We want to introduce you to one of our intellectual heroes. A man who turned 95 on January 1st of 2019. There’s a fair chance that you’ve never heard about him. But you definitely have heard about his 88 years old associate, Warren Buffett. The man we’re talking about is Charlie Munger.
I want to urge you to read the transcript of the lecture. It’s one of the most exciting texts you will ever read. I re-read it at least three times per year. In this lecture on Worldly Wisdom, Charlie Munger argues that the reason why Munger and Buffett beat the market with their investments, for more than 60 years is that they have a different approach to decision making. Munger argues that if you want to make better decisions, you need to use more than one mental models to look a the problem. One of his famous quotes to make his point is the following:
“To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”.
He argues that most people in business, everyday life and investing approach problems from a single mental model. If you work in branding, everything looks like a branding problem, if you work in business consulting, everything sounds like a transformation problem. If you are an economist, everything looks like a market-problem.
Munger and Buffett pride themselves with locking themselves up most of the day, reading books. What they are looking for is elementary worldly wisdom.They are obsessed with learning interesting “mental models”. Mental models are concepts from all kinds of sciences that offer elegant explanations to the world. To quote Munger:
“What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.
You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head”.
A list of mental models.
There’s a lot of renewed excitement for Munger’s idea of Mental Models. Shane Parish, host of the amazing podcast “The Knowledge Project” and author of Farnamstreet, the ultimate blog on better decision-making by learning from the smartest people in the world. Shane Parish is writing a book on the subject. He recently published a post called “Mental Models, the best way to make intelligent decisions (109 models explained)“. It’s a list of all the mental models that he is using in his daily life. A lot of these models are concepts from cognitive psychology and the science of influence. BTW, Munger is also fascinated with how human decision-making works. If you understand how people think and why they do what they do, you can do a much better job at predicting and changing their behaviour.
Start making a list of your favorite mental models in your todo-list. I use Wunderlist. I created a folder “Mental Models” and started the habit to post concepts I use a lot in my thinking. My most recent one is this: “You are the sum of the five people you hang around with”.
Re-read your mental model list regularly. Once you use them to look at challenges or problems, they will always provide you with new ways of looking at the problem and its solutions.
Enjoy Munger while he’s still alive. 🙂
Tom, Astrid and the SUE | Behavioural Design Team
PS: We had Munger’s mental models in mind when we designed the program of the Behavioural Design Acacademy masterclasses. Our program is designed to teach you some very powerful and easy to remember mental models for finding human insights and for coming up with smart interventions for behavioural change. #funfact.
Excerpt: In this post, we will explain what design thinking is all about. Originating from the innovation arena, it has gained popularity in other business domains, driven by the success of design thinking of radically focusing on the needs of the user — the how and why behind design thinking is explained in this article.
Design thinking explained
Everybody seems to be design thinking nowadays or has at least have heard of the term. But what is design thinking? Why has it gained so much popularity? Is it something that can help you and your business become more successful? In this article, we will give a short design thinking masterclass, so you’ll know what everybody is talking about and you can see for yourself if you want to start implementing design thinking in your own company. We’ll explain how and lead you to some of the best resources on the internet. To make your life a bit easier, we’ve divided the article into several subsections, which you can jump to by clicking on the following links:
Design thinking comes from the field of innovation and is a new approach, or process if you like, to solve problems taking the user as a focus point. The method has been described as far back as 1969 by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, but it really made a lift when d.school of Stanford University came up with a five-step approach to design thinking, which was given a boost by Tim Brown of IDEO, and explained in his bestselling book ‘Change by Design‘. In this article, we’ll describe their approach, as it is most commonly used nowadays, and very practical to implement yourself.
Design thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing a deep human understanding of the people for whom we’re designing products or services. It helps you question and enables you to resist to act upon (often wrong) assumptions. Design thinking is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or complex, by re-framing the question in human-centric ways. Design thinking is so successful because it focuses on the needs of the user — understanding culture and context through observation and qualitative research (storytelling) diagnosing the right problem.
Okay, that sounds nice and all. But why do we need this? To put things short, we all think in patterns. We all have ways we are used to doing things — our habits, what we get taught in school, by our parents, and in the business place. Which is fine, as it helps us deal with everyday situations, we can rely on these patterns of thinking.
We need this automatic behaviour to survive. If we had to make every decision consciously, or had to think about every behaviour rationally, or had to learn to do everything from scratch over and over again our brains would crash as we explained in our article about system 1 and 2 thinking of Kahneman. In short, we rely on doing every day – private and business – processes for the most part unconsciously — for example, when we get up in the morning, eat, brush our teeth, and get dressed. We don’t think about it; we do it how we are used to doing it.
There’s one downside to this patterned thinking. It makes it very difficult for us humans to challenge our assumptions of everyday knowledge. Especially when you’re expected to be a paid expert, it can be tough to start questioning your own experience (also known as the expert fallacy or false authority). So, when we run into a problem that we haven’t faced before, or that requires a new innovative solution, we often get stuck or come up with old answers that aren’t always the best.
Often this difference between repetitive patterned thinking and innovative thinking (also commonly referred to as ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking’) is illustrated by the truck example. Have you heard of it? If not, let us tell you this story.
Some years ago, an incident occurred where a truck driver made a wrong judgment call and tried to pass under a low bridge that turned out to be too low for his truck. His truck got so firmly lodged under the bridge, that the driver couldn’t manoeuvre the truck through it anymore, but also couldn’t reverse his vehicle which not only caused a problem for the truck, but also for the traffic that got stuck behind him. The story goes that the fire department, other truck drivers, road help, and other experts came over to negotiate how to tackle this problem.
Everyone was debating whether to dismantle parts of the truck or break down parts of the bridge. Each spoke of a solution which fitted within his or her respective level of expertise. And this went on for some time.
The story goes, a boy walked by, took a look a the truck and then said, “Why not just let the air out of the tires?” which took all specialists and experts by surprise, who were debating for hours trying to solve the problem.
When the solution was tested, the truck was able to drive through quickly. The story symbolises the struggles we face where frequently the most obvious answers are the ones hardest to come by because of the thinking patterns we all have within. And it summarised what design thinking helps you realise: design thinking helps you to change the way you tackle problems. It encourages you to explore new alternatives. Creating options that didn’t exist before.
Design thinking implementing the process
In this next part, we want to give you a concise design thinking masterclass. It will explain the principles of user-centred design. The first advantage and characteristic of design thinking are that it encourages us to take an integrative approach to develop new strategies or ideas. Whereas in a lot of ideation processes the research department passes on insights to strategic planners who in their turn pass their insights on to the creatives, and then the ideas are handed over to production to be made, design thinking sees insight, ideation, and implementation as three overlapping ‘cycles’. You will also come across to these spaces being called ‘understand’, ‘concept’ and ‘develop’.
Design thinkers don’t follow these three cycles in a strictly linear way. You could pass through every cycle more than once. Could be you have an idea, but after prototyping your idea with real users, you come to learn they don’t understand it or didn’t do what you hoped them to do. Then you have to adapt your ideas. So, you go back to the drawing board.
