On Thursday, May 20, 2021, behavioral scientist Katy Milkman joined Chicago Booth's George Wu for a virtual installment of the Think Better speaker series delving into Prof. Milkman's new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Using questions submitted by attendees before the event, Milkman and Wu explored the behavioral science behind motivation, making long-lasting change in one’s life, designing effective incentives, and more. 

Why is Change So Hard? 

Milkman began by explaining how loss aversion makes it difficult for us to change. Because we perceive losses to affect us disproportionately more than gains, we are less likely to change our habits.

Present bias also makes it hard for us to change. Humans are wired for the present, making it difficult to delay gratification when we have temptation in front of us. Take, for example, Milkman’s research on DVD rentals––when people rented highbrow documentaries alongside more fun movies like Godzilla, people watched the latter first. 

Andre Agassi & Adaptability 

A tennis player herself, Milkman used Andre Agassi’s meteoric rise in professional tennis during as an example of effective change. In the early 90s, Agassi played the same strategy each match, no matter his opponent, and struggled to climb the standings despite his talent. So he started employing a more adaptable strategy, analyzing his opponents for weaknesses and exploiting them during the match. Despite entering the 1994 U.S. Open unseeded, Agassi won the tournament thanks to his new approach.

Milkman stressed the importance of identifying the specific obstacles on the path to our goals. Like Agassi, we need to assess the obstacles in front of us and tailor our approach to them. 

Incentive Strategies

Milkman discussed the various approaches we can take to more successfully achieve changes. In the Mary Poppins approach, Milkman explained how we can reward ourselves with “a spoonful of sugar” whenever we complete onerous tasks. 

Constraining our future selves can also help achieve long-term goals. In a study on personal savings, it was discovered that using “commitment accounts”–– savings accounts which inhibit the user from withdrawing funds–– lead to 80% more savings. 

Using Behavioral Science to Write How to Change 

Milkman described how she harnessed behavioral science findings to motivate herself to write the book. After buying a new house, Milkman leveraged the fresh start in her life to begin her book. She designated Fridays to write, breaking down her daunting goal into more manageable, weekly ones. Milkman also hired a research assistant to hold her accountable with deadlines. 

COVID & Behavior Change

Milkman touched on ways in which the pandemic has impacted our ability to change. Moments that feel like a new beginning––like when Milkman moved into her new home––give us an opportunity to change our habits, as we consider it as a new chapter in our lives. The end of the pandemic could nudge us to start fresh with new habits and shed old ones. 

Milkman also reflected on a study of London-Tube commuters and how it can shed optimistic light on the pandemic. During a two day strike, commuters had to take an alternative route to get to work. After the strike, many commuters returned to their original path, but 5% of commuters kept using this alternative mode of transit. Obstacles force us to try new things, and sometimes these new routes are better than the old ones. Milkman thinks the pandemic exposed better paths for many. Perhaps some discovered that they prefer working from home or socially distanced hiking on the weekend to crowded bars. 

Finally, Milkman discussed how she’s applying her specialization in the science of megastudies to increase vaccination rates. Partnering with pharmacies, Milkman ran a megastudy to test the effectiveness of various text messages reminding patients to get their flu vaccine. Testing about 75 different messages submitted by various teams, the research found that the most effective messages told the patient that they 1) had an upcoming appointment and 2) a spot was reserved for them. This harnessed the power of defaults, making canceling the more onerous choice, and loss aversion by letting the patient know the dose was earmarked for them. Milkman aims to use this approach to increase turnout for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

On behalf of the Center for Decision Research, thank you to Professors Milkman and Wu for their time and insights. 

The Think Better speaker series will return in Fall 2021 with Nobel laureate and Chicago Booth professor Richard Thaler. Stay tuned for more information.