with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 037: Behavior Change and Interpersonal Connection (with Ting Jiang)

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April 22, 2021

How does a behavioral scientist apply her knowledge to her own life? What fraction of our behaviors are deliberative, and what fraction are automatic? In what ways are we insufficiently scientific in our attempts to diagnose behavior problems? To what extent is introspection important for behavior change? Can behavior change take place without relatively accurate quantification and measurement? (For example, we know exact values for our bank account balance or our weight on the scale, but we don't know exact values for our level of happiness or how much progress we've made in meditation. To encourage behavior change in those more nebulous domains, is it useful to assign numbers to everything?) Can (and should) "sacred" things be quantified? What's the difference between customs and norms? Why do we often fail to generalize our own skills from one domain to other domains? How can we use stories to encourage behavior change? What are some new and different ways of connecting with others, especially during a pandemic? How can everyday items or events be tweaked to encourage behavior change?

Ting Jiang is a global expert and thought leader in behavioral change and innovation. She received her Ph.D. in Experimental Economics but publishes findings across a broad range of disciplines. For the past 5 years, until January 1st, 2021, she served as a principal at Dan Ariely's behavioral science lab at Duke University, during which she led projects globally helping diverse organizations, companies, and tech startups to improve the behavioral uptake and retention of programs and products. The work she is most proud of is her own attempt to develop various science-based games for behavioral change, including a board game called "Healthy Money" for forming better spending and saving habits. Most recently, she's been calling for a collective reflection on whether the world is currently in the dark ages of human flourishing despite our advancement in tech and natural sciences. Find out more about her here.

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, a podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast and I'm so glad you've joined us today! In this episode, Spencer speaks with Ting Jiang about scientific approaches to behavioral health, strategies for quantifying relationship dynamics, games as a means of fostering social connection, and the redesign of everyday experiences.

SPENCER: Ting, welcome! It's great to have you here.

TING: Great to be here.

SPENCER: You're an expert in behavioral science and behavior change strategies. The first thing I want to ask you about is, tell me about your own journey of applying behavioral science in your own life and how you're able to turn your role as an expert to help others into applying it to the way you live.

TING: Well, thank you for that question. I don't know whether I'm qualified enough to give you the perfect answer. But this is actually an area of reflection that I did myself during the pandemic of how much behavioral science I have applied to my own life. For a while, I have been measuring myself on authentic happiness, partly due to curiosity, partly because I had depression during my PhD. I recovered from it and never had a relapse and I was very proud of it. But then life didn't always feel so perfect. I kept track of it. I was surprised by my happiness level being below average according to the indicator. At some point, I thought, maybe I should look for more indicators. It was so daunting to me at some point that as a behavioral scientist myself, how am I not doing better than average? It was just somewhat shocking. I started to think about how much I have been applying to my own life. Of course, there's certain things that I would, for example, set up reminders, social accountability buddy for doing more exercise, for getting better at diet. There's definitely more awareness of where I felt and how I can do better but there was never a sense of real achievement in that application. So during the pandemic, I decided to take that as a priority. I couldn't stand it anymore. The fact that I couldn't help myself enough. Also given that a lot of the behavioral economics interventions and nudges, the effect size is not always very clear. What I discovered in my five years of field experiments where we really apply the behavioral science interventions that have been tested/proven in sufficient studies in the lab setting and we tried to bring it to the field, oftentimes we would see it being successful in some of the context but not in all of the context. The effect size tends to be negligible except for some of the obvious ones like default.

SPENCER: Just to dig into that a little bit. You're saying that, if you change the default, for example, you opt people automatically into saving 5% of their salary every year. That works but a lot of the nudge behaviors that you try to create, maybe they work in some places but not in other places. Maybe that just even when they work, they're just only slightly changing behavior. Making people's lives slightly better. That kind of thing?

TING: Exactly. If you think about what behavioral economics has been advocating, it's about how our decisions are often driven by automatic processes and hence, the cues in the environment. The context really matters for deciding what to do. Oftentimes, we overestimate the amount of deliberative participation in those decision-making and neglect the importance of the cues and the context in the environment. Default and different nudges create the supportive cues and context to help people make the right decisions without much self-control, willpower, and relying on their own attention and deliberation. It assumes for certain good options, good decisions, more universally across the population and tries to just make those decisions easier and more frictionless.

SPENCER: It's interesting to think about what a large percentage of our action is not deliberative. The vast majority of the time we're just doing stuff and we're being cued by our environment to do it. But we're not reflecting on, "What do I really want in this situation?" Or, "What am I really trying to achieve?" And so on.

TING: Yeah. This is evolutionarily very intuitive because the more decisions that we have to make over a day, the less we can afford making them all the time. If we think about how much decisions and information we're increasingly confronted with, we're much more likely to be on autopiloting and trying to come up with relying on decision heuristics and rules of thumbs to arrive at the decisions instead of making them deliberatively. The problem is, because of our lack of understanding of what truly drives our behavior — even the fact that they exist, these two kinds of decision processes — and under what context are we using the fast brain system versus the slow brain system.

SPENCER: You're doing like system one versus two?

TING: Right. One is more automatic and reactive and the other is more deliberative and slow. It's easy to be aware that there's this two-system but it's very difficult to catch yourself when you're in system one. It's very difficult to make the right diagnosis in the right context. For example, if I'm having a fight with my spouse and I can feel my anger coming from lack of sleep, that's a level of sophistication that we often don't have. What happens more typically would be, we would over attribute deliberative intention. Either in our own judgment of why I'm angry about him for what he did, or "He did this. He must have bad intentions behind his wrongdoing." Instead to say, "By the way, this is late at night. He's so tired by now. We haven't slept much in the past few days. He must be on autopilot at this point. We should delay this discussion because it deserves a longer conversation to really judge the situation."