We always like to say that strategy is nothing more than a hypothesis that you test, build, and learn. We are firm believers the best strategy is developed through ideation and prototyping. Sometimes the feedback you get in prototyping gives you such an extra insight into the consumer decision-making process that you have to make a perception switch and come to a new understanding that will reshape your strategy. We like to call this process of including and being open to human psychology the concept of strategy development as opposed to the more inside-out concept of strategic planning.
The task of a design thinker is to bring all phases together as one harmonious solution. The cool thing – we think – is when you have the design thinkers mindset you break through silos. Whereas the researchers, the creatives, and the strategic thinkers often work in different departments, now you get to go through all cycles yourself with a multidisciplinary team. Which not only makes your work more interesting but especially makes sure a lot of valuable insights aren’t lost in the process of handing things over to the next department. Design thinking is an integrative approach that adds value and fun. And which is a springboard for innovative, smart thinking that puts humans first.
The steps in design thinking
Let’s dive a bit deeper into the stages of the design thinking process. There are five steps in total:
Empathy The first step of the design thinking process is called empathy. You try to understand human psychology and try to find out why people make decisions. The goal is to gain an empathic understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. You could do this in several ways. One of the most reliable methods is observation. Watching what people do. Why this is a proven method is because a lot of what people do is sub-conscious. If you’d ask them, they wouldn’t be able you to give you a (correct) answer. But you could also consult experts, extreme users, or do qualitative research to gain a deeper personal understanding of people’s emotions, needs, desires and fears. Empathy is crucial to a human-centred design process as it allows o set aside your assumptions about the world or your target group. It is all about understanding behavioural psychology and identifying behavioural patterns.
Define In this stage, you put together the information you gathered during the empathy stage. This is where you will analyse your observations and refine and focus the problem you are trying to solve based on what you found while empathizing with your user. We often tend to define the problem inside-out. For example: “We need to gain 5% more market share in gym subscriptions by the end of next year”. But the whole point of design thinking is that you start thinking outside-in. So, your problem definition should also be human-centred. For example: “We need to help people to build the healthy habit of coming to the gym so fewer people will quit”.
Ideate This is the stage where you try to come up with as many as possible solutions to your problem. Several techniques have proven to be very useful like brainwriting or the magic eight. It is essential to get as many ideas or problem solutions as possible at the beginning of the ideation phase. Behavioural research done to research the effectiveness of teams have shown that individuals are best at coming up with as many diverse ideas as possible, whereas a group is best at picking the most promising ideas. A technique used for this is called dotmocracy. If you’re interested in unlocking more creative power from a group, you could read our post ‘3 techniques that will supercharge your team’s creativity“.
Prototype Prototyping is all about learning. Your job is now the make some inexpensive, scaled down versions of your idea that can be shared and tested with the actual users. There are several ways to prototype. You can write value propositions on a page; you can make a first landing page, you can create a storyboard or sketches. This is an experimental phase, so it’s not about making the perfect prototype. It’s about making a prototype that will help you gather valuable user feedback.
Test We go about the testing phase by doing qualitative interviews with our end users or potential target group we are trying to influence. Very important to remember to tell and not sell. You’re not at the stage of convincing someone yet; you are here to learn where your product, service, idea, etc. needs improvement. Which parts are unclear? What turns out to be the killer feature? All the test insights will be used to do an ideation round again to optimise the idea based on real user feedback.
Design thinking tools and videos
There are a lot of tools and techniques to use to make every step of the design thinking process worthwhile. The masters of design thinking are the people of IDEO, and they did us all a massive favour by developing a design thinking toolkit that they’ve put online for all of us to use. Just take a look in there, and see which tools you like.
One of the founders of IDEO, David Kelley, has given a 6o minute interview explaining his view on design thinking. You can watch it here:
IDEO has also made a series of videos explaining the mindsets design thinkers should have.
Design thinking is a process to come up with truly innovative ideas that are radically human-centred. The five-step approach of empathy, define, ideate, prototype and test help you to find solutions to problems with an outside-in view. Tapping into the consciousness and sub-conscious of your potential users. And helping you to validate your ideas before the money runs out.
Excerpt: In this post, we will highlight the main concepts from the work of Nobel prize winner Richard Thaler as explained in his bestselling book ‘Nudge.’ We will explain what nudging is all about, how it related to behavioural economics and how you can use it to influence people and help them make better choices.
The term nudging seems to be popping up everywhere nowadays. People are being nudged, nudge units are set-up within governments, and nudging in marketing seems to pick up in popularity. But what is nudging all about? What does nudging mean? And from which underlying science does it derive? And especially how does it help people make better choices? Questions that will all be answered in this article. To make your reading life easier, we’ve divided the article into several subsections, which you can jump to easily:
Nudging comes from the field of behavioural economics. Although behavioural economics is a science that is studied for almost forty years, it was the book ‘Nudge’ written by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein in 2008 that put nudging on the map. In Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein propose us a new take on decision making, one that takes our humanness and all the inconsistent decisions we make as a given.
Behavioural economists, as opposed to traditional economists, take human irrationality as a starting point. The basic assumptions of behavioural economics are that people are making choices with:
Whereas traditional economics see people as rational beings, who make decisions and do cost/benefit analyses to make a choice that is always in their best interest not letting their emotions cloud their judgments, and always thinking about the future. Behavioural economists overthrow this, as it doesn’t fit the actual behaviour of people. You see people choose mortgages they shouldn’t be taking. You see people overspent on their credit cards. There are stock bubbles. Where’s the rationality in that? We are humans whose decisions are driven by cognitive bias and sub-conscious mental shortcuts, as we explain in this post on Daniel Kahneman whose research laid the foundation of all behavioural economics.
In the book ‘Nudge’ is also explained that being human, we all are susceptible to various biases that can lead us to blunder. Our mistakes make us poorer and less healthy; we often make bad decisions involving education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, the family, and even the planet itself.
The main concept of the book is that if you know how people think, you can design choice environments that make it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves, their families, and their society. It’s all about choice architecture. An important concept that we’ll explain in the next paragraph.
But before we dive deeper into choice architecture, it’s good to know that there lies a very important concept underneath the nudging theory. A concept introduced in the book called Libertarian Paternalism.
Libertarian = An individual’s right to choose
Paternalism = Do what you can do to improve the welfare of people. Point people in the right direction.
The idea is to apply the techniques of the psychology of decision making and behavioural economics to improve decisions without limited choices. Or easier put, help people make better choices for themselves without restricting their freedom of choice. But by nudging them. Which brings us to the definition of a nudge. As Thaler describes it himself a nudge is any small feature in the environment that attracts our attention and alters our behaviour.
You can nudge for good, or you can nudge for evil. Their book strongly focuses on the first, as the subtitle of their book states: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. And we as a company take a positive take on behavioural psychology ourselves as we strongly live by our mission to unlock the power of behavioural psychology to nudge people into making positive choices in work, life, and play. But how do you achieve this goal? That’s what the next section is all about: how to help people make better and healthy choices.
