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Q&A with Katy Milkman

Behavioral Scientist, Host of the Choiceology podcast, Author of How to Change

Katy Milkman is the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She is a prolific, influential researcher on the science of behavior change and goal achievement. She is also passionate (and talented!) science communicator, making complex findings in her field accessible to everyone (which is what most of this Q&A is about). She is the author of the 2021 national bestseller, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, and the host of an outstanding podcast, Choiceology.

We spoke recently on the occasion of the final episode of Season 11 of Choiceology, which comes out today (June 5)! The episode is devoted to providing a unique perspective on a famous, super-high-stakes decision challenge: forecasting the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, featuring an interview with Leon Panetta, the CIA Director under President Obama at the time of the raid, and Barbara Mellers, collaborator with Philip Tetlock, on their deep and vast work on superforecasters.

I hope you learn as much from Katy as I do every time I talk to her.

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Annie: Tell me a little bit about your area of research. What are the things that you’re focused on?

Katy Milkman: I study decision making, and my focus is specifically on, how we can help people make better decisions, mostly around achieving goals. A lot of it has to do with financial or health or educational goals. What tools can we give you or what interventions can we propose that might help you achieve you goals more successfully? How can we set you up for success as opposed to letting the biases that normally wreak havoc on goal achievement do their thing? Can we stop procrastination? Can we reduce forgetting? Can we help you build good habits and get the motivation that you need to achieve?

Annie: I’m interested in how you respond to the broad-brush criticism about getting people to do things that are in their own best interest. Like, that nudges are somehow Big Brother-ish. Who are you to decide for somebody what their default should be? My response has always been, “but a default is already there.” It’s already going to be one thing or the other. And if a society decides it’s better for people not to smoke or it’s better for people to save for retirement, wouldn’t you want whatever the default is to push people toward that? Plus people still have the opportunity to opt out. You’ve obviously heard those criticisms as well. How do you think about this critique?

Katy Milkman: I love your response and I totally agree, and in every context where we’re thinking about defaults, something has to be the default. You might as well not choose it arbitrarily or flip a coin, but align it with what you think most people would want it to be. I do a lot of work that I’d say is even less paternalistic than defaults. A lot of my research looks at things like reminding people in certain ways to get vaccines and trying to use the most effective language possible to help them make a plan. But of course, if you have no interest in getting a vaccine, then reminding and encouraging you is going to have zero effect. But it’s going to be very helpful for someone who might let it slip their mind, be worried about hassle factors, or not be able to work it into a busy schedule. In my work I do a lot of nudging where it’s even more neutral than setting a default, but it’s setting people up for success if they see this goal as aligned with their values.

Implementation Intentions

Annie: Let’s talk about the vaccine research. I feel like it’s similar to some of the work on getting people to vote. I know from your work that there are certain ways that you can communicate to people that will increase the chances that they’ll actually follow through.

Katy Milkman: This comes back to work by Peter Gollwitzer, who is a professor at NYU. He’s done a lot of work on the importance of having what he calls implementation intentions. Instead of just having a goal, like, “I would like to get a vaccine,” an implementation intention says, “What are the conditions that need to be met for me to do it?” So, you might set the implementation intention of, “If it’s four o’clock on a Friday, I will go to the local pharmacy and get my vaccine.” He has shown that goal setters who have and create implementation intentions have dramatically higher success rates than those who don’t.

One of my dear friends and close collaborators, Todd Rogers, has done some wonderful work in the voting space where he applies this basic idea to calls to perspective voters. Instead of saying, “Hey, are you going to vote?”, he follows that question with, “Do you know when you’ll vote, where you’ll vote, and how you’ll get there?” And you see substantial and significant increases in voter turnout from that simple script, which now is why every postcard, every knock on your door in voting season, and every robocall includes those three questions. It’s because of Todd’s research.