SPENCER: I think that's such a good point that often if someone says something insensitive that's hurtful, very often people will have this model of the other person like, "Well, why did you say that? You must have really meant that. That must imply something about your deeply held beliefs." And so on. When often just a much simpler explanation, the person was just grouchy because they hadn't eaten lunch yet or they slept badly. It might actually be the truth. We go around, as you were saying, both modeling ourselves as being much more agents than we really are but also modeling other people as being much more agents than they really are. That can actually create all kinds of conflict.

TING: It was shocking to me that it took me five years of practicing this theory of system one and two, to start applying that to my own life. I have applied it to interventions towards certain populations of our organizations that we collaborate with all the time. We would always explain, "By the way, when they don't use your product as often, you have a retention problem. It's not that they don't value your app. It's just because they forgot to; it's not part of their habit. It's not part of their routine. It's more of an automatic process." What organizations tend to do or what policies/programs tend to do is try to motivate them even more. Let's say "Oh, they don't see the value of it. They must not think this is important enough." In fact, we have one psychological study that shows the more you emphasize the importance of an action, the more likely someone is going to procrastinate on it and actually decide not to. There's actually lower uptake with the emphasis of importance. This is related to heuristic, again, bias of ostrich effect. When you think something is important, first of all, you have a heuristic of "Maybe it deserves more attention. Let me spend more time on it later and might get to it." But on the other hand, because it's important, if you don't have a clear idea of what to do and have enough confidence that you arrive at a good decision, you're also afraid of it. A negative emotion pushes it off even more or you will try to avoid it. So these two coming together makes it that, actually emphasizing the importance of improving the attitude or trying to motivate someone even more sometimes can even backfire. Not only that it doesn't work well but not realizing that oftentimes it's not about motivating people further but it's about getting them to implement the intention successfully led to a lot of poorly designed dimensions and ineffective as a result, not surprisingly.

SPENCER: I imagine that for things that are potentially stressful or people worry that they might not do a good enough job, I can definitely see that happening. For example, I guess the classic ostrich effect is, when your stocks are going down, you check your stock portfolio less. When they're going up, you check it more. But I also imagine if someone doesn't think something is important at all, there might actually be very low motivation to engage in it. Maybe it's getting a sweet spot, you don't necessarily want to increase the perceived importance past a certain point.

TING: Spencer, it's interesting to ask the question of, "what is a more scientific approach to diagnose a problem?" When we think about a lot of behavioral change problems, we tend to apply our intuitions. I would argue that, in fact, part of the reason why we haven't hacked the well-being crisis is that we have not been scientific in approaching it in our very discussions. I know that we are both already quite informed. The way we would think about a problem is still very much like relying on our own intuitions of how to go about it. If you think about medical science, if somebody's having eye infection, or having a stomachache, what are we going to do scientifically? First you do a lab test, you diagnose properly, then you say, "Because of this diagnosis outcome, we're going to apply intervention A and B. We're going to monitor it. This has been clinically proven that it should work if conditions A and B." In this very example, when you say sometimes people are not necessarily motivating, we might need both. I think, indeed, the more scientific approach is to say, "Okay, let's systematically map out what's the underlying driver of (let's say) not exercising enough." Is it because this person is not motivated enough? Or he's actually super motivated but then afraid of not being able to continue or lack of self-efficacy? Or it's just not part of his habit and he forgot. And once he experienced some failure, he felt bad about it and stumbled in terms of feeling bad about it and started to avoid it. I think that first step of diagnosis definitely would help a lot. I think what we face as a societal level is that because individuals are so different, we have very different underlying drivers even for the same behavior of failure that these diagnoses need to be necessarily somewhat more personal. We haven't figured out an efficient way to get at the most personalized diagnosis. Second, is that we have not come up with even being able to unify all the human sciences to have a relatively more standardized framework that everybody agrees to.

SPENCER: When I think about trying to change behavior, one approach is you try to say, "we're just going to apply this nudge. We're going to hope that on average it increases the behavior a little bit. Because even if it's irrelevant for many people, it will help some of them and we'll get this average effect." But if you want to create a really large effect size, where you really change behavior to a significant degree, I think you're absolutely right. You have to understand the various different drivers of the behavior. If you're trying to increase the importance for someone who already thinks this thing is super important you might even backfire. Whereas if you say, "There's no point of improving the importance" but in fact, people don't think it's important at all. Then you're missing out on a really good opportunity. I really don't believe in doing this stuff with no model of the situation. I think you have to have a model of, "why are people behaving the way they are?" Then think about pinpointing, "These are the three reasons why they're not doing this behavior already." Then you've got to design your target intervention. To me, that's what it looks like to try to create something of really high effect size.