Making choices: choice architecture
If you want to help people making better decisions, you can achieve this with better choice architecture. But what is a choice architecture? Anyone who designs the environment in which people make choices is a choice architect. There’s choice architecture all around you. Think about menus, curriculums, or store layouts that decide how you walk inside a store (you probably all have been in an Ikea once, there it’s obvious how choice architects have designed the way you cruise the Scandinavian furniture epicenter).
A choice architect makes choices about how to present information or an environment for you. Although nudging is all about maintaining people’s freedom of choice, choice architecture isn’t neutral. You can compare it to regular architecture; it’s not possible to design regular neutral architecture. Think about the design of the building you’re probably in right now: it’s not possible to have designed that building completely neutral. It had to have doors, stairs, etc.
The same goes for choice architecture, it affects how people make choices, and you have to make a choice yourself on how you present a choice. Richard Thaler often refers to the example of cafeteria meal planning. They found out that the way food was presented to kids in a school cafeteria effected what they would eat for lunch. The first choice presented to them was the prevalent choice. Someone responsible for the cafeteria then has several options:
Put the healthy options first, to promote more healthy eating behaviour
Put the unhealthy options first, to make kids more fat (could be he/she has a chubby kid and wants other kids to gain weight too, to stop the bullying)
Put the most profitable options first, to make the finance director happy
Present the food randomly, which is also a choice (confusing, but a choice)
The point is: you always have to make a choice. Choice architecture is not neutral. But some designs are better than others. Why not do it in a way that makes people feel better? That’s what nudging is all about, and which is the theme of the book ‘Nudge’ to help people towards making better choices.
Making better and healthy choices
In the book ‘Nudge’ they explain six principles of good choice architecture that will help people make better and healthy choices:
People make better decisions if you provide the right people with the right incentives. This goes beyond monetary and material incentives, but also includes psychological benefits (eg peace of mind).
A warm plea is made for more disclosure to help people make better decisions. In the book referred to as RECAP: Record, Evaluate, and Compare Alternative Prices. Make it easier for customers to compare what they are truly paying for, and ensure that all hidden fees are exposed.
Defaults Defaults what happens if we do nothing. Think about your screensaver. Even if you do nothing it will activate. Defaults are sticky, as inertia rules in all humans. We tend to stick to the automatic choice that’s made for us. We for example hardly ever change factory settings on our phone. In Nudge an example is given about joining a retirement savings plan. If the default is to join, most people do join. If you have to actively choose to join only 30% does so.
Give feedback A good way to help humans improve their decision making is to provide feedback. A good example is the Ambient Orb as developed by Clive Thompson that helped people save energy. Electricity isn’t visible, the ambient orb gives feedback on how well you’re doing by changing colour. Another example of giving feedback is paint that is pink when you apply it, but turns white within an hour. People often paint white ceilings white again, and it’s hard to see if you missed a spot. By making the paint pink, it gives you immediate feedback on what is left to paint.
nudging ambient orb
Magic white paint
Expect error Expect people to make mistakes and design for it. A very good example of libertarian paternalism that actually saves lives are the ‘look right’ signs in London streets. You can still watch the wrong way, but you’re directed to look the right way.
nudging look right
Structure complex choices When there’s an overload on choice, people tend to find ways to simplify them and break them down. Good choice architecture will find ways to make this more evident for people. An example cited was the choice of paint. Instead of using words like “Roasted Sesame Seed” or “Kansas Grain,” consider arranging similar colour themes next to each other. This could help people to choose the right shades and hues.
You could recap the Nudge theory like this:
Humans are imperfect we can use all the help we can get
It’s possible to improve choices without restricting options
Don’t use bans and mandates, just nudge.
If you want to hear Richard Thaler explain the basic concept of nudging himself, take a look at this video. It’s 18 minutes.
Excerpt: In this post, we want to give some examples of how to use Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion in practice. Well, we won’t explain all the principles ourselves, but Cialdini will do so too. Some of the persuasion principles come with a video in which Dr. Cialdini explains the principle himself. If you want a more extensive explanation the work of Cialdini on the psychology of influence, please make sure to read this post that will give you a recap of his work as published in his bestselling book ‘Influence.’
6 Universal Principles of Persuasion
In his book, Robert Cialdini uncovered 6 Universal Principles of Persuasion. Shortcuts that our brain uses to make decisions, or in Cialdini’s words shortcuts that make people ‘say yes.’ What makes the work of Prof. Cialdini so interesting is that he shows influence at work. He translates scientific research in the area of behavioural design and human psychology into practical business applications. His widely acclaimed studies are highly instructive to those who want to be more influential.
The six universal principles of persuasion (POP), also called the principles of influence are:
Consensus or Social Proof
In this post, you’ll find a series of videos in which Robert Cialdini explains the persuasion principles himself on various business conferences. It’s, therefore, a showcase how broadly his thinking can be used in practice.
Persuasion Principle 1: Reciprocity
“People say yes to those who have given to them first.” In this short 3.16 minute video, Cialdini tells about the social norm that exists across cultures that explains why the reciprocity principle helps to influence people’s behaviour. Who would think that remembering someone’s birthday could be so important if you want people to remember yours? You’ll know after watching this video.
To summarize: give what you want to receive. If a colleague needs help, and you can ‘lend’ him one of your team members, you’ll get his help later.
Persuasion Principle 2: Scarcity
People want to have what is scarce. How can you use this in daily business? There have been several examples of the scarcity principle working simply by saying something will be limited. There’s been an example that when British Airways announced that they would no longer fly to London – New York twice a week with the Concorde as too little passengers were using the service, sales took off the next day. Nothing changed about the Concorde, it became scarce and therefore wanted.
You can also use the scarcity principle by using exclusive information to persuade. Influence and rivet key players’ attention by saying for example ‘just got this information today.’
Persuasion Principle 3: Authority
“People are very willing to follow the lead of an authority. Suppose you are that authority? The implication is that you need to your background, experience, and credentials in the minds of the people you want to influence before you begin the process of influence”. This is how Cialdini starts his explanation of the principle of persuasion called ‘authority’. To sum it up, the principle shows that if an expert says it, it must be true. You can watch the 3.20-minute video here:
Don’t assume your expertise is self-evident. Instead, establish your expertise before doing business with new team members or clients. In conversations before a meeting, describe how you solved a problem similar to the one on the agenda.
Persuasion Principle 4: Consistency
If you want to get the loyalty of people that don’t quite trust you yet, the best way is to make them commit to something. Use the foot in the door technique where a small request paves the way for compliance with larger subsequent requests. To fully use the long-lasting power of commitment and consistency:
Make people commit to something small first, making it easier to follow-up with larger requests;
Try to showcase their choices to the public, so that they’re now accountable to everyone else;
Get them to put in as much effort as possible, so that they’ll perceive the results as more worthwhile.
