The Book in Three Sentences

The human brain is wired for inattention and inertia. As a result, many people already have good intentions, but don’t follow through due to forgetfulness, procrastination, or a general lack of awareness. We can bridge the gap between our intentions and our behavior by using strategies to lock in our future behavior like active choice, pre-commitment, good design, reframing, and simplicity.

The Power of Fifty Bits summary

This is my book summary of The Power of Fifty Bits by Bob Nease. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

  • The author, Bob Nease, was an engineer and this book was a result of many experiments not only on himself, but also on large populations.
  • Nease studied “decision analysis” at Stanford, which is essentially an engineering approach to economics and rational decision making.
  • “50 bits design” refers to the 10 million bits of information our brains process and that only 50 bits of that information is conscious thought.
  • Lots of decision making happens “under the radar.”
  • Our brains are extremely sensitive to losses, the group, and the present.
  • 50 bits design assumes most people have good intentions and seeks to find strategies to activate those good intentions.
  • “The goal of this audiobook is to help you understand why we do what we do and to equip you with practical tools and a set of principles that you can use to change behavior for the better.”
  • Generally speaking, behavior is the “rate limiter” in our lives. We can usually get information, access, technology, and resources fast enough these days. But doing the right thing with all the resources at our disposal is a much harder task.
  • The human brain is wired for inattention and inertia.
  • The human brain prefers to focus on things that are either painful or pleasurable.
  • The intent-behavior gap: marketers, leaders, and designers often INFER what the user wants based on actual behaviors. In fact, most people aren’t paying close attention and so their actions are rarely an indication of their optimal preferences. Their is a gap between what they truly intend and what they actually do.
  • Because of the intent-behavior gap, we (marketers and business people) focus TONS of energy on persuading people’s intent to buy a given product or act in a given way. Nease argues that this logic is flawed because we are spending lots of time and money trying to market to an intention the user already believes in. They don’t need to be persuaded to believe in the value of education or in the productivity boost of better time management or in the health impact of eating better. They already have those good intentions. Now, they need to act on them.
  • What we need is to activate the good intentions that people already have.
  • We should expect people to forget and procrastinate often. Non-adherence is accidental, not deliberate. It’s just a result of our brain being wired for inattentiveness.
  • This reminds me of what Bryan Harris said about product launches. At any given time, your product is like number 150 on someone’s to-do list. They simply aren’t aware. The goal of a great product launch is to skyrocket your product up into the top 10 of your customer’s to-do list. They can only act once they are aware.
  • We should ask if our behaviors are adaptive or maladaptive to the current environment we find ourselves in. Often, behaviors that are adaptive to our environment seem “rational” (economic terms) and behaviors that are maladaptive to our environment seem “irrational” (psychology terms).
  • Example of priming? One study claimed people named “Dennis” are more likely to become dentists.
  • Asking people why they do what they do (for example, in a customer survey or focus group) can be a misleading way to get behavior or — at best — incomplete. People are only telling you the 50 bits of conscious thoughts that impact what they do. Everything else that impacts their behavior simply isn’t on their mind and won’t be mentioned.
  • We have three shortcuts that our brain uses frequently.
  • Brain Shortcut 1: Fit in. Humans have a strong urge to fit in and work with one another. For example, one reason many people buy green cars like a Toyota Prius is to “fit in” and showcase their personality and beliefs about living green. Additionally, we often keep track of who is doing the work in a group project or who pays for dinner because people want to feel like things are “fair.” We do not like cheaters or people who don’t contribute their fair share. Social contracts are very important to humans.
  • Brain Shortcut 2: Avoid losses. All losses have a reference point and our brains are wired to feel pain if we just miss that reference point. Examples: Wharton study found the professional golfers make more par putts (avoid bogey) than birdie putts (gains) even though both count for one stroke. Students are more likely to retry SAT if they narrowly miss a round number. Baseball players change strategy near end of season if close to batting .300. The key here is that the losses are close to the reference point. Losses that are far away don't cause the same pain and motivation. Winning a silver medal is more painful than bronze because you narrowly missed gold. With proper design, you can utilize this function of loss aversion to motivate good behaviors.
  • Note: loss aversion is another vote for small habits and one percent improvements because it is only narrow misses that prompt the feeling of loss aversion.
  • Brain Shortcut 3: hyperbolic discounting. We give more weight to long-term benefits when they are in the future and more weight to immediate pleasure when we are in the moment. This leads to a cycle of making earnest plans, procrastinating and choosing something outside the plan in the moment, making more earnest plans for the future, and so on. (I believe this is the same idea as time inconsistency.)
  • There are 7 strategies we can use to turn the good intentions we already have into consistent behaviors.
  • Strategy 1: Active choice. This strategy interrupts the user during a process or workflow and asks them to make an active choice about their preferences. For example, PetSmart interrupts the checkout process to ask users if they want to donate to “help save homeless animals.” Through that strategy alone, they raised over $40 million in a year. This is an interesting indication that there was a lot of latent demand to donate for homeless animals. People didn’t need to be convinced, they simply needed to be asked at a moment when they had the power to act. The rest of the time, the issue of donating simply wasn’t on their radar (even though the desire / intention was there). It’s important to note that this strategy asks you to make processes less seamless for the user, but the interruption occurs at an important and well-considered moment.