TING: The related point is, how do we know when we actually arrive at the most fundamental drivers? We can always find a driver. Currently at social sciences in general, I think if you look at natural sciences, you almost always have a right or wrong answer, or close enough to the truth. With social sciences, there's so many possibilities, and some of them, "social norms factors should play a role here", "motivation does matter here", "Habit. It's probably a factor here." But the relative impact is not clear. The other is, I do find fascinating that all the drivers that I have diagnosed for myself, for example of getting enough exercise or getting a good sleep, were not at all the factor that ultimately led to my success in my pandemic transformation. Maybe I could share a little bit of my personal story here. During the past six months, I went to more mental health behavioral change journey and did a lot of introspection and self-awareness training of my system one (my automated processes) and discovered that I had a lot of stress and anxiety that I wasn't aware of before. I had to do a lot of traveling and life was very hectic. We are very eager to help make the world a better place. So I tend to have more things on my plate that resulted in not having enough slack for deeper introspection. The underlying subconscious stress and anxiety was something that I was absolutely ignorant about. In some sense, in denial of the moment when I started to realize how much stress I have in protecting my ego, in a sense of the social image and pleasing my work, pleasing parents, or just doing a lot out of seemingly intrinsic drive but essentially those were extrinsic motivations. I wasn't being the most productive and most authentic in engaging with activities. What I ended up doing, and this was thanks to my coach, Ronit [Herzfeld] from Leap Forward, was to give myself permission to slow down, to be less ambitious, to cut down on projects, to actually take time to practice meditation, to be mindful at the daily basis or the momentary basis and discover what I truly take joy in either work or hobby or anything that truly matters to me. I discovered, which is not corroborated by scientific findings as well, that social connections, really true authentic social connections, matter a lot. Things are very invisible like communication of trust, gratitude, and love that they were so rewarding. Maybe before I realized that they matter at the theoretical level, but there was not having any psychological capacity to truly feel it. The combination of the fact that I know how to get at more authentic conversation with someone, we use this scientifically proven, "no small talk card questions" and the internal psychological capacity of not having all the noise of stress, anxiety, ego to then really taste and experience the benefits of those quality connections and feeling confident that that's really what I want and not be influenced by the unnecessary fear of "I don't have time for it." When you find things that really matter, you start to realize, "Before maybe I was trying to earn enough so that I can live a good life. But here, now, what I'm doing, it's already the good life." I'm really directly targeting at it than just going around and accumulating the most sharp tools. Accumulating all the resources I need to live a good life but forgetting when is it that I'm actually living a good life. I think the fact that this is part of the psychological science and brain science, a lot of sharing how mindfulness and how less stress can let you have better heart health and happiness. All of that in theory makes sense. But it was not translated to practical implications enough for every day application for every individual. I think, even for me as a scientist, those theories exist, but there was not a bridge between the theories and how I can implement them in my life even. It says a lot about how much we're not developing enough in bringing it to the world.


SPENCER: You understood these theories in an intellectual way, but somehow you weren't bridging them and applying them in your life. It seems like part of that was that you maybe didn't recognize the level of anxiety you're experiencing and you didn't recognize the extent to which you were trying to please other people instead of doing what you internally cared about. I feel like something I miss in that story is what actually caused that change? Was it your coach you're working with who made you realize these things? Or is it paying more attention? Or is it suddenly just giving yourself permission to focus on what you really cared about? Can you dig into that?

TING: I haven't thought enough about this. I think it's really an excellent question. I attributed it, if I have to use my system one at the moment, it is the pandemic. It's the shock of the pause. I'm really not sure if without the pandemic, whether I would be able to go through this journey.

SPENCER: Well, I think it's an interesting example of how a sudden change can actually be a great time to change ourselves. Because it wrecks our habits which can be really a bad thing but it also gives you space to rebuild them from the beginning.

TING: The second factor that is maybe not related to the pandemic was, I was very obsessed about measuring what matters. I was very concerned about the bias of measuring, of paying too much attention to the measurable. For a long time, I was shocked by the fact that we have a bank account of money but we don't have an account of love or purpose or meaning. If we think about goals, we don't set goals of like, "Let me, in this year, be maximizing or trying to improve the meaning of life." We talk about it but if we can't put it into 'what does success look like?' concretely even if it's not in numerical terms, how would we actually (in our actions) really go in that direction and when we do, that we feel good, feel rewarded, feel reinforced for taking those actions? For me, that's so incomprehensibly wrong. How come the world is still using GDP as the metric? We know how little it impacts our well-being. If we really care about well-being... If I look at the stats in June during the pandemic, how many people thought seriously about suicide in the past 30 days in June (the CDC data)? It was 11% in general population. It was a quarter for 18 to 24 year olds, the most vital age of life that you would think about giving up on life with serious consideration, that's just a bigger crisis than the pandemic itself. The fact that we can just sit here feeling okay about it and not think something is fundamentally wrong about how we approach this well-being. Either we just don't care about it, we don't care about human life. Or we're just going with the customs, the norms. We're just staying in our comfort zone. We're doing whatever that makes sense that it's commonly that we're familiar with that most other people are doing. We're having some collective ignorance here and that it diffuses responsibility, the fact that everybody is okay with it means it probably is okay. There's nothing really wrong about it. But I always felt that something's seriously wrong. I never felt satisfied about the fact that I have enough savings. It was just not something that I felt good enough for guiding my life actions. I had to think already, before the pandemic, about what I really wanted in life. I was, for a year — I don't know if you remember when we saw each other in New York — I would just ask everybody, "What is the meaning of life to you? What does it mean? How do you usually keep track of it?"

SPENCER: Normal small talk kind of conversations, right?

TING: Well, I think you gave a relatively okay answer. I don't remember exactly what that is. I remember asking people ranging from 20-80 years old and I was shocked by some of the 60-70 years old friends who said "Wow, I haven't thought much about it." If you want I can think about it now and give you an answer. I think there's one bias which is the fact that they are more imprecise, if it can be measured. If I say, "Compared it to yesterday, how much love did I feel from my husband?" and I say," Today's 9 out of 10. Yesterday was 8 out of 10." All of a sudden, we felt like, "Oh my gosh! It's so unromantic." Of course, you would probably be wrong. It's doomed to be wrong because it's not meant to be so precise. Maybe you can compare relatively speaking, but you really cannot put a number on it. Putting a number on it and be inaccurate is wrong. Hence, let's just not do it all together. One thing that we did, that may give you a concrete example, we implemented a system of sweetcoin and shitcoin.

