threats are really common in health campaigns, in policy.
00:01:22
It's because we all share this deep-rooted belief that if you threaten people, if fear is induced, it will get them to act. And it seems like a really reasonable assumption, except for the fact that the science shows that warnings have very limited impact on behavior.
00:01:42
So, graphic images on cigarette packets, for example, do not deter smokers from smoking, and one study found that, after looking at those images, quitting actually became a lower priority for smokers. So, I'm not saying that warnings and threats never work, but what I'm saying is, on average, they seem to have a very limited impact. And so, the question is: why? Why are we resistant to warnings? Well, if you think about animals, when you induce fear in an animal, the most common response you will see is freezing or fleeing; fighting, not as much. And so, humans are the same. So if something scares us, we tend to shut down and we try to eliminate the negative feelings. So, we might use rationalizations. For example, you might tell yourself: "My grandpa smoked. He lived to be 90.
00:02:31
So, I have really good genes and absolutely nothing to worry about." And this process can actually make you feel more resilient than you did before, which is why warnings sometimes have this boomerang effect.
00:02:45
In other times, we simply put our head in the ground. (Laughter) Take the stock market for example. Do you know when people pull their head out of the ground to look at their accounts — not to make a transaction, just to log in to check their account? So, what you're seeing here, in black, is the S&P 500 over two years, and in gray, is the number of times that people logged in to their account just to check. And this is data from Karlsson, Loewenstein & Seppi, it's control [data] for all the obvious confounds. So, what do we see? When the market is high, people log in all the time, because positive information makes you feel good, so you seek it out. And when the market is low, people avoid logging in, because negative information makes us feel bad, so we try to avoid it altogether. And all this is true as long as bad information can reasonably be avoided.
00:03:41
So, what you don't see here is what happened a few months later, in the financial collapse of 2008, when the market went drastically down and that was when people started logging in frantically, but it was a bit too late.
00:03:55
So, you can think about it like this — it's not just finance: In many different parts of our life, (Laughter) we have warning signs and bad behaviors now.
00:04:07
And they could potentially lead to all these bad outcomes later, but not necessarily so, because there are different routs from your present to your future, right? It can go this way, it can go that way. And, as time passes, you gather more and more information about where the wind is blowing. (Laughter) And, at any point, you can intervene and you could potentially change the outcome, but that takes energy and you might tell yourself: "What's the point about worrying about something that might happen? It might not happen." Until we reach this point, at which time you do jump into action, but sometimes it's a little bit too late.
00:04:49
So, we wanted to know, in my lab, what type of information does leak into people. So, we conducted an experiment where we asked approximately 100 people to estimate the likelihood of 80 different negative events that might happen to them in the future. So, for example, I might ask you: "What is the likelihood that you'll suffer hearing loss in your future?" And let's say you think it's about 50%.
00:05:15
Then, I give you the opinion of two different experts. So, expert A tells you: "You know, for someone like you, I think it's only 40%." So, they give you a rosier view of your future. Expert B says: "You know, for someone like you, I actually think it's about 60%. It's worse." So, they give you a bleaker view of your future. What should you do? Well, you shouldn't change your beliefs, right? Wrong. What we find is that people tend to change their beliefs towards a more desirable opinion.
00:05:53
In other words, people listen to the positive information.
00:05:59
Now, this study was conducted on college students, so you might say: "Well, college students are delusional, right? We all know that." (Laughter) And surely, as we grow older, we grow wiser. So we said: "OK, let's test that. Does this really generalize? Does it generalize to your kid, to your parent? Does it generalize to your spouse?" And so, we tested people from the age of 10 until the age of 80, and the answer was yes. In all these age groups, people take in information they want to hear — like someone telling you you're more attractive than you thought — than information that they don't want to hear.
00:06:35
And the ability to learn from good news remained quite stable throughout the life span, but the ability to learn from bad news, that changes as you age.
00:06:47
So, what we found was that kids and teenagers were the worse at learning from bad news, and the ability became better and better as people aged.
