Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cracking the Behavior Code

Guest post from Bob Nease:

In attempting to explain the nature of physics, Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Nothing happens until something moves.”  A corollary applies to our organizations: “Nothing happens until someone does something.” We can talk all we want, but what our managers, employees, and customers do is mission critical to business success. Perhaps more than anything, behavior matters.

For better or worse, human behavior is complicated, messy, and unpredictable. This makes it difficult for today’s leaders to achieve optimal performance from their teams.  Great leaders, however, use three simple insights to understand and change the behaviors of their key people.

Understand the Fifty Bits Challenge

If you want to understand something about human behavior, there’s no better place to start than human brains. Each of our noggins processes a stunning 10 million bits of information per second. That’s comparable to the throughput of the original Ethernet cable. But an even more shocking statistic is that the conscious part of the brain – what we think of as the mind – runs at a pokey 50 bits per second.

To get a handle on what this means, let’s assume that a cup of sugar represents the entire bandwidth of your brain. The throughput of your conscious mind? It’s a measly ten grains… almost negligible.

In other words, it’s about 99.9995% true that our brains are wired for inattention and inertia. This heavy reliance on quick twitch, automatic behaviors served our ancestors very well 100,000 years ago, but today it contributes to behavioral hiccups.

This isn’t meant to be an excuse or a reason to let people off the hook.  High performance often requires attention to detail and the ability to put effort into a project in the here and now for a reward in the future. Nonetheless, it’s critical to remember that people can’t pay attention to everything all the time, nor can they be counted on to endlessly optimize every decision they face.

See Beyond Bad Behaviors to Underlying Intentions

There are nearly as many behavior change strategies as there are professions. Educators tell us that better behavior requires better information. Economists argue that things will improve when we get the incentives right. Marketers claim that cajoling in just the right way will get things done. Each of these approaches shares a common fallacy: that people’s intentions and behaviors go hand in hand. They all implicitly agree with the belief that if we get people’s intentions squared away, good things will follow.

These approaches are barking up the wrong tree because over time inattention and inertia create a yawning and persistent gap between our underlying intentions and what we actually do.  We refer to this chasm as the intent / behavior gap.

The intent / behavior gap is a critical concept because it helps keep us from being fooled by observed behavior. If we incorrectly attribute bad behaviors to intentions, our efforts at change will leave us disappointed and frustrated.

Activate People’s Pre-Existing Good Intentions

Once you understand that bad behavior is often the result of dormant good intentions rather than active bad ones, everything changes.  Instead of looking for ways to change people’s intentions, we start focusing on strategies that activate the good intentions that most people already have. There are two main ways to do this: demand attention and leverage inertia.

Demand Attention… Wisely

If the problem is inattention, then one solution is to figure out how to capture people’s scant fifty bits. For example, you can stop people in a process and require that they make an active decision before moving on. (PetSmart does this with its customers during the checkout process, asking whether or not they want to donate money to help save homeless pets.) You can also simply go to where a person’s fifty bits are likely to be; this is why family members leave notes for each other on the refrigerator door or bathroom mirror.

Demanding attention needs to be done carefully and wisely. One of the quickest ways to whittle away at your ability to capture the attention of others is to “cry wolf” too often. Let people know when you really need their “fifty bits” – and when you don’t. Also, try to push information to people when they need it rather than when it’s easiest to send.

Leverage Inertia

We usually think of procrastination as the enemy of better behavior. But that’s only true if the current state – or default behavior – is something other than the desired one. In that case, procrastination stands as an obstacle between the status quo and the better choice. If we can make the desired behavior the default, however, procrastination becomes an ally: changing to a less desired behavior requires an active change.

This is the secret behind increased participation in 401(K) retirement plans. Early on, employers offered their workers the option to participate in these plans but the uptake was modest. Even matching contributions didn’t move the needle all that much: participation rates were about 30% to 40%. But when employers made participation the default option (allowing employees to opt out or change the level of their contribution), participation rates soared to 80% to 90%.

The lesson: whenever possible, make the right behavior the natural, default choice. Leveraging the natural inclination toward inertia can be a powerful way to improve behaviors.

In every organization, behavior matters. If you want to help your coworkers, your clients, and yourself, remember three important insights: people are wired for inattention and inertia, there’s often a gap between good intentions and actual behavior, and that those good intentions can be effectively activated by demanding attention (wisely) or leveraging inertia.


Bob Nease, PhD, is the author of “The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions Into Positive Results (HarperBusiness, 2016).  He is the former Chief Scientist of Express Scripts, the nations largest pharmacy benefits management company, and has authored and published more than 70 peer-reviewed papers. Dr. Nease is the recipient of the Henry Christian Award for Excellence in Research from the American Federation for Clinical Research and the URAC’s Health Care Consumer Empowerment and Protection Award for his application of behavioral economics to health care. He and his wife currently divide their time between Phoenix, Austin, and a small farm in rural Italy. For more information about Bob’s work, visit www.fiftybits.com.

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