Facilitating Behaviors Through Nudges

Facilitating Behaviors

Plans held within our own head don’t seem to mean that much. I have had tons of plans to get things done around the house, to stop snacking on baked goods, and to read more, but I often find the time ticking by while I waste time reading news stories that don’t mean much to me or checking twitter. Having plans just in my head, that I convince myself I will accomplish, isn’t an effective strategy to making the changes I want. However, there are strategies that can be used for facilitating behaviors that we actually desire.


My last post was about the mere measurement effect. Just by measuring what people plan to do, simply by asking them if they plan to vote, plan to buy a new car this year, or intend to lose weight, people become more likely to actually follow-through on a stated behavior. But, there is a way to nudge the mere measurement effect even further, by asking people how they are going to enact their plans. When you ask people how they plan to vote, where they plan to buy a new car, and what steps they plan to take to lose weight, people become even more likely to follow-through on their intentions.


Asking people the how and when of a behavior they plan to adopt or an action they plan to do is a powerful and simple nudge. It is also something we can harness for ourselves. If we really want to make a change, we can’t just tell ourselves that tomorrow we will behave differently. Doing so will likely lead to letdown when the cookie temptations kick in around 2:30 in the afternoon, or when we fail to get up at our early alarm, or when we are tired in the afternoon and put on a tv show. But, if we have asked how we plan to make a change, then we can look ahead to the obstacles in our way, and plan for a healthy snack when cravings kick in, set thing up to make it easier to get out of bed, and hide the remote so we don’t turn on the TV without thinking.


Nudges don’t have to be external, they can be internal. We can use them to set a default course of action for ourselves or to push ourselves out of a default that we want to change. The quote that inspired this post is from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge, where the authors write:


“The nudge provided by asking people what they intend to do can be accentuated by asking them when and how they plan to do it. This insight falls into the category of what the great psychologist Kurt Lewin called channel factors, a term he used for small influences that could either facilitate or inhibit certain behaviors.”

Things Will Go Wrong

The importance of anticipation and preparation for challenges is one of the items that author Ryan Holiday writes about in his book, The obstacle is the Way. In true stoic fashion, Holiday encourages us to step back and anticipate what challenges we might face along our path, and plan ways in which we could overcome our obstacles or the challenges ahead of us. Holiday also highlights the importance of understanding that our plans will not always go the way we want, and that it is important to handle negativity and failure in a calm and objective manner. Setting up this idea he writes, “the only guarantee, ever, is that things will go wrong. The only thing we can use to mitigate this is anticipation. Because the only variable we control completely is ourselves.”


No matter what, our plans to do not take place in a vacuum and we are always dependent on other for our success. The more people we involve in our plans, the more opportunities for things to go wrong, but at the same time the more people included, the further we can go. What Holiday explains in his writing is that we should expect situations and demands to change, meaning that our actions and endpoints will also change. Our plans may seem extraordinary, but they may not always be realistic given the actors and expectations we have, and we should be willing to adjust accordingly in reaction to the real world around us.


When our plans completely crash, Holiday offers additional advice. “And in the case where nothing could be done, the stoics would use it as an important practice to do something the rest of us too often fail to do: manage expectations. Because sometimes the only answer to “What if . . . “ is, it will suck but we’ll be ok.” When we fail to reach our goals and when our plans do not work out the tempting thing to do is blame someone else and make excuses for why things went wrong. Holiday instead encourages us to move forward and understand that we are still ok. Rather than letting ourselves be wrecked because a plan failed, be it as small as the rout we plan to take to the movie or as large as our plan to get a new job, we should recognize that nothing has truly affected us, and it is simply our mind that decides whether we are impacted at all.


Joel Achenbach explored what went wrong on the Deep Water Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico the night it exploded and left an open gusher at the bottom of the ocean. He found that there was never one major mistake or any serious oversight that catastrophically caused the collapse of the system and the blow-out of the oil well.  What happened on the well was an accumulation of risky decisions, a failure to observe small and nonthreatening warning signs, and a cluster of poorly designed, or poorly integrated, back up systems. Everything played together to make it hard to determine the exact conditions on the sea floor, and mislead the people who had the power to stop operations. Each indicator of a potential problem on its own was insignificant, but taken together they lead to a total catastrophe.


“When doing something risky, remember that risk builds like plaque.” Achenbach wrote in his book, ‘Make sure that your back up plan is really in back and won’t get blown up out front along with your plan A.”


What Achenbach is encouraging us to do is to take the time to plan out our back up and understand how seriously our entire operations or systems could fail.  If we look for the best possible back up plans, and put in place real stop guards when the information we receive is potential damaging then we have a head start for preventing a disaster. The more we understand our warning signs the better we will be able to adjust and make decisions that minimize risk.