We’ve shown that basically the same script increases turnout for vaccines and it doesn’t even have to be that there’s somebody else holding you accountable. It’s not like you’re committing and someone’s going to follow up with you. We did one experiment about a decade ago where we sent mailings to people. It’s a piece of paper in your home with some blanks in it and it prompts you to fill out the date and time when you intend to get your vaccine at a free worksite clinic. You can’t even mail this back to anyone. It’s just privately making a plan, and it substantially and significantly increases vaccination.

There are lots of places where you can use this, whether it’s around vaccination, voter turnout, showing up at the gym, making it to your next meeting, scheduling time to work on your book, whatever big goal it is that might slip through the cracks if you don’t form that concrete implementation intention.

You can use this set of questions: When will you do it? Where will you do it? How will you get there? Simple stuff to actually increase the likelihood you shows up. You can also use it on others.

Annie: This is something that I find so interesting about the interventions that work. A lot of them are things that we think we’re doing already. But there’s something powerful about taking it from implicit to explicit. It’s implied that I should have a plan, but if I make the plan explicit, then I’m much more likely to follow through.

Katy Milkman: It’s related to this idea of a commitment device, which is something, some tool, some penalty clause, that you associate with not achieving a certain goal. Here, the penalty clause is failure to follow through on something that you’ve promised yourself, but weirdly, that turns out to be a cost that many people don’t want to bear. When we make our criteria more explicit, we are more likely to follow through, in part because we don’t want to break that commitment, even though that seems like a really small psychological cost.

Temptation Bundling

Annie: You’ve also done wonderful work on getting people to follow through on goals where the day-to-day implementation is unpleasant. I would like to go exercise every day, but I would prefer to just binge watch Selling Sunset or something, one of those awesome, horrible reality shows. I know you’ve done work that says, “Let’s turn it from a punishment into reward for doing that.” How would we think about implementing that?

Katy Milkman: I love that you went to the gym in your example because the gym is one place where we’ve studied this. The idea that we have looked at that I think is particularly powerful here is something I call “temptation bundling.”

Basically, often the reason you’re not getting a goal done is because the act of making progress on it feels like a chore, it’s unpleasant in the moment. There’s some huge long-term reward: you’re going to get in shape or you’re going to get your PhD or you’re going to get that promotion. You think that’d be enough, but if the actions you have to take in the moment are unpleasant, we delay and we procrastinate. That’s the way we’re wired. We are present biased, we focus on the instant gratification. A way to engineer around that is this idea of temptation bundling, which is, what if you only allow yourself some indulgence, some temptation while you’re pursuing the goal that feels like a chore?

In the context of the gym, the perfect bundle (which you just mentioned) is, what if you only let yourself watch that reality show while you are exercising? Now, at the end of a long day, instead of dreading the trip to the gym and wanting to sit on the couch and binge watch tv, the two come together. You actually look forward to the workout. Time flies while you’re there because you’re totally engrossed in the scandals and then you no longer waste time at home binge watching it, so there’s that extra benefit tied in.

I think that’s one of the best applications of temptation bundling. We’ve done randomized controlled trials that show it helps people exercise more to temptation bundle.

Of course, it’s not just a way to get yourself to the gym. I often talk to my students about, are there special treats that you want to save that you’re only allowed to pick up, say, on the way to the library to hit the books? Maybe there’s a Starbucks beverage that’s not great for you, but you can make that a special treat just for when you’re studying.

One of the weirdest ones I’ve heard, but it worked for this person, was a special scented candle that they only allowed themselves to burn while working on their dissertation. For me, scented candles are not enough of a temptation to get my work done, but this one student said that really changed her life. Everybody has to figure out the pairing that works well for them. I particularly like pedicures with catching up on overdue work emails, but you have to figure out, what’s the chore that you need a hook to get done, and what’s the temptation that will pair nicely with it?

Social Accountability

Annie: Is there something else I can do when I’m embarking on something that’s unpleasant int he short run but worth it in the long run that’s going to help to be more likely to follow through with it?

Katy Milkman: There are a lot of things you can do but one I did some work on that I found especially interesting (which also takes place at the gym) is creating social accountability in the form of having a trainer or a friend who you meet at the gym. We have one experiment where people who wanted to exercise more signed up with a friend who they said they thought they could imagine working out with.