00:06:57
But then, around the age of 40, around midlife, it started deteriorating again.
00:07:04
So, what this means is that the most vulnerable populations, kids and teenagers on the one hand, and the elderly on the other hand, they're the least likely to accurately learn from warnings. But what you can see here is that it doesn't matter what age you are. You can be 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60; everyone takes in information they want to hear more than information that they don't.
00:07:28
And so, we end up with a view like this of ourselves. (Laughter) Our mistake as teachers, as mentors, as employers is that, instead of working with this positive image that people so effortfully maintain, we try and put a clear mirror in front of them. We tell them: "You know, the image is just going to get worse and worse and worse." And it doesn't work.
00:08:00
It doesn't work because the brain will frantically try to distort the image, using Photoshop and fancy lenses, until it gets the image it's happy with.
00:08:12
But what would happen if we went along with how our brain works and not against it? Take handwashing, for example.
00:08:21
We all know that handwashing is the number one way to prevent the spread of disease, and this is really important in hospitals. So, in a hospital here in the United States, a camera was installed to see how often medical staff do, in fact, sanitize their hands before and after entering a patient's room.
00:08:39
Now, the medical staff knew a camera was installed.
00:08:43
Nevertheless, only one in ten washed their hands before and after entering a patient's room.
00:08:52
But then, an intervention was introduced: an electronic board that told the medical staff how well they were doing.
00:09:01
Every time you washed your hands, the numbers went up on the screen and it showed you your rate of your current shift and the rate of the weekly staff.
00:09:12
And what happened? Boom.
00:09:15
Compliance raised to 90%, which is absolutely amazing. And the research staff were amazed as well, and they made sure to replicate it in another division in the hospital. Again, the same results.
00:09:30
So, why does this intervention work so well? It works well because, instead of using warnings about bad things that can happen in the future, like disease, it uses three principles that we know really drive your mind and your behavior. Let me explain.
00:09:52
The first one is social incentives. In the hospital study, the medical staff could see what other people were doing.
00:10:01
They can see the rates of the shift, the rate of the week.
00:10:05
We're social people, we really care what other people are doing, we want to do the same and we want to do it better. This is an image from a study that we conducted, led by PhD student Micah Edelson, and what it's showing you is a signal in the emotional center of your brain when you hear about the opinion of others.
00:10:25
And what we found was that this signal can predict how likely you are to conform at a later time, how likely you are to change your behavior.
00:10:36
So, the British government are using this principle to get people to pay taxes on time.
00:10:43
In an old letter that they sent to people who "forgot" to pay taxes on time, they simply stressed how important it was pay taxes, and that didn't help. Then, they added one sentence, and that sentence said: "Nine out of ten people in Britain pay their taxes on time." And that one sentence enhanced compliance within that group by 15%, and it's thought to bring into the British government 5.6 billion pounds.
00:11:13
So, highlighting what other people are doing is a really strong incentive.
00:11:18
The other principle is immediate rewards. So, every time the staff washed their hand, they could see the numbers go up on the board and it made them feel good. And knowing that in advance made them do something that they, otherwise, may not want to do.
00:11:37
Now, this works because we value immediate rewards, rewards that we can get now, more than rewards that we can get in the future.
00:11:47
And people tend to think it's because we don't care about the future, but that's completely wrong, we all care about our future, right? We want to be happy and healthy in the future, we want to be successful, but the future is so far away.
00:12:00
I mean, maybe you'll behave badly now and you'll be fine in the future, and maybe you'll be altogether dead. (Laughter) So, the here-and-now you would rather have that tangible drink, that tangible T-bone, rather than something that's uncertain in the future.
00:12:19
If you think about it, it's not altogether irrational, right? You're choosing something sure now rather than something that is unsure in the future.
00:12:28
But what will happen if you reward people now for doing actions that are good for them in the future? Studies show that giving people immediate rewards make them more likely to quit smoking, more likely to start exercising, and this effect lasts for at least six months, because not smoking becomes associated with a reward, and exercising becomes associated with a reward, and it becomes a habit, it becomes a lifestyle. So, we can reward ourselves and others now for behaving in ways that are good for us in the future and that's a way for us to bridge the temporal gap. And the third principle is progress monitoring.
