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How to Change (Science-based Edition): Katy Milkman on PYP 477

Katy Milkman's book, How to Change, is a love letter to science, a friendly reminder of human frailty and magnificence, and a kickass self-help book.

Trained as an engineer and computer scientist, Milkman approaches the “ooey-gooey” nature of human complexity as an engineering problem.

She reframes our bad habits and dysfunctional tendencies as “features” that we can turn to our advantage much of the time.

Lazy? Milkman thinks that's one of our best qualities. It prevents us from wasting time doing unnecessary stuff in unnecessarily arduous ways.

How to exploit our natural instinct to preserve energy: create defaults so that doing the right thing is the path of least resistance.

We can't use that strategy in every situation, but we can use it a lot more than we think.

Conforming? Everyone tells us to “be ourselves,” and parents warn against the risks of peer pressure by asking if we would jump off a bridge if everyone else was doing it too.

Exploit that impulse by surrounding yourself with emulable (not a word; thanks, little red dots in my editor) people and deliberately try to “copy and paste” their effective strategies and tactics.

Impulsive? Tie your challenging work to pleasure: listen to Harry Potter and Alex Cross when you work out (but only when you work out).

And so on.

The only fatal flaw in Milkman's universe, it seems, is hubris – a refusal to acknowledge our weaknesses and limitations, which then prevents us from acting to counter them.

In our conversation, we actually covered very little of How to Change, which is fine because you're going to get the book and read or listen to it yourself (on the treadmill is fine).

Instead, we talked about the nature of scientific research: the joy of discovery, the stepwise and unglamorous nature of progress, the benefits and challenges of increasing diversity and inclusion in the social sciences, and how scientists can disarm their own tendencies toward confirmation bias once they've woven particular theories into their identities.

We did spend some time on the tactic Milkman has dubbed “temptation bundling” – that trick where you take a task you're likely to procrastinate and combine it with a treat (audiobook, social time with friends, wine, etc.).

I love that it works, and I had several knee-jerk moral objections to it, all of which Milkman handled with ease. So my mind is changed, even though I'd prefer a world in which my prejudices were correct.

We talked about the one line in emails that dramatically boosted rates of vaccination in recipients, and the fact that we really don't know why it worked.

We covered the reexamination of the dogma (which I believed until this conversation) that external rewards suppress intrinsic motivation. (It turns out that this is almost certainly an artifact of the laboratory conditions of the studies that first proposed this theory – sorry, Alfie Kohn).

And we talked about Milkman's work on racial and gender bias, and how a very substantial and solid body of scientific evidence about what works to reduce bias has been collected, even as the public discourse remains polarized and moralistic rather than empirical.

You'll love this conversation if you love science, behavior change, and laughter.


How to Change

The Choiceology Podcast

The Person You Mean to Be, by Dolly Chugh

Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely

Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, by Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD

What Works: Gender Equality by Design, by Iris Bohnet

Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn

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