We randomly assigned them to either earn rewards every time they went to the gym, regardless of whether they came with a friend, or only if they came with a friend. Standard economics says, make it as straightforward to earn the rewards for exercising as possible. Pay them directly. But we saw 35% more exercise when the payment was contingent on a friend showing up with them.

When we surveyed people and followed up to try to figure out the mechanisms, there were two key things that happened. One was, there’s someone you’re going to let down. They’re not going to get their dollar if you don’t show up. You feel accountable and you don’t want to be that jerk, but also you have more fun while you’re there. It’s more enjoyable to work out socially. It’s a little temptation bundling in the form of socialization. Thinking about making your goals something you could do in tandem with someone who you like so that you’re letting them down if you don’t show up is another way you could think about achieving more and making it more likely you’ll follow through.

Annie: I love that. I got the first part right away: I don’t want to let somebody down. But then it’s also more fun. You enjoy it more. And you’re both watching Selling Sunset together and it’s incredible.

Katy Milkman: You get to gossip some about it afterwards while you’re drinking your latte.

Fresh Starts

Annie: You’ve also done quite a bit of work on “fresh starts,” timing when we want to create a new habit. Can you talk a little bit about that research?

Katy Milkman: Yeah, absolutely. This is work with my former student, Hangchen Dai, who’s now a professor at UCLA, and Jason Riis of Wharton. [See “The Fresh Start Effect,” 2014, and “Put Your Imperfections Behind You,” 2015.] What we did is looked at whether or not there are moments in life when we are more likely to start pursuing goals. The short answer is yes. About 40% of Americans at New Year’s set goals. As a result, the gyms get packed. These moments give us a temporary spike in motivation, but if we don’t hook other tools on top, it doesn’t make much difference because if all you do is make a resolution – no implementation plan, no temptation bundling – you’re just acting like the behvior change will magically stick.

Well, guess what? Your motivation is over in a couple weeks and the whole thing falls apart. It’s important to use these moments wisely to set yourself up for success, but they’re much broader than New Year’s resolutions. Any moment that feels like a fresh start in our life, a new beginning, gives us a sense that we can set aside what happened before. Last year, the old me didn’t quit smoking, but that was the old me and the new me is going to be different. On January 1st you get that extra sense of optimism. Actually, every Monday is a minor fresh start, as are the beginning of a new month, celebration of birthdays, and some holidays. You and I are talking right near Memorial Day, which is a major fresh start and so is Labor Day for many people, the start of school for students.

We’ve done research where we look at big data sets about, when do people set goals? When do they go to the gym the most? When are they most likely to search for the term “diet” online (which happens to be the most popular New Year’s resolution)?

We see spikes at all these new beginnings, all these fresh start dates that I just mentioned. That’s when natural motivation comes about, and we see these ebbs and flows in people taking action. But we’ve also tried to look at, can we use this insight to nudge people towards pursuing goals at a higher rate? The short story is yes, if we highlight dates on the calendar that people might otherwise neglect to appreciate as fresh starts. People are more attracted to pursuing goals and changing their behavior at those times.

We did one massive experiment with about 2,000 people who weren’t saving for retirement and invited them to start saving immediately if they wanted. That’d be great, but assuming that, as humans, many would delay signing up, we invited them to start saving after a fresh start date and we’d take care of it. Start saving after your next birthday or start saving after the start of spring. That led to about 30% more savings if we had those fresh start dates than if we literally invited them to start at the same time delay, but didn’t point out that it corresponded to a birthday.

Imagine your birthday is in two months. We’d flip a coin and send you a mailing that said, “You can start saving now or after your birthday.” That’s one group. Or, if the coin flip comes up the other way, we’d say, “You can start saving now or in two months.”

It is literally the same offer, but because we’re hooking it to a fresh start and making that explicit, we can increase take-up such that we see 20 to 30% more savings over the next year, which is pretty cool.

