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Katy Milkman on Choice and Temptations

By April 29, 2021 May 4th, 2021 No Comments

Today Mark talks with Katy Milkman, (@katymilkman) professor at the Wharton School and host of Charles Schwab’s “Choiceology with Katy Milkman” podcast. She’s a frequent writer of behavioral science for The Washington Post and Scientific American. Her newest book is How to Change. In this episode, she discusses temptations and improving our chances for change.

Hear about:

  • Temptation Bundling and its counterintuitive way to make you more productive
  • The Advice Club and its benefits to help you achieve your goals
  • The Impulsivity Problem, the Forgetting Problem, the Confidence Problem, and how to get past them all

Listen in for some insights from a top behavioral expert on how you can make a positive change for yourself and others.

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Hey folks. This is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for joining me.

Welcome back. If you’re a long-time listener, super-appreciate you being here. If you like this show, please refer it to your friends, family, peers… and it’s very helpful if you rate it. Especially on iTunes… we have a thousand five-star reviews. It really helps other people to find the podcast for credibility. So please rate this podcast and refer it. Really appreciate that.

I am really excited today to talk to Katy Milkman… she is an award-winning professor at Wharton – what an incredible school…

Katy has a podcast called “Choiceology” and she’s got a new book out called “How to Change,” and so she’s a change expert. So I’m really excited to have you here, Katy. This is a subject that’s kind of near and dear to my heart.

So, thank you. And thank you for your contribution to this important discussion about behavioral change and making the world a more positive place. So let’s start with how you got interested in this subject, and where did that come from? Something you studied or is it an academic pursuit? Or how did you get into this?

Katy: Yeah, so it’s the subject of my 20 years of research roughly, since I began in academia. But I didn’t get into it because of research – I think I got into it because I was doing a little “me-search…”

Mark: It’s usually the case isn’t it, right? Through self-exploration and try to overcome our own issues and challenges that leads us into some sort of expertise. That’s great…

Katy: Exactly, I was interested in this topic for that reason. And then I ended up becoming an academic who studies it. And I’ll say that the moment when it became really clear how important it was to me, was not at the beginning of my career… it was a little bit later when I learned just what a huge fraction of premature deaths in the world are due to behaviors that we could change.

Just not something I was aware of, but it turns out about 40% of premature deaths are due to behaviors…

Mark: You mean health-related deaths? Because people do things that lead to disease?

Katy: That’s right. Exactly. So smoking, failing to exercise regularly, drinking, l eating unhealthy foods, making bad decisions about vehicle safety… all of those things really add up in a way that is just frankly much larger than I appreciated.

And when I learned that, it gave me a laser focus in my work… that there was an opportunity to really make lives a lot better. I was sort of studying this maybe half-time, and looking at other curiosities in the world, too.

And then I got much more focused when I learned how big the opportunity was to have an impact.

Mark: You said that you were kind of doing some self-exploration, self-awareness… did you have some bad behaviors that were leading you down the wrong road?

Katy: Don’t we all?

Mark: Of course, I know… but I want to hear yours. And I’ll tell you mine, anytime, but…

Katy: (laughing) Yeah, I’m happy to share – I’d say the first the first thing that ended up converting into me-search was when I was a graduate student – I was actually getting a degree in engineering – I ended up becoming a behavioral scientist…

Mark: Makes perfect sense. Yeah, I was a CPA and then I became a navy SEAL. That also made perfect sense…

Katy: Right yeah. Life is full of winding roads. So I was an engineering graduate student, I was taking all these classes that had… they’re very quantitative, tough problem sets – I’d go to a long day of lectures come home I was exhausted and all I wanted to do was indulge in my favorite entertainment – so binge watch tv shows, read low-brow novels – that’s where I wanted to be.

I knew that I needed to get my work done. I also knew I needed to get workouts in – because my stress was always related to my ability to stay fit – I was a serious competitive tennis player in high school and college… and in graduate school I needed a way to maintain that.

But I couldn’t drag myself to the gym, either. Because all I wanted to do was binge watch tv…

So I ended up coming up with a solution to both of my problems. And I call it temptation bundling… I solved the problem by only letting myself enjoy those entertainment temptations while I was exercising. I actually got really into audio novels, because it was a little hard to port a tv around in that era. I’m old enough that that was tricky.

