Can you trick people into improving their lives? A behavioral economics professor is banking on it


Whether personal or professional, change is hard. And the cumulative data is not on our side.

Take something obviously detrimental, like smoking. A mere 4% to 7% of people successfully quit without the aid of medication or outside help. Even experiencing a traumatic event like the death of a loved one or being diagnosed with cancer only leads to a 20% success rate.

Not to be a killjoy, but as the Washington Post found, roughly 25% of New Year resolutions fall apart within the first two weeks. And even when it comes to our work where moneys on the line 70% of [management-led] transformation efforts fail.

So why is change such a struggle?

Dan Ariely, best-selling author of Predictably Irrational and professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, explains it like this:

Usually when people approach solving problems, they think, Lets just give people some information and then theyll make the right decision, he said.

As natural as this educational approach feels, it doesnt work. For example, posting caloric facts on the side of a Snickers bar does little to deter us when its 10 pm and the craving hits. Equally fruitless are traditional applications of so-called willpower.

Change, in Arielys words, comes not from the inside, but the outside. If you want people to lose weight, give them a smaller plate. You have to change the environment.

Today, our dominant environment is digital, which is why Arielys foundation The Center for Advanced Hindsight teamed up with Chris Ferguson, CEO of the Ontario-based design firm Bridgeable, and convened a three-day workshop last October with thirty different financial institutions from all parts of North America.

Their goal was to explore how technology could play a role in transforming borrowers into savers (i.e., positive social and personal change). However, dont let the financial scope fool you.

People are people and changing your own habits as well as designing apps and workflows for the good demand understanding how humans make decisions. So before digging into Ariely and Fergusons answer the one theyre banking on lets take a look at six psychological triggers that give us a fighting chance in the war on change.

Human decision making: 6 triggers for change

In his modern-day classic Influence, Robert B. Cialdini describes two models of human decision making. The first he calls controlled responding, a thorough analysis of all of the information. The second is known as “judgmental heuristics,” essentially “mental shortcuts,” also known as cognitive biases or “triggers” that allow for “simplified thinking.”

As much as we like to envision ourselves as controlled responders, human beings are far more prone to the second mode. In fact, prone is probably too light a word. The reality is, mental shortcuts run our lives: From the routes we drive, to the foods we eat, right down to the jobs and mates we choose.

Cialdini wasnt the first to notice this. Moneyball author Michael Lewis recent book, The Undoing Project, chronicles the multi-decade shift in both economics and psychology away from the thesis that humans are essentially rational creatures in cognitive control of their decisions. In its place, a new understanding of decision making has emerged, one in which heuristics, hardwired mechanisms, and triggers stand out.

For Ariely and Ferguson, six of these triggers bear special attention.

Default bias

In 2003, Eric J. Johnson and Daniel G. Goldstein discovered that the organ donation rate in two European countries Hungary and Denmark differed wildly. The first boasted 99.997% and the second, 4.25%. What explained this night and day difference?

Turns out, a box. Or rather, the language surrounding one box in particular. In Hungary, organ donation was the DMVs default option; its citizens had to opt out if they didnt want to participate. In Denmark, it was the opposite.

In other words, the easiest option is the automatic option and therefore whatever is framed as default usually wins.

Friction costs

People are easily deterred from taking action. We prefer the path of least resistance. And, of course, inertia doing nothing is always the easiest thing to do.

Friction costs refer to any obstacles or perceived speed bumps that complicate an action. Reducing friction costs has become a cornerstone of ecommerce giants like Amazon whove built empires around saving your payment and shipping information so that purchasing is as easy as one click.

But this also holds true interpersonally. One of the driving reasons people stay in unfulfilling relationships is that the cost of extricating themselves appears to outweigh the cost of one-off disturbances, despite the fact those one-off disturbances add up over time.


At the risk of stating the obvious, first impressions matter and not just in our personal lives.

When making decisions, people automatically elevate whatever information they encounter first, and anchoring means that this first impression isnt just more powerful than subsequent evidence, it also becomes the organizing principle (or, frame) thereafter.

For instance, if the first test in a job interview reveals an applicants strengths, then evaluators unthinkingly rate the applicant’s subsequent tests higher, even when they have little or nothing to do with the first. Humans latch onto first impressions, and letting go of them is harder than you think.


Consistency acting in accordance with our previous decisions and actions is a potent mental force. This is due partly to the fact that change is difficult (see Friction Costs). But it also stems from our desire to protect our egos as well as to simplify decision making.