SPENCER: I didn't know there are shitcoins also. I only knew about sweetcoin. [laughs]

TING: [laughs] Sweetcoin, shitcoin, and they're not Bitcoin. The sweet coin is when me or my husband does one very loving thing to each other. We can just say how many sweetcoin that is worth. It's translated to 10 minutes massage for each other. We started out with each person having some currencies, we each had 10 coins to start with, and we gave each other as we went.

SPENCER: I like that you convert it to something. It's like the gold standard. But instead, it's 10 minutes of massage, that's your gold standard.

TING: That's right. Because otherwise, it doesn't show the value. It was not authentic. You can give each other 10 sweetcoins and it doesn't really mean anything.

SPENCER: You get crazy inflation in sweet coin value, right?

TING: [laughs] That's exactly the word we use. Like, "We should think carefully about inflation." It works relatively well at the beginning, I must say that. But we didn't manage to keep it up. I think at some point we had a cleaning session and we got our coins that used to be visible on the countertop, it was moved elsewhere. We dropped out for two days, because there were not visible in our choice of environment. But that's another example of showing how important it is to have all of these pillars in behavioral change. First, identify what really matters. Second is that you design a system that is very immediately rewarding, easy to do, and you have some first uptake success, but then you need to really have a system in retention. We still love this idea, we're probably gonna still continue with it. But we need to restore the choice architecture in order to improve retention in keeping with a system. But definitely that was an attempt to make the invisible and intangible things that count more countable. Einstein has this quote, "Not everything that counts is countable and not everything that's countable counts." So how to make those things that count relatively more countable, even more visible in your decision — day-to-day, second-to-second decisions — I think matter a lot towards how well we'll be improving our meaning of life or happiness.

SPENCER: I know a couple that when one of them doesn't want to do a chore, they'll bid an amount of money. Then they'll basically agree on exchange price. It's like, "I'll give you $30 if you do this chore instead of me." Then they basically have this record keeping system of the amounts of money that are transferred. The idea in theory is that if there's some value to the money to the other person, then they can make things more efficient by trading off money versus activities. But I think most people would have a reaction to that, that there's something that violates social norms about it that makes it very unappealing. What's your thought on that?

TING: By the way, that's exactly what we use the shitcoin for. With the sweetcoin we'd do a good thing, with the shit coin we can use it to get the other to do taking out the trash and stuff.

SPENCER: Oh, so if you give a shitcoin you don't have to take out the trash. Is that the idea?

TING: You can earn shit coins. You can say "I volunteered to help you. It's my turn. But I'll take care of the trash for you and I'll earn 0.5 shitcoin." We actually negotiate on how much shitcoin that task is worth. It's a 10-minute massage, and we say typically, it's about 20 minutes of doing it. That's the exchange.

SPENCER: There's an exchange rate between shitcoins and sweetcoins now.

TING: Well, the sweetcoin-shitcoin rate, they're all equivalent to 10 minutes of massage.

SPENCER: Okay. Got it.

TING: But here's the interesting thing. If my husband is giving me a long, long, loving hug — that was immediately like — I'm willing to give 2 sweetcoins. I'm willing to give him a 20-minute back massage if I feel so good about it. But with the shit coin, it was really equivalent to how long and how shitty the job is. Obviously cleaning something that's dirty and unpleasant even if it's for five minutes. It's like, "Okay, it was bad enough." We try to go beyond just minutes taken or efforts to really take into account the pain and pleasure. Back to your question about social norms, I think norms are a very interesting social governance mechanism. Norms are actually meant for preventing you from doing things that are only good for yourself but at the cost of the public interest in the absence of laws and regulations. Examples would be littering in public, cheating on taxes — the free riders behavior. When we can exert normative pressure, it means that we can help reduce freeriders — those who cheat on the public good — and increase total welfare. Now, there are things that are unnecessary or they're outdated in terms of the norms. Maybe in the past, there were norms of being silent during dinner time for good reason. But there's no externality, no harm on public interest anymore not to be silent these days, then you shouldn't be there. If you look at any view, any normal depression, you say, "Okay, if I conduct this behavior that the norm says I shouldn't. I feel normal depression not to do it. If I do it, what's the benefit to myself versus the cost to the public?" If there's actually no cost at all to the public, there's a high chance that this norm is just a custom. It's something that hasn't been deliberated over in the past 200 years. They were just something that has been passed on from generations.

SPENCER: This is an example of what I call a cultural inertia, where a culture can do something that makes sense at a particular time. But then there's this momentum going forward to continuing doing nothing. It can stop making sense to do it yet the culture continues with it. I think what you're describing is really norms at their best. Norms at their best are socially reinforcing, preventing you from defecting on society, basically. But I would also just add, I think there can be a lot of weird random norms that cause a lot of harm. For example, for a really long time, in many societies and even today, people have their norms against homosexuality that are really harmful to people's lives.