00:13:11
So, the electronic board focused the medical staff attention on improving their performance. This is an image from a study that we conducted, that shows you brain activity suggestive of efficient coding of positive information about the future.
00:13:27
And what we found was that the brain does a really good job at this, but it doesn't do such a good job at processing negative information about the future. So, what does this mean? It means that, if you're trying to get people's attention, you might want to highlight the progress, not the decline. So, for example, if you take that kid with the cigarette, you might want to tell them: "You know, if you stop smoking, you'll become better at sports." Highlight the progress, not the decline.
00:14:00
Now, before I sum up, let me just share this small anecdote with you.
00:14:04
A few weeks ago, I got home and I found this bill on my fridge.
00:14:08
And was really surprised because there's never any bills on my fridge.
00:14:12
So, I was wondering why my husband decided to put that on our fridge.
00:14:15
And so, looking at the bill, I could see that what this bill was trying to do is get me to be more efficient with my electricity use. And how was it doing it? Social incentives, immediate rewards and progress monitoring. Let me show you. Here are the social incentives. In gray is the energy use on the average energy use of people in my neighborhood.
00:14:38
And in blue is my energy use, and in green is the most efficient neighbor. And my reaction to this was — my immediate reaction was: "I'm a little bit better than average" (Laughter) — a tiny bit, but still…
00:14:53
and my husband had exactly the same reaction — and "I want to get to the green bar." And then, I got a smiley face.
00:15:01
That was my immediate reward and it was telling me, "You're doing good," and it made me want to put this on my fridge. (Laughter) And although I have this one smiley face, I can see an opportunity there to get two smiley faces. (Laughter) So, there's an opportunity for progress and it's showing me my progress throughout the year, how my energy use changes throughout the year. And the last thing this bill gave me: it gave me a sense of control.
00:15:31
So, it gave me a sense of I was in control of my use of electricity. And that is a really important thing, if you try to get people to change their behavior, because the brain is constantly trying to seek ways to control its environment.
00:15:44
It's one of the principles of what the brain is actually doing.
00:15:47
And so, giving people a sense of control is a really important motivator.
00:15:53
OK. So, what am I not saying? I'm not saying that we do not need to communicate risks, and I'm not saying that there's one-solution-fits-all, but I am saying that, if we want to motivate change, we might want to rethink how we do it, because fear, the fear of losing your health, the fear of losing money, induces inaction, while the thrill of a gain induces action.
00:16:22
And so, to change behavior in ourselves and in others, we may want to try these positive strategies rather than threats, which really capitalize on the human tendency to seek progress. Thank you. (Applause) so we all have some behavior that we would like to change about ourselves and we certainly all want to help someone else change their behavior in a positive way so maybe it's your kid your spouse your colleague so I want to share some new research with you that I think reveals something really important about what gets people to change their behavior but before I do that let's zoom in on one strategy that I think you probably use a lot so let's say you're trying to stop yourself from snacking what do you tell yourself well most people's inner monologue will say beware you'll be fat and if this was your kid you would probably tell him that smoking kills and by the way he's in big big trouble so what we're trying to do here is we're trying to scare ourselves and others into changing their behavior and it's not just us warnings and frets are really common in health campaigns in policy it's because we all share this deep-rooted belief that if you threaten people if fear is induced it will get them to act and it seems like a really reasonable assumption except for the fact that the science shows that warnings have very limited impact on behavior so graphic images on cigarette packets for example do not deter smokers from smoking and one study found that after looking at those images quitting actually became a lower priority for smokers so I'm not saying that warnings and threats never work but what I'm saying is that on average they seem to have a very limited impact and so the question is why why are we resistant to warnings well if you think about animals when you induce fear in an animal the most common response you will see is freezing or fleeing fighting not as much and so humans are the same so something scares us we tend to shut down and we try to eliminate the negative feelings so we might use rational so for example you might tell yourself my grandpa he lived to be 90 so I have really good genes and absolutely nothing to worry about and this process can actually make you feel more resilient than you did before which is why warning sometimes have this boom around effect and other times we simply put our head in the ground take the stock market for example do you know when people pull their head out of the ground to look at their accounts not to make a transaction just to log in to check their account so what you're seeing here in black is the S&P 500 over two years and in gray is a number of times that people logged