(image credit: Skitterphoto)

Make it hard

Nudging is about ‘making it easy’, but sometimes difficult can be better

We are very much creatures of habit. Unlike what neoclassical economists would have us believe, most of us are also generally not utility maximizers, but satisficers, content with what is good enough. Put these two observations together, and it’s not hard to see the origins of our status quo bias. Satisficing behaviour helps us avoid regret and hence contributes to our general sense of wellbeing, but it is hardly a strong motivation for changing our lives for the better.

Take a look at your kitchen. Many tasks require moving things between the three most important items: the refrigerator, the sink and the cooker. A well laid out kitchen is supposed to rely on the so-called work triangle to minimize the number of wasted steps. But how important is that really? Most of us would barely notice the waste of one or two more steps. So we’re not too bothered if kitchen design pays more attention to aesthetics than to efficiency.

At least as long as we’re fully mobile… and that can change quickly. A few weeks ago, my dad, a sprightly 89-year-old dude, slipped on a patch of dewy grass early in the morning, and broke his ankle. The fracture means that he should not at all use his left foot, not even to lean on. After a few days in hospital he returned home, and with the aid of two rollators (one upstairs and one on the ground floor) he manages to get about. But even covering the distance of a single step takes a lot more time and effort than without several kilos of plaster on his foot. A wasteful step has suddenly become rather costly.

During one of our daily calls he related how he has worked out the most efficient routine for making his breakfast of porridge or fried eggs. This not only involves positioning the rollator at a precise locus from where the fixed points of fridge, worktop and gas hob can be reached within one step, but also ensuring the ingredients, pots, pans, utensils and plates are within easy reach.

Now this is unlikely to be of great use to him when, in a few weeks’ time, the plaster is removed and he can fully use his ankle again. But the experience shows the ingenuity of the human mind when the balance of costs and benefits is suddenly changed.

Being aware of wasteful behaviour is not necessarily enough to change it, especially if it is not us directly experiencing the cost of the waste. It’s much easier to pick up a bunch of free bags at the supermarket every week than to bring our own. But introduce a charge per bag, even one so small that it pales into insignificance compared to the cost of a weekly shop, and hey presto, our behaviour changes.

Tongue twisters and budget cuts

There are other interesting examples of how making it harder can help us understand things that we’d otherwise be blind to. Non-native English speaking readers will know very well how hard it can be to express your thoughts accurately in English, and how struggling to find the right words affects your confidence and sense of competence. (Of course, the same is true for other languages as well.)

Many native English speakers have never experienced this (if only because they simply do not speak a foreign language). That means they might find it hard to empathize with colleagues, clients, or people they meet socially who don’t speak English fluently. A simulation game I have used many times in multi-lingual settings tries to address this by making speaking harder for native speakers. The principle of Redundancía is that you need to explain something, or tell a story or anecdote in your native language, with one twist: for every noun or verb (except to be or to have), you need to add a synonym. The principle/idea of Redundancía is that you need/have to explain/clarify something or tell/narrate a story/tale or anecdote/sketch in your native language/tongue, with one twist/variation — you get the idea. Just try it out for yourself and see how clumsy it makes you feel. Perhaps next time you are in conversation with a non-native speaker, you’ll have a better understanding of the challenge they face speaking in your, rather than their language.

Another example comes from a now-retired client who used to be the Chief Technology Officer of a large multinational company. It was not uncommon for development project leaders to judge that the resources — money, manpower, or both — were insufficient to bring a project to a successful conclusion. The obvious thing for them to do was to come and ask him for more people or for a budget increase. And invariably, he would listen carefully to their argument, and thoughtfully reply that he agreed that the resources were not in line with the needs of the project.

The twist came when he clarified that he thought they were excessive — and then promptly cut the overall budget by something like 5%. It gave him much pleasure to relate how the project statistics confirmed that these projects tended to deliver better results. They were less likely to overrun, and the products that came out of them were more commercially successful. It was hardly a scientific experiment, but I have more than a bit of sympathy for his conclusion that making things harder for his engineers and scientists forced them to be more creative and inventive.

The paradox of difficulty

Like water follows the path of least resistance from the mountain top to the sea, we are naturally seeking out the easy life. That congenital laziness can be a motivation to come up with clever ideas that allow us to achieve more with less effort: our houses and factories are full of labour-saving devices. Yet at the same time, it is when we face tough challenges that we are at our best using our imagination and resourcefulness.

My father’s predicament suggests how a designer breaking an ankle could exploit her misfortune to experience what a difference a more efficient kitchen makes when it really matters. More realistically, she might not wait for such an event, but have a plaster cast fitted to a fully intact leg. Making things harder in that way would provide a direct insight into the challenges of a disabled person in the kitchen — without the pain, but no less dramatically.

In any case, it teaches one additional lesson: no matter how old they are, always be prepared to learn something from your parents.

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on July 21, 2017.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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