But I would listen to low-brow audio novels – so you know, The Hunger Games, The Twilight series, Alex Cross, James Patterson and I would only let myself listen while I was exercising. And what happened was I would come home the end of a long day of classes, I’d find myself craving a trip to the gym…

When I got there, the time would fly, because I was enjoying the novel so much, the exercise I barely even noticed I was doing it. And then I’d come back, recharged, energized, ready to work. And I already had had my entertainment fix. So suddenly I was more productive in school, and I was doing more workouts.

So that was sort of the first thing. And then that worked so well for me, that I ended up doing research about it. So I ran a study to show this technique – I call it temptation bundling – can help other people significantly increase their exercise as well. And it’s just one example, but lots of my work is a little bit me-search…

Mark: What would you call the body of your work? Because it sounds a lot like “habit forming,” right? And so one of my friends and I did a podcast with him – a guy named James Clear – who wrote “Atomic Habits.” And he talks about something similar. About linking…

Katy: He talks about my research in “Atomic Habits…”

Mark: Oh does he? That’s probably why it sounds familiar…

Katy: Yeah, he covers my work on temptation bundling. That’s why it sounds familiar to you.

So, that’s exactly right. So, I would not call all of my research habit research… in fact, the book I wrote covers a lot of different topics – including habit. Because habit – at least to behavioral scientists – has a very specific meaning… a behavior that becomes so ingrained that it’s automatic. You don’t even really think about it before you do it.

And some of that is what we need for change. Habits are a great way to propagate change, but there’s other things that we might want to do, that are more conscious. And that are in our conscious control…

Like making concrete plans, thinking about ways we can avoid forgetting, avoid procrastination – ways we can solve to make sure that our social environment is supporting change. So the book is broader than just habits… and my work is broader than just habits… but habits are absolutely a part of that.

Mark: Okay. Like a subset of that. So how does cognitive behavioral therapy relate to change in your work?

Katy: Yeah, it’s a wonderful question. I should also admit – in my journey, I knew nothing about cognitive behavioral therapy until four or five years ago. When I started doing research with Angela Duckworth.

So my background is in engineering, I’ve never taken a psychology class and I know nothing about clinical psychology – or knew nothing about clinical psychology until I met Angela. She’s a close collaborator and friend.

And she knows a lot about clinical psychology and taught me all about cognitive behavioral therapy, and I was just fascinated. It’s really… there’s these distinct academic traditions and they don’t talk to each other enough, I would say.

I think the way in which cognitive behavioral therapy is most related, is that it does also emphasize – just like the research on behavioral science that I have immersed myself in – it emphasizes the importance of bridging action and tension gaps. And figuring out what is it that’s obstructing change for you. And that’s a major theme I have found.

But cognitive behavioral therapy is mostly about sort of observing what’s going on in your mind, figuring out what those patterns are – it’s very internally focused. And most of the research I do is actually about setting up structures outside of your mind – sort of in the world – that will facilitate change.

So like for example temptation bundling… while it’s dealing with a psychological barrier, which is temptation – it’s creating these structures in reality. I really didn’t let myself do this thing out in the real world, except when I was exercising.

And so I think it’s different in that way. It’s a little bit more externally focused.

Mark: I see.

Katy: Actually, I have to say, I’m curious what you think. How you think it’s related to habits, and how you relate cognitive behavioral therapy and habits…

Mark: Well, I think CBT really precedes habit forming. Because we’ve got to understand how our current behavior is leading to the results that we have in our life, and then we’ve gotta cognitively insert – through a lot of your work – first you have to have the willpower and the motivation and then the strategy to insert a new cognition around what you want. And then how you’re going to get there. And then the strategy about actually enacting that.

And that’s why it worked well in a therapeutic process. Because it’s a back and forth, back and forth… and the therapist can be the mirror – as well as the person providing new cognition or new cognitive models for the student or – whatever you call it – the patient, so to speak.

And so that can lead to new habit forming… That’s what I think, but I just made that up… I’m not an expert.

Katy: That’s interesting… I like the way you said that it comes before habit. It’s like, you need that motivation, and you need to bridge the intention and the realization that change is necessary, and that can come through the cognitive…

Mark: Right, because I think you use the term “motivation gap.” And a lot of people have that motivation gap… but a lot of them aren’t even aware of what they want, right? They’re not aware of the cognitive programming that’s driving the current behavior… and so we’ve gotta find that programming and then interrupt it. And then insert some new programming.

And then you can link that to motivation and to strategies – like temptation bundling – that will then form a new habit, I think.