In the 1960s, when two psychologists asked California homeowners to erect a public-service billboard on their front lawns reading, Drive Carefully, they were met with an average rejection rate of 83%. One subset, however, turned the tables on that average and complied to the request at 76%. Why? Because unbenounced to the two psychologists, one week earlier a separate organization had asked residents to place an unobtrusive Be a Safe Driver sign in their window.

Securing small, voluntary commitments is a cornerstone of any large and lasting change.

Present bias

Humans are myopic creatures. We live in the moment. Its not that we dont worry about the future or dwell on the past; fear and loss are the two most powerful human emotions. Its more that were terrible at projecting our current reality into whats going to happen next, especially when that next is five, ten, or even twenty years in the future.

Hyperbolic discounting turning a future positive into a present negative is one way of dragging those inevitabilities into the here and now.

Social proof

No man is an island, wrote John Donne. He was right. When it comes to making decisions especially decisions surrounded by high levels of mystery or insecurity we look to see what other people are doing.

The principle of social proof is why Yale University discovered that if you want people to reduce the amount of bottled water they consume, presenting facts about negative environmental impacts works best only when preceded by social proof that others have already started to behave pro-environmentally.

Each the above triggers, often called cognitive biases, work their way from outside in. Theyre extensions of Arielys basic contention that our best shot at change comes from our environment.

But can an app truly change human behavior?

Rigging the mind with an app

Naturally, the answer is yes.

As proof we need look no further than the plethora of examples Nir Eyal presented in Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. From social media platforms to free games like Candy Crush and Farmville, apps have the power to shape (and even reshape) our lives. In Eyals words: To build a habit-forming product, makers need to understand which user emotions may be tied to internal triggers and know how to leverage external triggers to drive the user to action.

The real question is: Can an app change human behavior for the good? After all, its one thing to hook someone with an app that delivers endorphins the way gambling or junk food does (neither of which Eyal argues for). Its another thing altogether to hook someone with an app aimed at changes we wat but struggle desperately to implement.

To answer that question, heres a sneak peek at Ariely and Fergusons current prototype and how theyre using the principles mentioned above.

Just remember: Each of these triggers are hardwired into the human mind. That means your own changes personal, professional, and technological should lean on them too.


Making good change easier

Its true: as humans, were terrible at change. But that doesn’t mean the fight is in vain.

Instead, the implications of behavioral economics alongside the broader sciences of human decision making weve touched on should push us in two directions.

First, on the personal front, change works from the outside in. If you want to lose weight, buy a smaller plate. We set ourselves up for success or failure not because of internal factors like willpower, motivation, and drive, but because of external factors. Lasting change isnt as much about moral fortitude as it is about arranging our environment the world we interact with to either trigger or inhibit our behaviors.

Second, on the professional front, products and services, apps and tools must all likewise adhere to the very same lessons. This applies to design and UX as much as it applies to marketing and management.

Whatever change youre trying to create whatever product youre trying to hook your audience begin with how humans actually make decisions:

1. Default Bias:
How can you make the opt-in process automatic? What can you pre-populate during onboarding or roll out

2. Friction Costs:
What can you remove? In the words of Nir Eyal, innovation is nothing more than understanding a series of tasks from intention to outcome and then removing steps.

3. Anchoring:
What do users, whether customers or employees, see first? How can you leverage that first impression at a meeting, in an email, or within an app to frame the rest of the process

4. Pre-Commitment:
Are you building on small, voluntary commitments? Small yeses early on lead directly to big yeses later, especially as change gets tougher

5. Present Bias:
How can you drag future results into present reality? What hell will your change save people from? What heaven will it deliver them unto?

6. Social Proof:
Who do your users look to for making their decisions? How can you encourage those influencers, or even just fellow humans, to share their own commitment and actions?
Unlocking human change is hard, but its not mysterious. Just be sure youre using all that power for the good.


Aaron Orendorff is the founder of iconiContent and a regular contributor at Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, Fast Company, Business Insider and more. Connect with him about content marketing (and bunnies) on Facebook or Twitter.

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What if there was no advertising? | George Nimeh | TEDxVienna

Every month, over 200 million people are forcefully telling the world that they hate online advertising. Is anyone listening? And more importantly, is anyone doing anything about it?

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George is a digital entrepreneur and an award-winning innovator in advertising and communications. He has worked with top brands, global agencies and startups for 20 years. And probably like you, he doesn’t like most advertising he sees online.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at
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