Katy Milkman on How to Change
May 3 2021

How-to-Change-199x300.jpg Behavioral scientist Katy Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania talks about her book How to Change with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. What can we learn from research in psychology and behavioral economics about breaking the habits we want to change? Is that research reliable? And should Russ Roberts accept being overweight or keep working at finding the thinner man trying to get out?

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Dan Robin
May 3 2021 at 10:20am

Katie’s brief comment on failure and how we pick ourselves up sounded interesting. I believe strongly that the ability to fail is the key to success, at least for entrepreneurs.

Bring her back when she finishes her next book on failure.

May 3 2021 at 10:55am


I’m a couple of years older than you. I have carried ~10 to 25 extra lbs. for 20+ years. I made 2 major changes in the past 6 months.

I drink 16 oz. of water before I eat anything in the morning and drink water all day.
My wife took us mostly vegetarian. We eat meat now and then but not too often. There are a lot of vegetarian meals out there that almost seem like meat in terms of density like grilled mushrooms, or grilled Brussel Sprouts. Cauliflower rice is like rice but is ground up cauliflower.

I’m down 22 lbs. with 4 lbs to go to my goal.

We want you around Russ!!! EconTalk is outstanding!

May 4 2021 at 3:34pm

The discussion covered a West Point “test” where roommates were chosen to maximize academic success. The highlighted outcomes included that you can’t room too widely varied roommates in order to help academic performance. Hmmm. I am an Air Force Academy graduate who came back as a commander of a cadet squadron. USAFA had 40 squadrons of about 110 cadets, each with a distribution of all four classes and one commissioned officer (in this case, me) as their commander. When I took over 34th Squadron I discovered that they had been 40th (last) in academic performance for THREE semesters. The outgoing commander was not aware of this (classic lack of leadership). Doing some basic inquiries, I discovered this rather troubling issue and decided that academic performance (this is a top-flight university centered on engineering) was going to be my focus. In other words, we had to resurrect this bottom-feeder if our unit was going to accomplish the mission. In addition to adding a number of “how to study” programs, internal mentoring, and strict adherence to “taps” (lights out at 2300), I instituted an incentive program to improve the squadron’s academic performance. One was roommate policy. I threw out the old concept of allowing cadets (students) to choose their own roommates and implemented a program to make sure ALL cadets had incentives to improve the overall squadron grade point average (GPA) relative to other squadrons. I made it into a competition with serious commander attention–f0cus–to rise out of our parlous past. We did NOT find “general” rules (such as having just the right amount of academic performance spread) that led to our academic renaissance. Instead, we found that making each cadet feel responsible for the UNIT PERFORMANCE mattered most–the establishment of a culture–rather than trickery or nudgery that these academics find so captivating. We had 110 N’s of one who we had to motivate. I put a ton of pressure on our 3.5 GPA students to get a 4.0. Each one of them in the 3.5 club was identified as the mentor for others across the spectrum to help them raise their GPAs. We used hierarchical unit leadership (cadet-led) to incentivize performance. In our first semester we were ranked 25th (out of 40) in academic performance and after that were never out of the top ten. We never achieved #1 status but that was OK with me (we did get 4th one semester). We had, after all, transformed ourselves from a unit whose members had been failing out of an elite school in part BECAUSE they were in our squadron to one that brought everyone along and improved them BECAUSE they were in our squadron. I must say as a final note that the academic (faculty) side of the Academy was NOT supportive of our efforts. They were (sadly) of the lassez-faire school of academic performance. I came from the athletic/military school where the unit mission and the mutual helping environment lifted all boats. We didn’t do that great in intramural athletics but that was not our command focus. We didn’t want to lose at the main mission and we didn’t play games. We (the cadets had to buy in!) put people in rooms where everybody’s GPA had to improve, where the group outcome was the objective. The most important outcome of the project was not that poor students got better and passed; on the contrary it was that our best students got better grades, better post-graduation jobs, and felt more connected to the group. OK, this is bragging. But I’m proud of it and it wasn’t just an exercise in picking roommates. We did it room by room, human by human. Every one of them was important and indispensable except me. End of story.

May 6 2021 at 6:55pm

I just read Milkman’s book. Ugh. Russ’ intro question was prescient. The book is, in many ways, worse than self-help books. Lots of reasons why, but let me try to describe the big ones. First, she and these behavioral economists conduct “studies” on human behavior which cannot be adequately controlled, on human groups who are not adequately understood. Not even close–it’s too complex for their hit-and-run methods. So their “science” leaves much to be desired, to put it mildly. But worse yet, their “science” cannot possibly help YOU, or more to the point, any particular individual (except the author–this is “me-search”). Their studies “study” groups and provide aggregated data for the group. Some people were helped, some not. So combining my two most important criticisms, how do they know any particular individual was improved BECAUSE of the meddling, er, manipulation, or that any particular individual was actually harmed because of the meddling? She constantly conflates group outcomes with what YOU should do without any sense of humility. Wow. It’s hard to recover from these fatal analytical flaws. Beyond that, the book is full of howlingly obvious, well-worn, but breathlessly described and (of course) newly-labeled pap. These so-called behavioral experts swoop into an organization, knowing nothing about their unique culture or complex interactions, and do a “study” that gullible leaders pay for (key!) and implement. It’s the modern-day version of Taylorism. The researchers’ lack of life experience and depth of research into group dynamics is stunning. To me, an old white guy, this is no better than using the Farmer’s Almanac for weather forecasts and planting crops. Her description of why one should give advice is so distorted I will leave it to you to read it and weep. It’s a window into their world. Not a fan. Read every word–and it took every behavioral trick in MY book to get to the end. I did it for…science.

Mark Raymond
May 26 2021 at 4:29am

Hello Russ and Katy

Thanks for the fascinating conversation about a mysterious and important topic.
Your comment about fatigue and changing behaviour was a useful reminder and I think it counts for a lot. You didn’t mention in any explicit way how we language what we want to do differently and how we make that choice. A classic example that I see in coaching is the difference it makes when someone wants to do something compared to when they feel they should.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: April 16th, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is April 16th, 2021 and my guest is behavioral scientist and author, Katy Milkman. She is the James G. Dinan professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and the author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, which is our topic for today. Katy, welcome to EconTalk.

Katy Milkman: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.


Russ Roberts: So, these kind of books, I have to confess, listeners, I'm a little bit skeptical of some of them and some of the findings of them. But, I have to also confess that they're seductive. You open a book like this and you think, 'I'm going to change my life. I really am, and it's going to tell me how to do it.' Do you think your book delivers on that promise? Do you offer some actual tangible advice that's helpful?

Katy Milkman: I hope so. And, I should tell you I am also very skeptical of these kinds of books--which is the reason that wrote this one. I'm frustrated by the self-help section in general, which is full of so many gurus. And, I spent the last 20 years studying the science of change and felt like it would be really refreshing to try to write a book that had a basis in evidence and that maybe could actually help people.

I will say: I do not think that this book is going to take someone who really can't get anything done and turn them into a wunderkind. That's not reasonable. But I hope if it makes people 5% to 15% more effective at achieving their goals, to me that would be a huge win. And, I think that's kind of what the different scientific principles suggest is possible.

So, each of the different insights that I share from different studies, none of them is turning someone who is getting C-minuses into an A-plus student or a valedictorian. None of them is turning someone who is struggling to be decent at the piano into a world class pianist. Rather, they're moving you up--significantly--and helping.

So, I hope this will deliver on that promise. I think it can help people change better than any other book I've read, which is why I wanted to write it.