  • Strategy 2: Lock in good intentions for the future. Use pre-commitment and implementation intentions to secure good behaviors. Remove all of your TVs from your home. Throw out all sweets and candy. Voluntarily add your name to the “do not gamble” list. Take the drug antabuse to make yourself feel sick if you drink alcohol, etc.
  • Richard Thaler ran an experiment on pre-commitment and created an automatic 401k saving program that increased savings as employees earned raises. What they found was that people saved nearly double the amount they would have for retirement. Most people WANTED to save more, they just never got around to it when their pay increased because of inattention and inertia. Thaler’s plan made it automatic.
  • The author ran an implementation intentions study at Express Scripts to increase participation at the annual walk. People who pledged to walk were 3 times more likely to show up vs. those just saying they would walk.
  • When used as prescribed, the pill has a failure rate (i.e. unintended pregnancy) of only 1%. But in the real world, people delay getting prescriptions, forget to take it, etc. and the failure rate jumps to 9%. Meanwhile, implantable contraceptives (known as “long-acting reversible contraceptive methods”) have a failure rate in the real world of less than 1%. That is, they make contraception happen automatically everyday in the future once the decision to use them have been made. This technological fix makes the right behaviors automatic by shifting it to a one-time decision that bypasses our daily inattention and inertia.
  • Behavior-based commitments (e.g. “workout 3 days per week”) work better than outcome-based commitments (e.g. “lose 20 pounds”) because it is too easy to make exceptions in the moment when the outcome is in the future. Meanwhile, the behavior is also in the moment, so sticking to your behavior is a choice for the here and now. Of course, the outcome are often a natural consequence of the behavior as well.
  • Strategy 3: Let it ride. Make the default decision a better one. Rely on people to “opt out” rather than “opt in.” It’s the difference between requiring consent vs. assumed consent. Basically, people procrastinate on everything. In this way, you let people lock themselves into better behaviors. This is also a really compelling example of the fact that people aren’t paying attention. We live our lives with inattention and inertia.
  • Use the opt-out approach only when there will not be a ton of people wanting to opt-out.
  • Strategy 4: Get in the flow. Items that are most frequently bought are at eye level and on the displays at the ends of aisles. You post a sticky note on the mirror to remind yourself in the morning. Amazon adds recommendations beneath the items you are browsing. Netflix does the same with shows. Home delivery prescriptions coming with a message on the final refill that says on top of the cap: “Last refill. Call your doctor. New Rx needed.” These are all examples of injecting reminders into the normal flow of the user.
  • The power of getting in the flow is best when they user can act upon the reminder immediately. In other words, it should be a hot trigger.
  • Strategy 5: Reframe the choices. Consider if Petsmart asked customers to “donate to animal shelters” vs. “donate to save homeless pets.” It’s a small shift, but a big difference. Homeless pets is a very personal, emotional phrase and it leads to more action. Basically, this is just great copywriting. Word choice matters. This is especially big to consider when crafting behavior for businesses and governments.
  • Social norms messaging can shift behavior is a positive way. For example, showing people how they compared on energy consumption to their neighbors led to improvements in energy consumption. You have to be careful using this strategy though. Social norms mean some people are “in the group” and some people are “out of the group.” That “out of the group” segment can often react negatively to social norms messaging, which nullifies the positive impacts.
  • It is best to “bundle losses and enumerate gains.” Amazon Prime is a good example. They bundle all of the losses (shipping fees) into one yearly cost. Then, they enumerate gains by showing you the “free shipping” options every time you purchase. This matches with the philosophy of “stacking the pain” that I learned in business school.
  • Decoy options are another way to change behavior and nudge people toward a particular option.
  • Piggybacking is when you use pleasure in the present moment to pull people into behaviors that are better over the long term. One example was making toothpaste pleasant to use. One way to do this is to change the experience (like the toothpaste example). Another way to do it is with temptation bundling (Katy Milkman’s strategies).
  • When you are presenting multiple options to someone, you should offer them in order of decreasing effectiveness. That is, the most effective option is covered first. Then, the second most effective. And so on. This ensures that the entire conversation is framed around the topic of effectiveness and, thus, the person you are talking to can make a decision for what they want while always knowing what works best. Offering alternatives in a different order often colors the conversation and frames it around something besides effectiveness. For example, the conversation might be framed around the option you are currently using or around the option you are most familiar with already.
  • Write out, in plain language, the behavior you intend to follow.
  • Avoid deception. Ask yourself whether a reasonable person armed would feel deceived by the way you are presenting information or nudging behavior if they knew everything you did.
  • Typically, we use big data to change behavior by targeting specific populations and tailoring recommendations to them. Which segment should receive a coupon? And so on. These choices are often made from a marketing and persuasion standpoint. By realizing that most people fail to act because of forgetfulness and procrastination (not a lack of desire), you can open up new opportunities for using big data.
  • Fifty Bits Design assumes the best in people. There is no trickery or deception. It assumes people want the best and then simply presents them with better options and improves their ability to act on the good intentions they already have.

Reading Suggestions

This is a list of authors, books, and concepts mentioned in The Power of Fifty Bits, which might be useful for future reading.

  • Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

The Power of Fifty Bits by Bob Nease

Buy the book: Print Ebook Audiobook

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