Persuasion Principle 5: Liking
“The number one rule of sales is to get your customer to like you. That’s true, but I am going to give it the status of the number two rule of sales. Here’s the number one rule in my view. It is not to get your customer to like you; it’s come to like your customer”. This is how Cialdini starts his keynote speech on the Australasian Real Estate Conference. Watch this 4.46-minute video, and you’ll know exactly what Cialdini sees as the psychology of persuasion when talking about the persuasion principle ‘liking’ and how you can use it to boost sales.
How do you get to like your customer, client, patient or user? By using the same tools, you can use for them to like you. You try to discover similarities. If you find something about someone you truly admire, you are going to like that person more. It’s all about having empathy. The key skill every behavioural designer should have. But it has to be genuine. It has to be true. This is how you can make sure you’ll find a genuine reason to like your ‘public.’ Cialdini explains this in this 5.02-minute video.
In short: to influence people, win friends through similarity. Create any bonds with peers, bosses and direct reports by informally discovering interests. And praise: charm and disarm, make positive remarks about others.
Persuasion Principle 6: Consensus/Social Proof
People follow what those around them are doing. In this video, Cialdini explains the principle of social proof. He uses the case about reusing towels in hotels. What’s very interesting is that he makes a clear distinction between cooperation and social proof. Want to know why cooperation didn’t work, and social proof did? What’s this 6.01-minute video taken on a pharmaceutical conference in Las Vegas.
And to add on to this, a very short video (0.55 minutes) in which Cialdini explains the door hanger experiment, that showed how social proof could help people save energy.
How can you use social proof in another way? Use peer power. For example, ask an esteemed ‘old timer’ in your company to support your new initiative or plan.
Would you like to learn more?
Be sure to also check out our posts on the work of Kahneman and BJ Fogg. Two of the other significant scientists from the field of human-centered thinking and behavioural psychology. Or do you want to master the science of influence yourself? Check our two-day Behavioural Design Academy:
Excerpt: In this post, we will introduce you to the work of Dr. Robert Cialdini, who is an expert on how to influence people and the psychology of persuasion. In his bestselling book, ‘Influence‘ Cialdini identifies six principles of persuasion and explains the psychology of why people say “yes”—and how to apply these understandings in real life.
This isn’t so much an article, but a reference post for anyone who wants a quick overview of Cialdini’s work on the persuasion principles or wants to reread one of them. That’s why we’ve have divided this post into sections, so you can easily jump to the subject of your interest.
Robert Cialdini’s work can be considered as adding on to the work of Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman discovered what laid the foundation in all thinking about behavioural psychology and behavioural economics. Where we use to think we all rational thinking human-beings using information at hand to make a decision, for the most part, we rely on emotional thinking. The majority of our choices are automatic and based on so-called shortcuts.
In his book Robert Cialdini uncovered six shortcuts that he calls ‘universals that guide human behaviour,’ they are:
Consensus or Social Proof
When using these shortcuts, Robert Cialdini states you can make people say ‘yes’ to about anything. Also called persuasion: the action or process of persuading someone or of being persuaded to do or believe something. That’s also the reason why he stresses to employ the persuasion principles an ethical manner.
Which is something we can only stress once more. Behavioural science is a powerful tool. If you know how people think, and how they make decisions, you can influence their behaviour. Our company mission is to unlock the power of behavioural psychology to nudge people into making more positive choices in work, life, and play. We help people grow through change. And true change is all about behaviour. You have to stop doing the things that hold you back, and you have to start doing the things that will propel you forward.
Why we love the work of Cialdini is that he brought the psychology of influence into practice, like ethical sales, marketing, management, and business applications. He explains the psychology of why people say ‘yes—and how to apply these understandings in daily life. Cialdini ‘s 6 Universal Principles of Influence were based on three “undercover” years applying for and training at used car dealerships, fund-raising organizations, and telemarketing firms to observe real-life situations of persuasion.
The reciprocation rule essentially states that if someone gives something to us, we feel obligated to repay that debt. Could be we give back to others in the form of behaviour, a gift, or service. Key to using the Principle of Reciprocity is to be the first to give and to ensure that what you give is personalized and unexpected.
In his book, Cialdini illustrates this principle with an example you have probably have experienced yourself: the fact you get candy or peppermint with your restaurant bill. They have done a series of experiments in restaurants with to see if this phenomenon of giving a little gift together with the bill had any effect in influencing the amount of tip given (obligation to do something back). This is what happened.
When a single mint was given with the bill and the end of a meal, tipping amounts generally rose with 3%. Interestingly, if the gift is doubled and two mints are giving, tips don’t double, but they quadruple to a 14% increase in tips. What turned out to be the most effective in influencing people using reciprocity? If the waiter gives one mint, starts to walk away from the table, but pauses, he turns back and says, “For you nice people, here’s an extra mint,” tips go through the roof. A 23% increase, influenced not by what was given, but how it was given. It feels personalized, and it’s unexpected.
You can imagine that using the principle of reciprocity can also improve sales effectiveness. Most of the times we’re not aware how the principles of influence work, but they drive how we make choices, and it once again shows the power of the subconscious mind Kahneman has illustrated so beautifully.
People want more of those things they can have less of. That’s why you see so many websites using cues that stress the scarcity of a product or service. Deal times that are running out, the number of rooms left, only two days to go, etc. Time pressure enhances the feeling of scarcity. And it even increases the perceived value of things.
When it comes to effectively persuading others using the scarcity principle, it’s not enough to tell people about the benefits they’ll gain if they choose your product or service. You’ll also need to be very clear about what is unique about your proposal and what they stand to lose if they don’t buy your product or service.
This is the idea that people follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts. What Cialdini tells us is that it’s important to signal to others what makes you a credible, knowledgeable authority before you make your influence attempt. That can be done in different ways. Diplomas on your wall help, wearing a uniform also does the trick and being introduced to someone as an expert does work too.
In his book, Cialdini discusses and example of authority on his website this that is very interesting (the example is directly taken from his website). A group of real estate agents was able to increase both the number of property appraisals and the number of contracts by making sure the reception staff who answered customer phone calls to first mention their colleagues’ credentials and expertise.
So, people interested in letting a property were told “Lettings? Let me connect you with Sandra, who has over 15 years’ experience letting properties in this area.” Customers who wanted more information about selling properties were told “Speak to Peter, our head of sales. He has over 20 years’ experience selling properties. I’ll put you through now.” This is designing a customer experience that is actually behaviour driven design that can boost your sales.
People like to be consistent with the things they have previously said or done. If you did A, you are inclined to do A (and not B). This has to do with the fact that our brain is always looking to reduce our mental stress. And it’s less stressful for our brain to be consistent. Daniel Kahneman has explained in-depth how this works in our brain if you want to know more about this check out this post.
How can you use this in influence people? If you can get someone to do, preferably a public or written, commitment to something your chances of influencing that person raise dramatically. Easier said if you can make someone say ‘yes’ to something it works wonders. An example. People who are conducting street interviews. If they would stop someone on the street, and first ask them ‘Do you consider yourself to be a helpful person?”. And if people say ‘yes,’ they then asked them, would you mind filling in this questionnaire for me? Compliance rates rose from 27% to 70%. People wanted to be consistent with their first answer. In other words, you can change attitudes towards something by using this principle of consistency.