Russ Roberts: Well, let's talk about willpower, or what I sometimes think of as self-mastery. What are your thoughts on that in general? Obviously, in many ways that's what your book's about: how to overcome our personal shortcomings, personality traits we might have that we think keep us getting from where we want to be. How do you think about that problem generally?

Katy Milkman: So, the willpower problem is a really big one. I think too often we know from evidence people think Nike is right and I can just do it. And that's just garbage. We aren't good at pushing through.

And so, we need tricks and tools and strategies. And, actually it's I think funny because economists thing about this in terms of policymakers and how can policymakers design systems that will set people up for success when it comes to, say, saving for retirement? 'Let's put a social security system in place.' 'Let's have 401Ks that are tax-advantaged.' Or 'Let's try to prevent people from using drugs by putting them in jail if they do.' And so, there's a lot of systems that are set up by policymakers to try to help with self-control problems so people don't get into these very bad situations.

But, we ourselves have some ability to set systems up that also support success, individually. And, we can take a hint from what works when someone else is trying to help and use those same tools.

So, in the book I write about two different strategies, both the carrot and the stick, for trying to tackle willpower problems. So, the stick looks a lot like a traditional strategy that a manager or a policy maker might set up for you to try to restrict decisions. And, I talk about commitment devices, which were first written about by Robert Strotz many years ago. Schelling and Baylor[?] have written about this idea. And, the idea is that if we recognize that we have willpower problems we can set up systems that will constrain our future selves.

So, it can be anything from setting up fines that you'll impose on yourself using a third party website. There are websites like StikK and Beeminder that let you fine yourself if you're not achieving your goals and to find a referee who will hold you accountable, assigning yourself for self-exclusion lists at a gambling establishment or all gambling establishments in your state or buying smaller plates. So, there are all different ways that we can use commitment devices to try to set ourselves up for success and constrain our future decisions.

The other way is really the carrot. So, commitment devices are the stick: Let's create penalties and restrictions so that our future self won't make bad decisions.

The carrot is, let's actually figure out ways to make it more enjoyable in the moment, and that way your willpower won't be needed to do the thing that's good for you.

So, how do we turn the chore that willpower says, 'I can't drag myself to the gym. I can't be more productive today. I can't stay off social media'? How can you turn that chore into a pleasure so that it's instantly gratifying?

And, I write about a number of different strategies ranging from gamification--which doesn't always work, and there's lots of cautionary tales in there about that, too--to something I call 'temptation bundling' that I've studied, where the basic idea is to--it's similar in a way to a commitment device. It's to link something inherently tempting and enjoyable with a thing you know you should do more of.

So, I use it and have studied it with the gym. So, only let yourself, say, binge-watch your favorite TV show while you're exercising. You can find that you'll actually start craving trips to the gym to find out what happens next to your favorite characters. Stop wasting time at home binge-watching that show and time will fly while you're exercising because you're so engrossed.

So, that's an example. But, you can use it in other ways, too. Linking your favorite podcast, for your podcast listeners, with doing household chores like laundry or cooking meals can make that a pleasure. You can do it with food: Linking your favorite, say, restaurant that isn't super healthy with spending time with a difficult relative you should see more of. Or, picking up your favorite Starbucks treat on the way to hit the books at the library is what I talk to my students about.

So, there's all different ways to do that. And, I think just the insight that if we make it more fun to pursue our goals, that we're much more likely to actually stick to them because we care about that present value, that instant gratification we'll get. And so, that's sort of the carrot and the stick end of willpower. Instead of just saying, 'I'm going to grin and bear it,' we need to be strategic and set up systems that make it more likely we'll succeed.

Russ Roberts: So, I really like the temptation bundling. Although, I'm always worried in this kind of exercise, whether--'Oh, that's the one that I think kind of works for me.' But, I think it's an interesting--the challenge with that for me is that if you're not careful you end up multitasking and missing the experience of life because you're kind of--so you take somebody you don't like to your favorite restaurant. I don't know if that's what you meant. Rather than reward yourself. Right? You take someone you're obligated to go--and then you kind of ruin both. You have a horrible time--the restaurant you used to love, you can't enjoy any more. So, I think there is--that's a funny--it's humor.

But, I do think there's an issue there. I like the idea that I could just be in the moment and experience the exercise even though I don't love it. Right? And, I think that's what I aspire to. But, realistically I know that's often not who I am. And so, these kind of tricks where we "fool ourselves," they kind of infantilize me a little bit. And, I do kind of worry about the impact on my own self-respect. But, I do want to be thinner, say. So, it's tricky.

Katy Milkman: Yeah. That's interesting. Most of the people I talk to who have used these techniques haven't given me that feedback that it feels like they're infantilzing themselves. I think if someone else imposes it on you--and that's exactly what I talk about with gamification and how it can backfire and there's research showing that if an employer tries to gamify, say, sales calls, it actually doesn't seem to work that well, if it feels imposed by the organization as, like, some, as you say, infantilized technique to get you to achieve those goals.

But, if we opt in, if we elect to do it, if we're using these tools to help ourselves, we don't generally see that kind of backlash, because people are saying 'Hey, I want to do this and this is fun for me.' And, it can be tailored. You make sure it actually is something you enjoy.

Russ Roberts: I'm thinking about Headspace--an app I don't use. I tried it for a while, and I didn't particularly like it. But, a lot of people I know love Headspace as a way to get them to meditate. And, they tell me that, 'Yeah, and you know, I do it every day because it gives me, like, a badge.' It's a piece of gamification. 'It gives me a badge. It congratulates me.' I'm thinking: You're feeling grateful to an algorithm. It's not really a person. And, it seems to be--

Katy Milkman: I think that's a great example of how it works for them but it doesn't work for you; and they've elected to use it and you've elected not to. And I think that's actually really a critical point when it comes to what's fun. Because it differs person to person. And if it's not working for you--if you're like, 'This is ridiculous, I hate the badges, I'm not five,' then it's not going to be effective. And, we each have to find a way that the carrot works for us. But, it's working for them.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, it's just a little ironic, right? Meditation is supposed to have you enjoy the moment and not worry about whether it's doing anything; and yet we have all this anxiety: 'My mediation is not succeeding.' It's that kind of [crosstalk 00:10:15].

Katy Milkman: There are so many things like that in life.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the economist's worldview a little bit, because you've implicitly touched on it. I think about this a lot. Economists stereotypically treat people as rational. We understand--I think a good economist understands--that it's a framework, not a perfect description of reality. But, it's a very strange thing, whether you're an economist or not, to think about why it is that you can't just "commit yourself" to do the right thing if you really want it. Right? If you think that you want to be thinner or exercise more or spend more time with your elderly parents or whatever is the good deed you want, if that's what you want, why do you have to trick yourself? Why can't you just say, 'I'm going to do it because that's what I want?' Do you ever think about that?

Katy Milkman: A lot. And, I will tell you, I was going to be an economics major as an undergraduate and I encountered the rational-actor model and I decided to switch to engineering. I took summer classes to get out of this field that somehow didn't appreciate what a human looked like. I was looking around at my college roommates and myself and I was like, 'What? This is not right.'

So, I actually think one of the most exciting things about economics is the growth and appreciation that there are these very systematic and very predictable ways in which we deviate from the rational-actor model. Present bias being--and hyperbolic discounting, as David Laibson has put together a beautiful theory of this--I think is one of the most important insights that leads to the most improvement in predictive power. Maybe prospect theory--we could argue about whether that's more important.

