Put down that hammer--please

“Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding” – Abraham Kaplan
“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – Abraham Maslow

Whenever I tell someone that I’m an applied behavioral scientist, they almost always bring up one book: “Influence” by Robert Cialdini.

If they don’t bring up “Influence”, they’ll ask me about “Thinking Fast and Slow” or “Predictably Irrational”.

These are all amazing books. I can’t recommend them highly enough (except you should disregard chapter 4 of Thinking Fast and Slow). But each of them covers a small sliver of the behavioral science universe, and each, therefore, provides the reader with tools that are well suited for certain situations and not others.

The principles in “Influence” are useful when crafting messaging strategy, but not helpful at all when designing a product or app.

The lessons in “Predictably Irrational” are amazingly good for certain conversion and product design scenarios (and for pricing psychology), but not as helpful for working out retention and longer term behavior change (like habit formation).

You get the picture.

But I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in over the years where a coworker or client has pulled out Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Influence or something like the Habit Loop and tried to awkwardly jam the situation at hand into one of these frameworks, instead of picking the right framework for the scenario.

I can’t blame them, it’s all they know. But that’s why I chose the quotes at the beginning of this email. When you only know a couple of models, you’re going to abuse and overuse them.

Each behavioral science finding, framework, or theory is a tool. Each of them is appropriate for certain problems and contexts, and wildly inappropriate (and thus counterproductive) in others.

Using the right behavioral science framework can unlock amazing insights and positively transform a project. Using the wrong behavioral science framework can morph a somewhat promising project into a muddled, overcomplicated wreck.

I see the behavioral approach backfire most frequently when the habit/operant conditioning loop is used as the primary model of analysis. Why? Because, by itself, it usually causes people to analyze the problem they’re trying to solve in a strange, overly abstract manner.

As I explained in a previous email:

Below I’ve written out the operant conditioning loop, which is one of the most basic things that college students are taught in psych101 classrooms all around the country. It was renamed the “Habit Loop” by journalist Charles Duhigg in his bestselling book, “The Power of Habit”. But there’s nothing fancy or novel about it.

Cue –> Behavior –> Reward

According to the theory of operant conditioning, we humans are cued by elements in our environment to do certain behaviors. When those behaviors are successful, and thus accomplish the goal of the behavior, they are neurobiologically strengthened. This means that they will occur more frequently in the future when the same need arises in the same context. Or, in layman’s terms, “behaviors that lead to success are done more often”.

Now, ask yourself: When would understanding this allow you to come up with a novel, meaningful business or product insight?

Answer: almost never.

The two main business insights that readily flow from the operant conditioning loop are:

1. You need to cue more.

  • What does this mean in practice? Send more push notifications. Send more emails. Send more direct mail. Increase marketing.
  • Note: When done tactfully, this can be VERY helpful. But tact is usually not in the equation when people think about their engagement problems from the habit loop level of abstraction.

2. You need to make sure that people are rewarded for using your product.

  • This insight almost always causes people to come up with hokey or counterproductive gamification programs—which can increase behavior in the short term but pretty much always cause people to zone out in the long term. As I’ve said before, “all games must end”… usually pretty quickly. 
  • This insight also leads to prize and coupon programs, which have plenty of mid and long term downsides.

Gamification and prize-giving are almost always band aids that temporarily cover up a festering disease: the product doesn’t solve a true problem or provide users with something that is primally rewarding. If engaging with the product isn’t rewarding in and of itself, you should probably ditch it and do something new… or you should make large revisions. Slapping a reward/gamification program on it isn’t going to solve your problems.

So the habit loop often results in spammy, gamified products and services. In a situation like that, it would have been better if the creators had never discovered operant conditioning and reward psychology.

There are plenty of ways to elegantly use the habit loop to make a product or service better, but that’s a longer topic for another time. For now, all I want to say is: keep learning. 

Keep reading. 

Get as many different models and as much different research into your head as possible. Don’t be the person with a hammer. Be the person with the world’s largest swiss-army knife. The last thing you want to do is try to cut a board with a mallet.

Jason Hreha