Cialdini gives another example of commitment in his book. In a study, they found out that the number of missed appointments at health centers was reduced by 18% simply by asking the patients themselves to write down appointment details on the appointment card (instead of the doctor assistants who would normally do this).
People are more inclined to say ‘yes’ to people they like. But how can you increase motivation for people like you? How can you influence people’s thoughts and behaviour towards yourself? The science of persuasion gives three very clear answers to this. People tend to like you more if:
You are similar to them
You pay them compliments
You cooperate with them towards a mutual goals
In short, you can behavioural design the perception of yourself by using the principle of liking.
Consensus or Social Proof
Social proof is a psychological and social phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behaviour in a given situation. Social proof is considered prominent in ambiguous social situations where people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behaviour and is driven by the assumption that the surrounding people possess more knowledge about the current situation (Wikipedia).
Or as Dr. Cialdini puts it “Especially when people are uncertain, people will look to the actions and behaviours of others to determine their own”. Telling people the number of people that have already bought your product, or the number of people that were happy with your service works. But you can also design behaviour by referring to others who were in a similar situation as the person you are trying to influence. A well-known example is the research on towel re-usage in hotel rooms. By doing one small addition on the little information card that can be found in the hotel rooms stating that ‘75% of people staying in this room, reused their towels’ the towel re-usage rate increased with 33%.
To round things off, this is a short video explaining the six principles in a fun and easy to understand way made by Influence at Work and narrated by Dr. Robert Cialdini:
How to use the Principles of Influence
We’ve made an overview of the six universal principles of influence and joined them with the way you could apply them. Hopefully giving you a bird’s eye view on how to use the principles to influence people. We use the principles in combination with BJ Fogg’s Behavior model to boost motivation and ability.
We have also made an overview of the more practical usage of the principles in daily life and business.
Excerpt: In our post ‘BJ Fogg Model explained‘ we have given a concise explanation of the BJ Fogg Behavior Model, which is a persuasion knowledge model. This post is for those who want to dive a bit deeper into the motivation axes of the model. There are a lot of theories of motivation, and there is more than one motivation model. What is so interesting about BJ Fogg’s work is that he has developed a framework that takes human psychology and behavioural design as a starting point.
In his Behavior Model motivation is one of the three elements – together with ability and trigger – that is needed to change behaviour. In a perfect world, your user or target group already is motivated to show the behaviour you’d like him or her to engage in. In that case, your job is to make sure the desired behaviour gets easier to do (working on ability) and making sure someone is triggered to act. But if someone isn’t highly motivated, he probably won’t engage in the wanted behaviour.
If you want to understand behaviour from a human-centered point of view, you must understand, as BJ Fogg puts it, that “Motivation has one role in life, to help us so hard things. If it isn’t hard, you don’t need motivation.”
BJ Fogg’s advice is to always start at making the desired behaviour easier. As our brains love simplicity and it takes away the burden of being motivated.
Image credit AZ Quotes
But you can also boost motivation and sometimes you simply have to. We use Cialdini’s persuasion principles to do so. But what is BJ Fogg talking about when he is talking about motivation? In short, he has identified three types of core motivators all with two sides to them. We’ll explain them here and finish off with insights from Dr. Fogg on when it is best to motivate someone.
Core motivator 1: Sensation
The first core motivator is called sensation and can be divided into two: pleasure and pain. What differentiates this motivator from those that follow is that the result of this motivator is immediate, or nearly so. There’s little thinking or anticipating. People are responding to what’s happening at the moment. Pleasure/pain is a primitive response, and it functions adaptively in hunger, sex, and other activities related to self-preservation and propagation.
Core motivator 2: Anticipation
The second core motivator is called anticipation and also has two sides to it: hope and fear. This dimension is characterized by anticipation of an outcome. Hope is the anticipation of something good happening. Fear is the anticipation of something bad, often the anticipation of loss. This dimension is at times more powerful than pleasure/pain, as is evidenced in everyday behaviour. For example, in some situations, people will accept pain (a flu shot) to overcome fear (anticipation of getting the flu).
Core motivator 3: Belonging
This dimension controls much of our social behaviour, from the clothes we wear to the language we use. It’s clear that people are motivated to do things that win them social acceptance. Perhaps even more dramatically, people are motivated to avoid being socially rejected.
How to motivate someone
Whether you need to work on consumer motivation behaviour or organization motivation behaviour, motivation works the same. The basis you have to start from is to be very specific about the behaviour you want people to do. Don’t say ‘Exercise more,’ but say ‘Do 20 minutes of exercise two times a week”. Don’t say “Eat healthy food,” but say something like “Eat one piece of fruit every day to finish off your lunch.”
This is where motivation comes in, select a specific behaviour that your customers already want to do or pick a behaviour that will help them achieve an outcome that they really want. For example. People may not want to exercise (behaviour), but the result they are looking for with the exercising is for example ‘fitting in their wedding dress’ (outcome). Finding the underlying motivation is also called Job-to-be-Done thinking as developed by Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School.
Coming back to what BJ Fogg said that motivation has only one role, to make hard things easier, it’s not that motivation doesn’t matter. But you don’t simply layer motivation over something you want people to do. As BJ Fogg puts it, you have to be motivation matching. It needs to match what people already want to do. But sometimes you have cases in which you do have to insert motivation into the situation to get people to do something.
When to motivate someone
According to Dr. Fogg, the moment in which you ask someone to do the specific behaviour (trigger moment) is very important. We all have what he calls ‘motivation waves.’ We have all experienced this. Sometimes we get excited about something. It could be something positive, like you watching the Olympics on TV and you think I am going to go out do some exercising myself. Or you watch a family movie, and you think I am going to spend more time with my kid. Or it could be something negative such as a report of a traffic accident on the 8 o’clock news, and you think I have got to get an emergency kit in my car. During those situations, you go through a motivation wave.
Important to know is that as your motivation goes up, you are able to do harder things. When the wave comes back down as it does, you are less able to do hard things.
In short, there are temporary opportunities to make people (or yourself) do hard things. From a business perspective, this means when your customer, your member, your patient, your user is way up surfing the motivation wave that’s the perfect time to trigger them to do hard things.
And you need to do it quickly before the wave goes down, as it will. People are not constantly motivated to exercise or to spend more time with their kid. It will go away, just like a wave comes down. To link it to Kahneman’s work for those who are familiar with this. Motivation has a more cognitive, rational thinking side to it, as ability is all system 1. Smart ability interventions make people do things without thinking.
In this video BJ Fogg briefly explains the concept himself:
How motivation meets ability
If you don’t have to do hard things you don’t need much motivation. But let’s face it: some things are really hard to get started with. Let’s say exercising regularly or losing weight. If you want someone to show hard behaviour, their motivation has to be high. If the motivation is low, they are simply not going to do it. If you want to persuade someone to do hard behaviour you have to wait for a motivation wave. That’s a hot trigger moment. So be ready for it.