But, both are really important and they punch a hole in this idea that people can get where they want to be by just grinning and gritting through.

You know, we can debate whether or not it's evolutionarily adaptive or was once to go for the thing that's instantly gratifying. You could imagine how thousands of years ago that might have been a really good system to grab the treat you can get now and not worry about the future. But, it's the equipment we're stuck with. It's how we optimize in reality.

And, because that's our reality and because these are the situations we face, I think a better way to move forward is to recognize it and then figure out okay, how do we work within the constraints of what equipment we've got and what self-control we've got and succeed more?

Russ Roberts: But, it is a fundamental puzzle, whether you're a economist or not, I think to think about why it is that--what do you call it? Pushing through. I think about it in my own shortcomings--stress over getting to the airport, say. And, I know we're not going to be late.Right?

Katy Milkman: I miss that stress, I will admit.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly.

Katy Milkman: It's been a long time since I've rushed to the airport.

Russ Roberts: I know. Isn't that interesting? And, I thought about that the other day. I'm about to start traveling again on an airplane for the first time in 15 months.

Katy Milkman: Congratulations.

Russ Roberts: Thank you.

Katy Milkman: I take it you're vaccinated?

Russ Roberts: I am. Twice.

Katy Milkman: Congratulations on that, too.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's awesome. But, why is it that when I'm in line to check in and I'm really not going to miss my flight. I've never missed--I don't think I've ever missed a flight. Partly because I'm so anxious about it. But, I could be less anxious and just say to myself--why is that I can't convince myself?

I think that's a piece of the human experience that we all, I think, struggle with in that I think most of us just say, 'Well, I'll just tell myself that it's not anything to worry about.' And, that doesn't work. And, the fact that it doesn't work is so shocking. It's so shocking that we continue to do it. Most of us, I think. We continue to say, 'Well, I'll just tell myself not to worry about this or not to be paranoid about this or not to be stressed out about this.' It took me a long, long time--I used to get nervous before, say, giving lecture. I still get a little nervous, but they usually go pretty well. So, why am I so nervous? It's a habit that I've ingrained in myself that's hard to escape.

And, a lot of your book is about that--is about breaking habits or creating new ones or better ones. I just think it's interesting to think about why that's--I mean, we all know it's hard. It shouldn't be, you'd think. But, it is.

Katy Milkman: Yeah. I mean, I think this just comes back to the fact that we're not perfectly optimizing creatures. There are all of these other things going on and other ways that we've been built and designed, and anxiety obviously serves a function. Right? It's, like, highly motivating. And, it's not a thing we can turn off, because that's not the way we're built. We share anxiety with our reptilian ancestors presumably.

I think it's really interesting. I want to just plug a friend's book, actually. I don't know if you know Ethan Cross. He wrote a brilliant book called Chatter. He's a psychologist at the University of Michigan, and it's really all about that self-talk and sort of what he's learned through his research about how to be more effective in our self-talk.

And, one really interesting key insight that comes out actually in a chapter of my book as well where I'm talking about confidence and that confidence actually can be a barrier to achieving our goals. He finds it can be really helpful to use the third person.

So, when we are talking to ourself we do better when, instead of saying, like, 'I can do it, I can do it,' you say, 'You can do it, Katy, and here's how you're going to do it.' And, that distance from yourself seems to be effective.

The way it relates to what I wrote about is some research on the power of actually being a mentor to other people and how that actually builds your own confidence and helps you dredge up insights about what might work when you're trying to achieve the same goal as whoever you're coaching. And, it also has a 'saying is believing'-effect. Like, once you say it to yourself you're more likely to follow through.

I think all of those things are ways that they can distance ourselves from whatever challenges we face and sort of build our confidence, overcome emotional challenges, and be more effective. But, you're right: these things are puzzling and interesting and it's what got me interested in this field is that we are not perfect systems, we're not perfect optimizers, and so what are the constraints? Anyway, I could go on.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, I'm going to let you in a minute. But, I want to ask you first to think about--I haven't thought about this much, but your book prompts me to think about it. Religion and philosophy have thought about these problems for a long time before economists came along and before psychologists or behavioral economists came along. And, they basically talk about the challenges of--you could call it temptation, certainly self-awareness. An urge to sin in the religious perspective is a very common religious theme that we're meant to overcome. We're given these desires--whether they're from God or evolution doesn't matter--that growing up and becoming a full human being requires overcoming them.

Is there reason to think that psychology and the kind of techniques that you and your colleagues come up with are better than the wisdom that we've been endowed with through the ages?

Katy Milkman: That's a great question. I mean, there's wonderful wisdom from philosophy and religion; and I think actually a lot of it is reflected in some of the techniques that behavioral scientists, economists, psychologists, and others have developed and tested that really do seem to work.

Let me give you some examples of things that are commonalities. We talked about commitment devices, pre-commitment. Wedding rings are certainly a form of commitment. Both a visual commitment, like a signal, and also they're costly when you invest in one and give it to someone else. Anyway. Whether you agree with the gender norms implied and so on. But, there are these things that are in our traditions that certainly reflect some of these self-control challenges.

I'll give you another example of something that I write about in my book that I've studied and that I think is really related to ideas from religion. And, that is the fresh start effect. So, one of the things that I studied--and it was inspired by a visit to Google where I was presenting about all these different techniques that could be used to help nudge people to make better decisions. And, I got this question from a leader in HR [Human Resources]. He said, 'Okay, sold. We should do some of these things to encourage healthier behaviors, more productivity, more retirement savings, that's great. But, is there some optimal time to deploy this techniques in our organization? Like, when are people most open to change?' And, that led me down sort of a rabbit hole with some wonderful collaborators studying what we call the fresh start effect which is this phenomenon that there are moments in our lives where we feel like we're facing a new beginning, a clean slate. The start of New Year is the one we're most familiar with because everybody knows about New Year's resolutions; but there are many of them, from the start of spring to every Monday, to the celebration of a birthday, when we feel like 'Okay, a new chapter is opening in my life. The old me is behind me. The new me is ahead. The new me has a clean slate and can do it. And, whatever I failed to do before that's the old me. The new me is all over it.' And, we see people pursue goals more; they are more likely to create goal contracts. They're more likely to search for the term 'diet' on Google. They go to the gym more. We can convince them to sign up at a higher rate for savings plans when we label the date when they're invited to save up as the first day of spring or their birthday.

And, how this relates to religion is that many religions have these moments that are basically defined to be fresh starts. So, if you think about Yom Kippur, if you think about Easter, if you think about some of the sort of ablution ceremonies that are used to cleanse. There are so many different examples. Confession, and forgiveness. These are all related to giving you that clean slate. Baptism. And, that psychology is so powerful to help us figure out, 'Okay yes, things haven't been going well but I need to go back on the horse and try again.' So, anyway, I think that's something philosophers and religions do about it.

And, then behavioral scientists have gone out and studied and say, 'Oh, how does this work? What are the moments that have this power? How do we sort of use it effectively to motivate?' I think there's a lot of interplay. And that's just a couple of examples.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I have to quote Shai Held who says that his favorite day of the year is Yom Kippur because if you have a really good Yom Kippur you feel cleansed, you feel ready to start, you feel purified. He said his least favorite day is the day after Yom Kippur. Because he realizes, 'I didn't change that much. I'm kind of the same person.'

It's a very short lived thing. And, I think obviously New Year's resolutions--people are famous for making New Year's resolutions and they're famous for not keeping them. Breaking them.