So, let’s talk about the specifics about How to Change. And I love that title, because it’s very, very grabbing – it’s like “I want to change.” So, if someone says… do you work with individual clients by any chance?

Katy: Yeah.

Mark: Okay, so you do. Great.

Katy: Well I work with them on academic research normally. I partner with a company…

Mark: So they become part of a research project…

Katy: Exactly.

Mark: So someone in one of your projects comes to you, and let’s say they’re overweight, because they’ve got a behavioral pattern of overeating or binge eating or whatever it is… where do you start with them? They say, “I want to change,” but they’re 45 years old and they haven’t been able to change. Including the age-old story that probably everyone listening has been through, is like trying every single diet under the sun and finding that none of them work. And they’re in the same place as they were before.

So where do you start with them? What are some of the issues that you have to deal with?

Katy: Yeah, it’s a fantastic question. I think the most important question I would ask them is what they find most challenging about… because it’s not a knowledge gap almost certainly, when it comes to…

Mark: Right. Because the knowledge is out there. All you got to do is google a few things…

Katy: Right, yeah… most people know they shouldn’t eat Oreos or Cheetos, and they should eat more salad, right?

Mark: Right. But salad’s no fun and it doesn’t taste good. And Oreos… oh man, they’re so delicious.

Katy: They are good.

Mark: And one is not enough.

Katy: We’re gonna make people go get Oreos now. I feel like we’re an ad for Oreos. (laughing) They are tasty, though.

That’s right – so then the question is “okay, well what’s the challenge? Is it that you mean to do it and then you sort of forget to make it concrete enough?” Like, you don’t have the right stuff in your fridge, and you’ve stocked up on too much junk, and so you’re constantly unable to find something that’s good for you and tastes good.

Is it you just can’t work the physical activity angle. And if you only did that… you really feel you’re just too lethargic? Like what are the barriers? What’s preventing change?

Is it that you don’t believe you can? Like you’ve given up on yourself at this point, and you need to figure out strategies that you believe could actually work, and you just don’t have that?

So there’s all these different barriers to change…

Mark: Do you think that belief underlies everything, though? I mean, if someone wants to change and they can’t, isn’t there some belief system that’s part of that challenge?

Katy: I don’t think belief underlies everything, I think believing you can is important. Like you need to have some self-efficacy or confidence in order to get…

Mark: So you have people who believe they can change, but they still can’t?

Katy: Sure, there’s lots of optimists out there who are like “well, this year I’m all over it – this time…” and I understand why. It’s actually very adaptive to have that “I can do it this time,” attitude, right? You can see why we would evolve to have it.

But then if you don’t have a set of strategies, you don’t get much farther than the optimism. So for just different people, it’s different challenges… and then the solution depends…

In the case of weight loss, I would say particularly common challenges are – one we already covered which is like “it just doesn’t taste good. And I find it so unpleasant that, even though I keep meaning to choose the right foods, when the time comes, I’m tempted, and I give into temptation.”

And there’s two sort of really effective ways to deal with temptation. And I call them the carrot and the stick, right? (laughing) And I’m obviously not the one to invent that terminology. That’s just how I’m labeling these two categories…

The carrot would be something we’ve a little bit talked about already with temptation bundling – it’s a related concept, which is we try too often to just push through and do the thing that’s most effective without giving a lot of thought to what will make doing it actually instantly gratifying…

Mark: Some sort of reward for the effort…

Katy: Exactly. So you stock up on the kale and the carrots – you could self-reward – but even just finding healthy foods that are actually delicious – like smoothies – maybe it’ll take you twice as long to lose the weight, if you stray from an all-lettuce diet… but that’s fine…

Mark: So if I eat the kale, could I have an Oreo? (laughing)

Katy: No, more like instead of trying to eat the kale, find things that you find delicious – yogurt and smoothies and nuts and what are the foods that work for you to still be tempting and they’re still going to help you reach that goal.

So, find a way to make it more fun. Or maybe make it social, is another way to make things fun… that you’re doing this with other people. And you’re eating together, and you’re preparing healthy meals together. And that makes it a fun activity, and something you look forward to. And so you don’t back out.

So that’s the carrot. Which is funny, because we’re talking about carrots, which are not tasty – but anyway…

So the stick side is actually something that I think is counter-intuitive to people, but really powerful. And that is, we’re really aware of the way that a manager or a policy maker could try to constrain behavior, so we won’t give into temptation, right? Like, we’ll set speed limits so that people don’t drive too fast.