But the wave is one thing. The most effective persuasion strategy is to be there at the peak of a motivation wave and get someone started down the path of achieving hard behaviour, step-by-step. Maybe you’ve heard of the concept of baby steps. It’s exactly this. As motivation doesn’t always stay up, what you need to do if you want to change behaviour is to get people to do hard things on the top of the motivation wave that will make future good behaviours easier to do.
Think about the exercising or living healthy example. When you are riding the motivation wave for example after seeing sports on TV, it is the best moment for you to go out to buy yourself a yoga mat, get a water bottle and buy fruit. All ability interventions. When your wave drops again, it doesn’t really matter. Your motivation then doesn’t have to be high to make a healthy choice, you have made the desired behaviour easier. You have your water bottle on your desk, fruit in front of you and your yoga mat at home. It’s simple to act more healthy in the future. It feels like a baby step rather than a big leap. And it helps create new routines and habits.
Competing behaviours and motivation
Sometimes you don’t lose motivation, but there is a competing behaviour. We all have several motivation waves at the time that require different behaviour. For example, we can be very motivated to go exercise, but when you get a call from school that your kid has the flu, you’ll be more highly motivated to get your son or daughter then going to the gym (I hope). We assess which behaviour is more important at the time, all the time. In short, we are all choosing between competing behaviours.
That makes it all the more important to make those baby steps, as you can still take the baby steps, the tiny small things even when something else is grabbing your attention.
Excerpt: this is a reference page on which you can find an explanation of the Behavior Model as developed by professor BJ Fogg who founded the Standford Persuasive Tech Lab. His model shows that it takes three elements to be present at the same time: motivation, ability and a trigger to be able to change behaviour. It’s such an elegant and easy to understand model that we use it on a daily basis to come up with solutions that will lead to positive behaviour.
BJ Fogg model
On this page, we want to give you an introduction to BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model. Professor Fogg is one of the grounding fathers of the scientifical research in behavioral psychology. Maybe you have heard of the concept persuasive technology or even persuasive design. The BJ Fogg Behaviour model is a smart and easy-to-use tool in this field of expertise. It explains which three buttons you need to push to be able to persuade someone into doing something. Or as BJ Fogg explains it himself three elements that have to be present at the same time to change behaviour: motivation, ability, and trigger.
Important side note to this is that BJ Fogg is a very strong advocate of using insights into human psychology for good. And so are we. Our founding mission is to unlock the power of behavioural psychology to nudge people into making positive choices in work, life, and play. Behavioral psychology or behavioural design is a very powerful tool for changing people’s behaviour, let’s all use it for helping people to engage in a better behaviour.
This isn’t so much an article, but more a reference page that you can consult whenever you want to know more or reread about the BJ Fogg model. To make your life a bit easier we have created page sections, so you can easily jump to a particular subject that is of particular interest to you. We also have included links into this page to more detailed information if you want to dive a bit deeper. The page sections:
We love working with the Behavior Model because of its elegance. There’s a lot of research on behavioural psychology, and there are a lot of models on behaviour change out there, but things can get pretty complicated. BJ Fogg has made understanding what triggers people to change behaviour very simple. This makes his model very easy to use on a daily basis. What does the model look like?
Bottom line is this: Behavior = motivation x ability x trigger. When the desired behaviour does not happen, at least one of those three elements is missing. The most important implication of this is that using the Fogg Behavior Model (FBM) as a guide; you can quickly identify what stops people from performing behaviours that you seek. Also known as the desired behaviour.
If a sufficient degree of motivation to perform a behaviour is matched with the ability to do that behavior, all that is then needed for the behaviour to occur is a trigger. Illustrated in the model as the activation threshold. Triggers placed on the right-hand side of the threshold will lead to behaviour change, triggers to the left will probably show no behaviour change.
What makes the model so easy to use in practice, is that anytime you want to understand better why a behaviour isn’t happening, all you have to do is ask yourself three simple questions to spot what is lacking for behaviour change to happen:
Is someone motivated enough?
Is someone capable of performing the desired behaviour?
Did we remind them/ask them to perform the desired behaviour?
Let’s discuss an example. Think about quitting smoking. If someone doesn’t want to stop smoking (low motivation), you can trigger him all you want, but nothing will happen, as quitting smoking is very hard to do (low ability). You’ll end up on the lower right side of the model. If someone is very highly motivated to quit smoking, it is still very hard to do (low ability). So, you should think about how you could make it easier for this person (higher ability). An answer could be by thinking about baby steps. Making the desired behaviour easier by breaking up the desired behaviour in easier to perform steps. For example putting a button (trigger) on a stop smoking website to easily order free ‘stop smoking patches’ (easy to do, or higher ability). Someone can quickly start with sticking on these patches, and from there on you can persuade him or her to do something harder (example reducing the number of cigarettes smoked on a day).
In the next sections, we will explain the separate elements of the model in some more depth, starting with triggers.
A trigger is easily put a cue or call to action that causes someone to perform a certain behaviour. A trigger should be noticeable and actionable. In other words, you should be able to spot the trigger (could be with one of all your senses), and you should know what to do when seeing the trigger. A very known trigger is a traffic light. You see it. You know you have to stop when the light is turned red. You know you can drive when the light is green.
Another trigger that probably sets yourself in action multiple times a day is that little red notification on your mobile. You see it, and you know what to do: check your email.
But if someone comes up to you and reaches out his hand to you, that’s a trigger too. You see it, and you know it is meant for you to shake his hand.
What’s important to remember is that if you want to change behaviour, you have to trigger the behaviour. Without a trigger, someone can be very motivated and have the ability to perform the behaviour, but there’s simply no call to action.
BJ Fogg has a beautiful expression; he says that our job as a behavioural designer is ‘to put hot triggers in the path of motivated people.’ Which brings us nicely to the next section: motivation.
There are a lot of theories of motivation out there, most of them explain how motivation is the key concept needed to change attitude, which then leads to behaviour change. What is so interesting about behavioural psychology is that it has unraveled the fact that it works the other way around. People tend to change their attitudes to be consistent with the behaviour they have performed. In other words, if you can trigger certain behaviour, you can change attitudes.
This has everything to do with our brains constantly working hard for us to lower our cognitive overload. And being consistent is one of the mechanisms that help us do that. If you’d like to get some more in-depth insights into the workings of our brain in decision making, make sure to check out our post about system 1 and 2 thinking of Kahneman.
But let’s get back to motivation as used in the BJ Fogg model. Motivation in his model is also not about changing attitudes; it is all about changing behaviour. As a person, you can be highly motivated or low motivated. BJ Fogg has identified three core motivators. But the key idea to remember for now is that when motivation is high, you can get people to do hard things. But once motivation drops then people will only do easy things.
Just think about a situation you might have found yourself in. Have you ever had the intention to eat all day healthily? You’re highly motivated to do so. And then it is 4 pm. You start to get hungry. Someone comes in a puts a bowl of potato chips just within your arm’s reach, and your motivation starts to drop. Before you know it you catch yourself eating the chips. It was made so easy; you have performed the behaviour without you even discussing it with your motivation anymore. But the same goes if someone had put a bowl of cucumber slices near you. You would have eaten the cucumber. Nothing to do with your motivation, but with easy to do things.