TING: Absolutely. Those are false beliefs about certain harm that might be ungrounded at all. As long as there was this coordination of everybody expecting other people to disapprove of it, you basically have a norm present there regardless of whether it should be there. Regardless of whether it's a good idea to have that norm. The norm we think about here, the example is trying to make things that matter but intangible, invisible, difficult to measure more countable. I would say two things. One, there's certain norms related to it that just makes it wrong to do but there's also just a lack of the good norm of trying to be more mindful and deliberative about it. I think that's just a new norm that can be helpful but it's not present. Here it's less of a issue of a norm, it's more like social proof. It's just very few other people do it. It's not yet a customary thing for everybody to do.

SPENCER: I think it's more than that. I think you're right. It's like people don't do it so there's a lot less pressure to do it. But also, I think people have an aversion towards it.

TING: What do you think is the underlying norm that's against it?

SPENCER: Well, I think it has to do with sacred goods. If you think about how much you love your child or your spouse, the idea of putting a number on that, I think it sounds very upsetting to people.

TING: Destroys its value?

SPENCER: Yeah. It's like the sacred things are not supposed to be quantified. You're not supposed to quantify how much you love each of your children.There's something that feels just really immoral about that.

TING: What do you think is the harm of quantifying it?

SPENCER: Well, I think that part of it might come down to this idea of unconditional love. When you're talking about love in particular.

TING: It's beyond measurement.

SPENCER: Supposed to be beyond measurement. It's supposed to not be contingent. If you're quantifying it, and then it changes from day to day or month to month or year to year, then that's like saying it's contingent. It's conditional. It's affected by other things in the world, and so on.

TING: Let me give a related example. We did modify the appreciation part to a new game that we implemented this week. It's related to what you say about unconditionality and trying to be less transactional about it. Because we did feel with a sweetcoin-shitcoin system that it felt very calculative at some point. It demotivates at some level. What we did was, we created three pots. I have a friend's thing. We label each pot with our names on it. We try to write as many gratitude notes over the day towards those people and the rule of the game is for every gratitude note accepted, you get a point. During dinner time — thanks to the pandemic, we start to have a ritual of eating dinner together — we would talk about those gratitude notes and count how many points. I was surprised by how it was a better system of combining the quantification and the non quantifiable because each note talks about what I'm grateful to you about. So say, "Spencer, I'm so very grateful to having the opportunity to chat with you on this fascinating topic today." I would write that on the note. When you have to approve, you say, "I accept your gratitude," so that you can get a point. Sometimes you'll be like, "What did you find fascinating about?" or "Why are you feeling grateful about it?" Or if it's like "Thank you for the laughter." "Which laughter do you refer to?" You allowed us to talk about the intangible, but then it was triggered by needing to validate the point.

SPENCER: Interesting. So you felt like it made you feel closer together or made you feel more grateful for each other or combination?

TING: So that conversation, we basically... I was shocked by how many great gratitude notes we managed to write. I was not sure, within 24 hours I received 10 Gratitude notes. I was shocked by how much I was able to write towards the other two people. Of course, that day with the gratitude notes intervention, I felt so much more grateful. Now I'm just a data point (n = 1), I haven't run a study on it. I would be curious to find out what's the effect size. All I can remember is that now all of the moments that I'm grateful for, I have a stronger memory of it, a more vivid memory of it. I feel it's more salient.

SPENCER: You're looking for things to be grateful for because you have this reason to look for them. I think that's really cool. I would also just say, I think gratitude is almost this an unbounded source of happiness in the sense that there's an unlimited number of things to be grateful for like "I have food to eat right now." "I'm in a warm environment." "I have enough money to buy clothes." You could go on and on about another person. You could be like, "Oh, they washed that dish after they ate." One of the wonderful things about gratitude is that if you can start picking up more and more and more of those gratitude moments, that's just more and more and more opportunities to just have good feelings and feel closer to people as well.

TING: We have so much scientific evidence supporting how beneficial that is to our health and happiness well-being. The interesting thing also is, if we think about how much money you would earn at a daily basis, let's say you earn $10 more every day versus you getting one more gratitude experience either from yourself or other people towards you every day. What would you bet on in terms of its effects on your longevity? Which one would increase your longevity more? The $10 more income every day versus the gratitude? Of course, we'll have to think about different people's situations.

SPENCER: If you have no money, the money is probably better.

TING: Exactly. That's gonna be huge. By the way, imagine, we all have sufficient amount of it so just the additional. We don't know. We have no clue. Probably based on science, we will say the gratitude matters more, but how many people are gonna bet on the gratitude one versus money?

SPENCER: It's an interesting question of when does money actually make you happier? I think one thing that's really clear is that it can alleviate lots of forms of misery. There's many, many ways you can be miserable because you lack money. You don't have good shelter or you're forced to spend time with people that you really don't like or obviously you just don't have enough food to eat, etc. Those are the obvious ones and then once you've removed those, you're onto the next level of can you buy things that actually make you happier once you have your basic needs met? Now it starts to get more challenging. You can buy things or make things more convenient, you're reducing frustration or slight annoyances in life. You can buy pleasurable experiences. You can buy memorable experiences like going to some cool place that you will remember but it does become increasingly challenging to use that to get more benefit.