And, I think the fresh start is certainly a way we can jump start ourselves. But, I'm always so struck by how hard it is. And, I think--

Katy Milkman: That is why there's a lot more in my book.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Right.

Katy Milkman: Couldn't agree more. All it does it get you motivated and started and then you've got to know what to do next or else you'll be like the 90% of Americans whose New Year's resolutions fail.


Russ Roberts: So, let me just riff on that for a minute. In my experience as a person who wishes he weighed 10 pounds less, it reminds me of the old Mark Twain--

Katy Milkman: I think you look great.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, that's because you can't see me from the neck down. But, I appreciate it. And, you're giving me the wrong signal. Shame on you. You should say, 'You look terrible. You really should lose 10 pounds.'

Katy Milkman: Well, I will just say, I'm not a huge fan of weight loss goals because--anyways. That's a whole other conversation.

Russ Roberts: Maybe not, we'll see--

Katy Milkman: I think 10 pounds is nothing to worry about.

Russ Roberts: Right. Exactly. And, yet it kind of haunts me. So, the reason I--

Katy Milkman: Well, if you want to change then I hope the book can help you; but I'm just saying I think you look great.

Russ Roberts: Well, we could talk--maybe we'll talk--use me as a case study for a minute. But, I think in my experience as one who wants to lose weight from time to time, my ability to do so is not so closely tied to technique but to things I don't understand.

There's just some times when I can avoid temptation. And, I think it has more to do with what else is going on in my life rather than 'Oh, here's a great trick,' or 'Here's a good diet,' or 'Here's an app.' I've tried all those in some extent. I'm not obsessed about it by the way. It's just every once in a while I think wouldn't it be great if I lost a little weight.

And, I think to a large extent our ability to do that is independent of the technique. I worry; and I worry that--they're short lived, the things that seem to work. And, you recognize that in the book. It's a challenge to create sustained change.

Katy Milkman: It's a big challenge. I think the biggest. It's really interesting also to think about--I think the most interesting frontier is understanding how do we help people get back up after failure. And, I write a lot about that in the book, but I hope in the next 20 years I'll learn a lot more about it. I think it's one of the most interesting areas for researchers, those recoveries after we have a stumble. Because, stumbles are inevitable. And, we know a little bit about how to recover but I think we should know more.

I completely agree with you that the situation is so powerful. Right? Maybe that's the most important lesson psychologists have learned in the last 75 years, is that the situation is more powerful in many circumstances than the person. And, then the person appreciates. And, we make this fundamental attribution error that it was you and your willpower, but actually it was like 'No, your partner stashed the house full of unhealthy snacks and you had to go on and give a bunch of lectures around the country and people took you out for unhealthy meals.'

Russ Roberts: And, 'I had a lot of stress.'

Katy Milkman: You didn't have time to fit in your workout. Yeah, you were really stressed out. Yeah, all of those things are so important.

But, then I guess the thing I would say and that I think the research points to is if you know that, then what can you strategically do that changes the situation for better?

So, if you know your partner tends to stock up snacks you don't want, can you, like, do something where you segregate the kitchen? and there's your stuff and their stuff; and their stuff is maybe is--even, like you can get really crazy. You can have them put a lock on their things that they only know the combination to. There are literally companies that will sell you those kinds of containers. You can be creative.

And, I think the key lesson of my book is, can you diagnose what's making it hard? Can you figure out what is the barrier? And, is there anything you can do--because you have agency--to think like a policymaker about your own life and set yourself up more for success? If it's like, 'The gym is too far away; I never get there,' then get the exercise equipment at home. If it's not fun to work out, then figure out what TV [television] show you can binge-watch while you're working out on the treadmill.

So, there are ways, if we just think more strategically, that we can make progress. Which is not to say we can make it easy or that everyone will succeed or that other things won't get in the way. But we can be strategic. We have some agency there.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. The commitment device thing is really tricky. Obviously, not buying unhealthy snacks reduces your chance of eating them--at least in your own house. At least it would seem that way. I want to, maybe, suggest an alternative. But, I'm thinking about my own personal situation and getting some free consulting advice from you, Katy. You know, I have bunch of shirts that I love--

Katy Milkman: I'll send you the bill later. It's not free--

Russ Roberts: Okay. Fair enough.

Katy Milkman: I'm kidding.

Russ Roberts: I know you are. I'm trying to think of a good comeback and I can't. I apologize. Sorry.

Katy Milkman: I was worried you thought I was going to send you a bill for a moment there.

Russ Roberts: No, no, no. I wouldn't pay it. It's okay.

So, I have a bunch of shirts that don't fit me comfortably. And, I've longed to wear them. I like them. They're really nice. I bought them when I was a little thinner, and they're really beautiful. So, I'm thinking, maybe I should just throw out the comfortable shirts and force myself to wear those until they're comfortable by my changing my eating behavior. What do you think?

Katy Milkman: I still think that's a pretty long run. That's sort of like the grin-and-bear-it type goal to me, because you're just changing the outcome you're trying to achieve and making the outcome a little bit more attractive. But, the process is what stands in between you and that longterm goal.

So, I think you need, probably, to change the process for getting there rather than how big the pain is and the discomfort of not having the goal achieved. I mean, it might work. It's a little bit more motivation. It can't hurt. Right? You're changing the incentives.

But, it's still downstream. And that's the pain of present biases. It's all about what's right in the here and now and what's rewarding instantly. And, you can't instantly shed pounds in order to be in a comfortable shirt. And so, I don't think that's an optimal way to solve it. If you try it, let me know, and maybe we can run a study together and see if--

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That'd be awesome. Right.

Because the other way of course--I always like the Kingsley Amis line from One Fat Englishman--which is a totally tasteless book, by the way, that would be--I don't even know. I'm surprised it hasn't been canceled [reference to the so-termed cancel culture of 2018-2021+ which included suppressing the publication of many books--Econlib Ed.]. He says in there: 'Inside every fat person is a fatter person trying to get out.'

And I think about, 'Why not just buy more comfortable clothes and just don't worry if I gain a little weight?'

So, that tension is always there.


Russ Roberts: But, that raises this other question which I wanted to ask you, which is: I sometimes wonder whether there's just a fixed amount of willpower in my life or in anyone's life.

So, for example, I keep Kosher. I don't eat pork. I love pork. I love lobster. But, I don't eat it. I used to. But, then I decided to not eat it anymore.

And, it's easy. I don't say, now, when I pass a barbecue restaurant, 'Oh, I want to go in there.' It's gone.

But, I worry that I just squeezed out the willpower into a different area. Like, how much I eat at such-and-such an event, because I can. Right? Because it's Kosher, say.

And, I think, I worry that whenever we can get some self-control in this corner of our life, our need to misbehave just spills over to somewhere else. Is that a thing in your work? Have you ever heard of that?

Katy Milkman: I will say that there was a theory--it still exists: the theory is still there--of self-control of being like a muscle that you can strengthen through practice and that gets worn out through repeated use. That theory has been debunked through the replication crisis.

Russ Roberts: Yah--

Katy Milkman: So, there's really no evidence supporting that model--though it's very appealing as a model. But it doesn't seem to be born out by data.

What does seem to be true is that fatigue matters. So, when we're really tired it's harder to do the right thing. But, that's different than, like, self-control itself being depleted by, you know, 'Well, first I resisted the temptation to use my phone when I was supposed to be focused on a meeting; and then I resisted the temptation to eat the pizza and had salad for lunch; and then I resisted the temptation to skip the gym and I went and exercised.' It does not seem like self-control exertion adds up to extra self-control exhaustion.

