Understanding the Science of Change

I have always been a big believer that the universe has a tendency to bring ideas, concepts and even people to you when you need them to be in front of you. When that occurs in my life, after I finally recognize that it is happening – and yes, sometimes it takes me a while to notice — I begin to immerse myself in the idea or get to know that person better.

Lately, a new concept has been showing up and so over the next few posts, I’m going to write about it. I’m also going to read about it and share what I learn along the way.

In the April 13th, 2009 edition of Time Magazine, there was an article by Michael Grunwald called “How Obama is Using the Science of Change.” The article cited the work of behavioral scientist Robert Cialdini who found that that the most powerful motivator was that “people want to do what they think others will do.” Cialdini is the author of the best seller “Influence.” (For what its worth, Cialdini is the name that keeps popping up…more on that in the next few posts)

According to Time, Obama leans heavily on the work of the behavioral scientists to understand what makes people tick and then, using this knowledge, he intends to spur behavioral change throughout the country. He’s leveraging what he learned about people to move forward his agenda on the economy, healthcare and energy.

The power of these nudges is huge. For example, is there a difference in the number of people who participate in a 401 K plan if they have to sign up or would that number change if they were signed up already and had to opt out? Well, a 2001 study showed that only 36% of women joined a 401K plan when they had to sign up for it…but when they had to opt out, 86% participated.

The implications of using behavioral science in our business and personal lives are huge. This notion affects sales, marketing, management, leadership and even how we lead our communities or exist within our families.

So how is the Obama Administration using what they have learned? Consider the way Americans received the $116 billion in payroll tax cuts from the stimulus package. Obama chose NOT to send one lump sum check even if that would have put the money in the hands of Americans faster. His administration was concerned that a lump sum check might be viewed as a windfall and deposited in a bank account instead of being spent to rev up the economy. Instead, the money is being released through decreased payroll withholding. Smaller amounts spread over time are more likely to be spent. The idea is to subtly nudge us to spend the extra cash.

Make no mistake – this is a radical departure from the way that we have let the free market dictate how things work. Some might call this “manipulation,” but to change our ingrained behaviors, this might be necessary. And we may discover that behavioral science is compatible with free market thinking as it may prove to be an accelerator in how we interact with the free markets.

The Time magazine article goes on to highlight several elements that help us to change behavior. And that will be the subject of the next post.

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