TING: If you don't really deliberate over what you can use it for, like what's the opportunity cost there? Once you get them done, you would spend that $10 on what? In order to gain you really that X percentage of more happiness, even as a rule of thumb. Would you be able to create a rule of thumb that would really put your money into good use instead of just a rule of thumb of just the more money the better? I think there is the moment when you start to have trade offs. I think so many people these days overwork because they are just having this heuristics of earning more and fueling all of these most salient goals and fear of losing what they possess. But if we were able to rediscover and to pay attention to ultimately what really drives your happiness. As we said with the gratitude, I was in tears towards the end of the session, and I felt so warm in my heart. It just felt like a satisfied stomach and a satisfied heart with that meal. Of course, it bonded us in the very moment but if we think about how little effort, how little money it cost. For me, because it was the first day, I'm sure we're gonna get used to it and feel less over time. Not gonna cry every day over those notes. But it was just an unforgettable memory for many years to come. If we think about life being accumulated in those experiences, we can say, "I want to experience x and y. If I have this amount of money, I can then effectively drive more of experiences x and y," but not the other way around. Also, when we think about behavioral science, like the behavioral nudge, we started the conversation about why I felt inadequate in applying to my own life. It's that we pay attention to, for example, more exercise, better diet, better sleep. But we were not going deeper into the underlying psychological drivers of why we are not doing those enough to start with. It added stress to my life, it added actually more self-blame and guilt on top of many things that I feel I'm not good at compared to 7 billion people in the world. Partly why that gave us this irrational survival stress, it's being exposed to so many humans unprecedentedly. That heuristics of survival stress was amplified by the insufficiency of "what's driving the stress?" If we now give them one more goal, say, "Also you have to be doing better exercise and be successful in behavior change." It just adds to the stress.


SPENCER: One thing I find really interesting about your story is that it seems actually pretty common that people learn some skill or expertise at one thing but they limit its usage to just a work domain. For example, you have a scientist who when they're doing science, they think in a very scientific way but then as soon as they're outside of their science work, they're not using those tools of thinking necessarily. Or you have a psychologist who might work with patients all day helping them with anxiety but then they're not necessarily applying those methods routinely to their own life. It seems to me that we don't automatically generalize things to every domain. Part of what I read from what you're saying is that you started viewing your own life as an experiment as though you're doing science in the same way you do science in your work.

TING: Absolutely. That scientific thinking, that approach, I found it fascinating that it was so applicable in my everyday life to actually think about, "what would my intuition say about how I should make this decision?" If we look at physics, if we judge whether the two balls are gonna fall at the same speed or not, judging a lot of physical science application context, we are able to apply the scientific thinking to it. When it comes to our own behavior, all of a sudden science is out of the window. I think again, there's some norm of we're supposed to have freewill. We're supposed to be this powerful, independent freewill entity who is in charge. When it's borrowing science, it's almost losing control to some extent, and taking too much responsibility for things that we shouldn't be responsible for. I think that it's because behavioral brain science of our own behavior is more intuitive, so you have some knowledge of it. If you think about eye infection or I have a stomachache, I'm gonna definitely rely on the doctor. I'm going to rely on the science to resolve my stomach ache or eye infection. But if I think about bad sleep hygiene, all of a sudden I blame myself for not doing it right. I'm not seeing a behavioral science expert to properly diagnose and give me the evidence-based medicine for it. I think one of the reasons why as a society we're doing that is exactly because of our own heuristics and biases in judging what deserved scientific approach and what doesn't.

SPENCER: I relate to that, because one of the techniques I find most useful broadly for changing my own behavior is to model my future self as being a different person but a person who is just like me. Imagine that you were trying to change what someone just like you, just like Ting, is going to do a week from now but it's not you. What would you do? How would you design the situation? The context? The techniques? I find that thought experiment extremely useful rather than thinking, "Well, me a week from now, I can just choose to do this thing." I think, "Oh yeah, I'll just choose to do this thing at that moment," it's actually, often not a good heuristic. It's better to take this outside perspective.

TING: One thing that I admire about your thinking and a lot of your work is the level of consciousness. The level of not taking things personal and being able to distance yourself from it. now I get the secret of how you actually do it in practice, so thank you for sharing that trick. I wonder, what blocks that freedom in being willing to be more conscious about how we go about decisions and less clinging to a certain identity of, "This has been always how I have been doing things. This is me. If you ask me to change my behavior, you're asking me to change my identity." Almost that reaction is often, at least, what I felt from sessions of sharing certain behavioral change tactics and for those people who are more resistant to it. Do you have any thoughts on why people feel that way?

SPENCER: I think one thing that is really important to note is that a lot of times when we have a "bad behavior" or a detrimental behavior, there really is some value we're getting out of it. Some positive value. It's just not worth it overall. There's a benefit but the costs are just higher. I think part of resistance people have to changing behavior is that they don't want to give up that benefit. I think one technique that can really help is trying to ask yourself, or if you're working with another person, trying to ask that person, "Tell me about the benefits of doing this bad behavior. We both agree it's not ideal behavior but what do you get out of it?" Then once you realize what they get out of it, then maybe instead of just replacing it with an arbitrary new behavior, for example, "You tend to eat a bag of Doritos every night before bed, what if you did 10 push ups instead?" Well, the problem with that objection is it probably doesn't give them the benefit that eating the Doritos does. It's completely unrelated, but maybe eating the Doritos gives them this cozy sense of nostalgia from when they were a child eating Doritos. "Maybe you could watch 10 minutes of a TV show you did as a kid. Now it gives you the same feeling or whatever it is. Maybe it's healthier than eating the bag of Doritos."

TING: We're talking here about immediate gratification, being really the driver for our automatic brain. Again, we get into that vicious cycle of the more automatic we are, the less we can afford to pause. Even the fact that you ask yourself, what's the reward that I'm clinging to? It almost requires the consciousness, the reflection. I think if we can get rid of the defense mechanism and reflect on what's actually the benefits that you have a hard time giving up on, then that's really helpful to deliberate over what's the immediate happiness versus the accumulative happiness that you could be getting. Again, I would still argue that it gets back to the question of if you cannot 'intangibilize' some of these long term benefits — even for your future self to think about, "If I save money for 10 years later, what I'm going to use the money for that future self?" — and to really feel as close as possible, that reward that is not immediate but you try to make it more immediate, more salient, "What am I giving up instead?" Maybe it's happiness at a more abstract level versus the gratification. I still feel making those things that are good for you in the long term, in the deeper essence of meaning and purpose in life, help you make better fast decisions.