Dr. Fogg himself recommends to always start with making the desired behaviour easier instead of starting at motivation. Our brain prefers simplicity, which brings us to ability. But do you want to really grasp the concept of motivation? In this post, we tell you all about motivation as researched by BJ Fogg. We use Cialdini’s persuasion principles to boost ability.
To perform the desired behaviour, a person must have the ability to do so. That seems obvious, of course. But designers of persuasive experiences sometimes assume people have more ability than they do.
There are two paths to increasing ability. You can train people, giving them more skills, more ability to do the target behaviour. That’s the hard path. The better path is tomake the target behaviour easier to do. BJ Fogg calls this simplicity. In his model, he sometimes replaces ability with simplicity. By focusing on simplicity of the target behaviour, you increase ability. There are six simplicity factors:
Time: If a target behaviour requires time and we don’t have time available, then the behaviour is not simple.
Money: For people with limited financial resources, a target behaviour that costs money is not simple. That link in the simplicity chain will break easily. For wealthy people, this link in the chain rarely breaks. In fact, some people will simplify their lives by using the money to save time.
Physicaleffort: Behaviours that require physical effort may not be simple.
Brain cycles: If performing a target behaviour causes us to think hard, that might not be simple. This is especially true if our minds are consumed with other issues. We all are busy trying to lower our cognitive overload as explained by Kahneman. We generally overestimate how much everyday people want to think.
Social deviance: What is meant by social deviance is going against the norm, breaking the rules of society. If a target behaviour requires you to be socially deviant, then that behaviour is no longer simple.
Non-routine: People tend to find behaviours simple if they are routine, activities they do over and over again. Also referred to as habits or the autopilot. When people face a behaviour that is not routine, then they may not find it simple. In seeking simplicity, people will often stick to their routine or habits, like buying groceries at the same supermarket, even if it costs more money or time than other options.
One of the most known examples of an ability intervention is the 300 million dollar button story. The story is about Amazon.com. In the early days of the launch of their online shopping platform, they used to have a check-out form that consisted of two fields (email address and password), two buttons (login and register) and one link (forgot password). You would say this is simplicity.
But it turned out this form was preventing customers from buying products. They found out that new customers didn’t want to register right away, and returning customers often forgot their inlog and/or password and gave up after several failed login attempts. What did they do? They did an ability intervention. They took away the register button and replaced it with a button that said ‘continue’ accompanied with a simple message: “You do not need to create an account to make purchases on our site. Simply click continue to proceed to checkout. To make your future purchases even faster, you can create an account during checkout.” The story goes making the desired behaviour easier simply by changing the button, boosted sales with 45% ($ 300.000.000) in the first year.
To sum it up
The BJ Fogg Behavior Model is a very useful model that derives from human psychology and is very recommendable to use for everyone who is involved in human-centered design or persuasive design. If you want to change behaviour three elements have to happen at the same time: motivation, ability, trigger. Also known as B=MAT. Advice is to start at ability. Making the desired behaviour easier to do, or the undesired behaviour harder to do.
We have looked at all three elements of the model; BJ Fogg explains the Behavior Model himself in this 2 and half minute video if you’d like to do a quick recap:
Excerpt: this is a reference page on which you can find the fundamentals of Kahneman’s breakthrough work on human decision making explained. It will address his discovery of fast and slow thinking, and the importance of our unconscious mind in making decisions and influencing behaviour.
Kahneman Fast and Slow thinking
On this page, we want to give you a quick guide to Daniel Kahneman’s groundbreaking work about decision making. Maybe you’ve already heard of system 1 and system 2. Or you’ve heard Kahneman was the first psychologist to win the Nobel prize for economics in 2002. Could be you’ve heard about cognitive biases and heuristics. Enough to be intrigued. He is one of our heroes and the godfather of behavioural economics. We’ll give you the highlights of Kahneman’s thinking which he published in his best-selling book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow.’
This isn’t so much an article, but more a reference page that you can consult whenever you want to know more or reread about Kahneman. To make your life a bit easier we have created page sections, so you can easily jump to a particular subject that is of particular interest to you. We also have included links into this page to more detailed information if you want to dive a bit deeper. The page sections:
WITH self-awareness or control, logical and skeptical
ROLE: seeks new/missing information, makes decisions
Makes 3% if all our thinking
Knowing this you could say that our system 2 is a slave to our system 1. Our system 1 sends suggestions to our system 2, who then turns them into beliefs. If you want to know more about the differences between system 1 and 2, we’ve made a more elaborate overview of the main characteristics of system 1 and 2. If you’d like to hear Daniel Kahneman himself explain the concept of system 1 and 2, this is a short but good video to watch. It is only 6.35 minutes long.
The power of your subconscious mind
By discovering not only the two operating systems of our brain but especially the bandwidth of each system was what made this research so significant. It was a breakthrough insight into the lack of reasoning in human decision-making. He showed how the two thought systems arrive at different results even given the same inputs. And foremost he revealed the power of the subconscious mind. Where we all tend to think we’re rational human beings that think about our decisions, and the things we do. Kahneman showed we’re (almost) completely irrational. But that’s a good thing. It’s our survival mechanism.
On average we all have about 35,000 decisions to make each day. These differ in difficulty and importance. It could be you taking a step to your left or right when talking, or deciding to take the stairs or elevator. But they all hit you on a daily basis. If you had to consciously process all these decisions your brain would crash. Your automatic system’s primary task is to protect your deliberate, system 2. It helps you prevent cognitive overload.
There are a few ways that our automatic system lightens the load on our deliberate system. First of all, it takes care of our more familiar tasks by turning them into autopilot routines, also known as habits. But what your system 1 is primarily doing without you even noticing it, is rapidly sifting through information and ideas. Prioritizing whatever seems relevant, and filtering out the rest by taking shortcuts. These shortcuts are also called heuristics. We’ll explain to you all about them in the next section.
For now the most important to remember is that we all have to accept that we are irrational human beings. Almost all of the time. Even if you think you’re not, you’re probably not rationally thinking. Somehow we can accept our irrationality, or at least understand it when it is explained to us. But we keep making the mistake when trying to influence someone, that we forget they are irrational too. We so often try to convince somebody with rational arguments or facts. We love to tell someone about the benefits of our products or services or ideas.
But understand that the decision of the person you’re trying to convince isn’t based on this rational information. It’s based on system 1 shortcuts. What the work of Kahneman shows is that people struggle with statistics or cannot reason probable outcomes of their decisions. A second very important insight from the work of Kahneman is that our decisions are driven by heuristics and biases. We’ll dive deeper into those in the next two sections.
Heuristic: definition and meaning
The shortcuts our system 1 makes Kahneman calls heuristics. The definition of a heuristic, as can be found on Wikipedia, is:
Any approach to problem-solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method, not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, logical, or rational, but instead sufficient for reaching an immediate goal. Where finding an optimal solution is impossible or impractical, heuristic methods can be used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution. Heuristics can be mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision.
