Willing Ourselves to Change Won’t Work

We know new years resolutions never work. It just relies too much on willpower, which sad to say we have little of. Here are what a couple of studies found:

1) In the 1970s, two researchers conducted a three-hour workshop on energy efficiency with 40 recruited participants. Post-survey data of this workshop indicated that the subjects knew and cared much more about energy efficiency for their home than before the workshop. But when it came to action afterwards, the researchers couldn’t believe the results:

One person lowered the temperature on the hot water heater. Two additional people had installed insulating blankets around their hot water heaters — but they had done it before the workshop. Eight people did install low-flow shower heads — after all 40 participants had been given the low-flow shower heads at the workshop. If these were people who cared enough about energy efficiency to attend a three-hour workshop, what hope was there for people who didn’t? (See NYT article on this study).

2) In a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), four researchers studied employee behavior regarding 401K contributions. Though almost everyone agrees on the importance of contributing to their retirement fund, less than 40% actually opted in.

As much we we talk about changing the politics in Washington, changing education reform, or changing any status quo inaction, there is a clear rule of thumb, maybe two:

Rule 1: Just because people agree with something doesn’t necessarily mean they will do it.

Rule 2: People tend to follow the path of least resistance.

In other words, finding the magic bullet that will create sustainable action is difficult at best. Willpower alone, it seems, is not enough. Neither are motivational speakers. What do most people do? They settle for passive decision-making, which essentially means they do nothing. If people can’t seem to turn beliefs into action, then what works?

Choice architecture, according to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of the best-selling Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. It is the art of manipulating how choices are presented, or gentle nudging, if you will. Look at how grocery stores present their layout — flowers, baked goods, or produce artificially lit up in the front in order to stimulate the senses. Snacks are set up at the check-out counter to increase impulsive purchases. In other words, engineering people’s behavior in order to produce a desired effect. Thaler’s favorite example is the simple etching of a fly in men’s urinals, which encouraged men to aim, spill less, and made bathrooms cleaner — all without forcing compliance.

The researchers for the NBER manipulated this path of least resistance regarding 401K contributions. Instead of opting in to the program that required filling out paperwork, employees were automatically enrolled, only opting out if they didn’t want to participate. Contribution rates soared to nearly 100%. Ramit Sethi, personal finance guru and author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, preaches the same idea when it comes to creating systems for saving money — all your accounts should be automated so that you don’t have to worry about depositing checks, missing payments, or transferring funds when a balance runs low. Simply changing the default wipes out people’s inherent passive decision-making that lead to problems in the future, and puts less pressure on individual willpower. That’s why the requisite New Year’s resolution to lose weight rarely works.

So how can we engineer behavioral change in education? People’s habits and attitudes are notoriously difficult to change, so how do we “design better choices” for administrators, teachers, parents, and students to make and thereby increase their productivity, growth, and achievement? I am curious to know what readers think, and will end with one example used in various school districts nationwide. By simply moving recess to before lunch instead of after, researchers at the Montana Team Nutrition program found that students were hungrier; they wasted less food, drank more milk, and overall felt less rushed. As a bonus, students were calmer after lunch, and teachers gained back ten minutes of instruction time. What are some of your ideas?

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