SPENCER: Well, I think another aspect of that is that the human mind operates on stories. So the abstract idea of, "Oh, I'm spending less money now so that I'll just have more money later." It's not at all emotionally appealing but if you can (for example) imagine yourself when you're retiring and how happy you will be that you'll have that extra money in your bank account. Or you can even imagine, an emergency happens and you're so glad that you saved that extra money. Certainly, now you're turning that abstract idea into a story. Stories are what resonates on an emotional level so you might find that much more motivating.

TING: The other aspect of being more scientific is weird enough. When we think about science, oftentimes people think about rigid rules. We have to do things a certain way. But I find one very charming feature of scientific approach is both the philosophy and practice of scientific discovery. It's about trial and error. It's about learning things that you did not know before. You're always ready to learn something that is contrary to your hypothesis. Every failed experiment in a way, is learning. It fits so well with growth mindset. We see life as a discovery process. It's trial and error. You are much more open to re-examining anything that you're doing in life and upgrade your heuristics and your rules of thumbs. Because otherwise, you will be only comfortable when it is something you're very familiar with. So you will be constantly stuck in your comfort zone. You would miss out on these opportunities to reflect on now the context has changed. Or, "This actually doesn't work. Well, I'm stuck with this problem, how can I discover a solution that would work?" Oftentimes, I feel not being scientific about it, after one first attempt of failure, you're gonna say, "I'm probably not good at this." You're going to wrongly attribute and you're going to just stop. But a scientifically minded person would keep on doing the iteration. They've learned from it, "what can I infer from this?" I do generally feel that we are, — because of our culture of labeling success and failure based on outcomes, instead of based on processes — we are just so deterred from taking risks in learning by failing. We take failures so personally and one of the drivers is the survival stress. If someone is so free from social judgment, or survival stress, he's not going to even care about if somebody else is gonna say, "Hey, you just failed." The fact that the combination of one, we don't have a culture of encouraging exploration. Second, a lot of us really suffer from self-worth, and really rely on societal judgment.

SPENCER: You mean people doubting their self-worth?

TING: Absolutely, before this year, a lot of the motivations were related to the need of external validation. I did not feel good enough about myself, did not feel secure enough about myself. You would wonder like, "Well, you had a PhD in economics. You will get through. It's not bad. You have enough savings." Like, "What are you talking about? You seem happy in general." But I think that, again, it's irrational bias. I don't think we can even help it. Because in the past, we lived in a community of — if you think about tribal times — of limited amount of people and you don't have a competition of 7 billion people all at once. Now we are over exposed to other people's success and everything is relative. So when you judge yourself, you oftentimes just judge with whatever you can observe around you in that similar domain (similar to you) and you're gonna always find somebody better. Not that I'm doing that active comparison. But it's subconscious stress that is building up. That's one. The other is by making a lot of decisions every day, if I can only rely on my system one to make it, I'm doomed to not be able to carefully making a lot of decisions and I'm going to be constantly facing either decision fatigue (I postpone a decision) or I don't make it good enough and I regret on not having spent enough time on it. However, I face the pressure to make more decisions every day. I feel bad about my incapability of making good decisions. Because I had to make so many of these fast decisions. I just feel exhausted, lack the sense of control and autonomy. All of these drove the psychological anxiety that doesn't make rational sense. If I would rationally deliberate should I feel stress? I shouldn't. There's no point of feeling stressed. But I couldn't help it because that's how system one works.

SPENCER: I think of anxiety as a smoke alarm in the brain. The fire it's trying to protect is danger essentially. Obviously in evolutionary history, this was really really valuable, prevented us from doing all kinds of dangerous things and getting eaten by tigers and so on. But in the modern world to many of us, our smoke alarms are overly sensitive. Basically, imagine you have a smoke alarm in your kitchen. But 99 out of 100 times it goes off, there's no fire. Now it's just this constant nuisance that's distracting you and making it harder to get things done, and so on.

TING: That has a strong implication, for example, in my life, in not being able to take time to harvest love, gratitude, trust, and quality social connections that are so crucial for well-being. In fact, if you look at data on well-being, social connection is one of the huge determinant factors that has been neglected. I have been trying different experiments to explore quality of connections. One weird insight is by spending more time alone, I was able to connect with others better.

SPENCER: Why do you think that is?

TING: I was able to discover my true authentic self, with all its rich aspects. Not the quick, my eating, all of those were just habits and automatic processes. But the non automatic processes, I discover a lot of my philosophical ideas related to nature, related to life. Just a lot of time to think. As a result, I was able to really listen to another person to discover what really matters to them in terms of what they value and their thinking that goes beyond the mundane day to day life. That one day, essentially, when we have enough artificial intelligence and advanced enough computation from the robotic world, I think we'll be taken over. The human beings really don't need to compete with the machines on things that can be automatized [sic]. But the things that are not planned to do, the feelings that people have, the unexplained connections, to music, art, to nature, to philosophy, all of those elements inside ourselves. Once we find a way to look into ourselves, we also find a way to look into another person and to connect well and deeply with them. One of the elements that matters deeply for me is music. I started to have time to really enjoy them and prime myself with different moods with it. Spencer, I remember, we actually ended up playing this game. You basically designed this rule that was super fun for me. I just thought about "let's share some music together as a shared experience." I love your touch to gamifying it with "let us find overlapping elements." By the way, do you want to explain that game instead? I think you can explain it better.