into their account just to check and this is data from colistin Lowenstein and seppius control for all the obvious content so what do we see so when the market is high people log in all the time because positive information makes you feel good so you seek it out and when the market is low people avoid logging in because negative information makes us feel bad so we try to avoid it all together and all this is true as long as bad information can reasonably be avoided so what you don't see here is what happened a few months later in the financial collapse of 2008 when the market went drastically down and that's when people started logging in frantically but it was a bit too late so you can think about it like this it's not just finance in many different parts of our life we have warning signs and bad behaviors now and they could potentially lead to all these bad count bet outcomes later but not necessarily so because there's different routes from your present to your future right it can go this way it can go that way and as time passes you gather more and more information about where the wind is blowing and at any point you can intervene and you could potentially change the outcome but that takes energy and you might tell yourself well what's the point about worrying about something that might happen it might not happen until we reach this point at which time you do jump into action but sometimes it's a little bit too late so we wanted to know in my lab what type of information does leak into people so we conducted an experiment where we asked approximately 100 people to estimate the likelihood of 80 different negative events that might happen to them in the future so for example I might ask you what is the likelihood that you will suffer hearing loss in your future and let's say you think it's about 50% then I give you the opinion of two different experts so expert a tells you you know for someone like you I think it's only forty percent so they give you a rosier view of your future expert B says you know for someone like you I actually think it's about sixty percent it's worse so they give you a bleaker view of your future what should you do well you shouldn't change your beliefs right wrong what we find is that people tend to change their beliefs towards a more desirable opinion in other words people listen to the positive information now this study was conducted on college students so you might say well college students are delusional right we all know that and surely as we grow older we grow wiser so we said okay let's test that does this really generalize does it generalize to your kid does it generalize to your parent does it generalize to your spouse and so we tested people from the age of ten until the age of 80 and the answer was yes in all these age groups people take in information they want to hear like someone telling you you're more attractive than you thought then information that they don't want to hear and the ability to learn from good news it remained quite stable throughout the lifespan but the ability to learn from bad news that changes as you age so what we found was that kids and teenagers they were the worst at learning from bad news and the ability became better and better as people aged but then around the age of 40 around midlife it started deteriorating again so what this means is that the most vulnerable populations kids and teenagers on the one hand and the elderly on the other hand they're the least likely to accurately learn from warnings but what you can see here is that it doesn't matter what age you are you can be 20 30 40 50 or 60 everyone takes in information they want to hear more than information that they don't and so we end up with a view like this of ourselves and our mistake as teachers as mentors as employers is that instead of working with this positive image that people so effortfully maintain we try and put a clear mirror in front of them we tell them you know the image is just going to get worse and worse and worse and it doesn't work it doesn't work because the brain will frantically try to distort the image using Photoshop and fancy lenses until it gets the image is happy with but what will happen if we went along with how our brain works and not against it take hand-washing for example so we all know that hand-washing is a number one way to prevent the spread of disease and this is really important in hospitals so in a hospital here in the United States a camera was installed to see how often medical staff do in fact sanitize their hands before and after entering a patient's room now the medical staff they knew a camera was installed nevertheless only one in ten washed their hands before and after entering a patient's room but then an intervention was introduced in electronic boards that told the medical staff how well they were doing every time you wash your hands the numbers went on and this up on the screen and it showed you your rate of your current shift and the rates of the weekly staff and what happened boom compliance raised to 90 percent which is absolutely amazing and the research staff were amazed as well and they made sure to replicate it in another division in the hospital again the same results so why does this intervention work so well it works well because instead of using warnings about bad things that can happen in the future like disease it uses free principles that we know really drive your mind and your behavior let me explain so the first one is social incentives in the hospital study the medical staff could see what other people are doing right they can see the rates of the shift the rate of the week