Mark: Rules, regulations and consequences.

Katy: But we too rarely actually set those up for ourselves. And when it comes to temptation, if you recognize it’s coming you can set yourself up for success by creating constraints that will make it harder.

So one of my favorite examples is there are these websites – Bee Minder is one of them – where you can go and put money on the line that you’ll forfeit if you fail to achieve your goals. And you can actually donate it not to a cause that will be a silver lining – but to a cause you hate, right? So they have like hot button issues, and they have charities on either side, right?

Like, gun control or the NRA. And you pick your poison, and you have a referee who’s going to hold you accountable. So that’s another way that you can basically increase the price of your vice… so that even when you feel that temptation, the cost is so high that you won’t give in.

So those are a couple of things.

Mark: A failure penalty…

Katy: Exactly.

Mark: I remember James Clear talking about that as well. Like, he set failure penalties that were like really, really painful. Kind of self-abuse… (laughing)

Katy: That’s right, so there’s research that shows that this can be really effective, but you can set penalties around… you want to make them bite size… so not so much that “if I don’t achieve my goal in a month, I’m gonna get there.” But even daily goals around the behaviors you want to take.

And those small steps and small penalties can be enough to accumulate. Let me give you one more thought that I think might be useful from research… which is related to, “do you believe in yourself? And are you going to commit and follow through?”

So there’s really interesting research, some of which I’ve done, showing that when you are asked for advice by someone else, and you become a mentor – it actually helps you achieve your goals. So if someone comes up to you and says “hey, I’m really interested in your opinion on how to be a better student.” Or how to lose weight or how to get fit.

This does a few things – one, it increases your confidence that you actually have some knowledge that’s valuable and if you’re a role model to others, then you must be able to do this yourself.

Two, it causes you to introspect deeply and think about like, “what would work for me?” And we actually in the case of goal pursuit, often have that knowledge inside us. And easy to dredge up.

It’s not like calculus – who needs to teach you how it works. Like, you kind of get it. But maybe you haven’t thought deeply about it.

And when you think deeply about advice to give someone else, it normally is advice that would work for you. Because that’s what you have access to when you introspect. And finally, when you say something to someone else, you’re gonna feel like a hypocrite if you don’t follow through.

Mark: Right.

Katy: So it turns out actually being a mentor and getting involved in like advice clubs, where other people are trying to achieve similar goals and you’re all coaching each other as different challenges arise, could be a really helpful way to help yourself.

Mark: That’s really interesting

Advice Clubs


Mark: A couple things come up – first, is there such thing as an advice club? Or did you just make it up?

Katy: I’m now calling them advice clubs when you when you do this. I have an advice club in my own life… so, the research that I’ve done on this doesn’t look at advice club specifically, but it looks at what happens when you randomly assign someone to be asked for advice that they give to someone else.

Mark: That would be a cool app, wouldn’t it? To create an advice club app. I love it. Let’s do that. Trademark. I’ll give you 50%… I’m just kidding. That’s actually your idea, you came up with it.

So I was thinking about Gandhi – this is a fun story, you’ve probably heard of this – maybe even referenced in your book – but some woman came to Gandhi and said “can you help my son quit sugar. He eats too much sugar.”

And Gandhi looked at her and said, “come ask me in a month.” And what he meant was, “I’ve got to go stop eating sugar, before I can give this kid any advice on how to stop eating sugar,” right?

So it’s the same thing.

Katy: Gotta walk the walk before you can talk the talk….

Mark: Gotta walk the walk. Fascinating.

You talk about the impulsivity problem. What is that? And how do we overcome impulsivity and addictive behavior that just like seems so rooted in, it’s hard to get out of.

Katy: Yeah, well, temptation bundling is actually part of the answer, but the key issue with impulsivity is that we are wired to discount dramatically whatever rewards we’ll get later. And that’s what leads us to sit on the couch, when we should be exercising. It leads us to…

Mark: So instant gratification is your main thing. You haven’t learned delayed gratification, is that what you’re saying?

Katy: That’s right. And we sort of recognize this in kids, but we don’t recognize it in ourselves. So we’re pretty unsophisticated when it comes to strategizing about it. We often think, “I can just push right through. I’m going to be able to achieve my goals.”

If we’re more sophisticated and recognize “you know what? If it’s not fun in the moment, I’m not going to do it.” It gives us a really key weapon in the battle to change.

