Daniel Kahneman: How to drive behavioural change

Opposites attract. That’s the only explanation on how Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky became such legendary duos. Their friendship created the whole field of behavioural economics. But they both are as different from each other as two people can be.

Kahneman is a pessimist. Tversky an optimist. Kahneman constantly doubts himself. Tversky is the face of self confidence. Kahneman was an early riser. Tversky rarely slept before 4am. Both were opposites. And yet, when they came together, they made each other’s ideas sharper.

Challenging Tversky

It began when Tversky’s presentation was challenged by Kahneman. For the first time in his life, someone challenged Tversky and won the debate. After that, Tversky seeked out Kahneman. Their conversations and collaboration led to some genuine breakthroughs in the field of economics.

For a decade they collaborated together. And their work on heuristics and biases such as loss aversion won the Nobel prize in economics for Kahneman 25 years later (by which time, Tversky had passed away and hence didn’t win the Nobel.)

“How do you understand memory? You don’t study memory, you study forgetting.” – Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman and Tversky wanted to figure why people make the decisions that they do. And so, they started studying human heuristics and biases.

A crazy experiment that they ran was asking people: guess how many countries are there in Africa. But they asked them to guess after they had spun a wheel with numbers on it. Would you believe that when the wheel landed on a higher number, then the people guessed that Africa had a lot more countries than people who spun and got a lower number?

Kahneman and Tversky devised a lot of such experiments that showed human bias for weird reasons.

The experiment that won Kahneman the Nobel was based on loss aversion.

When people are given a choice between: 

  1. 100% chance to gain $450 or 
  2. 50% chance to gain $1000
    Most people opted for option A – 100% chance of gain.

But when they were asked to decide between:

  1. 100% chance to lose $500 or 
  2. 50% chance to lose $1100
    Most people opted for option B – 50% chance of loss.

Kahneman and Tversky conducted various such experiments to find asymmetries in human decision making. But a decade later, the duo unravelled. And they stopped their collaboration. And the world suffered a great tragedy.

When Kahneman and Tversky worked together, their ideas were insane. The papers they published together are some of the most cited papers ever in the field of Economics. In contrast, the papers they published individually or with other colleagues didn’t win the same attention and accolades. 

So then why did they stop collaborating?

The breakup

A weird thing happened. Tversky started getting more accolades than Kahneman. Even though both of them had contributed to the papers equally together, and had worked so closely together that they themselves couldn’t make out who had contributed what part – the world rewarded Tversky more. Maybe because of his more outgoing nature.

Tversky was offered a position at Stanford University but Kahneman wasn’t. When Kahneman got an offer at Michigan and asked Tversky to join him, Tversky refused. Stanford was better.

Tversky was called to give more speeches all over.

Soon Kahneman moved. And the long distance killed them. 

They tried to collaborate through letters. And both would fly to each others cities every other week. But cracks formed for the first time. And the duo started working with others.

Could their partnership be saved?

Years later, Kahneman is asked a question: What is his best behavioral idea… how to make behavioral change stick?

Kahneman says that there are two options. Behavior is driven by two forces as first mentioned by psychologist Kurt Lewin. Driving forces and restraining forces.

Most people increase the driving force to make change. But the ideal way is to decrease the restraining force.

What’s the difference? Instead of asking “How can I get him to do it?” the focus shifts to asking “why isn’t he doing it already?”

Instead of pushing more, the focus changes on reducing friction so movement becomes easier. “What can I do to make it easier for the other person?”

Why do people try to increase the driving force instead of removing restraints? 

Because it comes more naturally and intuitively. When you want to move an object, you move it. To remove restraints you have to change your focus from yourself to the other persons point of view. Only then can you find what is holding them back, and reduce the restraints.

If Kahneman and Tversky would have stopped pushing to make the partnership work, and worked on removing the restraints, we would have seen a lot more breakthroughs!

Action Summary:

  • Behaviour change sticks more if you make good things easy. Work on reducing the restraints. Fix the environment and the incentives.
  • Think from other peoples point of view. What is holding them back? Shift the question from how to make him do to why isn’t he already doing.