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Could Solving This One Problem Solve All the Others?

The biggest problem with humanity is humans themselves. Too often, we make choices — what we eat, how we spend our money and time — that undermine our well-being. An all-star team of academic researchers thinks it has the solution: perfecting the science of behavior change. Will it work? Now, there’s been plenty of progress in the science of behavior change. As listeners of this program know well. So, together, Milkman and Duckworth began to dream up a project. A huge project. It would seek to experiment with, and understand, and codify, and eventually distribute, to all of humanity, the most effective behavior-change nudges and incentives. Duckworth and Milkman were themselves responding to a rather large incentive. Angela Duckworth had won a MacArthur fellowship in 2013 — the so-called genius award. What kind of genius would she be if she didn’t go for the $100 million MacArthur prize? She and Milkman began recruiting fellow academics to join their team, and corporate and institutional partners too. They came up with a name for their project: “Making Behavior Change Stick.” And they submitted their proposal. As most of us know from personal experience, changing even your own behavior can be really hard — whether it’s how you take care of your mind and body, or your physical environment; how you work or interact with other people, you name it. Even when you do make a change, it can be hard to make it stick. And what if you’re trying to change other people’s behavior? Over the past few decades, a lot of brainpower has been spent trying to develop a science of behavior change. And there has been a lot of success. But these successes are often tightly circumscribed — for several reasons. One is that a lot of the experimental research has been conducted by academics who use college students as their subjects. So the sample size is often small — and, also, not very representative. This is called the WEIRD problem — “weird” standing for subjects who are Western, Educated, and from countries that are Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD. Then there’s the fact that a lot of experimental research is too artificial, too unlike the real world. Also: too context-dependent and too low-stakes. How much stock do you really want to put in the decision made by a college student in a one-time transaction in a classroom lab where the reward is some free pizza? Another problem with incentivizing behavior change is that incentives wear off. On Day 1, you might happily choose to eat kale instead of French fries for a $2 reward. By Day 10? You might be willing to pay $2 — maybe $20 — for some French fries. And there’s at least one more big problem with designing incentives to change other people’s behavior: the people who are typically in charge of the design are fairly accomplished people. Accomplished people tend to be disciplined, and driven, and cooperative. So the incentives they design may, in their minds, be perfectly logical — but the rest of humanity may not be as disciplined and driven and cooperative as them. So even if you can find the right levers to press to produce behavior change, in the right measure in the right circumstances, how you can generalize that and scale it up, from the individual to the population level? And how can you make it stick? That is the massive challenge that Angela Duckworth and Katy Milkman have given themselves. So massive that they wanted lots of help. They put together an all-star team of more than two dozen researchers — psychologists and economists and sociologists but also people from medicine and computer science and marketing. The team includes four members of the National Academy of Sciences, three MacArthur Fellows, and one Nobel Laureate, the labor economist Jim Heckman. As Duckworth and Milkman write in their MacArthur proposal, this team of researchers has, collectively, “developed interventions that meaningfully improve flu shot take-up, gym attendance, retirement savings, charitable giving, medication adherence, hand hygiene, energy efficiency, cancer screening compliance, voter turnout, weight loss, smoking cessation, job choice, GPA, attendance, and classroom conduct.” That said, this project will focus on three major areas. Number one: problems in health, such as smoking cessation and healthy eating. Number two: education. Number three: savings.