we're social people we really care what other people are doing we want to do the same and we want to do it better this is an image from a study that we conducted led by PhD student Micah Edelson and what it's showing you it's a signal in the emotional center of your brain when you hear about the opinion of others and what we found was that this signal can predict how likely you are to conform at a later time how likely you are to change your behavior so the British government are using this principle to get people to pay taxes on time in an old letter that they send to people who forgot to pay taxes on time they simply stress how important it was to pay taxes and that didn't help so then they added one sentence in that sentence said nine out of ten people in Britain pay their taxes on time and that one sentence enhanced compliance within that group by fifteen percent and is fought to bring into the British government five point six billion pounds so highlighting what other people are doing is a really strong incentive the other principle is immediate rewards so every time the staff washed their hand they could see the numbers go up in the board and it made them feel good and knowing that in advance made them do something that they otherwise may not want to do now this works because we value immediately words rewards that we can get now more than rewards that we can get in the future and people tend to think it's because we don't care about the future but that's completely wrong I mean we all care about our future right we want to be happy we want to be healthy in the future we want to be successful but the future is so far away I mean maybe you'll behave badly now and you'll be fine in the future and maybe you'll be all together dead so the here and now you would rather have that tangible drink that tangible t-bone rather than something that's uncertain in the future if you think about it it's not altogether irrational right you're choosing something sure now rather than something that's unsure in the future but what will happen if you reward people now for doing actions that are good for them in the future so studies show that giving people immediate rewards makes them more likely to quit smoking more likely to start exercising and this effect lasts for at least six months because not smoking becomes associated with a reward and exercising becomes associated with a reward and it becomes a habit it becomes a lifestyle so we can reward our self and others now for behaving in ways that are good for us in the future and that's a way for us to bridge the temporal gap and the third principle is progress monitoring so the electronic boards focus the medical staff attention on improving their performance this is an image from a study that we conducted that shows you brain activity suggestive of efficient coding of positive information about the future and what we found was that the bringing does a really good job at this but it doesn't do such a good job at processing negative information about the future so what does this mean it means that if you're trying to get people's attention you might want to highlight the progress not the decline so for example if you take that kid with a cigarette you might want to tell them you know if you stop smoking you'll become better at sports highlight the progress not the decline now before I sum up let me just share this small anecdote with you so a few weeks ago I got home and I found this bill on my fridge and I was really surprised because there's never any bills on my fridge so I was wondering why my husband decided to put that on our fridge and so looking at the bill I could see that what this bill was trying to do is get me to be more efficient with my electricity use and how is it doing it social incentives immediate rewards and progress monitoring let me show you so here's the social incentives so in gray is the energy use on the average energy use of people in my neighborhood and in blue is my energy use and in green is a most efficient neighbor and my reaction to this was my immediate reaction was I'm a little bit better than average tiny bit but still and my husband was the same exactly same same reaction and I want to get to the green bar and then I got a smiley face that was my immediate reward and was telling me you're doing good and it made me want to put this on my fridge and also I have this one smiley face I can see then an opportunity there to get two smiley faces so there's an opportunity for progress and it's showing me my progress throughout the year how my energy use changes throughout the year and the last thing this bill gave me it gave me a sense of control so it gave me a sense that I was in control of my use of electricity and that is a really important thing if you're trying to get people to change their behavior because the brain is constantly trying to seek ways to control its environment it's the one of the principles of what the brain is actually doing and so giving people a sense of control is a really important motivator okay so what am I not saying I'm not saying that we do not need to communicate risks and I'm not saying that there's one solution fits all but I am saying that if we want to motivate change we might want to rethink how we do it because fear the fear of losing your health the fear of losing money induces in action while the thrill of a gain induces action and so to change behavior in ourselves and in others we may want to try these positive strategies rather than frets which really capitalize on the human tendency to seek progress thank you
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