Habit Design: Resurrecting Behaviorism for Fun and Profit

I attended Michael Kim’s Habit Design meetup tonight, which was billed as a fireside master class with BJ Fogg, director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford.  It was held at design firm Ideo’s office, under the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, which was plentiful with distressed, recycled wood.

Michael Kim asked everyone to read up on Fogg’s work before attending this meetup, so I complied.  Not to make him sound creepy, but Fogg seems to be working out some sort of framework for the operant conditioning of humans.  I am a little confused by this stuff.  On the one hand, his behavior model seems quite intuitive.  It stands to reason that the harder a task is, the more motivated one has to be in order to be persuaded to perform that task. On the other hand, there is no empirical evidence offered that this is actually true.  As one fellow attendee pointed out, the flat earth theory was quite intuitive as well.  So while Fogg’s lab resides at Stanford, his work has a highly unacademic feel to it.  Citations are sparse to non-existent in the material I reviewed, and I didn’t see any papers based on actual experiments.

But QS isn’t properly scientific either, and I have argued that it provides value by giving us insight into ourselves.  I am willing to concede that habit design might be useful to help individuals craft their own behaviors to reduce harmful habits and increase positive habits. I was initially interested in habit design because I wanted to increase the frequency of my own writing habit.  I did build a decent writing habit for a few months recently during a lull in business, but I found it much harder to maintain once business picked up again.  Fogg’s ability factors offer some insight into this. I often feel too exhausted mentally to write after working all day.  So one obvious solution this suggests is to simply stop expending mental effort at work (Ah, if only it were that easy.).

Many of the people at these Habit Design meetups are app developers and business people.  Fogg ran a successful and high profile Facebook app class in 2007 that spawned apps that reached millions of people.  So a lot of Silicon Valley types started paying close attention to him and his work.  He advocates lean startup, agile style models of development where various ideas are attempted and iterated toward completion.  Little effort is expended for each initial prototype and only ideas that pan out receive additional effort and resources.

Now all this sounds well and good and properly entrepreneurial.  But I found Fogg to be a bit glib in the way he treats this topic of persuasion through technology.  Assuming that these behavior design tools of his work, he is potentially arming young, hungry, ethically challenged Silicon Valley hustlers with brain washing technology.  I would have preferred to hear some mention of the ethical implications of behaviorism in the marketplace.   It seems that when Skinner’s ideas were ejected from academia, the mantle of behaviorism was quietly taken up by corporations.  As this fellow Jay pointed out, the casinos for example have figured out plenty of tricks to control the behavior of their prey, err, “customers.”

Capitalism is sort of a massive genetic algorithm generating all sorts of unsavory behavior control strategies.  I usually console myself with the belief that humans are pretty canny and quickly learn the tricks of advertisers and other mercenary persuaders.   But if this pseudo-science turns into real science as with neuromarketing, then more and more of us will be in real trouble.  I don’t want to end up in the thrall of some corporation whose marketing department figures out how to attack my weakness for Star Wars memes.  Seriously, if some habit designer sets up just the right sequence of triggers, the next thing I know I’ll be spending all of my disposable income on action figures.

But there is a real self-help angle here.  The fact is that many of us struggle with modifying our own behaviors.  Several ignite talks were given by folks who figured out ways to change their own habits by modifying their environments or by taking baby steps to build up routines that could be expanded on.  Fogg’s tiny habits program may have helped many people change their habit by supplying triggers via email.  I like the simplicity of focusing on triggers and ability instead of motivation.  We only can do what we are capable of doing and I can see how a trigger and reward can help to get you moving.  So go ahead, learn to ring your own bell and salivate.  In additional to training yourself to take that daily run or forgo that delicious doughnut, you might inoculate yourself against the incessant ringing of those product engagement bells.

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