If we bring it back to Kahneman’s thinking, a heuristic is simply put the shortcut our automatic (system 1) brain makes to save mental energy of our deliberate (system 2) brain. Our survival mechanism at play. You probably are already familiar with the way we describe the experience of heuristics. We sometimes refer to them as our gut feeling, a guestimate, our common sense or our intuition. We use heuristics for problem-solving that isn’t a routine or a habit. The way we ‘build’ heuristics is by reviewing the information at hand and connecting that information to our experience. Heuristics are strategies derived from previous experiences with similar problems. The most common heuristic is the trial and error heuristic. It is trying to solve a problem based on experience instead of theory.
Another example of a heuristic is the so-called availability heuristic. When making a decision, this heuristic provides us with a mental short-cut that relies on immediate cases that come to a given person’s mind. Or easier put: we value information that springs to mind quickly as being more significant. So, when you have to make a decision, we automatically think about related events or situations. As a result, we might judge that those events are more frequent or probable than others. You have a greater belief in this information. And we tend to overestimate the probability and likelihood of similar things happening in the future.
The problem with heuristics is that sometimes they are wrong. They are nothing more than mental shortcuts that usually involve focusing on one aspect of a complex problem and ignoring others. Therefore heuristics affect our decision-making and subsequently our and also our customer’s behaviour.
With all this in mind, you could say that Kahneman has discovered something very interesting about our cognitive abilities as human beings. It’s good to be clear about the meaning of cognition. If we look up the definition in the dictionary it says:
The mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.
What Kahneman discovered is truly paradigm shifting, breakthrough thinking that can even hurt egos. We are far less rational and far less correct in our thinking than we’d like to think or give ourselves credit for. The side-effect of heuristics is that we all suffer from cognitive bias. A cognitive bias refers to a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own ‘subjective social reality’ from their perception of the input.
There are a lot of cognitive biases. If you look on Wikipedia, you can find an extensive list of cognitive biases. You can take a look there to or check out an overview we made of the most common cognitive biases. The most important thing to remember is that we all base our decisions on a heuristic. And we all are influenced by our cognitive biases. By being aware of the most common biases, you can anticipate on them.
Cognitive bias in recruitment
To give you an example that ties up all the concepts of Kahneman discussed in this post: think about recruitment. If you have to interview a person for a position in your team or organization, the chance of this person is getting hired is proven to be established in the first 10 minutes. What happens? A person steps into the room. Your system I makes a fast, mostly unconscious judgment based on heuristics that lead to certain biases in your judgment. The person is similar to you, your system I instantly like him or her (liking bias). The person wears glasses, your system I thinks he or she is smart (stereotyping bias). It all goes fast.
Your system I has sent these suggestions to your system II without you even noticing it. And your system II turns those into beliefs. The rest of the interview your system II looks for affirmation of the system I suggestions. Our brain simply loves consistency; it lowers our mental stress or cognitive overload. And there you go, you base your final judgment on the two operating systems of your brain helped by heuristics and skewed by cognitive bias. And we do this all day, in all kinds of situations.
To sum it up
By understanding Kahneman you can understand human decision-making. And if you understand human-decision making, you can understand human or customer behaviour. You can see how we are predictably irrational (Dan Ariely wrote a beautiful book with this title, which we can highly recommend). We just have to accept our own irrationality. And understand that if we want to convince someone or try to nudge them into certain behaviour, that they are just irrational too.
Nir Eyal – the author of the book Hooked – taught a whole generation of designers and developers how to make people addicted to technology, by using techniques from behavioural psychology. Eyal demonstrated in his book how to design habits – a newspeak word for addiction – through the principle of variable rewards. The more a product or service rewards you in unpredictable ways, the more we will get hooked. There’s nothing our brain finds more appealing than the joy of anticipation.
The principle of variable rewards
Gambling addicts know this all too well. Casino’s designed gambling machines in such a way that they reward the gambler once in a while. Just enough to keep the player in a psychological status of being “on the verge of an epic win.” The effect is that the player continues to play until he runs out of money.
Well designed games use the same mechanisms. Jane McGonigal included in her fantastic book “Reality is Broken” pictures of the facial expression of people who are on the verge of an epic win. It’s like they’re about to get an orgasm.
Face of a gamer who’s on the verge of an epic dwin, illustrating the power of variable rewards.
The secret behind gambling addiction and game addiction is a carefully designed reward system. And by writing the book Hooked, Nir Eyal brought these dark principles to the world of technology to teach technology companies to get their users addicted to their products. And based on the time we spend on our devices, they paid great attention. We’re always alert for this one crucial e-mail, that one little instant message, or the Facebook notification that could make our day. Most of the time it’s nothing, but once in a while, it’s a bingo! That’s variable rewards.
Why Nir Eyal is a hypocrite for blaming the user
My problem with Nir Eyal is not his work. On the contrary. I think Hooked – and the principle of variable rewards – holds enormous opportunities to apply these design principles to design positive behaviours. Think about the worldwide wave of positive Karma that the Japanese soccer fans received for cleaning up the stadium after their national team got beaten in the second round of the World Cup last month.
Japanese fans cleaning up after their national team lost the 1/16 final of the World Cup against Belgium
What I do think is problematic, is that Nir Eyal refuses to be held accountable for the global wave of smartphone addiction. In a recent interview with Dutch newspaper NRC, he claims that we are entirely responsible for our addictive behaviours. We shouldn’t blame Facebook. It’s us who lack discipline. That’s utter bollocks of course. The simple truth is that we’re fighting an unfair battle. Our mental control can’t possibly win from the refined techniques that continuously attack, exploit and reward our unconscious desires. Technology Ethicist Tristan Harris calls “a race to the bottom of the brain stem.”
I think that we need to get in terms with the fact that the science of influence is out in the open. The clock can’t be turned back on this. Ever since the invention of fire, humanity both did terrific as well as horrifying things with their newly acquired superpowers. However, in the right hands, we can do amazing things with these superpowers, such as designing healthy habits or altruistic behaviours. But in the wrong, greedy hands, the knowledge can go evil. Think Facebook, think Trump. Think Brexit. It seems like Nir Eyal opened pandora’s box and can’t close it anymore. It would suit him if he stopped being a hypocrite about it.
“When you try to answer a question,” said Kahneman, “you sometimes answer a different question.” In a seminal 1979 paper, he and Tversky described a series of experiments that questioned the classical economic assumption of “homo economicus,” a rational actor motivated by self-interest. In its place, they defined what they termed prospect theory, a description of the mental shortcuts, or heuristics, that guide people’s everyday decisions, as well as the systematic biases that could result from them. “A heuristic,” Kahneman explained, “is just answering a difficult question by answering an easy one.” When asked, for instance, the number of divorces at one’s university, one might substitute the question of how easy it is to think of examples of divorces, a heuristic Kahneman and Tversky dubbed “availability.” “Evaluation happens in a fraction of a second,” Kahneman said. Reflecting on this theory’s place in the history of psychology, he noted, “In the last 20 years, [psychologists] have rediscovered the unconscious…but it didn’t come from Freud. It came from experimental psychology.”