Habit Binge

Big Brains podcast: The science behind forming better habits


Show Notes

Why is it so hard for us to form good habits—and so easy to form bad ones? Most people turn to the self-help section to find answers, but this is really a question for behavior science.

Katy Milkman is a professor at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and co-directs the Behavior Change For Good Initiative with Angela Duckworth. Her best-selling book, How To Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be, explores that best research—from “nudges” to “temptation bundles”—on how to change our behaviors and habits for good.

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(Episode published September 9, 2021)



Paul Rand: Why is it so hard to change our habits? What makes it easy for one person to eat well and exercise, but so hard for another? People often look for answers in the self-help section, but these are all questions for behavioral science.

Katy Milkman: Behavioral science is the study of the way people make decisions and the way they form judgments, and it tends to blend psychology and economics.

Paul Rand: This is Katy Milkman. She’s a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and she recently gave a lecture at the University of Chicago about her new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

Katy Milkman: The lens is really grounded in some of the basic tenants of economic theory, which say people are rational decision makers and can weigh costs and benefits and come up with the right calculus to make their choices. What behavioral science adds to that mix is really a recognition that people sometimes make mistakes and that this can happen in systematic and predictable ways, and once we understand that, we can help people make better decisions.

Paul Rand: Katy is full of tips and tricks based in science to help us create lasting behavioral change. For example, the Mary Poppins principle.

Mary Poppins: In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and, snap, the job’s a game.

Katy Milkman: Mary Poppins, wonderful children’s movie, has a great and very famous line, which is …

Mary Poppins: (singing).

Katy Milkman: If we can find a way to make something fun by adding a spoonful of sugar, it will be more likely that we take our medicine.

Paul Rand: For many vaccinated people, it feels a little bit like new years. We’re thinking of how we want to change and grow. Milkman’s research is a perfect place to go to understand how.

Katy Milkman: So many people have been reflecting on what they want to do differently in this new moment. It has caused a lot of big picture thinking.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago Podcast Network, this is Big Brains, a show about the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. This episode, what science has to say about changing our ways and achieving our goals. I’m your host, Paul Rand.

Paul Rand: Katy Milkman may be your professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but she has close ties to many scholars here at the University of Chicago.

Katy Milkman: One in particular I have to mention is Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler, whose work on nudging and choice architecture have frankly shaped my worldview.

Speaker 4: Nudging is done by what we call a choice architect, which is a fancy term for anyone who influences the choices that you make. Take the example of the cafeteria downstairs, somebody had to decide where to put the salad bar, where to put the burgers. For example, in our cafeteria, you have to go by the salad bar to get to the burgers. That increases the chance that you’re going to go for the salad, you’ve been nudged.

Katy Milkman: Once we understand people’s limitations, we can use those insights as a tool for helping them make better decisions. We can restructure environments with our knowledge of people’s limitations to try to help them make better choices. That’s really foundational to the work that I’ve been doing in my career.

Paul Rand: Much of that work is done at her research lab called the Behavior Change for Good Initiative.

Katy Milkman: We have about 150 scientists from different disciplines who are part of a team that we organize at the Behavior Change for Good Initiative. We call the kinds of studies that we do mega studies, they’re-

Paul Rand: Mega?

Katy Milkman: Mega, exactly.

Paul Rand: Okay, wow. That’s big.

Katy Milkman: You got it, you got it. That was the idea, the branding is working. We run massive experiments trying to test interventions built on behavioral science, designed to improve policy-relevant behaviors for good, both for better and durably. Instead of one study at a time, one mega study at a time.

Paul Rand: Milkman has worked with, or advised, dozens of organizations, like the Red Cross, Google, and recently, the Biden administration, which she advised on vaccine distribution. In April, she and her colleagues published a study on flu vaccines they’d ended up applying to COVID-19.

Katy Milkman: When I say a mega study, what’s different about the way we’re doing science than the way science is normally done, instead of running a single study that will test a single hypothesis, we actually go to our team of 150 scientists and we say, ‘‘We want to know how to encourage vaccination. This is really important for a number of reasons. We don’t know enough about it. We are going to have a chance to run a test with all of Walmart’s pharmacy customers who have gotten a vaccine in the past and signed up for text messages, so about 700,000 people. We can communicate with them in any way you can dream up to try to encourage them to come get a vaccine. What should we say?ְ’’

Katy Milkman: Dozens of people submit their best ideas, and we developed, in this particular case, a mega study, where we tested not one or two ideas that might change behavior for good, but over 20 ideas, all simultaneously with the same outcome variable, the same population. We can say, ‘‘Okay, we can make apples-to-apples comparisons about what’s working best, what’s most cost-effective.’’ In this case, by the way, we were studying this with flu vaccines, the hope of porting it into change behavior around COVID-19 vaccination. We also studied this with two local health systems and studied messages sent before a doctor’s appointment to encourage people to get a vaccine when they went to the doctor. In all three settings where we tested it, the best performing message was a really simple message that said, ‘‘We’ve reserved a vaccine for you, come and get it.’’

Paul Rand: Ah, okay.

Katy Milkman: We tested other things like telling you a joke so maybe it would be more memorable, we tested telling you do it to protect friends and family and loved ones.

Paul Rand: How many people suggested turning off Tucker Carlson?

Katy Milkman: Sadly, that is not an intervention that can be delivered by your pharmacy as far as I know.

Paul Rand: Okay.

Katy Milkman: We tested all sorts of messages, but the message that said a vaccine is reserved for you or waiting for you, we think one of the reasons it may have been so effective is that there’s something called the endowment effect, which Richard Thaler of UChicago has studied. We value things more when they believe they belong to us, we don’t want to give them up, that feels like a loss, so there’s probably a little of the endowment effect going on there, ‘‘Oh, it’s mine. I don’t want to give that away.’’ It probably makes it seem like it’s going to be less of a hassle. ‘‘You reserved this vaccine for me, it’s going to be waiting for me. That’s no problem, I’ll come and get it.’’ It also probably conveys a recommendation. ‘‘Why would you have reserved this for me if you didn’t…


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