So, two ways to think about it. One is you will naturally find your motivation ebbing and flowing. And when it’s higher, at these fresh start dates, that’s a great time to try to do the set of things that will set you up for success. If you just say, “I’m motivated, I’ll do it,” that’s not going to work. You have to create plans and potential commitment devices, strategies that will help you follow through. Then, the other is, if you’re trying to encourage change in someone else, recognizing that by highlighting fresh start dates to them, you can increase the likelihood that they will take action

How to Change and Choiceology

Annie: You are obviously passionate about communicating science to the world. You have a fabulous book, How to Change, a national bestseller, which summarizes all this work that you’ve done, as well as other people’s work on behavior change. Another place that you’ve done that is through this amazing podcast, Choiceology, where you have super smart people with really interesting stories come on and talk about behavioral economics and make it accessible to anybody who wants to understand the way that human beings work. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about your passion for communication and what that stems from.

Katy Milkman: Thank you for the very kind words. I find it exciting to gain new insights about human decision making, but additionally because it feels like there’s a whole world of people out there who could benefit from optimizing their choices so that they can live longer, healthier, happier lives. I always was motivated when doing my research by the recognition that there was some opportunity to improve outcomes. I think communicating about the science is just a path that aligns with that goal, because otherwise it’s only the three other nerdy people who are also passionate about implementation intentions who read the paper about how we got a significant increase in vaccination rates, and it ends there. If the work is going to have impact, we have to find ways to share the insights.

Annie: Please talk some more about Choiceology, how you’ve found that experience, and the kinds of things that you talk about on the podcast.

Katy Milkman: Hosting the podcast, like writing the book, has been a rewarding and fun way to reach a much, much bigger audience. The podcast is a joy for some reasons I didn’t anticipate. One of the things I absolutely love about hosting Choiceology is that it gives me a free excuse to call up my academic heroes, people whose insights have changed the way I see the world and who I think of as the equivalent of rock stars and get them to give me 30 minutes or 45 minutes of their time for a conversation about what they’ve learned and how it can help people. I have learned so much from getting to have those conversations because there’s only so much you get from reading academic papers.

I can’t read every single paper written by every academic rockstar cover to cover. There’s too much out there. But when you get on a Zoom to interview Danny Kahneman or Richard Thaler, about their life’s work, and start asking probing questions, insights come out that I had missed from reading the papers. It’s so fun and exciting and it’s just such a joy to get to have those conversations. I’ve learned so much. Then, it’s so much fun because I work with an absolutely incredible team that takes these interviews and pairs them with exciting, interesting stories to bring the ideas to life. In each episode, we talk about a real, high-stakes decision where one of these biases or tools could change the outcomes.

Then we segue to an interview with the scientist who did the original research that motivated the story and talk about, what were their findings, how did they uncover this bias or this solution (because we cover both topics)? It’s been one of the most fun and rewarding things I’ve honestly ever done in my career, in part because I just couldn’t believe how big the audience was. And getting all the emails from listeners and about how it’s helping change their lives has been wonderful too.

Annie: Can you give an example of one of your favorite stories, and then how you are applying behavioral science to that story?

Katy Milkman: I’m going to come back to a topic that we already talked about, which was temptation bundling, and that’s related to a broader idea of how important it is to find ways to make it fun to pursue your goals. Probably my favorite story in all the podcasts we’ve done over the years is an interview we did with Nancy Strahl, who is a wonderful, incredible woman, who had a really tragic experience about 20 years ago, part of a Season 5 episode in 2020 titled, “A Spoonful of Sugar.”

Nancy, on her way home from dropping her son and her husband at the airport, started to feel queasy and she thought maybe she had food poisoning. She laid down and, as the day went on, her symptoms got worse. She went to the ER because she felt so horrible, and the doctors told her she was having a stroke.

She woke up the next morning, paralyzed, totally immobile, unable to do anything, and was told that it was likely she’d never regain mobility. She was in her fifties at the time, if I’m remembering correctly. She had a lot of life ahead of her and a lot of goals. It was a disaster as it would be for anyone to get that diagnosis. She asked her doctors, as any of us would, “Is there anything I can do? Is there any path to recovery of my mobility?”

