Harnessing behavioral economics

Up until the mid-20th century, economic thought was dominated by the idea that people were on the whole rational, that their activities could be understood and predicted according to economic laws. Behavioral economics arose to explore all the ways in which people are irrational, unpredictable, and act in an erratic, even self-destructive, manner. In How to Change, famous behavioral economist, Katy Milkman, takes the findings of this field and applies them to self-help.

The book is short, but packs a lot of information into its relatively few pages. The basic theme of the book is that there are certain particular human vices, such as procrastination, laziness, and impulsivity, that hinder our growth and development. These must be tackled head on in order to straighten out our lives and become happier and more productive. What Milkman does is take the insights from her field, behavioral economics, and apply it to self-help.

A huge aspect of behavioral economics from a government and management perspective is determining how to use suggestion and other such subtle techniques to influence group behavior, presumably for the better. This can be as simple as having healthy menu options listed closest to eye level. Much of the advice in this book is in a similar vein.

For instance, the first chapter is called “Getting Started.” It explains research that suggests that people are more susceptible to making changes in their lives or routines when they view themselves as starting from a clean slate in some respect. The phenomenon of New Year’s resolutions is well known, but Milkman’s research has suggested that people tend to make more changes on Sundays and Mondays. From this and other observations, Milkman makes the simple suggestion to look out for milestones and capitalize on them to efficiently make positive changes.

The rest of the book follows a similar pattern. On a broader level, Milkman writes that the basic vices she lays out in the book need to be tackled systematically and tirelessly in order to achieve the level of accomplishment you want in your life. It’s solid, fairly actionable material.

That said, the book is not for everybody, and it’s not exactly life changing. The academic insights are quite interesting, but like so many non-fiction books, How to Change definitely falls into the self-promotion trap. There is a lot of name dropping, and a huge focus on research done by Milkman herself or her colleagues. When that research is relevant, great. But it can drag the book down a bit.

Someone could easily look at a book like this and think that it’s just overcomplicating things, wrapping up common sense in a lot of technical jargon. And it really is. Most of us know how to avoid procrastination and laziness on a gut level. The tips and tricks in this book will probably not make up for a fundamental lack of willpower or self-discipline. But they can offer a support structure.

How to Change by Katy Milkman is available for purchase here.

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