So, I don't write about that in the book even though it was a very popular theory a decade ago because it doesn't seem to be right.

Russ Roberts: But, does it go the other way? Right? So, your point, which I think the refutation is that just because you're good at this self-control thing here doesn't mean you're going to be going over there. You haven't generated a general ability.

But, is it also that case--did I misunderstand what you just said?--is it also the case that after self-controlling all this other stuff, I go out and do something horrific because I've stifled myself all day?

Katy Milkman: No. There's no evidence of that.

Russ Roberts: That either?

Katy Milkman: No.

Russ Roberts: Okay.

Katy Milkman: There's no evidence that if you stifle yourself all day then you're going to need to indulge at the end of the day.

And, so, I do not study individual personality traits. I have always sort of studied like the situation: How can we change the situation? What are the tools and techniques that an individual can use?

But, my friend Angela Duckworth, who is a brilliant psychologist at the University Pennsylvania who I get to work with sometimes, she has studied self-control as a personality trait and looked a little bit at--you know, if you have self-control in one walk of life, like you're really good at getting to the gym, how does it translate to other walk of life? Like, you're really good at studying. And, the correlation is not very high across domains is what she told me is the takeaway. Which I think is really--and by the way, it's true of me. Like, I have great self-control when it comes to my work. I'm not so self-controlled when it comes to my diet. And, I think there's lots of people where we can point to like an area where we're really--I'm not so self-controlled when it comes to yelling at my five year old. There's areas where we're good and where we're bad and we struggle with different things.

It's part of why I also find the study of change so interesting. Because, like I haven't met a person yet who said to me, 'I've got it all figured out in every part of my life and I don't need this.' It feels like there's use in it for everyone because we've all got our foibles.

Russ Roberts: Angela Duckworth is a past EconTalk guest. You can listen to her talk about Grit. Those of you who want to learn more, it's in our archive. We'll put a link up to it, to this episode, as well.


Russ Roberts: You mentioned the Replication Crisis. To take an extreme version of it, you know, I'd quote John Ioannidis, another past EconTalk guest who talked about this: Most published results are false. That was his claim. It's a theoretical paper. I thought it was a silly idea. I think he's kind of right. How do you deal with that as certainly someone who's giving people advice, not just in your book, but, you know, as a consultant, knowing that some of the studies, and maybe more than some, are not reliable? They've been debunked, refuted, didn't hold up, didn't replicate.

Katy Milkman: Well first, I didn't put any studies that I believe are unreliable into my book and in fact, took some out as I learned things that made me question them. So, I tried to be pretty careful--which doesn't mean that it's all perfect. But, that was really important to me.

I will say, I've sort of been at the center in some ways of watching the replication crisis unfold. I'm in a department at Wharton with--well, previously two of my colleagues who were leading a lot the work to change the way that behavioral science is done. So, Joe Simmons and Uri Simonsohn have been studying p-hacking and problems with the way that psychologists do statistical inference. I think it's so important--I'm so glad that we're getting things cleaned up. I guess I will say, I think there are plenty of things that aren't true. But, there's also lots of things that do replicate and are really robust.

For instance, present bias. That replicates. Commitment devices are valuable. That replicates. And, it's not shocking that some of the things replicate that do. Because, honestly my sense is a lot of the things that don't replicate are the things that looked like magic in the first place. So, when you constrain yourself, when you incentivize yourself to be differently, like, better things happen.

So, I tried really hard when writing the book, I guess I will just say, to stay away from anything that felt or smelled like magic. And, I think--I'm sure there will be something in the book that doesn't replicate because almost certainly there's always something. There's a lot of studies in there. I think about a seventh of the pages are my reference section. But, I stand by in general the themes are so robust and the things I focus on I think are--many, many, many studies have shown them to be true. Right? So, hopefully there's not much in there that people should be worried about.

Russ Roberts: Well, commitment devices are old, right? They go back to at least as far as Homer and Ulysses tying himself to the mast because he was afraid that when he heard Sirens he would steer the boat toward the rocks; and so he had his crew people--his crew--'crew people'--I think they were all men. Sorry.

Katy Milkman: I think they were, too. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: The people who were steering the boat. He had them wear ear plugs. I don't know how, what he used--

Katy Milkman: Wax.

Russ Roberts: Wax. Okay.

Katy Milkman: They plugged their ears with wax.

Russ Roberts: But, he tied himself--

Katy Milkman: It's a great story.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. He tied himself to the mast. He had them bind him, commit him to not being able to steer the boat so that he could enjoy the sound of the Sirens but not end up crashing. It's a very powerful metaphor, of course, that I don't think his--as you say, it's stood the test of time and it stands up in the results.

But, I think there are a lot of challenges in the psychology literature. We had Brian Nosek on the program. Another person who's been at the forefront of this. And, as well as Andrew Gelman, who, with Simonsohn--Simmons and Simonsohn--have worked on this issue.

It's hard to understand human beings. It's just--and we have an urge to publish. I think it's a serious problem; but as you say, we're going to find out more as we go forward.

Katy Milkman: Yeah. And, methods are getting better. I think pre-registration, which means basically putting up a plan in advance of--you know, these are the hypotheses I have, this is what I will test--is growing in popularity. That's something that the research center I run, the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, now does for every project we do.

And, I think the norm of also publishing things that don't work is growing a bit.

At the Center that I run, we've been pioneering a method we call a mega-study where we, instead of testing a single insight one at time, we test, say, dozens of hypotheses simultaneously on the same outcome over the time timeframe to try to figure out what actually works. Accelerates the speed of science. But, also actually makes it easier to publish the no-results along with the positive and get that all out there--

Russ Roberts: Brilliant--

Katy Milkman: It has its own challenges. Because, of course, the outliers, the things that look best, they're skewed and there can be misrepresentation as in any meta-analysis.

But, you know, I think science is getting better. It's already gotten tremendously better in the last 10 years. I think the next 10 years will improve even further.

Russ Roberts: Or it could go the other way. That's the question. I worry that much of this work in behavioral--whatever you want to call it--economics or behavioral psychology is--it's just too complicated. As you say, a lot of the magic--'Stand this way and you'll change your life'--it's always going to appeal to us.

And, I think the challenge, of course, is--well, I was going to say something else, actually. There's something to be said for: maybe there's a placebo effect here. So, even though it's a bad study, if you think it's true maybe it'll help you change your life. Have you thought about that?

Katy Milkman: I think that's totally right. Placebo effects are one of the things that are insanely robust. I write about how to use them in the book. And, absolutely, you know: If you believe that standing like Superwoman is going to make you do better in your job interview, stand like Superwoman before your job interview because it probably will help you.

Confidence is important. It's not going to hurt. It's probably not going to change your life.

And, I think we should be honest about what the data bear out and so on. Like, I'm okay with giving people sugar pills if there's nothing else we can give them.

But, I also think if someone asks we should be honest about what the science says about why that works.

But, anyway, placebo effects are fascinating. One of the studies I talk about in the book that I absolutely love is the study showing that when housekeepers in hotels were given the information that their housekeeping was equivalent to getting the CDC's recommended amount of exercise each day, when one group is told that, another group isn't, there's literally a physiological difference; and that group ends up losing more weight over the next month. Their blood pressure drops. They have all these positive effects. And, it's not magic. It's that they believe this is good for them.

