Persuasion through Habit Hacking

After listening to a podcast on habit-forming, it makes sense to use these techniques to reduce the friction of collaboration, particularly between strangers. Rather than extolling the virtues of cognitive diversity and encouraging people to make the leap to work in diverse groups… just automate the process without giving people time to think about it.

We should think about habits in terms of onboarding members, encouraging pro-social behaviors, etc. Stacking is an interesting point: add new behaviors onto of existing behaviors.

Notes taken from Hidden Brain podcast, “Creatures of Habit”.

Habits are not created (or even maintained) by will-power. Thankfully, this is counter-intuitive and a boon to the self-help & motivational industry. Unfortunately, will-power isn’t how we change our behavior and the perceived wisdom is unlikely to work.

Suppressing and controlling our desires might work in the short-term but ultimately will backfire. Self-control and commitment are not the gateway to persistence. What really helps people to persist in a desireable behavior?

Decision-making is helpful to start a journey but continuing over time depends upon reducing friction, eliminating temptations (e.g. via ‘coding’ with cognitive blinders), giving rewards, and removing decision-making. Action begets action.

“Habits are cognitive associations that we form when we repeat an action over and over again in a given context then get a reward.”

Consistency in repeating an action will reduce the time to form the habit, that mental association in mind. Complex behaviors with many parts will take longer to form a habit. You can hack it by stacking it; insert a behavior that you want to make habitual next to another habit you have already. For example, if there’s something you always do before going to bed then stack it alongside your bedtime ritual to make it a new behavior.

Most of what we do in our lives is not driven by conscious intention but by autopilot. Roughly 43% of everyday actions are not driven by an active decision-making process.

Public campaigns that focus on changing people’s conscious attitudes or beliefs don’t generally result in any modified behavior. Example - “Five a Day” fruits and veg a day, Anti-smoking campaigns, etc. People might, indeed, come to change their beliefs based on the new information but it doesn’t change behavior because most of our actions are habitual. Changing habits requires a different process not by an abstract thought. We develop patterns that are cued by the environments that we are in.

Changing people’s health behaviors, financial behaviors, relationships, and productivity require long-term changes in behavior that don’t happen by convincing people of things.

Corporations are hacking this to change behavior of their employees and customers. Example - Uber stopped training drivers to increase stickiness and reduce turnover. Instead, they automated the next assignment, rather like the infinite scroll of Facebook, or the ‘next episode’ of Netflix; moves them forward in the process without thinking; develops habitual behaviors.

Reduce Friction to build a habit.
Add incentives/rewards. “Will you have fries with that?” Encourage behaviors (e.g. consumption).
If people travel 3.5 miles to the gym, they are likely to go 5 times a month on average. If they travel 5 miles then they are likely to only go once a month on average.
Make it as unconscious and as easy as possible.
Use stacking (piggy-backing) to introduce a new behavior to an existing habit.
Make the repetition automatic (writers, athletes… automate the work).

Increase Friction to break a habit.
Can’t smoke here, put cigs behind counter, tax sales, put warning labels on the pack.
Increase the struggle and stress.
Remove the cues (or ‘triggers’) that preserve old habits.
Force reflection, mindfulness (figure out ways to complicate behaviors you don’t want to automate).

Stale popcorn experiment reveals cueing. Theater-goers given popcorn - either fresh or stale. People who don’t eat popcorn regularly in the movie theater avoided the stale and ate the fresh. People who habitually eat popcorn at the movies - 70% ate the stale. When asked, they said they hated it (but still ate it). People are cued to doing what they are used to. When made to eat the popcorn with their non-dominant hand (e.g. make the eating more thoughtful), the outcome changed; no more eating of stale popcorn. Forcing them to think about what they are doing made the difference.

Our brains like dopamine which is used as a reward to encourage behavior to stick. Form habits around healthy behaviors by linking them to short-term rewards. If reward is too far out, behavior won’t stick. Example - salary raise months later for behavior you encourage now less likely to work.

Develop intrinsic systems to feel pride in doing something rather than waiting for a reward further down the line. If you can’t find an intrinsic reward then add an extrinsic one to sugar-coat it. Example - only watch your favorite show when you’re working out. Reward must come close to behavior.

Environment is important. Chefs use ‘mise en place’ (how to set up your environment to make it easy to create consistently great dishes every time). If you structure your environment ahead of time, it makes it easier for you to automate all your other decisions.

Because cues (triggers) are so powerful, we fare better at creating new habits when the cues are absent. Ironically, this is why introducing new behaviors at times of chaos - when our lives go haywire the cues that normally surround us, disappear - and this becomes a great opportunity for reinvention: Habit Discontinuity.

Transplanting yourself into an entirely new environment is the optimal time to make all sorts of changes. It gives you the opportunity to act more authentically on your values. An opportunity to rethink some of the practical choices you’ve made in your life and what it is you’d like to be.

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