Because so often change is not instantly gratifying, and if you can find ways to trick yourself or to actually make it fun – and we’ve talked about some of those. Temptation bundling is one – choosing the kinds of foods you enjoy, the exercises you enjoy… doing Zumba at the gym, instead of the stair master…

It turns out we persist longer, when we choose the activities that are fun. But our intuition is wrong. So research shows that if you just ask people how do they generally pursue their goals? They say, “I do it in the way that’s most effective,” not the way that’s most fun on average.

But if you instead tell people, “no, go find the most fun way to get this done.” They’re going to keep doing it.

Mark: Okay, I like that. It makes a lot of sense to me.

What about forgetting a problem? Like, when I read about that, I really didn’t know what the heck you were talking about. Because people don’t really forget that they have a problem – because it’s with them 24/7. So what’s the forgetting problem? And what’s your research say about that?

Katy: Yeah, it’s more related to there’s maybe a couple of steps I need to take to actually get off the ground. Or some big goal that requires an action or a series of actions. And I don’t follow through, because I keep putting it off or I keep forgetting.

It could be something as small as forgetting to vote, but that can have carryover effects. Forgetting to get a colonoscopy, which turns out to be really important to your health/

Mark: (laughing) That’s funny. I did that, but it wasn’t so much I forgot. It just wasn’t a priority, and it just keeps getting kicked down the road.

Katy: Yeah, I put forgetting in the general bucket of sort of “flake-out,” which is “I mean to do it, and it keeps not coming to the top of the list.” And sometimes that is “I literally completely forgot it. It like completely left my mind.”

And the other is “it was not salient enough.” Which isn’t exactly the same, but it’s a really closely related process. Like it wasn’t at the top of the list, it didn’t have my full attention and both forgetting, and salience are attentional issues.

And so attention is part of what changes behavior. Bringing attention to things at the right moment, when you can take action. And there’s a few things that we can do about that. I write a little bit in the book about “memory palaces,” and literally trying to embed things more firmly in memory through different tricks and strategies.

But another thing that’s really critical is when we make plans to do something – that we actually have triggers associated with them. So rather than just saying “I intend to learn a new foreign language,” or “I’m going to go to the gym more frequently,” it’s really critical to have the details of the when and where.

And my research has shown for instance that if you’re prompting someone to get a colonoscopy or a flu shot, and you ask them “what date and time do you plan to do it?” You see a very significant increase in the number of people who follow through than if you’d just asked them to do it.

Mark: I think that’s fascinating. And the power of language both self-talk and inquiry, how much that affects individual behavior is stunning.

Katy: Absolutely. And I don’t know if you’ve had him on the podcast already, but I should note my friend and colleague Ethan Kross has a wonderful book called “Chatter,” that’s all about the science of self-talk. He’s a professor at the University of Michigan, and it came out earlier this year.

Mark: We will reach out to Ethan…

Katy: He’s amazing. Yeah, he’s the expert on self-talk.

Mark: (laughing) I’m kind of an expert on self-talk, too. So that’ll be a fun conversation.

Katy: (laughing) Sounds great. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.

Mark: So let’s again go back – I want to spend a little bit more time on this subject, though. So you mentioned that if you’re specific with a date or time – let me give example – I teach a lot of people that daily physical training is really important, right? And we don’t call it “working out,” we call it “training.”

Because it’s got to be thoughtful, and it’s got to be heading somewhere… there’s a lot of aspects to that. And so I would say a well-set goal is “I’m gonna do my daily physical training four times a week at six am, and I’m gonna endeavor to do that for at least 45 weeks of the year,” right? Or to do a certain number of sessions a year, right?

So then you can start to measure it… you can see when you need to catch up and maybe do some extras… and so it’s kind of cool… like you can track your progress and reward yourself along the way.

As opposed to saying, “my goal is to lose 30 pounds by joining a CrossFit gym.” Which is super-vague, right? So the language is partly how you frame your mission, your intention and your goal, right? And then that becomes self-dialogue to tell yourself “I’ve got to do this, because I’ve committed…”

And you can add those other kind of lever points – like committing to your peers and the accountability… the pain points, if you don’t follow through… all that kind of stuff.

Katy: That’s wonderful…

Mark: I’d love to hear your thoughts a little bit more on the language part. Like, what other types of language levers can we use to improve our chances of change?