And, like, you can see--you can imagine how you--someone once said that to me about moving into my townhouse, that 'Oh it's so great. Walking up and down the stairs, it's passive exercise.' And, you learn that and you lean into it. I'm like, 'Ooo, ooo. I'll run down from the roof deck and get the ketchup[?] that we left. That's exercise. Wait, let me actually do an extra load of laundry. That's exercise.' So, once you recognize and sort of think about things differently, you behave differently. And, that can be a really useful tool.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm really skeptical about that one, by the way, actually. The housekeeper one. I just find that unlikely to persist and to replicate.

Katy Milkman: It may be unlikely to persist. That's really true. And, I'm going to say, I should say, Alia Crum, who is down the street from you at Stanford in the Psych Department, I think did that really interesting work. It's a small effect and it's a very strong finding--which seems plausible to me, that over a month, if you have a different mentality about the opportunity to get exercise at your job that that could add up to losing a pound. It's not like she's saying these people are going to suddenly turn into Baywatch models--

Russ Roberts: Or Olympic athletes. Yeah.

Katy Milkman: Olympic athletes. Right, yeah. It seems, like, plausible an effect size and there's lots of other studies showing the placebo effect which is all this is really. Right. So--

Russ Roberts: Well, let's talk about confidence--

Katy Milkman: She'd be a great person to talk to and she's brilliant.

Russ Roberts: Excellent. You're doing a great job today. You're giving me all these extra guests. I appreciate it.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about confidence. Let's talk about confidence and overconfidence. I think that--it's a fascinating area that culturally as a society we got really into self-esteem, with the idea that it boosted productivity and other things. Not surprising I'm skeptical about that. But, it was a commonly-held belief. And, you have a very subtle and nuanced description of the role confidence plays in our lives. So, talk about it. Because I think obviously to be helplessly insecure is helpless. And, to be overconfident and overbearing is unbearable. So: How do you think about that?

Katy Milkman: So, there's this delicate balance.

Russ Roberts: There is. Like most things in life.

Katy Milkman: Yeah. And, it's funny because I was just saying, like, 'I'm not a personality.' I know very little about Personality Psychology.

But in this case I would say--and I still know very little about Personality Psychology; I'll stick with that--this is one of those cases where I do think it depends on who you are and what your challenges are.

And, I think there are people for whom the reason they can't achieve their goals is that they don't believe they can and there's different ways--if that's the challenge someone's facing, if you're coaching them, if you're their teacher, their mentor, their supervisor at work, being aware of that and then thinking about what are the ways that I can support building their confidence is going to be really important.

And, if you individually feel like you can't achieve something, you're not going to try. And so, being aware that that's going on and that you can tackle it is important.

So, in the book I talk about a few different things. One of my favorite insights is how much our peers matter and how much they inform our beliefs about what's possible. Especially peers who we identify with because they resemble us in some way.

You know: they're in our field, and they're a similar age and maybe similarly in other demographic ways or have a similar background. And, we look at them and see what they can accomplish and that informs what we think we can accomplish. We look at the techniques they're using to accomplish their goals and sometimes we, through osmosis or deliberate emulation, start using them, too.

And, so, I think that's actually a really powerful insight. I talk about the work of Scott Correll, an economist at UCSD [University of California, San Diego] showing the roommate you end up with in college affects your grades. If you get somebody who had a really high score on the verbal SATs [Standardized Achievement Tests] you end up performing a bit better in classes than if you didn't. I think that's such an interesting insight.

And, it can inform the way we choose the people we surround ourselves with. And the people we surround ourselves can build our confidence--and frankly, our competence, too. Because again, part of what happens when we surround ourselves with the right peers is that we recognize what's working for them.

I think we should be, frankly, more deliberate about that kind of emulation. That's one of the things that I found most useful in my own life.

So, this is again--you were saying you like temptation [?bundling?] because is it related. For me, one of the ways I've gotten the most done is by looking at role models and saying, like, 'How do you to all these things? Talk to me about your life hacks.' And, then very deliberately trying to copy and paste them. And, I think too few people do. In fact, done some research showing just telling people that, 'Go copy and paste,' is useful.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Again, I think that's a little complicated. I'm reminded of my graduate advisor, Gary Becker, who was a freshman at Princeton.

Katy Milkman: That's a tough graduate--that's a high bar.

Russ Roberts: Well, yeah. Whether he was good for my self-confidence or not is a complicated question. I won't go into it. But, when he was a freshman he wanted to be a math major. And, after his--

Katy Milkman: I was Princeton undergrad, too, and thought maybe math. Then I learned about math at Princeton. So, I relate.

Russ Roberts: Well, but his roommate did a lot better than he did on some exam that they took together in some class, and he said, 'Well, this isn't for me. Obviously I'm not that good at it.'

Katy Milkman: Lucky for the economics field.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, math's loss, perhaps.

Katy Milkman: It turned out well for us.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think so. And, for me. But, it turns out his roommate, I forget his name, but he went on to win a Fields Medal which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. [The roommate was John Milnor--Econlib Ed.]

Katy Milkman: Oh, my God. That's quite a room!

Russ Roberts: Right. Well, think about that, though.

Katy Milkman: That's like Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore at Harvard, right? Except in academia.

Russ Roberts: But, think about how--interesting. But, think about how--interesting. But think about how it didn't enhance his--he didn't aspire higher after his roommate--

Katy Milkman: Absolutely--

Russ Roberts: He got shot down, which is a shame maybe. Who knows?

Katy Milkman: Yeah. That's so fascinating.

Well, first of all, I think it turned out well for everyone because Gary Becker obviously--you know, thank goodness.

And, by the way, like, the Becker-Murphy Model of Habit Formation has been hugely influential to the way I think about habits and do my work. But, okay. That is neither here nor there. Yeah, absolutely.

So, actually one of my favorite follow-up studies, by Scott Correll, that I talk about to the roommate paper is what happened when he tried to engineer better outcomes for students at West Point by actually assigning roommates strategically. So, he had the results that random assignment to a roommate who had done better on their verbal SATs [Scholastic Apptitude Tests] seemed to improve your performance, recognized that there was this opportunity. Some kids drop out of West Point. 'How can we help the low performers stay in school and do better?' So, he came up with this algorithm: We'll assign the top-performing or the incoming-class folks who look like they're going to be stars with roommates who are at risk of dropping out. And, then the stars will help their roommates not drop out by pulling them up. And, then we'll just put the middlers together because they don't need help. They're okay.

He happily, thankfully, did this as an experiment. He's a scientist. He was pretty sure he had this great idea but he wanted to test it. He tested it for two years in a row and both years in a row it backfired.

And, the big reason that it seemed to backfire is that it created too big of a gap in those roommate pairs. They couldn't relate to each other. The low performers ended up on the hallway hanging out with the other low performers because they didn't want to talk to these superstars. And, it actually--it was worse, because there was no cohesion and you formed these bubbles. Anyway: We could talk about the current media environment and how all these things happen with bubbles.

So, that was bad. And, it feels like--I think the story you're telling in this case might be a similar example. Like, you want to surround yourself with peers who will stretch you, but not too much.

And, then there's this tricky: 'Well, how do I figure out what's too much and what's not?' I think there's more science to be done, but it seems clear, if you're looking at someone and you're going, 'Oh my God, they're just out of reach,' it's not a good role model. It's not a good person to emulate.

You want to be around peers who stretch you a little bit but who feel like their goals are within reach. 'I can emulate that. I could accomplish that.' And, then there's other techniques for thinking about: Well, how do you build confidence so you believe you can fit into that peer group?

But, it's a tricky thing about social norms and I think that's a great--I've never heard that story of Gary Becker. I'm going to reuse it. It's fascinating.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it is.