SPENCER: Sure. The game, we named it "Tit for Tat." Basically, the way it works is, I'll send you a song that I like and then you have to send back a song that you like. The catch is that it has something in common with a song I sent. For example, it could be similar musically, it could be from similar country, it could have similar lyrics, any element in common. Then that's interesting, because it keeps me guessing about like, "I wonder why you pick this song? What does it have in common?" Then I have to send one back that's similar to a song that you sent, and so on, and go back and forth. That's been super fun. I feel like things like that, really, they explore ways of connecting more deeply, socially, through just designing new rule sets which I think there's a lot of potential for.

TING: It goes beyond our customs of quality connection requires in-person interactions. Here, it's more like connection based on the essence than superficial level interactions. I think a lot of us, if you look at this data of the level of loneliness, actually leveled off during the pandemic. In contrast with what most people intuitively would guess that we are getting much more lonely. We have 1 UK, 1 USA study showing that it's, if anything you have improved. It really speaks to the science of quality connection not depending on the quantity of it but the quality and the fact that we can find what are the most important elements like sharing, vulnerable experience, sharing something deeper about yourself, sharing something vulnerable with each other. I played that game with my father in law, who is very introverted. We have a once every two weeks zoom call and he would appear on the camera for two minutes and disappear. He's not into talking. What I know is that he's huge on music, so I have to play with him. I actually introduced that game to him and asked him to play. It turns out that he was so meticulous in playing that game. We once shared a piece of tango music, Argentinian tango. It's my hobby. We didn't expect him to be familiar with that. He spent probably two hours googling about that piece of music. He found a song that share five things in common. The requirement's one thing in common, totally rocking that game. He was so excited whenever we got it right in guessing it. We were just like ping pong in the beginning, almost none. I remember you came up with a rule of, it has to be maximum one reply a day. We don't want you to be addicted to the game. That increase of connection, even though it was no word said about chit chats, was just so rewarding. Thank you for creating that game.

SPENCER: Yeah. It's been so fun to play with you. Just to step back for a second, this music game Tit for Tat, the sweetcoin idea that you have, and this thoughts of gratitude, I think what all these things have in common is it they're attempts to design a new set of rules that instead of just being a normal game that just produces fun, they're also about human connection and improving things that matter. But through a game format. I just think there's a huge potential for this. There's just so many things that one could experiment with in this direction. Yet very often, we just abide by all the normal stuff. We do random chit chat, or small talk, or we have a zoom call and we just give people the quick update on what's going on. There's so many other ways to interact and I think it's worth exploring them. Just to give you an example, we designed the set of questions that we call life-changing questions. Through a series of studies we ran, in trying to figure out what questions produce the most value to the person answering it, basically we would have people answer a question and then we'd have them score it on how valuable that experience was. Through that process, we honed this set of life-changing questions. Then on our website,, you could try out the questions. We also created a social game out of it, where you can put in a friend's email and it will send them your answers. Then if they answer, it will send them back to you. It's like a way of facilitating connection. I'm really excited about more experimentation in that direction.

TING: One game that I recently created is to redesign everyday things. We call it "Not Just a Thing." It was exactly matching the mundane things instead of serving for functional reasons, like keeping your life's basic survival needs in check. Like the toilet paper, it's just to wipe your ass. We actually redesigned them so that they can help you either be more successful in a behavioral habit change, or make it more salient, some of these intangible factors that make you happy. In one episode, we have to redesign toilet paper and music to tackle low quality connection within the household. The design challenge here is to tackle low quality of connection within the household using the two things randomly generated, toilet paper and music and randomly generated context constraints: ten years in the future, everything is IoT connected and you have your spouse living together. So the idea that was generated just within three minutes was an app that you can choose a piece of music when you're sitting on your toilet for the next person who will use the toilet and you can add a little note so either it's a note of, "I'm really grateful to you and hence I'm picking this song for you," or "I love this song because of minute 1.20, pay attention to it." The next person would come in and the note would get printed on the toilet paper. [laughs]

SPENCER: [laughs] I don't know about that invention but I love the concept of the game. That's hilarious.

TING: To mind you, again, we can redesign anything and repurpose everything around us in life. Our thought of gratitude was just using the Post-it notes with some pens and then I repurposed my yogurt cup. Those were the jars that were used for yoga. If you truly know what you want to amplify in life, what's the goal? What are the factors that really matter for your well-being? Either go to bed in time, and two hours before no screen, or realizing the crisis of over snacking is because you feel stressed. So you usually have some reminder that calm you down or have some green wallpaper that calms you down. Having some level of behavioral brain science literacy, the knowledge of what drives our behavior and what works to help with our behavior, instead of blaming on the superstitious belief. It's our lack of self control, willpower and feeling guilty about it, of emotionally, really avoiding those failures. I think it's the very first step. Then have fun. Explore what could work for you. I believe that in this process, really, the most tricky part is knowing who you are. Being really audacious about acknowledging who you are, what you really like, what you really value, free from the societal expectations of what other people think you should be or you should do. With those insights, get as many people around you to support your decisions and your behavior and not believing that you have full control over it.

SPENCER: Ting, thank you so much for coming out. This was really fun.

TING: Thank you so much. I had so much fun. Again, great talking to you Spencer and I admire your work so keep up with the good work.

SPENCER: Thanks so much.





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