Why do we sometimes fail to take steps that we know would help us? Why do we ignore obvious opportunities?
Bob Nease, author of The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results, contends that we do these things because we vastly underutilize our brains. Each second we process ten million bits of information through our brain, he writes, but we are conscious of only about fifty bits of it.
Think about how little that is. As humans have evolved, we have developed immense brainpower, yet still do not use very much of it.
Nease writes that our minds are stifled by inattention and inertia and thus do not lead us to take action, even when we would like to or know we should. There is often a big disconnect between wanting some thing or some outcome and doing something about attaining it. To get things done, Nease writes, we must make it easier for our brain to pay attention to the action and take action.
Nease is a former executive at Express Scripts, which is a large U.S. company that manages pharmacy prescriptions for tens of millions of customers. There, Nease served as chief scientist and helped identify client behaviors that affected their decisions about prescription delivery, usage, and renewals. The objective was safer pharmaceutical use by clients, compliance with prescriptions, and, ultimately, efficiency. In the book, Nease draws on his work there to show how to design interactions with people that will make them want to pursue a behavior — a behavior they may favor, but have not initiated because they have been too lazy or have not paid much attention to it.
The Power of Fifty Bits starts out as a book about psychological behavior but very quickly also becomes a book about marketing. This is not a negative. Although there are examples of personal behavior that have nothing to do with purchasing a product, many of the examples are about marketing or selling.
We have good intentions, Nease writes. As we’ve developed as a species, we’ve continued to embrace three longstanding “shortcuts” to behavior. We want to fit in and behave according to social norms. We want to avoid losses, sometimes even to the detriment of pursuing gains, or despite an opportunity or good odds. Third, we want to take our gains now and push losses, or costs, to the future.
Two common phrases come to mind: “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush,” and “immediate gratification.” Banks are just the opposite, Nease reminds us. They loan money in the present and incur an expense, but over time they get the loaned money back, plus a profit in the form of interest. We’re happy to pay interest in order to have something we want now but don’t want to or can’t pay for with cash.
Nease suggests several strategies for us to change our behaviors. One basic one: to require a choice.
There are many things we would likely do if we actually thought about doing them, Nease writes. To get ourselves to think about them, we often need a reminder that we have a decision to make. One of Nease’s goals at Express Scripts was to get more clients to purchase pharmaceuticals through the mail, which is more efficient and less costly for the customer and the provider. But quite often, he writes, clients just coasted along, getting prescriptions filled at their favorite pharmacy. We have all probably been in that position. We may convince ourselves that it is because of convenience (we may be going to the drugstore anyway) or because we like being able to talk with a pharmacist (which probably has some validity). But even then, getting the prescription filled at a lower cost, Nease writes, ought to be a strong incentive.
So one of his designs at Express Scripts was to force customers to make an active choice. “We need you to tell us whether you want to get your medications in retail or get them via home delivery,” the company asked. A remarkable percentage of customers then chose home delivery.
Another simple real-life example Nease offers has to do with retirement plans. In some companies, employers want to get more (or all) of their employees enrolled in a retirement plan. But despite even having contributions matched, many employees still don’t enroll. When a company changed the rules and told employees that participating in the retirement plan was mandatory unless they opted out, few opted out. They realized they had a choice, and that they did want to be enrolled.
We can create our own design where we need to make an active choice, Nease writes. He recounts placing the only television in his house in the basement in front of the treadmill. There were no other chairs nearby. So, in order to watch television, which was desirable, he had to get on the treadmill.
There are many more situations where our intentions may be positive or leaning toward some behavior, but our inertia or lack of attention to the matter holds us back. And, there are six more strategies Nease covers in the book to get us going. His mix of self-help and business strategy will interest readers who want to learn more about human behavior — or who want to rethink how to get things done.
The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results
HarperBusiness, January 2016
Hardcover, 224 pages