Katy Milkman: Thank you for sharing it with me.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, sure.

Katy Milkman: And, I do relate, having been afraid of math after starting out at Princeton and thinking it might be my thing. It's an intense place to study math.


Russ Roberts: But, I think this issue of whether to choose not to shoot too high or not to press yourself because your roommate's so talented, it's really a question of knowing yourself. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with rooming with somebody who you know you can't equal but you still could be inspired by. You might not want to copy their life hacks because they don't have to study for the exam. They get an A anyway, right? And, you try that and you get a C. So, you learn about--

Katy Milkman: More like an F for me, but anyway.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I hear you.

Katy Milkman: You might get a C.

Russ Roberts: No. I know what you mean. But, I think a lot of these challenges of self-control, mastery, motivation, they start with knowing where--as you talk about in your book--you should learn about what you struggle with. What are your demons? What is going to derail you? And, think about would help you.

And, I think the one-size-fits-all, 'Pick a roommate who's better than you so you'll do better,' is bad advice.

But, learning what you can, given your own particular situation, from such a person can be helpful.

Katy Milkman: Yes. Absolutely. And, so, I think one thing that I have done in my life that I think can be useful is finding peers who you admire, who you look up to, and thinking about ways that you can actually coach each other. So, I have, I call it, we call it actually a No-Club, but it's really an advice club of three women who are all, you know, now tenured professors at top business schools, all with the ambition to continue contributing on research and lead in other ways as well. And, we'd read about this work by Linda Babcock, who is an economist at Carnegie Mellon--in fact, talked to her a lot about it--showing that women get saddled with a lot of office housework and they take on a lot of administrative duties that are not rewarded. And, this is not great. Women need to learn to say, 'No,' more. It'd be great if they weren't asked as much; but, anyway. But, there's two sides of it and you can be self-reliant and say, 'No.' So, she had formed a no-club with other women who were facing similar challenges so they could run ideas by each other and say, 'Should I do this? How do I say no?' So, I formed a similar one; and it's been amazing in many ways.

One, I learn from my peers immense amounts about what they're saying no to, what it's acceptable to say no to, how to say no. But, I've actually also learned by giving advice to these other women about what I think my values are. I have built my confidence that I can figure out what makes sense and what doesn't. And so after I give them advice on something, I want to follow through. I don't want to be hypocritical if I get a similar opportunity. So, I do think that's another way we can use our peers. It's builds our confidence when we mentor and coach others. It helps us introspect about what works, helps us learn from what works for them. And, I think we should probably be more deliberate in the ways that we coach each other and work together to achieve our goals.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's just a great example, I think, of--that's not exactly the focus of your section on this in the book, but I think of--you choose--in many situations in life, you're forced into an association with people whether you like them or not, whether they're good for you or not. But, most of life we choose our peer groups, we choose who to be influenced by and who to influence.

And, I think in the area of morality, much more than, say, productivity, it's extremely important. So, having a group of people who you share the things you've turned down that you realized were unethical, as long as you don't brag about it too much, I think is a healthy thing.

Or, surrounding yourself with people that you know who, say, are givers rather than takers is good advice. A lot of times those takers are very entertaining and we like being around them, partly because they're charismatic perhaps or other reasons, but I think surrounding yourself with givers helps you become a better giver. And, that's an ironic twist on the No club. It's more of a Yes club for doing the right thing, but it's the same idea. It's the idea that you can reinforce things that you want to reinforce about yourself. It's not quite a commitment mechanism but it's an implicit one through social pressure.

Katy Milkman: Absolutely. And, again, this is all structuring your environment--and your environment is also your social group--to set yourself up for success. So, I couldn't agree more with everything you just said. And, I love the morality angle. I totally agree with that.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the power of soft commitments as opposed to harder ones. Telling yourself to mask is one thing, but one way we commit softly is we tell people we're going to do something. 'I'm going on a diet.' That way when I'm in front of that person, I'm less likely to take out the half gallon of ice cream with a spoon and get started.

But, there are more interesting ways that we might use that and I think it's underused, that phenomenon. So, talk about doctors and prescriptions and antibiotics that you do in the book because I thought that was such an interesting example of the potential for this kind of idea.

Katy Milkman: Yeah. I love that story. It's by Noah Goldstein and Craig Fox and Jason Doctor, a big crew out in the UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], USC [University of Southern California] area. And, they noticed that lots of doctors were prescribing antibiotics for things they shouldn't have been--like sinus infections. It is related to temptation because you're a doctor; you're seeing this patient, they're not feeling well and they want something.

Russ Roberts: 'Give me, give me.'

Katy Milkman: Yeah. Anyway, we haven't normalized giving them the sugar pill so they get the placebo effect. That's another part of our conversation. So, they want the antibiotics. You know it's not recommended. In fact, the more you prescribe antibiotics, the more antibody resistance becomes an issue. It could even, like, cause nasty side effects; and it doesn't help with things like sinus infections. But, you want to give them something. And so, a lot of doctors do: the antibiotic prescription rate for things that are not advisable is very high.

So, they teamed up with some medical practices in the Los Angeles area to run an experiment using soft commitment to try to get doctors to find a way to be more successful in resisting that urge. What they did is: some doctors were randomly assigned to be asked to sign a letter basically pledging, 'I will not prescribe antibiotics for these unnecessary conditions,' and then post those in their waiting rooms so that patients would also see those when they came in for a visit. And, they found that that really substantially reduced those doctors' prescriptions of antibiotics for unnecessary cases over the following months.

And, you know, hard commitments do seem to be stronger in general but they're not always feasible. I don't know how we would--I guess you could fine doctors for every time and they could sign up voluntarily to be fined every time they did that, but I don't know how many would opt in. This is something that was very low cost and very potent. So, we can think about ways that we can publicly commit in front of people we care about. The more formal the better. And, that may be one way that we can use the power of soft commitment to achieve more.

Russ Roberts: It's so appealing because it's cheap. It's self-monitoring. It's a form of self-monitoring. A pledge, a commitment like that.

Of course, they don't always work. When they sit on the wall for a long time you stop seeing them, just like the warnings on the wine bottle about heavy machinery and pregnancy. I think after a while you just--literally, your brain stops taking it in. I even think that's true scientifically.

Katy Milkman: I feel like I should make a joke now about when were you pregnant and you drank too much? But, anyway.

Russ Roberts: And drove a tractor. I was pregnant--

Katy Milkman: And, then you drove the tractor.

Russ Roberts: With a wine on the tractor. I knew I shouldn't have done that.

Katy Milkman: I think of the warnings on cigarettes, which I think have been proven. They're maybe useful for preventing people from starting to smoke but not very helpful if you're already smoking, if I'm remembering the research correctly.

Russ Roberts: But, this whole idea of a pledge, obviously--and we talked earlier about Yom Kippur and other ways that we start to imagine ourselves as being possible agents of change for our own lives. And, a pledge, writing something down, would seem to have the potential to have an impact. I've not done this with my wife, but a re-marriage. I forget what they call it--

Katy Milkman: Recommitment ceremony--

Russ Roberts: Recommitment ceremony. Right. People do these things as a way to publicly bind themselves, but not in a legal or regulatory way but in a way of saying something.

And, I guess the risk reminds me a little bit of the way businesses will use a mission statement. Right? In theory, a mission statement is a soft commitment. And, yet, of course, it's often just talk.

Katy Milkman: It doesn't have teeth.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it doesn't have teeth. So, talk about that trade-off. Obviously, teethless biting is very cheap but it also doesn't hurt so much.