She’s told, “Look, it’s unlikely this is going to work out. Most people don’t make it this far, but you can embark on an intense rehabilitation regimen that’s going to require unbelievable commitment and dedication. It starts with inpatient therapy, but then you have to go home, and you have to go through these exercises day-in and day-out by yourself and just push through.

She made some progress, a little bit, in inpatient therapy, but when she was doing the rehab work on her own at home, she’s really struggling. It was a deeply unexciting way to spend each day and she saw only incremental progress. The long-term reward of regaining mobility is so far off that it’s hard, even with something so massive. You’re not seeing the daily benefit. You’re just feeling the misery of doing this drudgery.

She wasn’t making the progress she wanted. She wasn’t sticking to it. She realized that something had to change. She got online, started researching, and she found an experimental program that was being offered by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that gamified the recovery experience, that gamified doing the rehab exercises that were so grueling. It was a virtual reality experience where, instead of sitting and doing these things in her living room on paper, she’s able to feel like she’s whitewater rafting and she’s reaching for different treasures in the water. She’s leveling up in a game.

Nancy completely fell in love with this experience. She loved doing it. She got really invested in it, and everything changed for her. Suddenly, instead of seeing no progress, she’s slowly seeing little changes. She’s able to turn on a light switch again.

Through the course of this program, Nancy actually regained full mobility, and she attributes it to this incredible gamification of the experience that was otherwise such a source of misery and pain. She rows on the real water in real life every day now. She fell in love with water and this virtual reality experience, and then became a really intense rower. She danced with her son at his wedding. She takes care of her grandchildren. She’s able to do all the things she was told she could never imagine, because she found a way to make this massively important goal instantly gratifying as she was pursuing it.

That’s one of my favorite stories because it’s such an amazing life change that was only achieved by applying these principles. It’s not enough to have the most important thing in the world at the end of the tunnel. You have to figure out how to make each day’s pursuit of your goal feel pleasurable so that you can get there

Annie: I love that. That’s such a great story. What a happy ending to such a tragedy. I hear that today, June 5th, you’re releasing the finale of this season of Choiceology, and it sounds like an amazing episode. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s happening there?

Katy Milkman: This is an amazing, incredible episode. We’re talking about the decision to make the raid that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. Of course, a decade of work went into finding the most wanted terrorist in American history. But then, there were a lot of forecasting failures and a lot of decisions made that didn’t succeed. Then, it was unclear whether or not the intelligence that had been gathered that was going to lead to a massive deployment to go in and try to capture Osama bin Laden, whether it was valid.

The story is told by Leon Panetta and a journalist from CNN about how the experts were making the decision, analyzing intelligence, figuring out whether this was the right call or whether it was going to be sort of an embarrassment and a mess up that some previous attempts and raids had been.

It’s a forecasting story. Then, I interview my amazing colleague, Barb Mellers, about the research that shows the strategies that we need to use if we want to make excellent expert forecasts of unknowns. Is this the place where Osama bin Laden is hiding? It’s this really dramatic story, the pairing of talking about, what were the intelligence analysts doing? How was the decision made in the White House to say we’re going to do this, and we’re going to go after Osama bin Laden in this context?  And that’s paired with the research that Barb and Phil Tetlock and others have done to build an evidence-based way of forecasting and making expert judgements. It’s a really fun episode, and I learned a lot.

Annie: That’s awesome. I personally can’t wait to listen to the episode. I think everybody should binge it. You should go exercise while listening to past episodes of Choiceology after you’re done with the finale, because it’s an incredible podcast with such cool stories. You do such a good job of bringing behavioral science to life. A lot of people who are reading this don’t necessarily go and read the academic papers, and academic papers are written like academic papers. They’re not mystery novels. They’re not page turners. I think it’s such an incredible talent and such an incredible service to say, “I want to synthesize and translate what’s in these academic journals into something that people can implement in their own lives.” And now they can implement it by listening to you while exercising.

Where to get episodes (including this one) of Choiceology:

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