Katy: Well, one really important thing that you alluded to is breaking down the size of the goal. So one of my favorite studies that’s been done recently, looked at the difference in asking people if they wanted to save five dollars a day, versus thirty-five dollars a week, or a hundred and fifty dollars a month – which are of course the same…

And found dramatically more adoption when it’s five dollars a day. Similarly when we ask volunteers at a large non-profit to commit to a 200 hour a year goal… and we either broke it down into four hours weekly or eight hours every two weeks – compared to just that big 200 hours a year goal – we saw about a 10% increase in volunteering.

So when we make those things bite size and proximal, it makes it feel more doable. And that language is so important. And I think you already have that intuition…

Mark: I do, because we use micro-goals and chunking things down – and also taking things just one day at a time. Because even tomorrow’s – in my world – too far away. Because I come from the warrior tradition. You know, tomorrow might be… there might not be a tomorrow. So we’ve got to really focus on like what can we do today to move toward our goals and accomplishment?

Katy: There’s one other thing I want to double click on related to your example – because I think you’ll love it, given that it’s so closely related to what you’re coaching people to do. I did an experiment where we tested two different ways of encouraging people to form a long-term habit around exercise. One of them was every day at the same time, we’re encouraging them for a month. And we’re rewarding them if they go to the gym at the same time of day.

And the other group, we also encouraged to go to the gym… we reminded them to go that same time every day… but we rewarded them whenever they went. And what we ended up with was two groups of people who went to the gym at the same frequency for a month, but one group went consistently at the same time, and the other group went at more variable times.

And then we looked to see who had formed a more lasting habit… the rewards were taken away, and we said, “which extinguishes faster? Which one sticks around?”

And what we actually found is that the group that had more variability ended up building a more lasting habit. Which initially confused us a little bit, right? Because there’s so much…

Mark: Right. Because my mind was initially going, “yeah, it’s going to be the ones that had the consistent time.” But it’s not so.

Katy: It’s not so and it isn’t that you don’t want to plan or have a first, best time… because both groups had that – both groups are getting reminded, and both groups at least 50% of their workouts are at that time.

But what we found is the group that was only rewarded at that time… they formed a really rigid habit, so they were aiming to go to the gym say at 7 am – and they went a little more at 7 am, actually, than the other than the other group after the reward period ended.

But they didn’t go any other time. If they didn’t make it at 7 am, that was it. They gave up.

The other group had built a more elastic habit – a more flexible habit, a more robust habit… and they went ever so slightly less at their sort of regular time, but they went at other times, too. So when life gets in the way – which it inevitably does – we need to be able to have a fallback plan.

And I think that was a really important insight for me, because I made the wrong prediction when I set up to do this research. So having those plans is important, but we don’t want to just have a only a primary plan and say if it fails, we give up. It needs to be, “I’m going to try to do it at a consistent time, and I have a fallback plan if that doesn’t work…”

Mark: I love that. Because in our world in the SEALs we say, “no plan survives contact with the enemy, or reality.” And expect your first plan to fail.

And so you’ve got to adapt and to improvise on the fly.

Katy: You got it… exactly.

Mark: Build that resiliency into your goal or your change behavior. That’s really interesting.

Katy: Yeah. That’s a really nice analogy.

Mark: And the last kind of big point that I’d like to drill into is what you call the “confidence problem.” So how do we go from “I don’t know if I can do this at all. Help me, Katy.”

To “I’m confident that this change is permanent. And thank you very much, time to move on to the next thing.”

Katy: Yeah, it’s a great question. The advice club is one thing that can help, right? When you form an advice club, that helps prop up your confidence.

But closely related is thinking about whether or not your peers and the social supports and social structures you’ve created, are conveying to you that you can do this. Are you surrounded by people who believe in you? And who were showing you this is possible?

Or are you surrounded by people who are perhaps dragging you down?

One of my favorite studies of this looks at the impact of random assignment to your college roommate. And shows that when you end up… freshman year in college, with a roommate who has higher verbal sat scores – your grades improve. And of course vice-versa.

So there’s lots of research on how strong social effects are in all different walks of life, from our energy efficiency at home, to our retirement savings decisions – but it’s something I think we can and should be more deliberate and conscious about. Who are the people that we’re surrounding ourselves with? And are they giving us the right set of beliefs about what’s possible? Are they role modeling for us?

Or are they making us not believe in ourselves. Because they don’t believe in us, or because they’re showing us it’s not so feasible to accomplish our goals.