Katy Milkman: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's right. I'm a fan of hard commitment. I think it's underused because the teeth do really add to the potency and to the success rates in general.

But, it's not always something that people feel they can take the risk of the bad outcome; and so I think that, as a backup, soft commitment can work.

And, I think the study in particular with doctors was very successful and suggests that maybe if it's a pledge and it feels professional, it feels linked to our professional identity, it's public to large groups of other people whose respect is critical to our career outcomes, that may be a way that we can make soft commitments that are more powerful than--if you tell your spouse, then your spouse will still probably like you all right even if you eat the ice cream.

So, I'd love to see more research done on what are the things that made that particular soft commitment so useful and what are the boundaries and how can we figure out how to harness that. Because a lot of soft commitments--like, you write a goal down for yourself, you post it on Facebook--they don't get you that far.

But, they're probably better than nothing. And, then, I guess I'd say I hope the other tools in the book would be used in concert to make you a lot more likely to succeed.

Russ Roberts: Well, I think the point you just made about peer groups is really interesting. And the professionalism, right? So, if I sign that commitment on my own idea and I post it in my waiting room as a way of making myself aware of it as a doctor, it's probably not as effective as the doctors in a practice all posting it, having a conversation every two weeks or a month about: 'How are we doing on our commitment?' and 'Oh yeah, I broke down the other day and I shouldn't have done it but I gave a prescription for something.' I think the combination of those two, it's a little bit like you are temptation-bundling.

Katy Milkman: Social norms are also in there.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Katy Milkman: Yeah. Absolutely. Yes. And, using a lot of these ideas in concert is obviously a good idea if we want to make them more potent.


Russ Roberts: I think there's another piece to this I think that can help, which is--your point about professionalism gets at it a little bit. I think about Agnes Callard's work on aspiration, which we talked about on the program here. My favorite mission statement--it's actually a motto--is the Ritz Carlton's. The Ritz Carlton's motto is: Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. Now, in the Ritz Carlton if you're lost in the hall and you turn to any employee and say, 'Where's the such and such ballroom? I can't find it,' they are not supposed to point and say, 'Oh, it's down that hall. Take a right and then a left.' They're supposed to escort you--because, of course, ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen would make sure you got there.

And, I think there's something aspirational about that slogan. It's not just: 'We shall provide the best customer service.' It's: 'Here's who we can be.'

And, I think back to that pledge about the doctors and the antibiotics. I think how you word the pledge and how you think about it, if it heads you toward professionalism and being a better self, I think maybe is the way to make them more effective. Maybe.

Katy Milkman: I love that. That's really interesting. And, it also relates to this identity and how important identity is, which by the way I think is understudied. I talk a little bit about with fresh starts and the shifts that we have in identity, but I think I would love to see more research on that.

Russ Roberts: Talk about identity and why that's important.

Katy Milkman: Well, theoretically why it's important is when you have that hat on it comes with a whole script. Like, we're both professors. What is in the professor's script? We're supposed to be intellectual, we're supposed to be, maybe every once in a while a little disorganized with our heads in the clouds. But, we're caretakers of our students, caring deeply about their outcomes. It just comes with this whole list of attributes and you step into that role. And, I think there are many different identities, as athlete, as parents, scientists.

And, when you have the right hat on with the right set of roles, it does seem like it can change behavior. I do not feel like there's as much research on this as I'd like to see. I actually have spent some time trying to read what is the evidence on identity? And, there's some labeling studies that have been done. Not all post-replication crisis, I should note. Things like: you label someone as a voter instead of someone who votes; and it seems like maybe that increases their likelihood of going and actually casting a ballot, for instance.

So, there are some small, subtle studies along those lines. But, it seems like such an important and powerful idea, these roles that we take on, and I think there's room for a lot more research to be done on it.

There's sort of an identity-economics area that has become interesting to some folks of late that I also hope will take off.

Russ Roberts: Well, I'm thinking about--

Katy Milkman: There's more unknown than known.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. For sure. I'm thinking about Yuval Levin, whose book, A Time to Build, is about how people have betrayed their--you could call it their duty, their obligation. I would think of it as their identity, say, as journalists, academics, politicians. Which really shows the limits of this approach or at least that we need to rebuild some of these identities.

I think, obviously when you're living in a world where your publication is going to go out of business and you're going to lose your job if you don't generate a lot of clicks, you're prone to some headlines about, say, the coronavirus and the vaccine that are close to lies. And, yet, 'The Vaccine Doesn't Work For'--and people click. 'Oh my gosh, oh my gosh.' Then they realize, 'Oh, this is after four people didn't--it's unbelievable.' So, yes, journalists used to have this identity as truth seekers, objective truth seekers. Now I think they're much more likely to be partisan on either side of the divide. I think that's a tragedy to some extent that's explained by the incentives, but you'd like to think that that sense of identity could overcome that. It isn't, right now.

Katy Milkman: I agree with you; and I think identity is not nearly strong enough to overcome strong incentives, and, like, we shouldn't expect it to be. So we need to set up better systems. And, identity is only one piece of any puzzle.

But, think about the Hippocratic Oath--

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Great example--

Katy Milkman: Doctors still make bad decisions, but on the other hand, it probably helps that they take that Hippocratic Oath.

So, when we want to get all the pieces of the puzzle right, I think that's another key takeaway. You can't say, like, 'Oh, I checked this box. I got the identity down,' or 'I have soft commitments,' and, then just neglect everything else. Like, the incentive scheme is completely wrong. The structure of the choice is completely wrong. So, we have to be attentive to all of these components.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. Let's close with where we started, which is the seductiveness of the idea that I can change my life if I have the right life hack. Your subtitle is--

Katy Milkman: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, part of what I've been thinking about a lot lately is how to figure out where you want to be.

I think in our culture--this is not a criticism of your book because obviously no matter where you want to be, it would be good to get there, in theory. Right?

Katy Milkman: I'm agnostic on that angle in the book.

Russ Roberts: Exactly. Right. You are. And, most of us would unanimously agree that we want to exercise more, eat healthier, be better friends. A thousand things we could think of that we wish we could do a better job on.

But, I do think in our culture right now there's an overwhelming urge for the app or the algorithm or the life hack that will solve problem X, forgetting that there's this big meta-problem out there called how to live. It's true that if you want to live well you do have to control your urges and master yourself a little bit. But, I'm just curious if you think about that, much.

Katy Milkman: I think it's a great issue. It's one of the things that has made me so interested in fresh starts, because I think one of the reasons fresh starts are interesting is those are moments that tend to disrupt the day-to-day, when we're just sort of plugging along, not thinking deeply about who we want to be, and lead us to think bigger-picture.

And, I think we need more disruptions and more effort put into: 'What should my goals be?' rather than the list of goals that everyone has. 'Oh, less time on social media and more exercise,' and so on. Like, what are the really important things?

I hope the book can help with both the important things and the less important ones. And, I'm agnostic on it. I try to present the science that's useful regardless of what a goal is.

But, I completely agree with you that I think we can find more meaning in life if we reflect more deeply about what really matters. And, there's lots of great research supporting the importance of meaning and work. It makes you more productive if you see meaning behind your job, behind what you're doing. So, it has all these benefits to happiness. So, I do hope people will use the book to achieve meaningful goals rather than goals that may not really make them happier.

Which is why, by the way, I don't think you should worry about the 10 pounds.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been the kind and insightful Katy Milkman. Her book is How To Change. Katy, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Katy Milkman: Thank you so much for having me. This was a really fun conversation.