So that would be a big one…

Mark: That’s fascinating. And you’re right – there’s been a lot of research on expectation even in schools. Like, the expectations that the teachers have for the kids will affect their…

Katy: The stereotypes…

Mark: Right. It’s really fascinating, and this plays into a lot of different areas in life. That’s fascinating.

One of the challenges a lot of my clients come to me with when we talk about this issue, or related issues around people that you’re with who are negative. Which also would be like not supportive, and not helping… dragging you down…

They kind of feel trapped, because oftentimes these are like their family or their wife or their husband. Or their work peers – and they actually want to stay at the job, or they don’t know how to go, get out of it.

So what are some of your solutions when someone comes to you and says “yeah, but…”

Katy: Yeah. Well, “yeah but…” is a tough one, but in this case the good news is you can always expand your network of peers. Even if there’s someone you can’t eliminate who’s dragging you down…

Well, one you can talk to them about it, right? And sometimes a candid conversation can help.

But you can also expand that network. So maybe the people you work with, and the people you live with aren’t supporting this goal. But maybe you can join a running club, and that’s a new set of peers who are going to support your goal to run a marathon. And who aren’t going to sit on the couch on Sunday, and watch tv, when you wanted to be out doing something active.

So, I think there’s almost always an opportunity. Either through conversations with the people who are in your life currently, or through sort of an expansion of that network to have better peer effects.

Mark: I love that. And the more advanced skill is to develop the mental control to not let the negativity affect you.

Katy: Yeah. That’s hard…

Mark: That’s a little bit harder… it’s doable, but it’s hard, yeah…

Katy: Yeah – in general, whenever we can avoid the “just control it. Just push through…” advice, I have found that we do better. Because if we’re putting that onus on ourselves, it’s just a lot of extra work.

Mark: Right, right, yeah. I wish you had more time to dig into that one subject, because it’s pretty interesting…

What’s next for you? Like what is your big bogey in front of you now?

Katy: Well, I run a center at the University of Pennsylvania called the “Behavior Change for Good Initiative.”

Mark: Oh cool.

Katy: It’s a research group. And we’re really focused on figuring out what are the keys to durable change? What are the things that we still haven’t uncovered that make durable change possible?

We’ve learned a lot already – which is what motivated me to write a book on this topic and come have conversations like this…

But there’s so much more to learn. And in particular, I’m really interested in the question of getting back up after a setback. Because increasingly we find there is no such thing as change that doesn’t involve setbacks. And one of the big things that kills change attempts, is when people don’t get up again.

And there are a few things we’ve discovered already that seem to be valuable, because they help people get back on the wagon after they’ve fallen down. And I’m going to be focusing a lot of time on finding more solutions to that. More things that help people persist, stand back up, face the fact that failure is just a part of success. And so that’s what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life, probably. (laughing)

Mark: That’s awesome. And the more people who can change positively – like Gandhi said, be the change you want to see… and to have that change stick and be durable. And learn that failure is just part of the process of growth and becoming more complete as a human being.

Then that’ll ripple out, right? And have a really positive effect on culture and on you know kind of undermining some of the negativity and fear-based discourse that’s going on in our society.

Katy: You got it.

Mark: So thank you for that contribution. I know you’ve got to go. We’ll have to wrap up.

Where can people learn more about your work? And of course the book “How to Change,” is available – I imagine – at amazon… that’s this little, small bookstore I heard about….

Katy: (laughing) It is. It’s available at large and small bookstores. Best place to find out more about me is my website – And you can find out more about the book, about my podcast “Choiceology,” I have a newsletter “Milkman delivers,” if you like puns…

And my research. Which is a huge part of my life – my research center.

Mark: Right. Awesome. Katy, thanks so much for your time today. You rock. Appreciate the work you’re doing, and for your time…

Katy: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. This was really fun.

Mark: Yeah, likewise. Take care.

All right, folks. That was Katy Milkman, go check her out at Go buy her book “How to Change,” and listen to her podcast “Choiceology.”

I’d love to have this conversation more with you, Katy. Maybe we can do it on your podcast next time.

Katy: That would be great fun.

Mark: All right, thanks again for your time. And everybody thanks for joining us at the Unbeatable Mind podcast. This is your host Mark Divine. Really appreciate you and figure out how to make that big change. And you could start by buying Katy’s book and learning how to make it stick.


Till next time, Divine out.

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